Why we treasure democracy

Politics anywhere, any time is messy, and democratic politics is messier, if only because its dirt is in full public view. It has the appearance of perpetual chaos, continual disorder. Why do all of us put up with it then? Why do so many prefer it to other political orders?

For peace, freedom, well-being

The attractiveness of democracy lies in its ability to give us a peaceful transfer of power. To be sure, it is not for those in search of equanimity and inner calm, or for those easily unnerved by disagreements and conflicts. It is for the street-smart, with a flair for some adventure in public life. It draws on our agonistic energies, bringing conflict upfront. But it frees us from the bloody battles and gory coup d’états through which wealthy and powerful super elites conventionally settled their conflicts. It is a non-violent substitute for the marauding warrior ethic.

Second, it eliminates the most basic fears and anxieties to which social and political life is prone — the fear of being killed, beaten or humiliated for doing or saying what we want or for challenging the powerful. It promotes the maximum possible openness in our lives — in how and what we think, speak, behave. None of us can survive without some limits on speech and action, but democracy allows us to test and stretch them tantalisingly close to breakdown before deftly pulling back. An extricable link exists between democracy and public freedom.

Third, no other system — a monarchy, dictatorship or an empire — takes seriously a people’s own view of its needs, wants and goals, giving the best possible shot at satisfying them.

The difficulties of democracy

Alas, democracy does not come easy. And Indian democracy has been built in the most difficult circumstances. Many expected it to fail even after the introduction of universal adult franchise and constitutionally mandated institutions. A culture of equality is believed to be crucial to democracy but India inherited a social structure replete with hardened gender and caste inequalities. A democracy’s success depends on fairly high levels of growth, but India’s rate of growth in 1947 was virtually zero, with 65-70% of its population trapped in extreme poverty. Successful democracies need a fair degree of cultural, linguistic and religious homogeneity but India has deep cultural, religious and linguistic diversity. Most Western democracies have high levels of literacy and education but a substantial section of the Indian population was illiterate, with virtually no formal education.

Yet Indian democracy has survived; indeed, democratic mechanisms have been deployed to attack gender and caste inequalities, bring millions out of poverty, and to nurture its famed diversity. Besides, lack of education has not lessened popular enthusiasm in its favour. And this brings us to the most admirable feature of Indian democracy: born amidst forms of social sickness exacerbated by colonialism and new diseases fomented by it, it has had to fight these and incessantly reproduce its own conditions of survival. In the absence of social conditions crucial to its durability, it has had to continually give birth to its own nurturing conditions and heal itself after falling sick. Indian democracy is largely self-sustaining. Respect is due to it in the same way it is owed to largely self-made persons.

Helping democracy grow

Largely, not entirely, like other claims of self-creation, this one too is a trifle exaggerated. Two external conditions help democracy to grow. First, a stateless society can’t be democratic because the conditions of democracy are not automatically reproduced but need an effective state. But just any state won’t do. Though Indian democracy was preceded by a relatively modern state, the very same state hindered it too. The colonial state apparatus inherited by us was insensitive to the needs of the people, working almost entirely for the British Empire. A number of colonial laws were repressive and excessively regulatory. Their primary objective was the creation of a ‘nuisance-free’ public order, controlling a defiant population and exploiting them for the benefit of the empire. The colonial state was built to resist democracy, not facilitate it. This repressive apparatus, a permanent threat to our democracy, always comes in handy for authoritarian officials/leaders, as it did during the Emergency. So, democracy needs a competent state, but one that is tamed to work for it.

Second, to be democratic, the state must be relatively independent of classes and ethnic groups in society. No class or ethnic group (religious or linguistic community) must completely control state power, or use it to push its own agenda in its entirety. Therefore, each class and ethnic group must learn to live with this fact — that all its objectives cannot be met. This realisation occurs either when each class or ethnic group has enough power to prevent inter-group domination or when, for the sake of a more inclusive moral vision, every group forsakes part of its interests and achieves a principled compromise. By curbing the inclination to impose our agenda on others, and instead arriving at negotiated settlements, we produce stable democracies. This precisely is achieved in the Indian Constitution.

Any attempt to subordinate the state to the whims of a powerful individual or to use it disproportionately in favour of one group disturbs this delicate consensus, destabilises Indian democracy and wrecks the collective future of its citizens. The nasty experience of our own Emergency and the unsavoury condition of societies plagued with attempts at domination (by the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka or Sunnis in Pakistan) teach us to treasure democracy. Forgetting this lesson is disastrous.

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Printable version | Sep 18, 2020 8:01:12 PM |

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