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Democracy Challenged

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China is such a rich and powerful country nowadays, but why can’t it afford democracy? And does democracy exact a price in terms of economic growth? How much of a role does it play in quality of life? And can there be ‘too much democracy’, as stated recently by NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant? Can democratic freedoms be used to destroy democracy? How is it to be defended, without undermining it?

The ongoing “farmer’s protest” has brought such questions to the fore. Although India is a young Republic in relative terms, carrying as it does a legacy of hundreds of years of misrule (William Dalrymple’s ‘The Anarchy’ is a recent rude reminder of this), its people have exhibited a natural propensity for democracy that has surprised the doubters. They have overcome many crises in the decades of freedom, continuously reinventing democracy to meet each emerging challenge. Power has been exercised in different ways by governments over the years, not always for the people’s welfare, often to serve ideological and personal agendas that tested the system. However, the fundamental resort to elections continuously applied correctives, ensuring thereby that the will of the people prevailed, ‘not wholly or in good measure, but very substantially’.

Above all, the people have learned to make up their own minds and express their opinion in the solitude of the polling booth. It was important to ensure that they could do so without being pressurised in any way, which has been largely achieved. However, it is also a fact that there are many forces that do not believe in democracy, itself, and strive for power by any means possible. (The ends justify the means!) They have learned to don democratic disguise, just as there are more zealous farmers amidst the actual ones in the crowds gathered on the gates of Delhi today.

The power of democracy as manifest in government and other institutions needs to be aware of the dangers of complacency. The defence of democracy is projected by some as a struggle for dominance amongst these institutions, when they should actually be working together for the well-being of the people and the nation. A judge who agrees with the government is constantly described as ‘compromised’. Government servants are expected to serve interests outside their pledge of allegiance to the constitution. Success is a crime committed on those unable to achieve. Poverty, backwardness, ignorance, lack of talent, etc., are to be worn as badges of honour in an environment of competitive victimhood. This makes it all the more important to not just have good intent and policies, but the fundamental strength to endure the onslaught. In a democracy, this should flow from public opinion. It is not enough just to follow the law; one must be proactive in upholding it. Rights with responsibilities!