Thursday, April 10, 2008

What IS this Democracy Thing Anyway?

Recently I had a VERY loud and pretty long discussion-verging-on-argument with Acrosticus and Said Person, and other people trying to get a word in edgewise on both sides. The subject of the er... debate was Manmohan Singh. "What!" you might cry, "you couldn't possibly mean the mild-mannered economic genius who is currently the head of the Indian Executive!" But yes indeed I do. The reason for the contention was simply that someone had said that it amazed them, in a bad way, that Manmohan Singh has never stood for election, i.e. he has never been directly elected to any post by the People of India. I was, frankly, puzzled about why this was important at all, since due process according to the Constitution had been followed, and hey the man is highly competent and is doing a great job! (Well ok I'm not so sure about absolving loans and yes I know that's not that correct word.)

The Prime Minister of India has to be a member of Parliament within six months of his/her appointment to the post. Manmohan Singh was quickly elected to the Rajya Sabha (upper house) under the P.V. Narasimha Rao government, so that he could be Finance Minister and save our butts. Since the members of the Rajya Sabha are not directly elected by the people, i.e. they do not run a campaign and have a majority of some constituency press the button corresponding to their name in the voting booth, their eligibility for Prime Ministership attacks the foundation of democracy.

The reason for the consternation of my friends was their understanding of the term democracy. Democracy has changed greatly in meaning over the years, especially in terms of its acceptance as the optimal form of government. The conditions of nationhood have also changed vastly since Athens, and this has affected the definition of democracy. At one point, liberalism was terrified of democracy, and now neoliberalism waves it about wildly as its very own flag. Obviously there are multiple understandings of the term and what its relevance is to the experiences of individual nations.

I remember learning, in Civics class in school, that a democracy is a government "of the people, by the people, for the people". I think I can safely say that this is also how democracy is generally understood: the general body of people select their leaders, usually through a free and secret ballot in such a manner that the person/party that is selected by the greatest number of people wins. The crux of the process being, of course, that the people choose, by directly picking the person or indirectly picking the party, who has the right to rule them; i.e power to the people.

The people, or the majority, are the important factor here, something that comes from the very origins of modern democracy: citizens have the right to a say in who governs them and therefore how they are governed. Of course this system is far from foolproof. For starters, who IS a citizen? The 18% of adult males who had enough property to pass the bar after the famed 1832 Reform Act in Britain? In the modern world, after we have come to accept universal suffrage as sacrosanct, issues like race, gender and money don't come into it, theoretically anyway. So universal suffrage is definitely a part of the definition. Which means that the world's first modern democracy becomes New Zealand, where universal suffrage was introduced in 1893.*

Secondly, what does majority mean? What about the tyranny of the majority? Just because 51% of people pick someone (of course it's usually more like 40% or even less. Rafael Correa of Ecuador won with 36% of the vote!) does not mean that said person can actually be fair to everyone. Ah you might counter, said person is fair to more than 50% of the people, which better than a system that is fair to 50% or 5% of the people. Well, this is true in theory. But think about it, DO all 51% of the people get what they want? Obviously not. The wider the voter base, the greater the standard deviation from the ideal. But that comes with the territory; after all parties exist to create a platform and continuity that enables identification with voter bases. Fair enough.

But, to use an example dear to my most obnoxious professor, what happens in the case of a coalition? The 10%, the 20% and the 30% parties might all get together and form a government putting the 40% party in the Opposition. But, if the interests of the 20% and the 30% are widely different, then in actual fact the coalition cannot really be said to represent 60% of the people's interests. Obviously, somewhere along the way the one-to-one correspondence with individual voter needs has morphed into representation. And how could it not; the only reason the idealised Athenian city state flourished was because its size and suffrage were tightly controlled.

Mexico, from 1929 to 2000, had regular elections, secret ballot, universal suffrage and a revolutionary democratic government. And only one major party. Some people say that in Mexico, when you ask someone who they're going to vote for, they say whoever wins. Obviously there is more to democracy than an electoral system. In the Indian case, the elected leader of the party with an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha (lower house of Parliament) is invited, by the President, to form the government. However, sometimes no single party holds an absolute majority. In this case, a coalition is formed, by haggling between the parties, and some person is put forth as the head of the coalition. The President then invites that person to form the Government.

The president of the majority party can also choose to nominate another person for the office, which is what Sonia Gandhi did in the case of Manmohan Singh. Which means that there a way to put someone in office that does not involve the people - except in their election of the majority party, of course. Which, one might say, is as good as it gets in today's world, and I tend to agree. However, it could be argued that the people might not have voted for the party in question if they had known that this new person could end up being PM.** True. But this person one might not have voted for might actually be the most effective person for the job, just bad at campaigning. On the other hand, a party leader who's completely useless at governing but very good at campaigning could be elected in good faith and turn out to be USELESS. Or, because of inter-party politics, an idiot is chosen to head a coalition simply because he# doesn't step on anyone's toes. Does that mean that the second guy, despite being bad for the majority of the people, solely because of the process of election, is a better democratic government than the first one? Or does it mean that the first guy, because he actually acts in the interests of the majority of the people, despite the indirect process of selection, is a better democratic government than the second?

Neither, according to me. Well, the first guy is a better choice because he benefits the country, but that has to with competence not democracy. What would make the government democratic in the most contemporarily relevant sense of the word would be if the next elections reflected the public reaction to the person in office: they re-elect guy number 1 because he acted to their benefit, they reject him because they take exception to the manner of his ascendancy to office, they reject guy number 2 because they are sick of incompetence, or they re-elect him because they believe in his campaign again. Well ok, to me the definitive proof would be re-electing the competent guy on the basis of his strengths or rejecting the incompetent one on his weaknesses. But the point is the enactment of public opinion through the ballot, and the acceptance of this public opinion by those in office.

Therefore, democracy in the contemporary world means accountability. A system of elected governance that ensures the accountability of persons in office is, for me, the definitive democracy.

*To compare, it was introduced in England in 1928, and in the USA in 1920 but not enforced until 1964. Wow, India has been a democracy longer than the USA!

**For example, many people expected Sonia Gandhi to be PM as president of the ruling party, which is why I did not vote for the Congress in 2004.

# He here referring to person with no intended gender bias. If you take offence from gender bias that you derive, go stuff yourself :)


  1. i agree. accountability. the hardest part. in the face of so much happening everywhere, i wonder where it really happens. hmm...

  2. It's got to be a good argument if you bring up Athens...

  3. actually dragonfly, accountability in the democratic sense DOES happen in india, albeit not as perfectly as one might wish. governments screw up and are chucked out!

    veo: hee, i know right! but ooo my it got heated.

  4. visions of US campaigns have blurred ideas of 'democracy' for the Indian TV-rati!
    you are growing up, Mincat!

  5. *faints at the honour*

    I'm so glad someone noticed! :D hee. welcome!