Democracy and India

July 4, 2012

In 326 BC Alexander the Great invaded India but he had to abandon his campaign in between on account of his soldiers demands to return back to their homes. Many have written about his conquests but one we are interested in written by Arrian called “Anabasis of Alexander”. Here, in this treatise he talks about India as Alexander and his troops saw it. In a particular account he talks about how the troops met “free and independent” Indians during their conquest. One example is that of “Nysa” which, according to him, is a city at the border of modern Afghanistan and Pakistan. This city was ruled by a president named Aculphis and a council of 300 and not by a monarch. Nysa was supposed to be an Oligarchy and a single city state. Apart from this, he talks about the Malli or Malhi clan of the modern Multan and Punjab area and calls it Mallian republic comprising of multitude of cities. There is also the mention of Sabarcae or Sambastai which is said to be consisting of 60,000 foot soldiers and 500 Chariots and was estimated to be even larger than the Greek Polis. This was corroborated by historians like Rufus and Siculus. So, the conclusion I wish to draw from these facts is that at least in the North-Western part of  India, Republicanism and Democracy was the norm. But, if we move two decades ahead we will then meet Megasthenes who served as Greek Ambassador to the court of Chandragupta Maurya. He travelled all the way to Patna and from his accounts it becomes clear that the entire northern part of India had republics.

Let me take a small break here and clarify two things here. In today’s world, Democracy means a government that is chosen by the people of that land. Republic, again in today’s sense, is representative democracy with an elected head of state like President who serves only for a limited term unlike that of UK where the head of the state is a Monarch. Republics may not be truly democratic and they sometimes can be oligarchic. The philosophy of republicanism it self is long and often confusing and hence we will use only the reduced modern meaning of it.

The use of Greek accounts is necessary because the Origin of Democracy is often credited to them. So, accounts from their historians show that the idea was not necessarily spread to the far east but had been developed on their own in India. Anyway, now we turn to our own sources, the Indian sources. Three important sources are quoted in this context, Panini’s work of Sanskrit Grammar Ashtadhyai, Kautilya’s Arthasastra and the Pali Canon. These describe ganas and sanghas that were either single cities or ones with larger expanse, even bigger than the Greek Polis. There is of course difference of opinion about the nature of these Republics. Many scholars argue that these were not truly democratic but oligarchic (meaning a small group of people, wealthy and powerful, controlling the affairs). But, there is lack of hard evidence to get to a conclusion since there is much research that needs to be done. But, many Indologists around the world and many Indian scholars do believe that Republics co-existed with Dynasties as long ago as 500 BC.

First purpose of this article was to make amply clear that Democracy was not thrust down our throats but had been part of our culture and heritage, and having done that we can now move to the second purpose of this article, understand it in a better sense. Aristotle says, “In a Democracy the poor will have more power than the rich, because there are more of them, and the will of the majority is supreme”. The true essence of democracy is contained in this statement. This statement speaks of the purpose and working of democracy in its most basic sense. There are two types of democracies, direct and indirect or representative. In direct democracy, every stake holder is present for deliberations and voting. This is possible only in small population like a village or city. In more populous areas, like in our country, we practice indirect or representative democracy. In this form of democracy, a group of people elect one person to represent them in the deliberation and voting process of policy formation and execution.

The working of democracy is very simple. Let me take India as the example and explain it. Currently in India we have three tiers of democracy. One at the center, one at state and the last at local level (village and city). Lets take central government as reference and the same thing can be extended to the state government as well. The local government differs slightly in its working. The whole country is divided into 543 parts consisting of roughly equal population. These parts are called constituencies (same is the case in the state where they will be state constituencies). Every constituency will have a seat in the Parliament and for the same elections are conducted. This means, all the eligible voters in that constituency will elect, by means of voting, one person to fill the post of “Member of Parliament(MP)” from that constituency. This elected MP is a representative of all the people from that constituency. By rough calculations one MP represents about 22 lakh people. Same is applied to the States where the elected representative will be called “Member of Legislative Assembly(MLA)”. Also, if you live in a village you will elect a Panchayat member and if you live in a city you will elect a Corporator for your ward. In essence, you as a citizen will be represented by three different people in the three level of democracies in India.

What one needs to understand here is that the representative is elected by you and he is duty bound to fulfill your demands and wish as a community (not individual wishes). As a community of voters you tell that representative of your demands and your opinions about the policies under discussion in the Parliament and Assemblies and the representative must voice the same there. Of course, a representative is also a leader and in that capacity he will have to right to make certain decisions against the tide but more often than not, he must and should have the confidence of the people of his constituency. When you consider the Parliament or Lok Sabha in particular you will see 545 members sitting there and deliberating and deciding the policies again by voting on the bills. What you must actually see is that these MPs are actually voicing the opinions of 100 crore Indians and voting FOR these 100 crore people. Same applies to State Assemblies and that of Panchayat and Corporation meetings. Elections is the greatest power given to the citizens where by they are free to elect a good and honest leader.

After the elections what next? Are we helpless for the next 5 years? The answer is no. There are many more mechanisms available to the citizens to exercise accountability and control over these representatives. One logical method is to approach these representatives directly. Many employ this method and go to their representatives with grievances and have them addressed. This can be called a pressure group. But this is not organised at all. Everyone goes to them individually and sometimes they go to bribe these representatives for personal gains like educational seat, jobs, contracts, etc. What needs to be done instead is that the people of the constituency must form association and make a formal request to the representative with the backing of all the people in the form of signature sheet, digital or otherwise. This adds weightage to the request and the representative will take it seriously since he too wishes to get re-elected. This is a better and organised and effective way than a haphazard, short-lived and violent protest. When it comes to local government such association are already provided in the form of ward meetings in cities and gram sabhas in the villages. Here each and every person may take part and give their input and the Panchayat and Municipality will have to take these inputs seriously.

So, next question will be how we can control the bigger things like affecting the policy in a positive way? For this we will have to take a bit of time out and read. Read about the mechanisms with which the legislature and executive (that means the MPs and Ministers) can be made accountable to the public. Many number of mechanisms exist when it comes to the Parliament. There are mechanisms like Short Duration Discussion, Zero Hour, Question Hour, various Motions and Parliamentary Committees. To explain all of them will take a long write up so let me take one example. Many will be familiar with Question Hour and Zero Hour. These are the time periods during which the MPs can ask questions to the government about any and everything related to policies and implementations. So, say we are not getting proper ration supply in our area then we can, through our pressure groups, request our representative to ask this particular question in the Parliament. By this we can effectively take part in Policy implementation process. Here, imagination is the key and you can achieve great results with proper approach. To investigate a corruption you can request that a Parliamentary committee be set up and report be submitted in the public domain for everyone to read. Thereby you are effecting control and accountability. Apart from these above methods, you always have the Judiciary to help you with your problems. This goes on to show that Democracy is a PROCESS and not an EVENT. People cannot vote and forget, they must constantly keep up with their representatives and make sure your opinion, in its full strength, reaches to him as regularly as possible.

There is a concept of “Recall” which does not exist in India. Here, a non-performing representative can be called back, or sacked, before the completion of his term if majority of the people agree. This makes sure that the representative will be continuously responsible to his people else he will lose his job. Earlier mentioned pressure groups exist currently. Many of the associations of farmers, Rights Activists like Anna Hazara and his group of supporters and very recently the signature campaign conducted by Aamir Khan of Satyamev Jayate. These have definitely have had effects on the policy decisions and implementations of the same. But these, as I mentioned earlier, are not well organized. For example, in almost all elections the typical voters turnout will be around 50%. In each constituency, lets take best case scenario and say that only two people are competing. So, if a person gets 26% of the entire votes in that constituency he will win the election. Similarly when the pressure groups are created there is not enough participation by the people and they fail to generate good results. So, when only 50% people bother to participate in the process do the rest of the people really have the right to question the government?

This actually points to an inherent moral corruption of general populace where they are not ready to take the responsibility but want to enjoy the rights. This same corruption is carried by the representative of such population and he too will try and avoid his responsibilities. Besides, how much pressure can the 26% of people who elected his can apply? The most popular response to these statements is that every representative is corrupt and nothing is going to change anyway so why waste time. If that is the case then why complain? Why the double standards? When you wont work honestly and take the responsibility then why talk about others who are doing the exact same thing? I think it is clear from my above discussion that we have to continuously engage ourselves in Democracy. Abraham Lincoln said, “Democracy is a government of the people, by the people and for the people”. Every citizen is part of this big system and the system will be only as efficient as its parts. When half of its parts stop functioning then how can you expect the system to perform?

So, I reject the response that all politicians are corrupt. Its actually the reverse. All voters are corrupt. We have become greedy and have developed apathy towards everything. How many have a working knowledge of the constitution? How many have understood the potential of RTI, heck how many know what is RTI? How many consider Politicians to be aliens who have no connection with the general public. How many see them as Masters and not as representatives? How many read the bills in the public domain and make suggestions and comments on the same? Of course the web and papers and books are filled with what representatives and politicians do not do. How many pages highlight what the people do not do? How can we say we are in democracy if we act as helpless as the person who is under monarchy? People under the rule of a Monarch need not work, but people in democracy are the rulers of themselves and they have to work, a LOT. These may seem far fetched and romantic notions, “These things wont work anymore” they say these days. But guess what? They said the same things even before; when men, women and children fought for freedom. But the children grew up and went to their deaths with heads high and poetry on their mouths and then the world took them seriously. What people say cannot be done can be done after a motivation session. But in the long run it takes faith in one self and hard work towards the purpose at hand.

In conclusion I would say this, Democracy is a participatory form of government which requires people involved to actively and deliberately participate and develop keen interest in the affairs of their nation and region. Lot of literature is available where people can learn about the government and their own role in it. Unless you take personal interest in the government I think you do not have the right to criticize it. Besides, even if you do criticize you must do constructive criticism where you provide an alternative solution to that particular problem and to do this we need a working knowledge of the government. To develop this we must first get involved in the government and develop general interest in its affairs. That is the only way in which a democracy can truly become successful else it is always doomed to failure. I leave you with one last quote that will sum up my last few paragraphs

“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried” – Winston Churchill