7 PM | Democracy and its discontents | 6th September, 2019


  • The failing system of democracy in western world.
  • The problems with the Indian democracy and what India needs to do?


  • The word democracy comes from the Greek words “demos”, meaning people, and “kratos” meaning power; so democracy can be thought of as “power of the people”: a way of governing which depends on the will of the people.
  • According to UN, ‘Democracy is a universal value based on the freely expressed will of people to determine their political, economic, social and cultural systems and their full participation in all aspects of their lives.’
  • There are so many different models of democratic government around the world that it is sometimes easier to understand the idea of democracy in terms of what it definitely is not. Democracy:
    • is not autocracy or dictatorship, where one person rules;
    • it is not oligarchy, where a small segment of society rules.
    • Properly understood, democracy should not even be “rule of the majority”, if that means that minorities’ interests are ignored completely.
    • A democracy, at least in theory, is government on behalf of all the people, according to their “will”.

Development of democracy:

  • Ancient History: The ancient Greeks are credited with creating the very first democracy, although there were almost certainly earlier examples of primitive democracy in other parts of the world. The Greek model was established in the 5th century BC, in the city of Athens. Among a sea of autocracies and oligarchies – which were the normal forms of government at the time – Athenian democracy stood out.

However, compared to how we understand democracy today, the Athenian model had two important differences:

  • Theirs was a form of direct democracy – in other words, instead of electing representatives to govern on the people’s behalf, “the people” themselves met, discussed questions of government, and then implemented policy.
  • Such a system was possible partly because “the people” was a very limited category. Those who could participate directly were a small part of the population, since women, slaves, aliens – and of course, children – were excluded.
  • Democracy in the modern world: Today there are as many different forms of democracy as there are democratic nations in the world. No two systems are exactly the same and no one system can be taken as a “model”. There are presidential and parliamentary democracies, democracies that are federal or unitary, democracies that use a proportional voting system, and ones that use a majoritarian system, democracies which are also monarchies, and so on.

Problem with democracy in western world:

  • Many countries in Europe cannot form stable governments because the largest party does not command a majority. Thus, coalitions are formed which are unstable. As a result, parliaments are unable to pass laws. 
  • Emmanuel Macron, the French President, for whom to govern is to reform, warned that “France is not a reformable country”.
  • According to ‘The Economist’, the home of failure to pass meaningful laws is the United States.

Democracy in India:

  • While the democracies around the world are witnessing a downfall, Indian democracy is shining.
  • A strong government at the center and thereby passage of some of the important laws is simple.
  • Recent strong decision was the revocation of Article 370 and thereby changing the government set up in Jammu and Kashmir, that have been haunting the Indian constitutional setup since independence.
  • With some of the greatest constitutional mechanisms, India conducts free and fair elections.

However, the grass is not greener everywhere.

  • Since, democracy is not just about the elections and passage of laws. India since independence has passed many landmark laws, but still failure of governance can be seen in the so-called backward areas.
  • There has been an attention to the vertical institutions required for people to elect their leaders but the lateral institutions required to create harmony amongst people are nowhere to be found.
  • India at present has a majority government. The problem with a majoritarian democracy is that it is not designed to find solutions for complex problems with many points of view.
  • A government with a majority, especially a large one, can become as authoritarian as a dictatorial one. It can deny minorities their rights for their views to be considered while framing laws and resolving contentious issues.
  • The courts in India are not set up to find policy solutions to complex problems and must interpret the laws as written. At the same time, many have complained that courts are venturing into matters of governance that they should not.


  • It is a vote in which all the people in a country or an area are asked to give their opinion about or decide an important political or social question.
  • The Brexit controversy has raised the question of the utility of referendums, and yet many votes have resulted in clean, effective decision making.
  • Pros: The obvious pro is that you get a very direct sense of what the public mood is on an issue. When the referendum gives a clear result, as with the 1997 Scottish devolution referendum, it can pretty much settle a decision and can give legitimacy to potentially far-reaching changes.
  • Cons: The problem with referendums, though, is that they boil complex decisions down to simplistic binary either/or choices, and are not always a good way of getting at nuance or at the wider ramifications of a decision.

Solution to improve the health of democracy:

  • Healthy democracies need three vibrant layers of institutions.
    • Bottom layer: Public space and the media.
    • Intermediate layer
    • Top layer: Constitutional institutions like parliament, courts etc.
  • The solution for strengthening governance and democracy at the same time is to strengthen the middle layer of institutions within democracies that lie between the open public sphere and formal government institutions.
  • These are spaces where citizens with diverse views can listen to each other, and understand the whole system of which they are only parts. Neither elected assemblies nor social media provide such spaces. Sadly, even think tanks have become divided along ideological and partisan lines.
  • It is imperative for India to build intermediate level, unofficial or semi-official institutions for non-partisan deliberation amongst concerned citizens.

Conclusion:Democracy is a universally recognized ideal. It provides an environment for the protection and effective realization of human rights. It is necessary to evolve with time, so it is also important to make improvements in the ideals like democracy for better governance. Democracy is as much a process as a goal, and only with the full participation of and support by the international community, national governing bodies, civil society and individuals, can the ideal of democracy be made into a reality to be enjoyed by everyone, everywhere.


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