Democracy: A Path without an End?

by Gulshan Banas

The most rudimentary definition of “democracy”, taught to us from first time we came across this concept in political science is – it is a government which is “by the people, for the people and of the people”. Subsequent inquiry into the subject reveals that it is much more than that – and often, in opposition to that! While there is a positive attitude towards a democratically elected government in India (as revealed by a survey conducted by researchers from Oxford University), people with such attitudes often forget that a democratic government essentially implies the participation of citizens in larger decisions of the state which will ultimately affect them. This, according to me, is the cause of the recurrent scams in Indian politics as well as the violation of civil liberties of people by agencies of the state and the lack of transparency in our system (which happens to be the world’s largest democracy!).
What we need today is greater participation of citizens, not only in the decision-making process, but also as whistle-blowers. We need aware and vigilant citizens.

‘State’, essentially, is an institution created by the people – the society – to fulfil their collective aspirations and work for their welfare; even in our own country, the modern Indian state is a result of the collective sense of self-determination of people as expressed through our nationalist movement. State, especially a democratic state, can be defined as an instrument created by the society to regulate and serve itself. Thus, it is the duty and responsibility of citizens to be vigilant in a democracy, especially to be vigilant in relation to the state and their rights and civil liberties.

With the modern state having the power to legislate, arbitrate, enforce as well as several economic powers among others, it emerges as the most powerful institution in a community. Quoting Lord Acton, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Looking at India, I find this statement true: the several scams and cases of massive corruption and money laundering by some of the top politicians of this country points to extensive exploitation of political power. In the Corruption Perceptions Index by Transparency International, an organisation that monitors corruption internationally, the countries ranking as ‘very clean’ also happen to be those in which the citizens are assertive through media and movements, while countries classified as highly corrupt are also ones with high levels of oppression by the state. India, too, ranks as highly corrupt while being a democracy; which makes it all the more alarming. With more than a thousand billion dollars of black money from our country, what exactly has gone wrong – is the question we should be asking.

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, holding a rather pessimistic attitude towards democracy, criticized, “Democracy is just a mania for counting noses.” To a certain extent he seems to be correct, the idea of “democracy” does not seem to have been effectively implemented in practical politics – simply holding regular elections does not make a government democratic. The freedoms and civil liberties promised by democracy are often violated in countries such as ours.

Despite its negatives, I would stand by democracy – for I believe democracy is a continuous process. In the rudimentary definition that we have all learned, there is an element of truth – and that is its emphasis on people. It is the people who have to fight for their rights to attain them – rights can never given or offered by a person or an institution (for if they are, they are not rights at all – just as freedom can never be granted in charity).

India has had a long history of social and political movements, some of them – such as the Chipko movement, the RTI movement, etc – have led to landmark decisions by the government. Another landmark step is the introduction of PIL or Public Interest Litigation in India, which has enabled the active participation of the citizens in democratic processes on one hand and has reflected the spirit of democracy on the other. In all these instances, the power has flowed from and back to the people. Despite these, India lacks a general spirit of vigilance among the citizens.

The power of the democratic state has manifested both in positive changes and negative ones – its immense power to shape the lives of citizens and the nation in both ways is apparent. Thus, the Indian citizen, today, has to be assertive in claiming his rights and vigilant in ensuring that the state created to serve him does not oppress him in any way. There is no such thing as a “perfect democracy” – the challenge before us is to build a democracy. Will it be difficult? It will, but, as Nelson Mandela remarked, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”


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