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Mainstream, VOL LII No 27, June 28, 2014

Dangers to Democracy in the Democratic System Itself

Saturday 28 June 2014, by Barun Das Gupta


A Grammar of Democracy by Justice P. B. Sawant; Bhashya Prakashan, Mumbai; price: Rs 299.

The author is a retired judge of the Supreme Court and a former Chairman of the Press Council of India. Written in a simple, lucid style for the lay reader, it seeks “to elucidate as briefly as can be, the significance of the factors which play [an] important role in democracy”. Divided into twentytwo chapters, the book touches upon a wide variety of subjects from Democracy, Representative Governance and Electoral System to Political Parties, Judiciary, Media, Civil Society, Economic Systems, Women and Human Rights.

The author maintains that even sixty years after independence, nothing has changed except the holders of power. What we are having is not democracy but a ‘feudalistic system’ and that mere elections do not mean democracy. In the chapter on the New Electoral System he has outlined the democracy which he thinks will be ‘real’ and not fake. The village panchayat is redundant as the gram sabha can collectively do its work. Instead of having a multiplicity of governing centres, in the rural areas there should be four centres—gram sabha, district panchayat (or zilla parishad), the State and the Centre. In the urban areas there should be three—munici-palities or corporations, the State and the Centre.

Under the proposed system, the represen-tatives elected at each stage by more than fifty per cent voters will constitute the electorate at that stage and those elected by them with more than fifty per cent votes will alone be entitled to govern the country. Since the electorate at each level will be of limited number, the elections can be held in one small place and at one time. Hence there would be minimum scope for use of money and muscle power, terror and corrup-tion vitiating the electoral process.

This will automatically bring about decentra-lisation of power from below. Besides, there will be provision for recalling an elected represen-tative who has lost the people’s confidence. Such a system, the author believes, will replace the oligarchy of the rich and the powerful by real, substantive democracy. He maintains that the new system will necessitate a few changes in the present electoral law and the Constitution but these will be ‘unimportant’.

 The problem is that the stakeholders in the present system—the political parties in particular —will never agree to such a changeover. Secondly, the success of a system, howsoever good it may be on paper, will depend ultimately on the humans who will work that system. Corrupt people will corrupt every system. Even the present system would have worked far better and given more beneficial results if it had been worked by honest people. Justice Sawant’s therefore is a good idea but an unworkable one, ab initio. 

He says that the policies and programmes of the political parties are intended to cater to the interests of only about 20 per cent of the population which is ‘affluent, vocal and domi-nating’. A sizeable number of seats are being grabbed by the ‘money-bags’ and those having criminal records. This is attributable to the “same narrow perspective of the concerned political parties”. The remedy lies in introducing a new electoral system which, as pointed out earlier, nobody will agree to.

The exploitative economic system is analysed critically in Chapter IV. It lays bare the role of the ‘international troika’ — the IBRD, the IMF and the WTO — in engulfing the whole world by ‘robber capitalism and neo-imperialism’. The gospel of the troika is liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation (LPG). The loot of the people by the corporates, indigenous as well as foreign, goes on, by the courtesy of the corporate-bureaucrat-politician nexus. The state gives bountiful tax exemptions to the corporate sector, super-rich and the upper classes. On the other hand, the retail trade—which accounts for an annual turnover or Rs 30 lakh crores and which employs about five crore people—does not enjoy any state bounty or largesse.

In the economic sphere the author wants emphasis being given on livelihood, shelter, education and healthcare, reduction of social and economic inequalities, prevention of concentration of money power in a few hands and protection of environment. But the economic policies pursued by successive governments since 1991 run counter to attaining these objectives. He suggests banning of ‘luxurious living’ and discouraging production and import of luxury goods. The very suggestion of adopting such a measure will arouse an instant and strongly hostile reaction from the super-rich, the rich and the noveau riche class with upward social mobility that the LPG policy has spawned in the last quarter century. It is their opinion that passes for public opinion.

 The author also takes a critical look at the higher judiciary of which he himself was a part. He seeks to remove the ‘grave misunderstanding’ that the judiciary is accountable to none by referring to the system of judicial review. At the same time he admits that a judge’s social, ideological and personal outlook does have a bearing on his decisions. His upbringing, education, social surroundings and economic and social class do influence his thinking. Under the present system of appointing judges to the Supreme Court and High Courts, Justice Sawant argues: “the Supreme Court has appropriated to the judiciary the power of appointing judges.”

This system has enabled the judiciary to “appropriate the power to perpetuate itself. Apart from the fact that nowhere in the world such power is vested in any institution including the judiciary, the reasoning of the decisions concerned is faulty and completely contrary to the provisions of the Constitution ...” There is the danger that “democracy may overnight stand converted into a judiocracy—a bloodless coup”. The remedy he suggests is the setting up of a Judicial Commission which cannot be influenced by the judges or politicians.

About the media (Chapter IX) he admits both its powerful role and its reach among the people. But the more powerful the media is, the more it is under the control of ‘money-bags’ who run the media as an industry. The monopoly over media by a few “is therefore fraught with grave danger to the country. It is the interests and motives of the media-owners or their clients which guide the nation, and not the national interests.” Today the media has become so powerful as to “set the agenda and direction of the nation and to determine the course of action by influencing elections and the day-to-day administration. It thus seeks to substitute itself for the elected bodies, to govern the nation. By conducting parallel trials, it tries to overwhelm the judiciary. It attempts to prejudice the judiciary by publishing one-sided reports and carrying on constant propaganda, subtle or blatant.”

All this is true, the latest instance being the role the media played in ‘influencing’ the outcome of the Lok Sabha elections in favour of one individual and one party at the behest of their corporate owners. But what’s the remedy? Here, the former Chairman of the Press Council of India disappoints his readers. He puts forward a vague idea of forming a ‘corrective mechanism’, to prevent it from swerving into a wrong path. The ‘corrective body’ may be ‘internal or exter-nal’. And there he stops. He does not elaborate how to bring such a corrective body into being or who will do the job.

In spite of these shortcomings, the book will enlighten the private citizen about what has gone wrong, what are the dangers to democracy inherent in the democratic system itself and what a conscious citizen-cum-voter can and should do to assert his rights. It also projects an outline of future changes, even if the possibility of such changes does not appear anywhere in the horizon at present.

The reviewer was a correspondent of The Hindu in Assam. He also worked in Patriot, Compass (Bengali), Mainstream. A veteran journalist, he comes from a Gandhian family and was intimately associated with the RCPI leader, Pannalal Das Gupta.

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