Democracy is equally revered and reviled by citizens of practising democracies. While the advocates of democracy highlight the virtues of the system, the detractors cite equally compelling arguments.
The perceived “blessings” of choice, empowerment, voice in governance, and enfranchisement are ranged against the flip side of the democratic coin ~ conformism, minority oppression, populism and indecisive governments.
A very engaging point of departure in the discourse on democracy in recent times is the attention being paid to the inherent incongruity of one person or a group wielding enormous power, in the name of the people. This character of the system presupposes that the decisions of one or very few persons, underwritten by the will of the collective represented by ballot, will articulate the hopes and convictions of the people.
The presumption extends to the point that the willfully governed citizens must submit to be pronouncements of their representatives, in the form of obedience to the enacted laws. Since all functioning democracies have some form of legislature, the justification of government by representation is that legislators will, and must, bear in mind the interests of their respective electorates, if they wish to be elected again.
Going by conventional wisdom, the health of a democratic arrangement is predicated on the system of ‘checks and balances’. Some institutions are put in place, to guard against the exercise of unbridled power on the part of the governing few.
The most common and haloed of these institutions are the Constitution, the courts, the legislature and a rule-bound bureaucracy. The Constitution is the basic law of the land, and circumscribes the legislative space, within which all subsequent enactment of laws can take place.
The courts, from the circuit bench to the Supreme Court, ensure that there is no transgression of the basic law by either the legislature or the executive. The legislature ensures that enactments are formulated after due deliberations, taking into account the concerns of all. And the bureaucracy is an entity that implements the policies of the state, dispassionately and without fear or favour.
At the core of the democratic structure of governance is the happy equilibrium of the right of dissent and the submission to laws one disagrees with. As Evelyn Beatrice Hall once said famously: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This single sentence, in a remarkably eloquent fashion, encapsulates the duties and privileges of both the governing and the governed in a democracy.
This is where the importance of institutions lies, specifically in retaining the vibrant character of a democracy. When institutions like the Constitution, the courts and the legislature are allowed to discharge their objectives, the equilibrium between individual rights and the authority of the state is preserved.
Those who wax eloquent on democratic values have maintained that these institutions have evolved and continue to be germane as the guardians of both the freedom of the people and the majesty of the state. But the burden of institutions weighs more heavily in favour of guaranteeing the rights and freedoms of the citizenry. This argument leads to a ‘what if’ proposition, in which institutional roles are given a go-by, in favour of individual or group caprice in the exercise of the power of the state.
The state is a form of organised force on an enormous scale. Man is a weak creature of flesh and blood, with a built-in limitation of comprehension of such unrestrained power over his fellow men. Ergo, autocracy ensues when a man is given the baton of command over the fate of the populace, without being guided by a contrary force.
History, time and again, has been witness to this axiom. Demagogues have been elected and eclipsed. The irony is unmistakable ~ democracy can unwittingly play the midwife to despotism.
In his celebrated and criticised work, Orientalism, Edward Said has dwelt on the tendency of the West to debunk eastern civilisations as extremely prone to despotic rule. He attributes this to the misconception of the western commentator that the oriental mind is incapable of individualism and is in thrall of “The Chief”.
Said blames this colonial narrative of the imperial powers, mainly Britain and France, for the perversion of oriental history to cater to the prejudices of the western world. Whether or not one is swayed by Said’s critique, an objective question, may be asked ~ How has the orient fared in comparison to the west in terms of established democracies degenerating into authoritarian or despotic regimes? And in the degenerate category, I include those regimes where the exercise of franchise is hindered and not merely those where the franchise has been formally extinguished by a despot or a junta. The number of failed democracies, de facto and de jure, is higher in the Orient.
The civil service is the first institution which has been the most vulnerable to succumb to the iron fist of the despot. From the dictators of ancient Rome to the modern day authoritarian ruler, it has been apparent that the established bureaucracy of the day is the easiest to persuade to fall in line.
The collective bureaucracy of the world has even come up with a justification for this ~ following the line of least resistance. Bureaucrats are suitably placed to modify the system from within. And this is the insidious corruption of the democratic system. And once the functioning of the government is geared to the wishes of one individual, it is a matter of time before the other institutions ~ the Constitution, the courts and Parliament ~ topple in the fullness of time. This spectacle of bureaucratic rot has been very overt here, in the very recent past. Some would argue, not without reason, that the stench of the putrefaction endures even today.
Even though the west has had its share of systemic failures ~ most visible of which would be the transition of the Weimar Republic to the Fuhrer’s Third Reich ~ western democracies, as a rule, have endured fairly unchanged to this day. This is because of the strength and autonomy of their established institutions.
Demagogues have not been able to dent the resilience of the Constitutions, the legislatures, the courts and the civil service, in their various roles of protecting the ruled from the rulers. No wonder issue-based dissent and support, within party ranks and across aisles, is fairly common in western legislatures.
But one would be hard put to cite such a break in the ranks of the political parties in our neck of the woods. Extremely partisan politics, that puts loyalty before reason, can never be truly representative. Where numbers carry more weight than fairness, institutions have been systematically denigrated to serve the interests of the ruling party. And the tyranny of numbers cannot tolerate dissent. Most particularly when the cult of the individual leader becomes excessively strong. It has been borne out time and again, certainly in this sub-continent, that the institutions of the state have been reduced to playthings, subject to the whims and fancies of certain individuals. The state’s institutions are the bedrock of democracy.