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Democracy and its structural slippages
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The complete equation of democracy with electoral politics draws attention away from any alternative form of governance — there is no space here for diversity

January 24, 2023 12:16 am | Updated January 26, 2023 10:12 am IST

An election rally in Allahabad

An election rally in Allahabad | Photo Credit: Getty Images

The democracy that is functional around the world today — even as it has a long history of evolution — was essentially a 19th century to 20th century western creation. Every civilisation, of course, claims to have had some form of democratic origin. But the institution of universal adult franchise and governance through regular and multi-party elections (the universal norm today) has at the most a 100 years or less of practice behind it. Even in the most “advanced” democracies such as the United States, “universal franchise” of the 1920s did not include African-American citizens. In Britain, women obtained the right to vote in the 1930s, in France in 1944, and in Switzerland as late as 1971, over two decades after their Indian sisters.

Devolution and capitalism

Basic to democracy is the devolution of power, and with it, welfare from the elite echelons to the ground level. Devolution occurs on the premise of the individual and equality. In practice, is there a good record for these principles? If one is to go by the long view of history, the answer is ‘yes, most effectively’. The near-universal abolition of autocratic monarchies and hereditary aristocracies and their replacement by governance through popular mandate (with exceptions) and the spread of economic resources, infrastructure, education, health, etc. to the masses, with all their shortcomings and lacunae, call for acknowledgment even as the demand for these grows every day, constantly, and legitimately.

Yet, there is an unbreakable link between the wide spread of this devolution and capitalism. In capitalism’s basic requirement to seek freedom for resources such as land, labour, and movement from the autocratic restraints of medieval monarchies, the notions of the individual’s rights and equality evolved, culminating in the notion of a free market for every kind of resource mobilisation, including labour. It also implied a great deal of uniformity.

It is important to note that human history has been witness to several experiences of equality, mostly in its religious form: non-theistic Buddhism and monotheistic religions such as Christianity, Islam and Sikhism were proponents of social equality. However, equality here demanded the subjugation of the individual to the community or society.

Clearly, humanity’s urge for equality has erupted over and over again in different parts of the world at different times; it was the same urge that had led to the most recent experiment of Marxian socialism in about a third of the globe and a large chunk of the population. However, it is equally important to note that no egalitarian ideology has ever been able to create an egalitarian society. What it does is to reshuffle existing social hierarchies and create some space for the upward movement of the lower rungs. But the urge for equality has found diverse ways to seek utterance. Its current urge seeks to establish uniformity through the same or similar institutions and practices.

The uniformity takes the form of periodic multi-party “free and fair” elections and guarantees of various kinds of freedoms, especially of the market. The elections are a means of self-correction of government policies and actions.

The conduct of elections

Are elections truly free and fair?

To begin with, elections divide voters into a dubious majority and a minority. The majority-minority division of 50% plus one and 50% minus one is, in principle, hardly a decisive mandate even as this is treated as one empirically. But the practice of elections belies even this notion of “majority”; there is hardly a government anywhere in the world and at any time that governs through a majority of the mandate. Usually, 30% to 40% of the votes cast give a party a comfortable majority to rule legitimately. This is structured into multi-party elections through “the first past the post” principle; but even in a system such as the United States, Donald Trump could defeat Hillary Clinton even as she received some 2.5 million more popular votes than him, in 2016.

In practice again, contrary to theory, even as the voter is all alone in the polling booth voting as an untrammelled individual, her/his vote is still conditioned by numerous demands on it by family, community, religion, culture, and, above all, by the political alternatives offered by political parties. A loss of individuality is implicated here. The individual does not create the choices which are given by parties, very often wrapped in false propaganda and even more false promises. The individual has the “freedom” to choose one or another of these.

The complete equation of democracy with electoral politics draws one’s attention away from any alternative form of governance. There is no space here for diversity.

A reinforcement of identities

This democracy came to India in its most modern form: unconditional adult franchise and multi-party periodic elections. Yet, the operative categories of electoral politics here have mostly been pre-modern: identity politics of caste, sub-caste, community, region, language, etc. Not long ago we were familiar with acronyms such as AJGAR (Ahir, Jat, Gurjar and Rajput castes) and MY (Muslims and Yadavs) and so on, signifying the vote base of different political parties, or what came to be picturesquely called the ‘vote bank’.

Jawaharlal Nehru had hoped that education and the experience of democracy would force a retreat on these operative categories and generate a more “modern” consciousness among the masses. What has emerged is contrary to this. The very success of these mobilisations has reinforced identities instead of weakening them. The Bharatiya Janata Party is determined to create the biggest vote bank which would be ever hard to defeat: the entire Hindu population, comprising 80% of the populace. It can afford to marginalise and thus disenfranchise all others in the residual 20%. Remember the explicit assertion of this strategy by the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister in the form of his line, “80 versus 20” during the run-up to the Assembly elections?

So, as long as we practise this form of democracy, its fault lines and, above all, its link with capitalism will remain unbroken. Yet, the fact that humanity has throughout history sought one or another form of social equality keeps the possibility of this urge erupting yet again more amenable to achieving a reality that has eluded us so far. What its form and its grade of success will be are hard to guess. What can be said confidently is that history is still unfolding and creating a future for us.

Harbans Mukhia taught history at Jawaharlal Nehru University

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