If I ask “what would you chose between monarchy and democracy?” to any fairly educated person in a democratic nation, I think the answer would mostly be in favour of democracy. Now it has been taken for granted that democracy is the right choice, as if, it has been naturally in existence since a long time. But no, wait! It’s not an ancient, medieval or even modern phenomenon. It’s fairly recent. It is a monarchy with its various versions that we have been living with since a very long time until recently.
If democracy is now considered as the best way to govern then we must recognise that humans have taken quite a long time to realise that. So what were we doing for all these years? Were we so dumb to realize the merit of democracy or is it due to the convenience of monarchy? What was this convenience? Otherwise, why would we have been enjoying or tolerating monarchy since such a long period?
This is the impression all of us get in India during our schooling and colleges: the era of struggle and revolution has become a part of history now. The era of fighting for equality, liberty, and freedom has passed. Now the only thing we want to remember of it is, as a part of history, as a part of the academic syllabus, to fetch some marks or maybe to prepare a thesis, to get a degree. We hardly realize the intensity of the sufferings that had come along all these events to get those ideals realized or aspiring to be realized. It’s also because of the conveniences we tend to have a short term memory and taken for granted attitude.
This is what the elite theorists have been arguing since a long time that the majority is ruled by a minority elite. This happens because the majority is mostly unconcerned about the larger issues which greatly affect their own lives but they prefer the luxury of being myopic, ignorant and mostly selfish. Otherwise, why did it take thousands of years to make us realize the importance of democracy?
Earlier, i.e. in pre-modern societies, it was the religion that kept us busy in worshipping stones and performing rituals, taking our attention off from the misdeeds of ruling class both in European estate system and the caste system in case of South Asia. Rulers kept ruling in spite of them being ruthless or inhuman. It wasn’t a coincidence that the Renaissance in Europe which liberated humans from the injustice perpetrated by the ruling class and equally supported by the Church came from those people who challenged both of them by analyzing the real issues and causes of the miseries of common people. These were the people who came out of that false sense of convenience and initiated the process of making of citizenship and eventually the democracy.
In today’s industrial world, that force of religion has been largely replaced by a new force – the force of materialism and consumerism which keeps us busy by continuous bombardment through aggressive advertising through both electronic and print media and now recently through online sale sites. You can spend all your day searching online for all those things which you don’t actually need or at least immediately need and this is how the crucial issues always slip through our attention.
The unchallenged forces of TV serials, ‘reality’ shows, movies depicting unrealistic plots help to build a false sense of satisfaction. People spend their day in malls gossiping as it hardly needs any thinking. The psyche of spending weekends with family or friends is the only way we have been taught to derive some pleasure. This is nothing but the convenience of ignorance. All this completely ignore the pleasure of discussions on issues that affect their lives.
How is democracy supposed to function and deliver if there is sufficient lack of commitment on the part of citizens? Or is it our habit to expect supernatural interference to change the lives that have made us fail to understand and fulfil the responsibility of being a citizen. Or is it that we have simply started to consider the government itself as God?
Let’s talk about democracy, particularly in India. In a democracy, there is a concept of citizenship. Citizenship is considered as the most powerful driving force behind any liberal democracy. That’s the reason the Indian Constitution starts with those golden words, “We, the people of India…”
Citizenship is a status bestowed upon the members of a democratic nation which recognizes them as its members with various civil, political and human rights. The concept of a citizen is considered as a limitation on the government’s arbitrariness. So the concept of citizenship is a cornerstone for any liberal democracy. The government needs to be accountable to its citizens in all the matters of governance.
One of the ways through which citizens hold governments accountable is through regular elections once in five years. Citizens cannot expect to hold government accountable only once in five years, right? So what are the other ways? These ways go beyond than just voting once in five years during the elections. We can’t form an opinion just a night before the voting day. That’s because building an opinion is a continuous exercise. That’s a tough job, right?
You are expected to think continuously about government policies, programs, ideologies, etc. to evaluate the performance of the same. This is what we had decided upon whilst discarding monarchy, that the power would be given to the people – the citizens and not to a particular ruling class/caste or family. This ensures that everybody would have access to power and this power will be held by the elected persons on behalf of the people themselves as their representatives.
In a monarchy, the power to rule was restricted to a class headed by the royal family, the majority were excluded and confined to their own lives and immediate needs. They were subjected to the whims of the ruling classes and hence their exploitations were considered as an accepted norm. The majority also accepted this as their fate, kept worshipping Gods, believing in miracles. Since there was no concept of human rights, there was just no question of fighting for it. This was a pretty easy job if we think, i.e. just thinking about one’s own life, no need to think for a community or state or nation like in today’s world. This reduces their efforts in involving or concerning themselves in affairs of state, no need to painstakingly build opinions or protest or fight for any imaginary human rights.
This has been our constant way of existence for a very long time; just live a selfish or restricted life. This was the convenience I talked about. The easy way of living even if it wasn’t a very pleasant way of living, but it was easy to understand. It’s easy to understand that when we become aware, we also start expecting a lot of things from life, aspirations and ambitions, so becoming aware also comes with a cost and increased human efforts in both physical and intellectual levels. Because of this long phase of ignorance, the inertia has set in. This continues even when a monarchy has collapsed and now that we breathe in a democracy.
This tendency of citizens of being ignorant and selfish can be observed at a global level, as people neglected their role as thinking and concerned citizens resulting into two World Wars, the Great Depression during the first half of the 20th century, and the Cold War which was responsible for bringing the whole world to the brink of complete annihilation and recent world recession of 2008. People, as citizens, also fooled themselves by simply believing the ruler’s narratives of causes of terrorism instead of looking into their domestic policies affecting the world; the best example being the USA creating the scourge of Taliban to protect its so-called national interests.
People also believed in the narratives of companies representing the most potent form of capitalism, that consuming commodities in an unending manner and material possessions are the ultimate achievement of their life. So much so that now we stand almost at the brink of an environmental catastrophe. We have degraded our environment to such a level because of overexploitation and overconsumption of natural resources that its long term impact on our health is fully established and now they are ready to sell us the expensive medicines to deal with those circumstances. It’s truly mind-blowing foolishness.
Democracy doesn’t deliver on its high ideals if the majority still prefers to live in that convenience of ignorance. This is the habit that makes a democracy dysfunctional in the case of India. We simply hate or are indifferent towards discussing issues, exchanging information, building opinions and instead like to behave as if we are still living in a monarchy, enjoying the fruits of ignorance and can afford to neglect our role in the larger affairs of state.
Democracy was meant to work for the benefit of the largest number of people unlike only the small ruling elites in a monarchy. We have to understand that we must enjoy our status as a citizen of modern democracy with all the rights and aspirations but that comes with intensive involvement in the affairs of our nation, as an aware citizen. We cannot just afford to remain confined to our own selfish individual existence or respective professions and our own selfish needs and only expecting or hoping that rosy things will happen to us automatically.
Democracy is not a miracle; it came through a long process of persuasion, through hard and long-fought battles. Unlike monarchy, we as a citizen cannot expect the political, educational, economic and ideological domain reserved only for the state and ruling class while we only wait to enjoy the benefits as a citizen. That’s not a democratic way of living. This is precisely why democracy is called as a way of life and not just a political system.
Democracy has to be made an inevitable way of our daily life, which can also address the problems like racial arrogance, casteism, communalism, hate crimes, and narrow mindedness. Democracy, to function, needs scientific temperament and spirit of inquiry on the part of the citizen, which also finds mention in the Indian Constitution, instead of just believing in the supernatural powers to intervene to solve our problem. That’s what Indians do by inventing new spiritual gurus (called Babas) to solve their problems.
For example, they wish for jobs by visiting their Baba, simply ignoring the fact that the Indian economy is not producing enough jobs because we as Indian citizens failed to watch the economic policies of the Indian government. Supernatural powers have been present in our psyche since time immemorial but it was only through human efforts and wisdom that we have been able to achieve today’s modern progressive ideals enshrined in our Constitution and the constitution of all modern democracies.
Democracy is not a God who we can worship and expect a result; we as a citizen are its members and not devotees. Hence, citizens must accept their responsibility as members of a democratic nation instead of being indifferent to the affairs of state.
One of the most important ways is by reforming the Indian education system where the real purpose of education will be realized, i.e. to develop critical thinking instead of becoming obedient and conformist. Teachers should work as facilitators to learn critically and imaginatively.
The culture of healthy debates, discussions should be promoted along with the curriculum subjects with a place in the regular school and college time table. Subjects like social issues, national and international issues, salient features of our Constitution must be made part of teaching and learning to develop a holistic view. This will help the diverse sections of India’s caste-ridden society to understand each other, to remove misunderstandings, prejudices and to be more sympathetic towards those who are historically neglected.
The current phase of rising cultural nationalism or so-called right and extreme right-wing ideologies in India is nothing but the degradation of our understanding of the concept of nation, democracy, and citizenship.
The independent media as the fourth pillar of democracy also has an important role to play in educating the public about the real issues; this role is more underlined in today’s world of fake news and social media. The citizen must find some time to discuss issues among themselves instead of gossiping and hanging around. The role of the citizen in the form of civil society as an active part of governance cannot be underestimated at all. Since they work outside the government and businesses they are the torchbearers of democracy. The participation of citizens can be greatly enhanced by social media; particularly those powerless citizens who have been given no place by the mainstream media in India.
The democratic way of living needs a support system in terms of fundamental changes in the socio-economic structure towards modernization. All of us must be prepared to work diligently toward this goal. We must learn that it is the citizen to make state in a democracy and not the vice versa. Hence, the quality of the state depends on the quality of its citizens. We can no longer pretend to say that utterly nonsense and shameless words: “I don’t care,” or “I am not interested.” We better take care of this system as our present and future both are at stake.