The known history of democracy dates back to ancient Greece, where some of the small city states devised democratic governments for themselves. But the experience of democracy was not pleasant for the philosophical masters-Plato and Aristotle- who criticized democracy as the worst possible form of government, mainly due to the volatility of the mass-mentality. According to them, not everyone is naturally endowed with the knowledge about the art of governance, and hence, the specialized task of ruling a state should not solely be left to the whims and fancies of the common ignorant masses. From then on, history has taken a long leap to the modern age where democracy had become the demand of the people in the 18th century. The claustrophobic political, economic and social environment under the self-centered aristocratic rule motivated the people to impatiently demand for civil and political rights, the most brilliant example of which was the French Revolution of 1789. Liberalization followed in phases from then on, paving the way for democracy in the 19th century in a few countries in Europe.
The story of democracy, that is a form of government “of the people, by the people, for the people”, had begun in India in its true sense after India’s independence, though elections for the sake of it were also held in the later phase of the British Raj. The Indian constitution endows the sovereign power of the state to its citizens, by granting to them the right to choose their own representatives to the legislatures, union and state, who will, by virtue of having the popular mandate, have the power to formulate laws for the development of the country. To ensure the efficiency of the newly installed democracy, the people were guaranteed political and civil rights through the Fundamental Rights; and to give the democracy a direction, the framers of the Constitution laid down the Directive Principles of State’s Policy. From 26th January, 1950, the day the Constitution started functioning in its entirety, the journey of the world’s largest democracy began.
In these long 65 years, the democratic structure of India has been scarred and abused many times to suit the selfish motives of the ruling parties. The biggest blow to it came in the form of the draconian emergency, proclaimed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the period between 1975 and 1977, when the civil liberties were curbed, elections were withheld, all the political opponents were imprisoned and atrocities were committed against the citizens in the form of political murders and mass sterilization programmes. The Constitution was modified almost entirely to assure the permanence of the ruling Congress party under Indira Gandhi. The riots of 1984 also reflect the fault lines of the Constitution. These instances implied that the ruling party, once in power by legal or illegal means, can have an absolute say in the functioning of the government, while the people watch helplessly. These apart, India has been a witness to several other state emergencies proclaimed by the Central government to bring the states with opposing parties under the aegis of the party in power in the central government. It is the people whose fundamental rights, i.e. the means to develop themselves, are sacrificed at the altar of never-ending race for power. There has been a recent trend of the NDA government to pass several laws through Ordinances, even though there is no emergency. This is undemocratic, as the bills, which are not getting the sanction from both the Houses of Parliament, are being bypassed through the Ordinance route.
Indian democracy capitalizes mostly on the political rights of the people, that is, the rights of the adult citizens to vote irrespective of caste, class, sex, place of birth etc, and the right to contest elections. However, in trying to be fair to all its citizens, the Constitution does not put any strict qualitative restrictions on the voters or the persons contesting elections. Hence, the voters are most often driven by emotions while choosing their representatives, rather than applying their rational judgement in doing so. The election campaigning carried out by the political parties mostly reflect populist sentiments, instead of being practical. Moreover, elections have become a strategy, in which caste, sympathy and slogans play more important roles than ideology and programmes. Vote bank politics in its most detestable state has become the reality of Indian elections apart from the electoral malpractices of bribing the voters and rigging of polling booths. The Indian Constitution provides that the party getting the majority vote will form the government. But given the fact that India has a multi-party system, this process of choosing the government does not necessarily take into consideration the majority of the total votes cast in the particular election. Similarly, the trend of coalition government in the country is not in accordance with the will of the majority of the voters. To top it all, Indian elections also suffer from a very low turnover rate during elections.
Unlike Switzerland, India does not give its citizens the facilities of referendum and recall. Hence, even if the citizens are not satisfied with their government, they have to bear with it for 5 years, unless not otherwise dissolved. During this period, the relation between the ‘rulers’ and the ‘ruled’ is almost severed, which increases frustration often due to the breach of promises on the part of the ruling party, resulting in peaceful civil movements or violent anti-state insurgencies to awaken the government from its slumber. The very fact that the citizens have to resort to a mode of agitation to express their demands and disappointments shows that not all is rosy about Indian democracy.
However, not everything is morose about Indian democracy either. The complete separation and independence of the judiciary, the absolute power of the Supreme Court to interpret the Constitution based on the spirit of the Constitution and the authority to declare any unjustified law null and void, are the biggest safeguards of the freedom and rational demands of the people. The Supreme Court of India has also introduced the indigenous practice of Public Interest Litigation [PIL], whereby bona fide individuals or groups can lodge litigations against even government’s policies which they feel are against the interest of the society as a whole or any section thereof. The citizens are also empowered by the right to information to seek the detailed information about the functioning of the government, and thus keep an eye on the government. But the most effective of all the devices is the extremely vigilant Indian mass media. They create public awareness and maintain social and political pressure on the government to perform properly by exposing the weaknesses and blunders committed by the parties and the government. The recent initiative of the new NDA government to establish a direct link with the people through interactive government website is a laudable development. Moreover, many of the political parties are now using the social media to reach out to the people and maintain their mass base. Indian democracy will achieve new heights of transparency if and when the e-governance programme successfully starts functioning throughout the country.
The system has loopholes, but the very sustenance of the system with such a wide variety of people, uniquely different from each other, shows the inherent strength of Indian democracy. India, with a population of 1.2 billion, has attempted not only to take care of the majority, but also of the minorities in the form of reservations. Not all the onus of its failures can be shifted to the government, as the people themselves fail to realize the worth of their rights and are negligent to use them. The biggest hurdle in the path of Indian democracy is the low rate of education of the citizens. However, the step taken by the government to give the people the fundamental right to
education has come as a silver-lining, which if utilized by them will iron out a lot of problems in the democratic structure of India. In India, there is an urgent need of cooperation, rather than antagonism, between the government and the people to give to the country a desired future. One without the other is incomplete. Effortless criticism against the Government is useless as ‘the people gets the government as it deserves’, and hence, to get a proficient, powerful and proactive government, the people need to be alert, agile, aware, advanced socially to be able to think beyond narrow religious, cultural and linguistic boundaries and arise to the cause of the nation at large to make Indian democracy a grand success.
The author, Deblina Mondal is an ex-student of Political Science, St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata.