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The Failure of Democracy

If the Godfather wanted to get elected, he probably would. –Oscar Wilde

Democracy is the most successful form of government, we are told. It’s the same form which powers the governments of the West, and all the powerful nations in the world. Almost all other independent countries have democratically elected governments. Those that have not want to have democracy as a symbol of independence, supremacy of the people and a sign of progress.

But let’s just hang in here for a minute. Is democracy the ultimate symbol of independence and supremacy of the people? Sure. It’s a government of the people, for the people and by the people. People elect representatives amongst themselves to represent their say in government. These representatives draw salaries, from taxes collected from the people, and go around governing those that have elected them to power.

Whoa! Suddenly, democracy does not appear to be all that pro-equality. But moving on… While I would like to make this post as general as possible, I am basing a lot of my arguments based on the Indian democracy, mainly because of my ignorance with regards to democratic systems in other countries. So, in an attempt to make this post as general as possible, I shall begin by tackling the key principles on which democracy is based, and then move to specifics.

Firstly, we have the very process of a democratic election. A democratic election involves people choosing from a list of candidates, their representative to the house. Now, the very word “representative” is a problem. A representative is one who “represents” the voice of the people. However, such a representative would spell doom for any democratic country.

Consider the true representative. He will voice only the concerns of the people he represents. Now, consider a representative who has been elected by the fisher-folk. He will forward their concerns regarding fisheries, push for laws that promote the community he represents. Now, consider another representative who represents the views of another community, say loggers. He will voice a different set of concerns. Such a situation would lead to chaos in the house. Utter chaos! A hundred voices voicing a hundred different thoughts. Yet, not one of the voices will ever voice foreign policy, or security; those little things essential for the very freedom of the people that democracy claims to protect.

So, we have a representative that must, in the interest of the nation, voice the concerns that are not of the people he claims to represent. This direct contradiction to the principle that democratically elected representatives represent the interests of the people is the first failure in the fabric of democracy.

Next, I discuss the premise that the elected representatives will always be “good”, i.e. that they will do what is best for the country and for the people. As we have seen in the earlier argument, the elected representative may, in national interest, have to voice his opinion on matters that don’t concern the people he claims to represent. By a corollary, we must assume that not anyone can become a representative. A person who files his candidature for election must necessarily be one well versed with the political scenario, a person who is willing to dedicate his life to the service of the people. Such folks are hard to find.

Contesting an election itself is a high-risk business. Not only does campaigning take up a lot of resources, the outcome may not be favourable either. This means that only a select few people who have taken up politics as a career will continue in the political world; which in turn gives voters one-out-of-x kind of choice when they cast their votes. Further, the elected representatives politicians will remain in power (in all probability) until the next election; and the ones who elected them to power can do little to change that.

While we are on the topic of funding campaigns; most of the funds for any political campaign come in from corporates. These funds are never given for free; they constitute a tacit agreement that includes lobbying. So, these politicians are elected by us people, and yet, they agree to lobby for corporates. The result? Laws that are anti-people, and which make ordinary people “felons”, to be served as slaughter for corporate lawyers. Laws that encourage monopolies, discourage competition, and spell doom for the free market; the other institution that has failed rather miserably.

Further, elections will be successful only if the people are responsible and well-informed. For the people to be informed, we need an honest and unbiased media, which is again, a fictitious entity. In case you are shaking your head and clicking your tongue; consider this: almost everyone has some prejudices and biases. Why should the media be any different? After all, the media consists only of people like us, but those that have taken journalism as a profession. While journalistic ethics would demand that journalists remain unbiased, and report the truth; such an occurrence is rather rare. The journalists in the media often get swayed away by political spin-doctors; and in turn swing our opinions towards political entities.

Of course, India is not a democracy, it’s a functioning anarchy. Witness any debate in the parliament, and you’ll know why. John Kenneth Galbraith was right when he described India thus. The public is uninformed, and freebies are useful to decide election outcomes. A policy of “divide and rule” invoked by the British has been perfected by our politicos. Laws are frequently changed to suit certain influential individuals. Politicians who actually do work, but refuse to toe the party line are gagged and sacked. The fact is that as citizens of India, we may soon lose our freedom of speech on the internet, thanks to the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines) Act. Of course, the people are sovereign, hence the elected representatives of the people are sovereign, hence the majority of the elected representatives of the people are sovereign, hence the person representing the majority of the elected representatives is sovereign. These were the arguments that lead to the death of democracy in India in the 1970s during the time of the emergency. I see the same arguments being repeated once again.

Of course, if you wish to read about the failure of the parliamentary system in India, I would recommend reading “The Parliamentary System” by Arun Shourie. It’s an excellent read, coming from someone intimately informed of the political system, both as an observer, when he was a journalist, and as a minister, who has seen the innermost workings of the system.


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