Friday, September 28, 2018

What Differentiates A Democracy?

September 28, 2018

Amidst ongoing debate on the crisis of democracy, it becomes pertinent to pose a question: what differentiates a good democracy from the rest of the political systems? All democracies have not attained the same level of maturity and hence there would be multiple answers. Nevertheless, some of the essential features that differentiate advanced democracies from the evolving ones are the security of physical and social spaces and supportive or helpful approach of the functionaries of the state. In a democracy, people enjoy a higher degree of sense of psychological security that the state would treat them fairly and justly. Ironically, this trust has not gained much ground in most of the democracies in the developing world or at best this has been inconsistent.

Another aspect of an advanced or good democracy is the higher degree of trust enjoyed by elected representatives and un-elected state functionaries that they would act fairly, with integrity and to the best of their capability to protect all legitimate interests of the people as a whole or society or state. It’s a different matter that such trust quotient has started declining even in some of the most established democracies, which is a key challenge today.  Authoritarian systems, despite providing certain efficient public services fail to offer this sense of security to their people that a) the State would act with fairness;  b) the due process of law would be observed; c) their dignity, life and liberty are secure; and d) they can vent their criticism of functionaries of the state or express their views on any political issue. Today, many of these aspects are getting increasingly compromised subtly even in some of the advanced democracies and missing in varying degrees in most of the democracies in the developing world. If such a trend continues, there is a serious possibility that we could soon come to a stage where the difference between democracy and non-democracy could be reduced only in degree but not in substance.

Different watchdogs and similar institutions in different parts of the world, committed to the idea of upholding, promoting and building democracy, have been measuring and evaluating the quality of democracy and freedom in different parts of the world based on well-devised criteria. Many of these are fairly good indicators of prevailing levels of freedom and democracy in the societies they have surveyed. However, if the challenge is building high-quality democracy or enhancing capacities of democracies to provide optimal quality of governance, such evaluations or measurement of democracies offer very limited perspective. Basic freedom and rights of individuals and a high degree of media freedom, administered by an independent judiciary, are critical but not adequate or strong enough in themselves to sustain democracy. Democracy requires building such conditions and institutions which can thrive and evolve on their own to provide optimal conditions of life by mobilizing the collective energies of people. Optimal conditions of life include round security - including personal, economic, social and collective, apart from the dignity and equitable access to opportunities.

Hence, Democracy, at its most advanced stage of evolution, implies not merely selection of their representatives through popular choice but also a right to select the most suitable incumbents who can work without fear or hindrance in the collective interests of the entire citizenry. The spirit and objectives of democracy get defeated if people cannot select optimally good candidates who in turn are not able to create optimally good institutions.

Further, democratic political processes are expected to throw up wise men and women with integrity and commitment to represent people to optimise overall governance capacity of their society. Societies that have moved in this direction are certainly doing better than the rest. Political leadership requires not merely capacity, skills, and commitment to building institutions, but also broader acceptability and credibility to lead. In fragmented societies, where people divided based on their identities - ethnic, linguistic, religious or social etc- probably it will be nearly impossible to have broadly acceptable leaders. If the objective of democracy is to provide optimum choices to people to select the best possible government, the very mobilisation of opinion in politics on these lines strikes at the roots of democracy, undermining their overall governance output. Hence, the threat to democracy from populism is something that can potentially destroy institutions and create space for another form fascism or totalitarianism.

Further, any society can grow and evolve optimally only to the extent that they synergise individual liberty, freedom and initiative with larger social or group interests. This has been one of the key strengths of democracy that drove societies in the developed Western countries to higher levels of economic, educational and scientific advancements. Authoritarian systems suppress individual liberties of an overwhelming majority of the people for the so-called larger social or collective interests, democracies trust individuals to exercise their freedom in a manner that contributes to larger social interests while preserving their interests.

 In the contemporary era, human sensibilities disapprove of the idea of tyranny of the majority over the minority or vice-versa. Hence, democracy is expected to envision the larger interests of people as indivisible for purposes of governance. If multiple groups start vying for promoting their respective identity and interests at the cost of others, democracy may appear a war among contending groups through non-violent means. In reality, it is difficult to define peoples’ interests in indivisible terms, especially in larger heterogeneous societies. Issues like rule of law, good criminal justice system and good regulatory and enabling capacity of states in certain basic areas like healthcare, education, civic services etc are something that cuts across requirements of people across all dividing lines. Beyond these, people in different categories are indeed different and equity warrants that they are treated accordingly.

Most contemporary democracies, from developed to developing world, do extend special support to identified vulnerable groups varying from economically and physically challenged to other special groups like the aboriginal or tribal population to socially vulnerable groups. However, the extension of privileges or special status based on religious, ethnic or linguistic identity, rather than any need-based welfare objective identified with the welfare state, is a different issue. In many of the evolving democracies in both Africa and Asia, such discrimination seems a reality in practice. These puncture the idea of indivisibility of collective identity and interests of people as a whole for political gains. Freedom House, V-Dem or other institutions, which are committed to studying, evaluation or promotion of democracy, do consider it an aberration or a form of political corruption or vote-buying. Mature democracies have done better in reconciling such conflicting group identities and eliminating space for political exploitation of such identity-based discrimination. Strong institutional safeguards further help them in this direction, which remains a challenge in many of the evolving democracies, where at times institutions appear mute spectators to different forms of political gerrymandering, undermining both the quality of freedom and governance in these democracies. The counter-narrative to this proposition is forwarded by those who claim that most of the established democracies are fairly homogeneous societies, where smaller minority groups just didn’t matter in elections.

Democracy’s another strength, at least on paper, lays in its ability to build up the high quality of human resources and throw up equally high-quality leaders in every field.  The principle of egalitarianism in the era of welfare state empowers people by giving them a fair and equitable opportunity to grow and evolve. If this process is genuinely strong and sturdy, with an element of fair competition, then both the quality of population and quality of incumbents in leadership roles improves. This should automatically push up the very trajectory of all-round growth or progress of democratic societies to a much higher level compared to those in the authoritarian societies. At least, in theory, there are greater incentives and opportunities for people to excel in a democracy compared to non-democracies. However, one of the prime challenges confronting democracy at this stage is the saturation of some of its existing practices and procedures to take democracy to a higher level of governance.


 “Democracy” has travelled a long way from its medieval era ideals of minimal government interference and natural rights espoused by ‘social contract’ philosophers like Hobbes, Locke or Rousseau. Libertarian goals of freedom of speech, thought and expression as espoused by John Stuart Mill and others or the Bentham’s concept of ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’ or so many similar ideas on democracy and Justice explained philosophers like Tocqueville, Rawls, Schumpeter or Putnam etc cannot explain contemporary understanding of Democracy entirely. Even Abraham Lincoln's  description of democracy as ‘government of the people, by the people and for the people’ appears inadequate to describe democracy in our times or at least the popular expectations from it. The idea of democracy has gradually evolved to a stage, at least in the model societies, where people expect their government, elected through a process of free and fair polls on the basis of universal adult suffrage, and supported by a large number of professionally managed autonomous institutions, to provide an optimally secure, egalitarian society with equitable access to economic opportunities and uniform access to ‘Rule of Law’. Democracies in different parts of the world are able to provide these to varying extents, depending upon the level of their evolution and maturity. At the same time, most democracies, both in developed and developing world,  are struggling to  address different forms of distortions and challenges, which threaten the very future of democracy as the most desirable  form of government.

    Individual initiatives, ideas and leaderships have played crucial role in evolution of Democracy to its current stage. However, it has not been a unilinear, consistent and well-defined process. Democracy has come to this form of elaborate structures of representative institutions through an exercise  of continuous trial and refinement and yet we cannot say with certainty whether the existing structures and formats of Democracy, anywhere in the world, have reached their optimum capacity or these  are adequate to meet popular aspirations. Further, contemporary representative democracy, despite all its common essential features, also has certain distinct traits in almost every region and every part of the world. These have been shaped by local contexts including socio-economic and cultural realities. Consequently, in certain societies or socio-cultural milieu, democracy has advanced to provide a higher level of governance as well as social harmony, whereas in many others, it is still struggling to take firm roots. Those from democratic societies shall always find representative government with free press, individual freedom and autonomous judiciary as the most credible form of Government. Its imperfections and flaws may appear only as aberrations requiring remedial measures. Hence, it is important to analyse understanding of democracy in contemporary context.

         Democracy in our times has different meanings in different contexts or societies for different people. In many parts of the developing world, it may just be a process of election and some degree of media freedom with some semblance of rule of law like mechanism, which need not be consistently and uniformly upheld. Whereas in some of the advanced democracies, it may be a comprehensive charter of obligations to ensure universal access to optimally good conditions for life. Financial elite in most countries, may interpret democracy as freedom to pursue their business and commercial interests with minimum interference, or if possible all the support from  state apparatus both within and beyond the country. In certain cases, it may be simply be opportunity to navigate their way to greater wealth by. For political elite it seems all the  opportunity to pursue political power, or if possible, unbridled power without any institutional interference. For media and civil society groups, it may mean anything depending upon their orientation, from influence, name, clout or in certain societies even easy wealth. Masses may different expectations. From economic security to transparent public services. However, the lowest common denominator would be all round security to live with dignity where state defends individuals from both internal and external threats besides providing fair and reasonable opportunities.  Elections and public accountability appear the best route to ensure such a system and hence these are integral features of democracy which are now upheld through elaborate structures of representative government.

        In the post second world-war era, when most of the post-colonial countries were adopting democracy, and in many of these places, democracy is still struggling to take firm roots, some  of the advanced nations of the West were transitioning to a welfare centric model with highly transparent and efficient public services, at least in most parts of the Western Europe, and particularly Nordic countries, North America, Japan and New Zealand etc. Consequently, all political systems - democracies or otherwise- have been under varying degrees of pressure to replicate citizen-centric welfare model, with efficient public services. It’s a different issue that most of  them have been struggling to varying extents of resource crunch or deficient institutions or pressure from alternative forces who wield far direct or indirect clout and derive their strength or power or influence from perpetuation of weak institutions. Nevertheless, most of the democracies even in the developing world have made varying degrees of attempts to move in the direction of welfare state model. However, their success has been limited. For example, all larger  stable democracies like India, Indonesia, South Africa and Brazil etc have introduced different forms of social security or financial assistance or unemployment subsidy or old age pension to their vulnerable population in respective categories.  Nevertheless, these are not comparable with the quality of impact that their counterpart schemes have made in advanced democracies. State support in social and healthcare sectors has come under pressure even in the advanced countries. A large majority of democracies in the developing world are struggling to provide universal access to some of the basic necessities of life like nutrition, healthcare, quality education, consistent and uniform access to even rule of law or rights guaranteed on paper etc. At the same time, they are also struggling to establish credibility of even their electoral processes and governance institutions.

         A democratic political order derives strength from its society, its wider social values and of course quality of leaders.  Hence, the quality of democracy in any society is directly dependent upon the extent to which the values like social harmony, individual liberty, individual integrity, industriousness and enterprise are shared and respected by people. Their incorporation in the structures and processes of governance institutions also depends on quality of leaders. Brilliance and follies of leaders also play a significant role.  Without stellar contributions from Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and of course Martin Luther King, the United States of America may not have been able to achieve what it has. Similarly, without the rise of Mahatma Gandhi and unwavering commitment of founding fathers of independent India, the shape of the world’s biggest democracy may have been difficult to visualise. Leaders can sometimes persuade people. Hence, it is always a combination of large number of factors that contribute to rise or absence of democracy in certain societies. This also explains uneven and at times inconsistent evolution of democracy, at times in the same region among people of same socio-cultural and economic background. 

We shall continue our discussion more regularly  and I do request champions of democracy to put across their views and suggestions.  

Thursday, September 27, 2018


          Victory of opposition candidate Ibu Solih in the recent Presidential election in Maldives must be hailed as one of the  remarkable events in the history of democracy in our times. We are passing through an era, when democracy has been receding in most parts of the world and watchdogs of Democracy like 'Freedom House' to 'V-Dem' have been expressing concern over decline in civil liberties and political freedom at a wider scale. Under these circumstances, electoral outcome in  Maldives is a certainly a boost for democracy. Sadly, certain sections of  our own media have hailed  the electoral outcome as major boost for India, given pro-China inclinations of incumbent President Yameen. I feel that the world, and particularly  we Indians, need to see the development more from the perspective of aspirations of Maldivian people. We need to salute the brave people of Maldives who have endured everything and yet asserted in no uncertain terms that they stood for democracy, freedom and individual liberty. It is no longer possible for any autocrat to take them back to regressive era by hoodwinking them in the name of Islam or whipping up national jingoism. 

        Building Democracy is a long and arduous process, which can lose direction at any stage. Maldives had transitioned to multi-party democracy almost a decade back in 2008. It was one of the rare cases where an incumbent President - Abdul Gayoom, who had virtually ruled the country for nearly three decades, agreed to hold multi-party polls and gracefully accepted peoples' verdict to exit from power. The incoming Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP)  too showed accommodation by refraining from any political revenge against the outgoing President, despite a previous history of acrimonious relationship between the two. However, institutions of democracy had not yet matured and President Nasheed was ousted in 2012 under the most unfortunate circumstances. Following weeks of protest by opposition parties, he had resigned and later alleged that he was made to resign virtually at gun point. Subsequent Maldivian Government pressed terror charges against him forcing him to jump bail and take refuge in the United Kingdom. He  was not alone in doing so as many other opposition politicians either fled the country or were put behind bars. 

            President Yameen has certainly been guilty of pushing this beautiful nation of multiple islands on a course of disaster. He had seriously derailed the process of institution building towards a sustainable and robust democracy. He also vitiated the entire political ambience by virtually forcing all his serious political rivals in to exile or in prison. For this, he interfered with autonomy of judiciary, curtailed political and civil liberties of people. He even undermined professional integrity of civil service and police institutions, by routinely interfering in its processes, used entire might of state to intimidate actual or even potential dissenters. He undermined even integrity of parliament by frequently changing and virtually subverting its procedures to pre-empt any No-Confidence Motion or pushing through parliamentary approval for Free Trade treaty with China in November 2017 with barely 1/3rd members present and voting. It was extremely sad and sorry situation for democracy in the country. 

        He had started antagonising longstanding friends of people of Maldives to bolster his own political fortunes. Maldivians have been practising a liberal version of Islam with their language Divehi having Sanskritic origins. He sought to introduce more orthodox and  somewhat Arabic version of stricter Islam. Worst was his efforts to walk into close embrace of China, ignoring even security sensitivities of India and violating even Indo-Maldivian Friendship Treaty.  He was risking long years of relations of trust and goodwill with India that had been assiduously built by President Gayoom and continued by President Nasheed. We must complement the incumbent Indian Foreign Secretary Mr Vijay Gokhale who remained unfazed, even under the gravest provocations and the Indian Government  continued to assure all concerned in Maldives of  its neutrality in internal matters of the archipelago nation. It must have been little disappointing for certain sections of opposition MDP, who kept demanding an Indian intervention. Right thinking Maldivians would  certainly realise now that unlike the extra regional powers, who may just use Maldives for their strategic and military goals, India has a long term and abiding stake in political stability and well being of people of Maldives. 

       President elect Ibu Solih has a difficult task at hand. Unless he  demonstrates mature leadership qualities, the process of democracy building may lose direction once again. He has to rise over personal aspirations and political differences to build rule of law, which  must be asserted in no uncertain terms. There is no space for condoning heinous crime but optimum degree of  political reconciliation and accommodation can help the process of transition towards an endurable democracy. Maldives would need at least another decade or more to stabilise its democracy and build a governance structure that is more suited to its own requirements.  Further, it is a small country with a somewhat egalitarian structure. It is more important  for leaders in the Government to preserve and improve upon the quality of social solidarity  and avoid temptation of royalty like trappings of power.  In such a society, it is difficult to conceal things and hence individual credibility of leaders become important. At the same time, there is need to reduce coercive character of Maldivian police systems. There is negligible amount of crime among Maldivian people. Probably they can take a leaf or two out of the concept of community policing to reduce the very space for crime instead of being used by the incumbents in the government for  political purposes. May be creation of strong inbuilt incentives and deterrents for any deviation from rule of law can help. Simultaneous measures to bolster both autonomy and integrity of judicial processes can  help prevent recurrence  of mistakes committed during President Yameen's era. Issues at stake would probably be building an amiable ambience of trust and goodwill between the ruling party and the opposition to avoid individual or political confrontation. 

      India and Maldives have shared a strong bond of history, culture and ethnicity. Successive Heads of the  Government in Maldives have always been receptive to India's diplomatic and security concerns, barring a brief aberration by President Yameen, who too occasionally reiterated the same stance at least in words. During its early days of pro-democracy movement in Gayoom  era, MDP leaders often used to visit Delhi and engaged  members of both media and  civil society groups. This was the time when Government of India was believed to avoiding any contact with them, given strong relationship with the then President Gayoom. During one of the interactions at India International Centre, the then leader of MDP- Mohammad Latheef - had made it categorical that even though the Government of India was avoiding them, while other non-democracies were willing to engage, MDP was avoiding  the latter as they had nothing to offer  a pro-democracy movement. He maintained that their group was fighting for democracy and their inspiration was Mahatma Gandhi. Hence,  they would wait for Government of India to engage and listen to them, instead  of having a truck with non-democracies in the region or beyond. 

       Political movements can have such liberty but not a state, which has to deal with every entity that can promote or help its interest. Maldives as a nation may have to  deal with all concerned who can help its national goals but pragmatism would always require a closer engagement with India and accommodation of the latter's sensitivities and concerns. From the Indian side, the government has always adhered to the norms of political correctness, the problem area has been a few corporate ventures entering the archipelago nation by virtue of bi-lateral diplomatic goodwill. It would be imperative that only those capable of adhering to the highest possible global norms of professionalism get such access. There is no doubt that popular verdict in Maldives has opened up new avenues for both promotion of democratic good governance and stronger Indo-Maldivian bilateral ties. It is time that all concerned join together to build robust institutions that are autonomous and yet uphold principles of 'Rule of Law' and 'Democracy'. India has a moral responsibility to help in the process of building such institutions wherever needed without being partisan or intrusive in any manner.   President elect Ibu Solih has a huge responsibility and heavy expectations to handle. Let us hope and wish that he emerges successful. Maldives can potentially emerge as a shining example of victory of  democracy in our times.

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