Debating democracy

Suhas Palshikar

Democracy is a widely accepted form of government today. The 20th century witnessed the large-scale expansion of democracy across different parts of the globe. Even those governments that are criticized for being non-democratic try to portray themselves as democratic. Many international organizations and academics try to examine claims of being democratic by checking whether various key aspects of democracy are actually operational in a given country. These checklists are not entirely flawless, but they do give us some idea about the extent of truth when a government or country claim they are democratic. Freedom House is one such famous agency that keeps track of various indicators of democracy in various countries ( Another and somewhat better resource for a similar exercise is the World Democracy Audit ( A network of political scientists, called Electoral Integrity Project (, keeps monitoring the genuineness of elections because elections are supposed to be at the core of democratic governments. Using these tools, one can partially solve the difficulty of deciding whether a country is democratic or not. They also, somewhat controversially, rank democracies.

But what exactly are the constitutive elements of democracy? There is consensus that the following four elements constitute the core meaning of democracy: a government elected by all citizens, transparency and accountability in exercise of power, participation in public affairs, and a spirit of deliberation and dialogue. On the face of it, these four seem to be simple principles but both their meaning and actual implementation are matters of debate.

Take elections for instance. The method of electing representatives is often a matter of debate. No method is perfect and every society has to make a choice of the best suited method that can be put into practice with relative ease. Very broadly, the debate is between various types of ‘proportional’ representation methods and the simple plurality system (which India has adopted). Besides this debate on methods, a more fundamental debate concerns the meaning of elections. Those who believe that the principle of popular sovereignty is fundamental, seek to ensure that elected representatives are continuously kept under control by the voters through mechanisms such as referendum and recall. On the other hand, those who believe that legislatures as bodies representing the people are embodiment of popular sovereignty, insist that representatives are not mere delegates and therefore, they must have the power to act in their own wisdom, once elected.

Similarly, democracy consists of the idea of accountability of those who exercise power. But how accountability can be ensured is a matter of detail and differences arise on the issue of actual mechanism for effectively ensuring accountability. In particular, decision-making and actual implementation of rules is a continuous process often requiring some space for discretion to the persons exercising power. If they are continually bound by requirements of transparency and accountability, it is argued that governance may become impossible. So, the issues of extent and method of transparency become debatable.

Both the above areas of debate overlap with the third area – involving the principle of participation. Many supporters of democracy adhere to the literal meaning implied in the term, i.e., rule by people and seek to insert as many avenues for citizen engagement as possible. They often hark back to the idea of ‘direct democracy’ or city states where all citizens were supposed to be equal participants in decision-making. Their critics would point out that direct democracy is a myth or at least an impossibility today. The political units today are too large – the country as a whole or even a city – to allow citizen participation in all decision-making. In fact, it is argued that the idea of representation has evolved precisely to overcome this problem. Therefore, democracy needs choice of the right kind of representatives, effective checks on representatives and various mechanisms of citizen participation at local levels. In India for instance, under the 73rd amendment to the Constitution, a provision for gram sabha is made, whereby all villagers can participate in the deliberations about the functioning of the village council. The trouble, however is that once electoral representation is institutionalized, citizens tend to avoid participating in public affairs on a regular basis and elected representatives also discourage active participation of citizens. So, it becomes a moot issue to determine the scope of citizen participation and then to encourage citizens to participate.

As the above discussion shows, there would be some minimum conditions that democracy requires but democracy also means continuously expanding the requirements. Even the scope of democracy is a matter of debate. The most common discussions of democracy often confine themselves to government and politics. But many democrats argue that democracy need not be restricted to only institutions of government. All organizations and institutions need to be democratic in their functioning. Moreover, democracy is not only about how politics is conducted; all areas of human activity need to be democratic. Thus, we often refer to a democratic family or ‘democracy’ in the classroom and so on. Scholars overcome this hurdle by differentiating between the minimalist idea of democracy and maximalist idea of democracy. If a society fulfills the most minimum conditions such as regular and open elections, such a situation would constitute the democratic minimum. From there, every society should strive for expanding democracy and aim at the maximum. According to this view, there is nothing like being fully democratic, because the boundaries of being democratic would continuously keep expanding.

But once these minimum conditions of democracy are met, the real uphill task of consolidating democracy begins. Creating a minimalist democracy is comparatively easy. While theorists keep debating about the nuances of the meaning of democracy, the functioning of democracy poses us with many riddles. As democracy relies on electoral victories, it gets converted into mere numeric strength. It is forgotten that majority is only one mechanism of arriving at decisions, and the core of democracy is deliberation, negotiation and even compromise. The capacity to negotiate and deliberate should not be drowned under the noise of numbers. Mere emphasis on numbers gives way to an anarchic articulation of vigilantism by protectors of various causes, rejecting the idea of rule of law. Both a cause and an effect of this is the all-round corrosion of institutions. While successful democracies require an internal balance among various institutions, actual democracies witness either institutional excesses or institutional failures. In this backdrop, groups advocating strong arm tactics and militant solutions tend to easily influence the people and governments and political parties also tend to succumb to these pressures and adopt slogans, programmes and policies that are popular for their immediate appeal. It is observed by many scholars that at the current juncture, the world over, democracies are becoming more and more populist. Populism shuns public reason and invokes raw emotions and a craving for direct action even if the actions are not exactly democratic. In other words, the actual practice of democracy is fraught with contradictory possibilities.

Over and above these almost routine difficulties that democracies face, two more striking challenges deserve critical attention. One challenge is common to any society striving to consolidate democracy. Another is a challenge specifically faced by societies with internal diversity.

The first challenge was famously pointed out in the Indian context by Dr Ambedkar speaking during the last sitting of the Constituent Assembly of India. He warned that a system of political equality in the backdrop of acute socio-economic inequality is bound to be a challenge. As he pointed out, the Constitution recognizes that the worth of every individual citizen is the same. But Indian society consisted of (and continues to have) deep inequalities in the social and economic sphere. This situation can defeat democracy. This reminder poses a troubling question: does this mean that establishing democratic government should be postponed till social and economic equality is achieved? Dr Ambedkar certainly did not mean this. Instead, he exhorted Indians to handle social inequality on an urgent basis. So, the lesson is that establishment of democratic form of government must accompany a resolve to reduce social inequalities. But this is a complex challenge. Critics of democracy, especially, the Marxists, argue that without social equality, democracy is only a façade. If we ignore this criticism, we lose sight of the fact that rich and socially influential people often win elections and control policies. But if we accept the criticism, at least in today’s societies, democracy would appear an impossible goal. Let us take the Indian example. In 1950, could India postpone the adoption of democratic form of government on the ground of socio-economic inequalities? While the answer to this question can only be in the negative, is it not true that even after almost seven decades, India’s democracy has not been able to remove caste inequalities and a wide gap between the rich and poor? This example shows the complexity of the challenge that democracy faces.

There is another challenge unique to societies with internal diversity. Many western democracies evolved in a context of relative homogeneity. They emerged in societies having a common language or common religion, etc. But when societies with internal diversity adopt democracy, they have to tackle the issues of power sharing and mutual accommodation. Even in Europe this challenge is present. Switzerland or Belgium are examples of this challenge and the more recent case of Spain too, is instructive in this regard. While pre-1971 Pakistan failed to accommodate diversity, Sri Lanka experienced civil war – like situation because of its failure to handle diversity. When democracy emerges in large societies with complex diversities, this challenge assumes more serious proportions. India is a case in point. The burden on democracy becomes more complicated in such situations.

On the one hand, democracy tends to become majoritarian, wherein one relatively larger group (linguistic, religious or ethnic) claims that its numerical strength entitles it to get special attention or powers. This is called as majoritarianism. On the other hand, there is a possibility that if all social, ethnic groups are treated as separate units claiming a share in power, then democracy merely becomes a playground for community-based negotiations rather than an unfolding of public reason and pursuit of common good. Each community claims autonomy and separate existence and in the end, democracy is understood as continuous balancing of the demands of different communities. Rather than pursuing a common agenda, this situation often culminates in consolidating identities, constructing symbols and creating boundaries made from cultural universes.

If we examine India’s democracy in the framework of these riddles and challenges, what do we find? In the past seven decades, elections have become more and more legitimate and free; participation in elections is steadily increasing and various sections of the society have gained confidence to agitate against the government for their demands. Yet, our ‘democratic republic’ suffers from multiple inabilities including institutional failures. The idea of freedom of expression is not fully accepted in practice. Demands by almost every social section often lack in legitimacy in the eyes of others and therefore, negotiations and compromises are becoming more and more difficult to arrive at. So, the key problem is about foreclosing the possibility of debate because we are unwilling to accept that the democratic republic is the common property of all citizens.

Obviously, republics are not made in heaven nor do they always grow out of readymade social homogeneity. In fact, the creation of India’s democratic republic indeed was an audacious attempt because of the many social schisms. But the audacity shown by the founding fathers in creating democracy needs to be matched by the sustained collective effort to consolidate democracy. Looking back, one fears that there has been a grievous mismatch between the ambitions of the founding fathers and the will and actions of the citizens.

The author taught political science at the Savitribai Phule Pune University and is currently chief editor of Studies in Indian Politics. He was also one of two chief advisers for political science textbooks of NCERT for class 9-12 (2005-07). He can be reached at

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