Perils of Democracy
By Dhurjati Mukherjee
Washington-based watchdog Freedom House recently concluded that “liberal democracy is under severe threat, even peril, all over the globe,” as its President Michael Abramowitz said in a briefing announcing the group’s annual “Freedom in the World” report. The report found that India’s democracy, meanwhile, had remained stable over the previous year, even as Venezuela sank to “military dictatorship” and the United States experienced democratic “retreat.”
Democratic values embedded in liberty, equality and freedom have taken the shape of coercion and the autonomous individual’s right to resist unjust authority eroded. The role of government was to be minimal and its legitimacy based on consent and trust; mutual toleration and pluralism should prevail. But the tragedy is that the individual has been threatened by the tyranny of the majority – the tension between majority rights and individualism with liberalism found to be in conflict with democracy.
Meanwhile, centralisation of authority has dominated society today where democratic attitudes, as understood in the professional sense, have been on the wane. The fate of our rights and the creativity of public spaces is being destroyed by the institutions that are asserting their dominance. It is well known that pluralism of democracy cannot be substituted for by populism, majoritarianism or the lynch mob.
The absence of decentralisation in the political and economic process has vitiated the democratic system. But unfortunately there has been a tendency to concentrate powers in the hands of a few politicians, who are not willing to allow citizen participation in the planning and governance process. If democracy means just the right to voting by citizens – most of whom being ignorant about the reason for their selection of a candidate or the agenda and past performance of the political party he represents – then, of course, we could continue to boost about it. But this is not at all tenable and justified.
The voter has become a denuded entity without any sense of the deeper embeddedness of politics. It is a well known fact that politics today demands a more inventiveness from the citizen as a political person. Otherwise, citizenship will disappear into a few rudimentary roles like voter and consumer and lose the deeper holism of politics as a process.
The democracy that we are witnessing today has narrowed down to bullying by the majority without the creativity by civil society. Without true participation by civil society, without the public becoming active from the grass-root levels, democracy can be said to be in real peril. Thus, elections may be considered to be an almost anti-democratic exercise.
Political activism and involvement in the decision-making process are vital elements of a thriving democratic system. Criticism and dissent are vital for democracy to thrive. However, it is distressing to note that in present day opposition and dissent are misconstrued. These have lost their polysemy and started marching in official uniforms enacting official definitions. Though it is well known that dissent promotes healthy democracy as it keeps alive the power of voicing alternative possibilities, this is now not appreciated. Moreover, dissent has been distorted as anti-national.
If secularism and promotion of free thought and expression are the basics of a plural democratic society, socio-economic justice is an indispensable requirement. Thus, from the economic standpoint, one may refer to Prof. Harold Laski whose dictum that ‘without economic equality every democracy is a sham’ may be difficult to believe in India and in many Third World countries. However, what is true is that economic equality to the optimum limit possible within the framework of democracy ought to be achieved as history is littered with examples of democracy being ruined by the rich and wrecked by the poor.
Glaring disparities have been found to spawn discontentment and disaffection and in their desperate bid to secure their wealth and their place in society, the rich have been found to conspire to establish some form of authoritarian regime, may be a rightist fascist regime. Such disparities lead to social and economic oppression and may lead to destruction of democracy and this has possibly what has happened in India.
As is universally recognized of all the forms of government humanity has worked so far, democracy is accepted to be the most civilized as it is based on certain principles and not on improvised rules. Politicians in democracies not only indulge in reckless rhetoric but have also been found to brazenly deviate from the norm and standard of behaviour expected of them. History is replete with examples of democracies behaving as badly and as outrageously as dictatorships.
It has been found that obsession with power in democracies is no less than in dictatorships but since democracies have some built-in accountability mechanism and a method of smooth changes of government, power can neither be held, exercised and monopolised for long.
It cannot be denied that deviation from principles take most regrettable forms even when mature democracies deal with lesser mortals belonging to backward regions like Asia, and Africa. This has been the case with India in present times and political analysts are of the opinion that the basic values of democracy are being eroded.
The question of socio-economic justice remains a far cry and the minorities and lower castes are made to suffer due to flawed policies of the government. The true democratic spirit is missing and the concentration of power at the top does not allow participation of the people from the grass-root levels in the development process. In spite of panchayati raj system being in operation, these bodies have very little say in programmes to be adopted for the socio-economic development of their areas.
It is indeed difficult to formulate any theory of how to revitalize democracy in the true sense at least in this country. The foremost thing that is needed at this juncture is true cooperative spirit and genuine fellow feeling for our brethren who languish due to backwardness, poverty and squalor. Ideas and theoretical propositions are there but the lack of political will is the biggest hurdle. The question then arises how do we change the mindset of the political elite?
It must be done by focussing on development and their will to work towards it. It is generally agreed that our resources are being virtually looted by the powerful few and not geared in the right direction. The crux is the lack of accountability and transparency as also involvement of the masses.
Society has to become a little more vigilant and exert pressure on the political class through organised mass movements, thereby creating what Mahatma Gandhi called ashrams of the mind so that no one is immobile, vulnerable and lacking in spirit. One may have to rise above party politics and work towards ushering in social change that is sustainable, judicious and transparent. Unfortunately, we talk about this but the accomplishments are far from encouraging.
Achieving this may be quite arduous and would entail an alternative socio-economic path of development. Pessimists may think that with the society we have and the manner it has succeeded in crushing opposition of every kind, including the human spirit, the chances are not very reassuring. But then the human spirit has always triumphed in spite of heaviest odds and there is no reason why democracy should not overcome and vanquish the perils that appear to be insurmountable.— INFA