I guess none of us had trouble answering the above question, when asked in school exams. The answer will be a simple definition enumerated by the sixteenth president of the United States. “Democracy is government of the people, for the people and by the people.” However, what the definition may imply is not as simple as the answer.
Let us understand briefly what democracy is by using Lincoln’s statement, before analyzing the state of democracy in India with respect to the same. The three prepositions- ‘of’, ‘by’, and ‘for’ imply:
by the people– The government run by the people indirectly through their elected representatives.
of the people– ‘Of’ expresses possession or connection. Here, the people own the government by voting for them and thus, have complete authority over them.
for the people– The government should work for the people’s welfare, as people possess and run the government indirectly.
Yes, of course. Why not? Elections are held so that people can choose their representatives (by the people). This implies that the people own the government (of the people). Finally, the government implements schemes and policies for the welfare of the common public (for the people).
What about the word ‘people’ in the definition?
Is the power of ‘by’, ‘of’, and ‘for’- as stated by President Lincoln- available to all the people of India, even today?
Does “we, the people of India“, the phrase which appears in the preamble of our Constitution, hold the same meaning as embraced by the constitution makers, even today?
The democratic polity in India is based on the doctrine of popular sovereignty, that is, the possession of supreme power by its citizens. The word ‘democratic’ used in the preamble is not only political, but also refers to social and economic democracy as stated by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar in his concluding speech in the Constituent Assembly. He stressed that “Liberty, equality, and fraternity form a union of trinity in the sense that to divorce one from the other is to defeat the very purpose of democracy.”
So the answer for the first question is that the constitution makes democracy available for all the people, irrespective of differences among them, at any time. However, the scope of the words “we the people of India” has changed to a larger extent. Many sections of the the population have been excluded from the word ‘people’. Thus, for those who have been excluded, democracy is neither Accessible, nor Affordable, despite its Availability (the 3As). Lack of any one of these 3As undermines democracy.
The lack of accessibility to democracy can be understood by referring to the unique feature of the present government, i.e. its overnight decision making, disregarding the huge population which will be affected. Demonetization, the revocation of Article 370, and the recent all of a sudden lockdown are only some examples of this. Apart from the supposed incorrectness of these decisions, the way in which these had been handled and their outcomes show that a large number of people were deprived of their right to democracy.
Corruption and black money cannot be justified in any economy. Demonetization, hailed as a decision to weed out black money, was implemented without any preparation to offset its negative impacts on vulnerable people. The official report states that about 99% of the money had returned to the system. This means that there in only 1% black money in the economy. Does this imply that in order to weed out the remaining 1 percent, all the vulnerable sections have to suffer?
Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir was followed by the world’s longest internet shutdown. Over 400 internet shutdowns have been implemented in India in last 4 years. These are justified in the name of security. Of course, security of the State cannot be compromised, but for how long? Internet and social media platforms have democratized our society, to an extent; and the citizens of J&K were deprived of this basic right for a long period of time.
Furthermore, the sudden lockdown has lead to an economic crisis, which has affected the poor, the migrant worker communities, and more. Lockdowns are necessary for containing the pandemic, but its ill-implementation only exacerbates the crisis.
What can we infer from this? The accessibility of democracy that should be available to all citizens through the constitution, is at the mercy of the party in power. In all these instances, the vulnerable sections automatically lose access to democracy, which makes it available only to some.
Many times when people try stand for their constitutionally given rights, with the belief in the words “of the people, by the people, for the people“, they end up paying a hefty price. Some cases are as follows:
Recently, the stand-up comedian Munawar Faruqui was jailed for about 35 days under the allegation of ‘hurting religious sentiments’ during one of his shows. Stand-up comedy has been emerging as one of the best ways to exercise the right to free speech guaranteed by the constitution. If you have watched a stand-up comedy show either in person or on digital media, you will understand that every member of the audience is there for the sole purpose of having a laugh. So, there is no case of hurting religious sentiments there, as no one got hurt. In 2017, the Supreme Court commented on the issue regarding ‘hurting religious sentiments’: “Emphasis has been laid on the calculated tendency of the said aggravated form of insult and also to disrupt the public order to invite the penalty.” So, for accessing this democratic right, Munawar Faruqui had to bear the cost of 35 days in jail.
Take the case of the ongoing farmers’ protests. Setting aside the positives and negatives of the bill, the way in which the government passed the law with haste, coupled with an utter disregard to the voice of the farmers severely undermines the spirit of democracy. The farmers, thus, are in protest despite the second wave of COVID-19.
So, the cost that farmers are ready to pay for accessing democracy is their life.
During CAA protests, many people have paid with their lives, which the farmers are ready to do now. So, democracy is expensive for people who seek to access it. If we were aware of the three warnings given by Ambedkar, the situation today might have been different.
Ambedkar issued three warnings regarding democracy:
The first warning was: “to do away with all methods of revolution, including the Gandhian method of Satyagraha.” Ambedkar believed that there was no place for them when constitutional methods were at our disposal after Independence. However, today constitutional methods struggles to provide a solution. Even the Supreme Court has failed in many instances of protecting democracy- such as the popular case of penalizing Prashant Bhushan. Therefore, India fails to sustain Ambedkar’s vision that Independence and the constitutional method would protect democracy.
The second warning was to “avoid hero-worship, regardless of how great or tall the leader is.” India has failed in this too by worshipping party leaders. Rajinikanth, the super star of Tamil cinema, once said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah are like Lord Krishna and Arjuna. How can the people who were elected by the citizens of India become superior to the people?
The third warning was that “India should not just remain content with political democracy, but strive for social democracy as well.” Social democracy means a way of life which recognizes equality, liberty, and fraternity. With equality being denied to Dalits and manual scavenging still continuing, where is the equality that Ambedkar envisioned? Where is the fraternity when there were cases of insults faced by Dalit students even in educational institutions? A few months ago in Tamil Nadu, Rajeshwari Saravana Kumar (a panchayat president belonging to the Scheduled Caste background) was forced to sit on the floor at panchayat meetings. Where is the liberty here?
It is not that India has failed in upholding democracy. The point rather is that there has been a steady decline in its essence over the past years. Indian democracy does not have all the 3As which are needed for a true democracy. As a result, democracy is available to all through the Constitution, accessible to some based on the State’s actions, and affordable to only a very few.
However, there is a instance where all the 3As are satisfied, i.e., when you vote. It is therefore important to remember to vote for the right candidate, who can make the 3As possible.