Friday, September 28, 2018

DEMOCRACY IN OUR TIMES

 “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.  

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