Indian Democracy: Largest, but is it the Best?

September 15, 2011

Every year since 2007, September 15 has been observed as the International Day of Democracy, declared by the General Assembly of the United Nations Organization (UNO). It is expected that all the members of the UNO should observe this day  in  an appropriate manner that would contribute in spreading public awareness.

In its resolution establishing the International Day of Democracy, the United Nations noted that "while democracies share common features, there is no single model of democracy" and that "democracy does not belong to any country or region". The International Day of Democracy is meant both to celebrate democracy and to serve as a reminder that the need to promote and protect democracy is as urgent now as ever.

At this juncture, it would be appropriate to understand the meaning and evolution of democracy and understand the place of India in the community of democratic nations.

The word ‘democracy’ is derived from the Greek word ‘demokratia’ which means ‘rule of the people’. Thus, democracy is a form of government in which all people have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives which indicates that the people have more or less direct participation in the proposal and passage of legislation into law.

It was in ancient Greece that the term ‘Democracy’ first appeared in ancient Greek political and philosophical thought. It has been generally believed that the first democratic government was established in the ancient Greek city state of Athens in 507 BC by Cleisthenes who is referred to as "the Father of Athenian Democracy". The Athenian Democracy was the ‘Direct Democracy’. Under this system, ordinary citizens were selected by lot to the  few government offices and the courts and the rest of the citizens formed the Assembly of all the citizens who were eligible to speak and vote in the assembly, which enacted the  laws of the city state. However, Athenian citizens were all-male above the age of 20 years, born from parents who were born in Athens. Women, slaves and foreigners were not considered as citizens and thus were excluded from the governing process.

Besides Greek city states, other civilizations had also significantly contributed to the evolution of democracy such as Ancient Rome, Europe and North and North and South America. The concept of representative democracy or indirect democracy emerged largely from ideas and institutions that developed during the middle Ages in Europe and the Age of Enlightenment and in the American and the French Revolutions.

In modern times most of the countries of the world profess to be democratic. However, democracy in the real sense of the term is hardly found in majority of these countries. While there is no specific, universally accepted definition of 'democracy', equality and freedom have both been identified as important characteristics of democracy since ancient times. These principles are manifested in all citizens being ‘equal before the law’ and having equal access to legislative processes. For example, in a representative democracy, every vote has equal weight, no unreasonable restrictions can apply to anyone seeking to become a representative, and the freedom of its citizens is secured by legitimized rights and liberties which are generally protected by a constitution.

It is important to note that there are several varieties of democracy. Some of the democracies provide better representation and more freedom for their citizens than others. In a democratic form of government there is separation of powers between the executive, legislature and judiciary with reasonable checks and balances so that none of the three organs of the government become too powerful. The constitution of each country ensures the process of the formation of the government, its structure and the rights of the citizens. Democracy by its very concept and definition ensures the supremacy of the people or popular sovereignty. It is precisely in light of this concept that periodic elections are held, in India every five years or mid-term elections depending on the circumstances.

India claims to be the largest democracy in the world and rightly so in terms of the size of the population that inhabits this great country. However, can we claim that we are the best democracy in the world? The recent developments and the tone of the debate that was unleashed during the movement led by Anna Hazare and his team against corruption and in favour of a strong Lokpal legislation manifested the cynical and ‘dictatorial’ attitude of the elected representatives, especially the ruling coalition.

The uncontrolled and gigantic proportion of corruption that has been going on unabated  is not only driving common citizens  to the wall having to deal with government offices in one way or the other, the high level corruption both at high bureaucratic and ministerial levels running into lakhs of crores of rupees robbing the country of valuable resources which could have been used for developmental and infrastructural purposes has practically exasperated the right thinking citizens especially the middle class and the youth of the country who found an outlet to vent their anger and frustration against the corrupt political and bureaucratic class through the ‘Anna  Hazare Movement’.

The very fact that the parliamentarians claiming the supremacy of the Parliament to pass laws and belittling the popular pressure as represented by the movement led by Anna Hazare to enact a law that would minimize corruption if not entirely wipe it out, manifested the arrogance of the elected representatives and lack of respect to true spirit of democracy or popular sovereignty. The ministers are expected not only to be responsible directly to the parliament comprising of the elected representatives of the people and indirectly to the people in general who had elected these parliamentarians, but also responsive to the feelings and aspiration of the people whom they represent.  No one denies the fact that the Parliament has the privilege  to enact laws. However, in democracy, people have  the right to express their popular will and pressurize the elected representatives to enact desired law.

Many people argue that ‘Indian democracy is a captive democracy’. They back their theses with a number of arguments. They point out that dynastic considerations play an important role at national, state or local level elections as sons, daughters, wives or other relatives of the politicians are being preferred to other deserving candidates  while distributing tickets. Voters, especially poor and illiterate are ‘bribed’ through money, liquor or other commodities to garner their votes. Politicians use caste, religion, communal, linguistic and   other considerations to get themselves elected. Many citizens refrain from voting due to one or the other reason especially due to apathy towards the unworthy candidates and with this thought  that ‘my one vote will not make much difference’. People with criminal background with money and muscle power get themselves elected and honest and capable people do not contest the election.

Though the ‘Rule of Law’ and ‘Equality before the law’ are the essential dictums of a democratic society, in practice these principles are observed more in breach as the rich and powerful get away easily  or treated differently from the common citizens, not because of the lapse of the judicial process but because of the shoddy investigation and lack of credible evidence submitted to the courts by the investigating agencies as they can be ‘influenced’ by the rich and powerful which the common people cannot afford.

Equality in Indian democracy is found in only one aspect, that is, the right to vote. It is only in this respect  that the vote of a wealthy and powerful citizen and  a pauper have equal value. In other respects,  equality is a mirage that is unachievable in the desert of Indian complexities.

Even after 64 years of Indian independence and democracy the elected representatives and their parties who form the governments at the centre and states have been far from making India a really democratic sovereign republic. Enough attention has not been paid and sufficient resources have not been allotted to improve the health of the marginalized people as the condition of the government and public hospitals are in pathetic condition. While higher and technical education can be accessed only by the rich and influential,  the condition of  government schools in rural India is continuing to be a matter of concern. Lethargy, insensitivity and corruption in government offices have been driving the people to be cynical   about the functioning of the governments. Bad roads, erratic power supply, unclean drainages and unhygienic surroundings have been taken by the citizens in their stride as they believe that things will not improve under corrupt and irresponsible officials.

There may be many more aspects that  can be cited by cynics and critics of democratic system of government  to point out why ‘Indian democracy’  is not  a real democracy and even go to the extent of claiming that India can be saved by a dictatorial system of government for at least a decade. However, this is a dangerous proposition.

There may be many drawbacks in democracy, but there is nothing positive in dictatorship. History has been the witness that dictators, in spite of their tall promises of making their countries great, such as Hilter in Germany or Saddam Hussein in Iraq, had ruined their countries and had brought death and misery to their people. Freedom and equality that are the hallmarks of democracy have been sacrificed on the altar of dictatorships in all those countries which had the misfortune of being ruled by such authoritarian dictators.

One must remember that it is not the democracy in India that is to be blamed for the evils of the country, but those to acquire power by the so called democratic means and use that power to their own advantage rather than in serving the people who had elected them. Indian Constitution is one of the best in the world that enshrines the best principles of governance.

Given the situation that we find ourselves at the crucial juncture of Indian democracy, there is a need to protect the noble Indian Constitution being abused by unscrupulous politicians. There is a need to reform most of the administrative structures in order to revive the faith of the people in the government. There is a need for electoral and judicial reforms that can make these institutions more efficient. There is a need to bring about police reforms which can serve the people more than the politicians. There is a need to bring accountability among the bureaucrats and government officials so that they  can be efficient and non-corrupt and eventually there is a need for all the citizens of the country to be vigilant and  proactive  and  defend their democratic rights as it has been said that ‘Eternal vigilance is the price of democracy.’  Finally, there is also a need of such leaders as  Anna Hazare to rouse the conscience of the nation and galvanize the people  to fight for their rights and thus safeguard democracy.

The theme of the 2011 International Day of Democracy is, “What do citizens expect from their parliament?”. This is the most appropriate theme in Indian context. Indian citizens expect that their parliamentarians feel the pulse of the people as manifested by the recent movement led by Anna Hazare and enact a strong Lokpal legislation and show to the people of India in particular and the world in general that Indian parliamentarians are responsive to public opinion and ultimately responsible to Indian people and that they are not the masters but the servants of the Indian people who had conferred on them the privilege of representing them.

Thus, on this International Day of Democracy, while being proud as the citizens of the world’s largest democracy-India, let us be active citizens and resolve that  in our own way we will make India a great and exemplary democracy.

By Dr Eugene D'Souza, Moodubelle
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Comment on this article

  • md khan, delhi

    Thu, Sep 22 2011

    what has Team Anna been doing since April, if not publicly abusing the Prime Minister, the Parliament, Indian elections and even Indian democracy? And yes, I do agree that many should be abused in the government but at the end of the day, there has to be a democratic way to it. It can’t be imposed through the dictatorial will of one group just because they are able to rake up popular frenzy. There is a Constitution there is a court there is an elected Parliament, and things have to happen as per its guidelines. Anna must protest. But he can’t be adamant about imposing it. Protests have their own effect and change does happen. But it can’t happen without the support of our Constitution and democratic machinery.

  • Valerian Dalmaida, Mangalore/Abu Dhabi

    Fri, Sep 16 2011

    Dear Readers,
    Democracy is rule by the people. Just by voting, our responsibility does not end. See for example in Mangalore City,people's driving - no sense, no discipline, no lanes, no footpaths, traffic police are silent, nobody follows the traffic rules, no signals. See the garbage dumped on street side, see the central market, pot hole roads and hygiene, cleanliness. Unless we take up these issues by our selves, things are not going to change. Let us get together, pool our resources, money, material, time and ideas to improve our localities. Let us take clue from Mr. Ronald Colaco. If he can do alone these social changes, I think if we get together and do the things in one mind,unity then surely we will succeed.

  • A. S. Mathew, U.S.A.

    Thu, Sep 15 2011

    Very proudly we can claim that India is the largest democracy in the world. But in reality, it is
    filled with many "crazy" political
    ideologies and influences, so it must be called "democrazy". The Indian democracy is the best place for the politicians to get rich too
    fast, and the poor people are
    trodden under the heavy load of
    discrimination and vested interests
    of the society.

  • Joseph F. Gonsalves, Bannur, Puttur / Mangalore

    Thu, Sep 15 2011

    Dear Mr. Peter A, Bangalore/Udupi,
    These cows have freedom because those animals are well suported and protected by BHARATIYA JANUVAAR PARTY/BJP. Not Janata Party.

  • Karuna, Mangalore/UAE

    Thu, Sep 15 2011

    Friends, expressing displeasure on a public platform is your right in India, Nobody can drag you to court or question you, and this simple pleasure is not enjoyed by more three quarters of the world population. This is what the Indian Democracy is. Be happy what we have. Any system either Democracy or dictatorship has its own plus and minus. Today Democracy in India is just beginning to grow, especially with the help of free media and TV. Most of the ills and shortcoming are being exposed, it is just matter of time, before Indian Democracy will prove its worth. If it has to show its real benefit literacy level has to be raised to near 100% in India, than people will be available to make their own judgement and vote to get right people to run this country.

  • Peter A, Bangalore/Udupi

    Thu, Sep 15 2011

    Actually, if we see, only the cows on the streets are democratically free in India. The common man, one way or the other, pays a bribe for living in a sham democracy called India.

  • Raphael D'Souza, Pangla/London

    Thu, Sep 15 2011

    Someone had rightly said that ‘Democracy is worst form of Governance, but then all other forms of Governance have failed’. People of India are gradually showing the maturity which is evident from State elections where different people/parties have been elected in recent elections. But, there is no choice in Central government elections. They have to choose between two worst parties. Christians, Muslims and moderate Hindus are left with no choice after Babri Masjid Fiasco and Church attacks. How can we preach equality when 10% (per cent) of the people own 90% (per cent) of the national wealth? Also, if one considers 40% of population voting 3 to 4 candidates with winning candidate getting about 25% vote, technically only 10% of the population is represented. The same candidate getting elected year after year even if the politician finds it difficult to climb the stairs of Assembly/Parliament. The baton of the dynasty is passed on to children on his/her death. What is missing in Indian masses and politicians is lack of awareness that politicians are servants of people and not masters!!! Masses should be aware that it is their hard earned money (taxes or Foreign exchange sent by NRIs) that the government is run. Unless balance 90% of population turn out to vote deserving candidates and question their performance, democracy will not be effective. Anna Hazare has shown the masses the way by taking the horse to the water, it is for the people whether to drink or not!!!


    Thu, Sep 15 2011

    Nice article... Eugene D'souza.
    Friends, sorry to say that Indian democracy has been murdered many years ago! The people of India has the power only to VOTE and the panel of electoral consists of goons, murderers, rapists, gangsters and criminals.
    Jai ho India and Indian democracy.

  • Sunil Kumar, Kakarla/Qatar

    Thu, Sep 15 2011

    Indian democracy is best for ministers, bureaucrat, businessmen and wealthy people only, not for ordinary people. Its time to distroy indian constitution and re-write a new one.

  • B Najam, Bajpe

    Thu, Sep 15 2011

    As Qaddafi said its Demo Kursi so in India its Demo 'kursi' not true Democracy.

    Every 5years or certain period Ministers/ politicians shows Demos in the Kursi (Chair) !

  • Manjunath, Mangalore

    Thu, Sep 15 2011

    Indian democracy is nothing but demon crazy.

  • Benedict C Menezes, Moodbelle/USA

    Wed, Sep 14 2011

    Indian democracy is a borrowed democracy from other countries but basically India is not a working democratic country in it's true meaning!!!..Period..

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