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.

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