Reform or find alternative

Representative Democracy

By Dr S. Saraswathi
(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)

The Budget session of Parliament has commenced and 20 Opposition parties joined together to boycott the Presidential Address without falsifying the prediction of many political analysts closely watching the performance of Indian democracy. The boycott is publicised by members assembling outside Parliament and raising anti-government slogans.
A settled pattern of functioning of representative system of democracy seems to have established itself, but its future course is unpredictable today. What seems most probable is that the pattern will continue even if the government changes after next election, for it is an unavoidable stage in transformation of representative democracy that is already overdue.
Democracy, once considered government of the people, by the people and for the people, is recently undergoing challenges even in countries reputed as most democratic, putting a big question mark over its existing form in many countries. Its enemies are not all and not always from external forces, but from within, in many parts of the world, including India.
Chances of degeneration of the representative system of democracy was not foreseen when India got independence and enthusiastically adopted a parliamentary system with a federal set up, universal adult suffrage and periodical elections, framed a lengthy written Constitution, and above all encouraged a multi-party system. Elections have been held, governments have changed peacefully, and several political parties have been formed and participated in elections.
Textbook classification of governments as monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy requires revision. Democracy itself consists of many types and keeps evolving. The representative system that India has adopted is going through several hurdles. Elected representatives not voted to hold power, and groups of voters unable to win enough seats in the legislature proportionate to their size are not happy with the existing system.
Rule by majority is the principle that underlies the Westminster Model of parliamentary democracy of India. Legislative bodies are composed of members getting majority votes in the election; governments are formed by the party or combination of parties occupying majority of seats; decisions are taken by majority support. The minorities left out are unable to reconcile to the domination of the majority and tend to rebel against it in various manner. It seems that our system itself is seeking to find a remedy for the growing rift between the two.
Global expansion of democracy in the 20th century is accompanied with some amount of degeneration in many aspects. Forms of democracy have been adopted, but the spirit is missing in functioning. This trend was noticed by many scholars towards the end of the last century. Widespread and intense disenchantment with democratic politics has gripped failing politicians in many countries who increasingly resort to sabotaging democratic institutions from within.
Should we look for reform of representative democracy or devise an alternative system better suited to the present situation?
In a democracy, citizens are both the rulers and the ruled. Any change intended for a better governmental system must come from them. Pro-changers have to confront those having a vested interest in the status quo if they want to bring about changes.
Indeed, confrontation with adherents of status quo is unavoidable for any reform – be it social, economic, or political. For, reforms in any matter are for changes – call them adjustments, alterations, improvements or alternatives. Nationwide awareness of the need for reform is he starting point.
Parliament Houses very often fail to function even for whole sessions silenced by the noise raised by members. It worries the public, but not the members elected to perform certain law-making functions. Loss of faith in democratic institutions openly expressed is a big challenge to democracy.
Paradoxically, the political classes join hands to undermine the importance of legislatures, commissions and committees, constituted by governing authorities, and don’t hesitate to criticise the functioning of constitutional offices and office holders, but are keen on joining political parties and become members of the same political institutions and agencies they decry. The number of political parties in the field has grown by hundreds. There is scramble for party tickets to contest elections, but not for participation in debating issues.
The system, as it works in India, does not encourage MPs and MLAs to have and to express publicly independent opinion on issues. They follow their leaders and their group plays only alliance politics. When the group breaks up, re-alignment takes place with an eye on political advantage.
How democratic is a democracy can be evaluated by two tests – one in the formation of the government and its various organs and agencies, and the other in the decision-making process of the government. Both are presently facing huge challenges in India.
It is a common fallacy to think that slender majority and dependency on the support of allies are major obstacles in the path of a government whereas clear majority helps the government to take decisions and implement these. It is not so in reality. Parliamentary majority is not enough for a party to govern and carry out its policies. Minority support is indispensable. The nation is made up of citizens and cannot be divided as majority and minorities.
India started its democracy as a champion of values like harmony, hierarchy, solidarity, cooperation, and consensus in decision-making. Indian democracy, in the first two decades after independence, was known for taking governmental decisions broadly by consensus.
This has weakened gradually due to rise of multiple parties and pressure groups, consciousness of rights and freedom for all, and competition for power and positions with the result that consensus is hard to build today and cooperation is a lost concept.
Consensus need not mean unanimous decisions, which is hard to achieve in a plural society divided by several inequalities. It means only agreement by consent to settle an issue. It cannot be achieved without willing cooperation of concerned people, without discussion of details of issues and without ascertaining different views. It is never possible to accommodate antagonistic views at the same time, but it is possible to arrive at agreements for the sake of order and moving forward. But, if the will to arrive at an agreement is lacking, conflicts will deepen and weaken democracy. The lesson is equally true for rulers and the ruled. Consensus, which had been India’s unique contribution to democracy, must bounce back to save our democracy from the crisis it is facing.
Arriving at consensus presupposes consideration of different opinions and also accommodation of varied interests. Democratic political decisions and actions cannot always be arrived at collectively, but are for collective welfare. These are possible only when opinions of minorities and the majority are respected and listened to. Just as the majority has no right to trample the minorities, the minorities cannot bully the majority in unparliamentary ways. Ultimately, what is urgently needed is building mutual trust and cooperation. There can be no opposition to this if we think and act positively.
Representative system of democracy in India is in deep crisis and sooner it finds a solution to patch up the deep cleavages, the better for its future. — INFA