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Why is democracy so important?

It promotes and safeguards the interests of the individual, which, in turn, benefits society and the State.

india Updated: Jan 26, 2012 15:14 IST
Suparna Banerjee
Suparna Banerjee

It has been the subject of much recent commentary that 62 years after the creation of India’s Constitution, the nation struggles to balance the ethos of an industry-based economic ‘growth’ that seems to foment inequity with that of a socialism aimed at bringing socio-economic parity among its citizens. The situation is similar vis-à-vis the other guiding ideal of India’s statecraft as well. On the one hand, the elected representatives of the people continue to disregard the spirit of civilised discourse that is the cornerstone of representative democracy; on the other hand, there has emerged an overactive ‘civil society’ that seems to behave like the moral guardian of the polity.

While apolitical pressure groups can be a positive element in a democracy, they have to function within the parameters of the laws and institutions of the State if they are not to lose their relevance to sections of the population outside their own folds. Moreover, a close look at the nature of the causes espoused by ‘civil society’ reveals biases that will become its ‘enlightened’ image. Thus, we find a multitude of the educated middle classes joining the ‘anti-corruption movement’. But we are still to see any broad-based ‘civil’ group crusading for a time-bound eradication of hunger or gender crimes.

The first and the most obvious observation that can be made about democracy as a political philosophy is that it, perhaps, best guarantees the liberty of the private individual against the tyranny of collective (State) power. Since democracy enshrines the equality of all individuals, it is also said to best promote merit as against the privileges of riches or birth. But for the liberty of an individual to be made real, it has to be safeguarded against possible violation by other, equally ‘free’ individuals or groups. And for individual merit to be developed, it needs the protection and the nurture of the democratic State.

Herein lies the necessity and the importance of the institutional apparatus of democracy. Without this formal machinery of democratic statecraft, the individual remains unprotected and society loses the benefit of what the individual has to offer.

It is undeniable, however, that democracy — aiming to achieve the greatest good of the largest number and bound to work by majority opinions on most things — has an innate proclivity toward a lack of discrimination, essential for individual merit, or simply individual difference, to be recognised. Democratic politics pays obligatory homage at the altar of numbers. And this has the potential of being detrimental to the interests of the individual, whose liberty the democratic State is supposed to promote and safeguard. But even here the solution is not to bypass democratic institutional processes but to create and nurture spaces within the democratic set-up itself wherein individuality can realise itself and whereby dissent is allowed expression. As John Dewey, the prime theorist of democracy, observed in The Future of Liberalism, “An individual is nothing fixed, given, ready-made. It is something achieved, and achieved not in isolation but with the aid and support of... economic, legal and political institutions as well as science and art.”

It could be the subject of a public debate if India would benefit by adopting certain elements of direct democracy, or of the presidential form of government. It could be a concern for the right people to seize on an effective means to delink politics and big capital and certainly to devise effective ways to curb corruption. What remains indubitable is that none of these, or similar activities in the public domain, should be allowed to hijack democratic processes or to weaken democratic institutions.

Suparna Banerjee is an assistant professor based in Konnagar, West Bengal

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Jan 26, 2012 00:39 IST