September 15th is the International Day of Democracy celebrated at the behest of United Nations across the world. This is done every year since 2008 to encourage governments around the world to construct and consolidate democracy in their respective countries. The UN also has a democracy fund to support democracy building around the world. Bilateral donors and political foundations also extend financial support to developing democracies. Notables among them are Westminster Foundation, London, Jean-Jaures Foundation, Paris, Olof Palme International Centre, Stockholm, Friedrich Ebert Foundation, Berlin. Yet, democracy remains a dream for many, as many others witness painfully the dilution of their existing democracies.
India has been unique in the whole of Asia for maintaining its democracy since independence in 1947, barring a short slide in to authoritarianism between 1975-77. Despite the limitations of literacy and underdevelopment India has shown tremendous political maturity in upholding its democratic traditions. There are several indicators to show the status of democracy in any country. Certain indicators used by rating agencies such as Freedom House, V Democracy, Economic Intelligence Unit and so on have downgraded Indian democracy, raising the hackles of supporters of the present regime in Delhi.
The urge for democracy becomes greater after witnessing the takeover of a civilian government in Afghanistan by a militant, religious bigot group called Taliban. The kind of treatment meted out to hapless and innocent Afghans, consisting of denial of human rights, cruelty to women and children makes democracy a necessary condition in any country. Let us recall the famous advice by Reinhold Neibuhr: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary”. The cry for freedom of Afghans is renting the air and resounding across the world.
Why is International Day of Democracy observed? This day marks an opportunity to assess the status of democracy around the globe. Each year highlights a particular theme. Since 2008 the themes celebrated so far include stronger democracies, strengthening the voice of citizens, accountability and political tolerance. In 2020, the theme was Covid-19, a spotlight on democracy. This year the call given by the UN is for strengthening democratic resilience in the face of future crises.
The Day provides an opportunity to sensitise and inform the public about their legitimate democratic rights, the importance of Parliaments and legislatures, their capacity and mandate to deliver justice, peace, development and human rights. To trace the origin of International Day of Democracy it stems from the Universal Declaration on Democracy by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), a global body of national Parliaments on 15 September 1997. The idea was to draw support from the participation of all citizens in democratic process.
Conceptually and in praxis democracy is not the easiest form of governance. Aristotle, the ‘father of politics’, classified governments into three types: rule by one (monarchy), rule by a few (aristocracy) and rule by many (polity). These are normal types but they become perverted, they are called tyranny, oligarchy and democracy respectively. So, according to Aristotle, democracy was the ‘rule of crowd’ and therefore, was not the desirable form of government.
On the other hand, Winston Churchill had famously said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. These and many other similar tributes paid to democracy were attributed to many world leaders and thinkers – Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Abraham Lincoln, EN Forster, Mahatma Gandhi and Aung San Suu Kyi. Democracy self-rule; so even a few make mistakes you can correct them.
Suu Kyi said, “I always tried to explain that the democracy is not perfect but it gives you a chance to shape your destiny”. Democracy gives space for using freedom, choice, equality, fairness, justice, right to dissent etc. Let us also recall what Evelyn Beatrice Hall had said, “I do not agree with what you have to say but will defend to the death your right to say so”. Thus, democracy uniquely calls for tolerance and accommodation of differences.
The other significant thing to remember in a democracy discourse is that it is premised on the twin but contradictory nature of human beings. It is believed that human beings are basically good and virtuous as they are ‘created in the image of god’ (Christian faith). Or part of Supreme Soul, the God residing in each human being (Hinduism), the best creation of Allah (Islam).
At the same time, human beings are under attack by Satan, therefore could have the propensity for doing bad. The first nature of humans was advocated among others by Gandhi in India, the essential oneness and goodness of human beings and the second by thinkers like Thomas Hobbs, who said, “Man is poor, solitary, nasty, brutish and short”. The quality and necessity of democracy is determined by both these instincts of human beings as characterised by Reinhold Niebuhr.
In the current age, democracy has been the aspiration of people across the world. That is why a number of democratic countries are increasing. In 1950, there were only 22 electoral democracies, accounting for 31 per cent and 21 countries with restricted democracies accounting for 12 per cent of the world population. By the turn of the century in 2000, out of 193 Member States of the United Nations, 122 countries accounting for 58 per cent for the world population had electoral democracy. However, of these, countries which practiced basic human rights and rule of law were only 85 accounting for 38 per cent of the world population.
The other difficulty in practising democracy is the huge conceptual confusion. Not everyone knows what democracy really means and how to establish genuine democracy. A perceptive commentator said, “Capitalism is easy to practice but difficult to explain whereas democracy is easy to explain but difficult to follow”. In absence of universal standards it is not really easy to articulate democracy and therefore a bewildering variety of democracies dominate the discourse.
Having said the above, one can identify a democracy by using at least three political parameters — choice, control and dismissal. The choice refers to citizens’ right to vote to elect their representatives and a regime of their preference. Control would denote citizens’ power to monitor, evaluate and course correct the political process. Dismissal would mean voting out those not coming up to the expectations of the citizens and any system not serving the purpose. The ‘control’ is not actually happening in many democracies and demands for ‘right to recall’, and ‘right to deselect’ etc are in the air. But the choice and dismissal are exercised by citizens through regular elections.
Democracy is intrinsic to Indian culture and civilisation, which is marked by diversity, pluralism, synthesis and accommodation. These values are hallmarks of a democracy. That is why India can show the way. The current distortions witnessed in India are caused by conceptual confusion of the ruling elite. They confuse majority with morality, legality with democracy and minority with marginalisation etc. So whatever is decided by majority is legal and moral, is a wrong notion.
Democracy is upheld by respect for dissent, a process of dialogue to reconcile differences, resolve contradictions, protection for minority of opinion and collectives. The short term distractions from democracy will pass, and given India’s resilience, it will bounce back and will be a beacon of democracy for the rest of the world.
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