Democracy is derived from two Greek words “demos” meaning people and “kratos” meaning rule. Democracy is a system of government where the supreme power is vested in the people.
The people have the right to choose their representatives and take part in the decision-making process. The government protects the individual rights and is accountable to the people.
Democracy upholds the principles of equality, freedom, fraternity, human rights, individual autonomy and justice.
Besides being a political system, democracy also promotes social, economic and cultural aspects of the society. Democracy aims to ensure equal rights and opportunities to all its citizens to achieve their full potential.
Democracy: A philosophical perspective
Democracy believes in the inherent worth of every individual and upholds their dignity of life. It enables the citizens to participate in the decisions which determine their life and livelihood.
First philosophical principle underlying democracy is the social contract theory, where individuals give up their rights in a voluntary manner in exchange for the protection provided by government.
John Locke, Father of Modern Democracy said, “The people cannot delegate to government the power to do anything which would be unlawful for them to do themselves.”
Concept of common good is another underlying principle, individual well-being flows from the well-being of the whole society. This results into functioning of a just and equitable society.
- Athens, a city-state in ancient Greece started a system of direct democracy. A small group of male citizens voted directly on the laws.
- Magna Carta of 1215 signed in England laid foundation to modern day representative democracy.
- Constitution of 1787, United States established a federal system of government with emphasis on separation of powers.
- Bolshevik revolution of 1917, Russia formed the first communist government based on the principle collective community ownership of resources.
- End of World War-II in 1945, decolonized many parts of the world which pursued democracy as a form of government.
- Fall of Berlin Wall and collapse of Soviet Union in 1990, spread the idea of democracy to formerly authoritarian states.
- Arab Spring in 2010, called for greater political and social autonomy and established democratic governments.
- Rise of social movements, civil rights movements and quest for economic justice continues to evolve the idea of democracy.
Factors such as population size, cultural diversity, political culture and history of the country often determine the choice of democratic system.
- Direct Democracy: Citizens directly vote on laws and participate in public affairs. For example, City-States of Ancient Greece.
- Representative Democracy: Citizens elect representatives to make decisions on their behalf. It is of two kinds- Parliamentary and Presidential Democracy. For example, India, United States, France.
- Presidential Democracy: President is the head of the state and head of the government and is directly elected by the people. Strict separation of powers between executive and legislature. For example, United States.
- Parliamentary Democracy: Head of the government is elected by the people and head of the state is a ceremonial figure. Executive is accountable to legislature. For example, India.
- Consensus Democracy: Decision making is made through consensus among all members of governing body instead of majority vote. For example, Swiss Cantons.
- Semi-Direct Democracy: A greater degree of people participation through plebiscites, initiatives, referendums than in representative democracy. For examples, Liechtenstein
Democracy: Indian context
With 1.3 billion population, India is the world’s largest democracy. Indian Constitution follows a Parliamentary form of Democracy with executive being accountable to legislature.
Characteristics features of Indian democracy are-
- Popular Sovereignty: Asserts that people are the ultimate source of authority which is reflected in the Preamble, ‘ We, the people of India’.
- Universal Adult Suffrage: All the citizens above 18 years old are eligible to elect their representatives, reflects inherent worth of every individual.
- Rule of law: Notion that no one is above law and all are subject to the same law.
- Separation of power: Ensures checks and balances between various organs of the government and prevent abuse of power.
- Independent Judiciary: Upholds rule of law and protects individual rights.
- Free and Fair elections: Independent constitutional body carries out elections in a free, fair and transparent manner.
- Multi-Party System: Reflects the diverse opinions, ideologies and voices and ensures a thriving democracy.
- Secularism: State maintains principled distance from all the religions this fostering harmony in the society.
- Free Press: A fundamental right under Article 19 ensures free flow of information to the public.
- Independent Civil Society: Pressure groups, civil society organisations, NGOs promote social justice and human rights.
- Political instability: Frequent elections and incongruent political ideologies lead to unstable and weak governments.
- Crony Capitalism: Erodes public trust and undermines rule of law and propagates politico-administrative nexus.
- Delay in decision making: Democratic processes need consensus building and compromise which is a slow process.
- Populism: Representatives cater to their short term political goal and may not take decisions based on the needs of the people.
- Backsliding on minority rights: As decision making is based on majority, it may create a sense of disengagement and apathy towards minority sections.
- Downward spiral of Media: Easier manipulation of news, spread of misinformation and fake news undermine public trust.
- Lobbying: Undue influence on political parties by powerful groups to benefit a select few.
Democracy: The best form of government
Charles Bukowski said, “The difference between a democracy and a dictatorship is that in a democracy you vote first and take orders later; in a dictatorship you don’t have to waste your time voting.”
- Individual rights: Protects basic rights and ensures individual autonomy. Fundamental rights are granted by the constitution and guarded by the independent judiciary.
- Representative and Participative: Citizens have the opportunity to elect their leaders and participate in decision making.
- Accountability: Mechanism to hold executive accountable to their actions by the legislature.
- Multiple Stakeholders: CSOs, NGOs and media are vigilant and promote transparency in a democracy.
- Peaceful Transfer of Power: Inherently ensures stability and avoids violence in comparison to monarchy.
- Dissent: Citizens voice their concerns through democratic process to protect their individual autonomy.
Democracy: Supreme Court Judgements
- Keshavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala (1973): Propounded Basic Structure doctrine which upheld important features of democracy such as separation of powers, federalism, and judicial review.
- S.R. Bommai v. Union of India (1994): Only when central government has compelling reasons it can dismiss a state government, upholding quasi-federal nature of Indian democracy.
- Indira Nehru Gandhi v. Raj Narain (1975): Reiterated the basic principle of democracy which is rule of law. As a result election of Prime Minister to the office has been challenged.
- Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India (1978): Ruled that the right to personal liberty and due process of law are fundamental rights.
- Justice K. S. Puttaswamy (Retd.) v. Union Of India (2017): Ruled that the right to privacy is a fundamental right which emphasizes on dignity of life of every individual.
Ensuring strong democratic processes and institutions to enjoy the public trust , promoting social and economic justice, combating corruption, encouraging participation of multiple stakeholders can improve the quality of democratic governance.