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Democracy is more than mere public ballot: Amartya Sen

Sudeshna B Baruah captures Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen's views on democracy, war et al.

books Updated: Mar 21, 2008 15:10 IST
Sudeshna B Baruah (
Sudeshna B Baruah (

It was not yet another clichéd talk on democracy when the famed economist, Dr Amartya Sen, interpreted its dimensions before a packed auditorium here recently. The reason why I use the term clichéd is since it was more of a study on democracy rather than harping on its flaws. “Democracy and it Critics” as the title suggests took the audience across all ages from youngsters to senile to the strengths that democracy entails. Public ballot takes a backseat as public reasoning comes to the fore in his prognosis of democracy.

A true appreciation of democracy, Sen avers, is only possible when public intellect is taken into account. He cites instances across different democratic regimes which vests people with the power to exercise their reasoning. That famine, an arena that could be easily politicised, is not easy to find in a system that makes the government accountable to the masses.

HighlightsDemocracy is not an evolution of the European system

Exercise of public reasoning more important than mere public ballot
Famines do not occur in democratic regimes

India’s economic growth at the rate of 8% is a living proof of how democracy prods developmentOver 80% of arms and ammunition across the globe is sold by the five permanent members of the Security Council

Neglect of interest of the poor, indifference to rights of religious minorities therefore could be some of the factors that have impacted Indian voters on many occasions.

The Nobel Laureate, for one, is not a supporter of India’s democratic structure hampering its economic growth. He drove home the fact that India’s economic growth pegged at nearly 8 per cent is a glaring proof of how democracy

prods development. He cites this as a dismissal of the view that weaknesses in democracy slowed down development. “If development means political freedom, then it does not have to be measured against indirect contributions to gross domestic product growth,” he maintains.

The pedagogue of welfare economics quoted Winston Churchill to reiterate the enormity of Indian democracy “India is no more a country than an equator”. There was, of course, an honest admission of the highly-sectarian, but not altogether of caste-based democracy . If aimed at integrating the people on the lower rungs with the rest, caste-based democracy is innocuous.

Questions on Indian women and political empowerment were answered with equal deft. He pointed out the difference in sex ratios in different zones in India. While it is low in the northern and western zones it is high in the southern and eastern zones. It is therefore that nature of politics would come into picture before empowering women at different levels. He also urged on reflection of women’s duties before they take on the political baton.

Paens apart, the global economist dared hurl verbal grenades at the peaceniks. To quote him “More than 80% of arms and ammunition across the globe is sold by the five permanent members of the Security Council. If democracy is absent in West-Asia, it was also not there in Europe.

A point to ponder indeed! Not to forget the erstwhile divisive forced employed by the Imperial regime in pre-Independence India. It was no surprise for a staunch advocate of global discussions and debates to emphasise on the need for bringing nations concerned to a global platform to go ahead with nuclear disarmament.

This came as an apt reply to a poser raised by founder of UN foundation, Ted Turner on how to get started with nuclear disarmament.

And to top it all, he quoted EM Forster, to strike at the very root of democracy. Forster's “two cheers for democracy” - that it admits variety and that it accepts criticism made for an apt conclusion to the talk. Uncle Sam are you listening?

First Published: Dec 24, 2005 18:33 IST