Democracy and its deceptions

Democratic elections are no guarantee that people would get leaders they deserve. Democracy is also highly prone to be hijacked by undemocratic forces with which it uneasily coexists.

Photo by Hemant Mishra/Mint via Getty Images
Photo by Hemant Mishra/Mint via Getty Images
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Pallavi Amitabha

Do we really cherish democracy, or is it just a convenient deception, designed to keep the disadvantaged masses from revolting against a cunning elite, which continues to enjoy its privileges as before but with the elaborate subterfuge of elections at intervals to form governments “of the people, by the people and for the people”?

That these elections today are nothing but a sham becomes clear when we see how they fail to form truly representative governments. Even after seventy years of Independence and democratic rule in India, the percentage of women in state and central legislatures seldom exceed 10% and is often seen restricted to only 2 or 3%, though women constitute roughly half the population and the electorate.

But wherever reservation of women up to 33% has been implemented, with provisions for scheduled castes, backward and extremely backward castes besides the general categories, women have risen to the challenge,
got elected and performed reasonably well as in the case of rural and urban local bodies in several states.

The minorities in India had not agreed to reservation for them in elections but there is a provision for reserved seats for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, though none for the Backward and Extremely Backward Castes.

It must rank as one of the wonders of sociology how the male species among about 7% Brahmins, 4% Rajputs and 1% of Kayasthas have managed to dominate the political, economic and social landscape of India for so long.

Democracy, as it emerged in the city states of ancient Greece was very different from the democracy we see in the 21st Century. In ancient Greece, democracy meant self-governance by regular and frequent participative debates on issues of civic and popular interest and not through once-in-five-year elections.

Significantly, slavery was prevalent in ancient Greece where the concept of democracy was born and those slaves had no democratic rights- only free citizens did. In the US and in the UK too, not only did slavery exist and slaves had no voting rights, women too did not have voting rights to begin with; nor did their “subjects” in their colonies. In the US, native Americans, pushed into separate “territories” as separate “nations “, did not have voting rights either.

Democracy thus did not guarantee equality for all. Indeed, democracy does often co-exist with huge degrees of oppression and inequality. That is why Indian democracy per se did not guarantee, for instance, abolition of caste distinctions, class discrimination and hierarchies.

Democracy is also highly prone to be hijacked by undemocratic forces with which it uneasily coexists. Pakistan and Bangladesh drift regularly between military dictatorships and a form of feudal, oligarchic ballot-based democracy, which is temporarily “allowed” or even propped up by the military to look good to the world community and to its own people, whenever convenient.

Democratic elections are no guarantee either that people would get leaders they deserve. In Turkey, elections threw up a dictatorial Erdogan. In the so-called mature and developed democracy in USA, the election favoured an utterly regressive, amoral, tax evading, foul mouthed capitalist like Donald Trump.

Hitler as we know came to power riding on the back of democratic elections. And so did Nobel Peace Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar, who is currently presiding over one of the worst geocides of modern times directed against hapless Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar’s own Rakhine province. The clueless Brexiteer Theresa May of Britain and the ‘racist bully’ Malcolm Turnbull of Australia and even the ‘killer’ Duterte of Philippines have also come to power through democratic elections in ostensibly democratic countries. Doesn’t say much about democratic elections.

Democratic norms are also quite easily subverted and politicians learn quickly to circumvent rules. Never mind the Constitution that prescribes a popular election before anyone is appointed PM, CM or minister. But increasingly, people who may not have taken part in elections are being preferred. An elected representative is then forced to resign his seat and the chosen one elected from a pocket borough with which they may not have had even a nodding acquaintance. The other preferred route is through indirect election to the upper chamber of the legislature.
The sham is repeated while appointing ministers.

The Anti-defection Act is another case in point. The law initially disqualified individual legislators for getting elected as the nominee of one party and then switching allegiance to another. In no time the law was tweaked to provide that if one-third of the legislators of a particular party decide to switch over to another, they would be recognised as a break-away faction and allowed to continue as legislators. One is tempted to ask, why? Do numbers justify their disloyalty and cheating the electors?

We also have the sorry spectacle of celebrities like Sachin Tendulkar and Rekha adorning our Rajya Sabha on grounds of eminence in their fields, who seldom bother to attend sessions of the House, and who waste their entire tenure as Members of Parliament without making a single intervention in public interest or even a single verbal contribution to the proceedings of the House of Elders.

The list is long. How do lawyers representing politicians get elected to the Rajya Sabha and why? This is also how moneybags like the absconding Vijay Mallya, the self-styled King of Good Times, Anil Ambani of the Reliance Group, and defence industry agent Rajiv Chandrashekhar got into Parliament. Eternal vigilance over increasing attempts to dilute, distort and hijack democracy is required to ensure that people are not taken for a ride.

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