Elected institutions must become less majoritarian, while other institutions must give voice to non-majorities and provide balance
The new American President, Joe Biden, has announced his intention to host a summit of democracies in the first year of office. The growing democracy deficit in the world is bothering the world’s oldest democracy — the United States (US).
Joseph Story, a renowned American jurist, warned long ago that the “Constitution has been reared for immortality, if the work of man may justly aspire to such a title. It may, nevertheless, perish in an hour by the folly, or corruption, or negligence of its only keepers, the people”. Happenings in America in the last couple of years indicate that there are no “American people” anymore. It is a deeply divided society today.
The Democrats want to pass on the blame to Donald Trump’s presidency. It cannot be denied that Trump’s tenure saw schisms exacerbate in American society. They culminated in the violent incursions at the Capitol Hill by Trump’s supporters on January 6, when the Congress was in session to ratify votes for the presidential election. Trump cannot completely shrug off responsibility for the happenings on that day as his tweet a few days before — “Big protest in DC on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!” — turned out to be a major catalyst for mass mobilisation and violence on the fateful day.
Critics argue that Democrats too carry some blame for the violent incidents across several cities during the Black Lives Matter movement last year. Antifa, which played a role in the movement, is seen to have turned a just cause into a polarising prejudice through violence. Biden did condemn Antifa and violence. Yet, the Democrats cannot escape part of the responsibility for the deep divisions in the American society today. In fact, the unusually high support that Trump got in the election — over 70 million votes — was partly due to people’s anger against the double standards of the Democrats too. Biden may first have to fix his own democracy before embarking on addressing the global democratic deficit.
That does not mean the concerns flagged by Biden are misplaced. A new wave of populist movements is challenging the very foundations of democracies, from the oldest democracy in America to the largest democracy in India. The agitation by the farmers against the three agri-reform laws of the Narendra Modi government is a case in question. Dissent is an integral part of democracy. But as Ambedkar warned in his last address to the Constituent Assembly on November 25, 1949, the methods of dissent must be constitutional. “If you wish to maintain democracy not merely in form, but also in fact, …. the first thing in my judgement we must do is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It means that we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. These methods are nothing but the grammar of anarchy”, Ambedkar had warned.
The revolts witnessed in America and India by small groups have the potential to lead to two consequences. One, democratic systems will weaken further.
Two, out of that anarchy will rise authoritarians and despots. Either way, the loser will be the democratic world. The time has come for us to revisit the functioning of democratic institutions and effect important reforms to defeat these forces.
By their very nature, democracies are majoritarian. The Greek states, where the concept of democracy was born, had practised a brutish version of majoritarianism. The great philosopher, Socrates, was awarded death sentence in an open court through popular assent, forcing Plato to denounce Greek democracies as kleptocracies.
From there, we have travelled quite a distance. Democracies developed checks and balances in the form of the elected parliaments on the one side and unelected institutions on the other. While elected bodies are meant to be the voice of the majorities, non-elected bodies such as the judiciary, media and other public institutions are expected to be the refuge for the non-majorities.
Not that the majorities are always wrong — the three farm bills of the Modi government are an absolute necessity today. But parliamentary majorities are facing a non-majority backlash. It is here that non-elected institutions such as the judiciary and media have to play a balancing role. The danger is when they also come to be perceived as the voices of the majority and against non-majorities. People will then resort to methods that Ambedkar rejected as unconstitutional.
The reform that democracies need today is two-fold. First, elected institutions need to become less majoritarian and more consensual. Second, there is a need to build a stronger non-elected institutional framework for greater balancing.
Gandhi feared that for a country such as India, democracies could end up as mobocracies. That was why he used to insist upon the concept of Ram Rajya. Gandhi’s Ram Rajya was a non-majoritarian democracy, where the minutest minority too has its voice heard. Ambedkar used to insist that without social democracy, political democracy is bound to fail. By social democracy, what he meant was not just participation but a sense of stakeholdership of different sections of society in the decision-making process. Ram Rajya and social democracy are concepts worth revisiting at this juncture to avert the challenges and enhance the efficacy of our democratic institutions.
(The article was originally published in Hindustan Times on January 25, 2021. Views expressed are personal.)