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Are we doing enough to preserve democratic institutions?

Surinder S Jodhka | Updated on: 5 July 2015, 11:49 IST

Grave threat

  • In 1975, Indian democracy had it darkest hour: the Emergency.
  • Democracy has prevailed since, and flourished.
  • But authoritarian leaders, compromised institutions pose a threat.

Forging a shield

  • Liberal democratic values must be strengthened.
  • Institutions must be protected from meddling by parties.
  • They must be empowered to keep a check on power.

Resulting gains

  • Democracy will be saved from majoritarian excess.
  • All citizens will be equal in the nation\'s social, political life.
  • Empowered institutions will protect citizens from state power.

Speaking on the 40th anniversary of the Emergency on 25 June, Prime Minister Narendra Modi underlined the need to preserve our "vibrant liberal democracy", which, he argued, was "the key to progress". He also exhorted that we "do everything possible to further strengthen our democratic ideals and ethos".

These are stock words for such an occasion. So stock, in fact, they hardly attract attention from political commentators. And the entire political spectrum, from the left to the right, vouches for such a commitment to democracy.

That doesn't mean these words are shorn of ideology or political promise. These are profound words that must be heeded if we don't want another Emergency-like situation. And if we want to keep progressing as a democratic nation.

Ideal working model

As a system of political organisation, democracy has come to be seen as the only viable system. Every country today claims to be a democracy of some kind or the other. Democracy has become a norm.

But what are the democratic ideals and ethos Modi wants strengthened? How does a society ensure these ideals are preserved and protected?

Democracy functions through governments elected periodically, but it isn't just about elections. Democratic systems are backed by a set of rules and principles, enshrined in a Constitution and followed as convention.

The Constitution reflects a nation's ideals and ethos, its future direction and its promise to the citizens. And it's the commitment of the ruling elite to these ideals and ethos that prevents democracies from degenerating into majoritarian regimes.

More than government

But democracy is not just a system of government. It is a principle of social and political organisation based on rights and participation. The idea of citizenship is not limited to the right to vote, it's as much about the right to participate in the nation's social and economic life as an 'equal' member.

Liberal democracy, admittedly, does not ensure substantive equality, but it does promise formal equality. Indeed, even in a deeply unequal country like India, no one is allowed to advocate imposing the traditional systems of hierarchy even in the private life of a community.

Democratic economics is premised on individual merit; affirmative action levels the ground for it to be judged

The promise of formal equality means that the political system will endeavour to enable every citizen to participate, on more or less equal terms, in the political, social and economic life of the nation.

In other words, the society and its political system will work to build a level playing field. This is why decent education and healthcare facilities are critical. Indeed, all healthy democracies spend a good deal of their resources on providing quality education and healthcare.

On a level field

To lay out a level playing field, democratic ideals and ethos need to be translated into rules and procedures. This is important because economic systems of liberal democratic societies are premised on individual merit. For it's only by emphasising individual merit that we can ensure formal equality.

This is not the myopic idea of merit that pits it against polices of affirmative action such as reservation. The two are not in conflict. Affirmative action levels the playing field for competing individual merit to be judged.

That it allows for such active intervention might give the impression that democracy is only about state power. It isn't. To work effectively, democratic ideals must encompass all modern institutions based on the constitutional framework, even markets. Nearly all democratic societies, for instance, have laws against discrimination at the workplace.

Centres of higher learning must be left alone as long as they adhere to liberal democratic values

Since institutions also act as buffers between political power and lay citizens, steeping them in democratic ideals is crucial to check abuse of power. For example, if a political regime is corrupt, robust legal institutions and an independent press will strive to hold it accountable.

Quite like the idea of liberal democracy, therefore, institutions and the normative frames of their working ought not to be subjected to the ideology of any particular political formation.

It is, indeed, a foundational principle of the modern democracy that institutions such as hospitals, universities and other centres of higher learning - say, Indian Institutes of Technology, Indian Institutes of Management, the Film and Television Institute of of India - must be left alone as long as they operate within the framework of the nation's Constitution and liberal democratic values.

Such institutions must not only be protected but encouraged to keep a check on the political system if we are to strengthen "our democratic ideals and ethos".

First published: 5 July 2015, 11:46 IST
Surinder S Jodhka @CatchNews

Surinder S Jodhka is Professor of Sociology at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University.