Questions on state of democracy

Growing intolerance and hostility towards diversity across nations show failure of democratically-elected governments, not democracy

By Author Samudrala VK   |   Published: 19th Nov 2020   12:01 am Updated: 18th Nov 2020   7:51 pm

The defeat of Donald Trump has raised a few questions on the state of democracy across the world. What is democracy? What is secularism? What is pluralism? What is an election? What is polity? What is a democratic victory? What is people’s mandate? What is a majority? What is a republic? What is representation?

Theoretically, the answers for these questions are simple and even a school-going child would answer these questions without any error. The core components of democracy, political, economic and social, are not only interlinked but also inalienable.

Democracy Today

Generally, when we talk about democracy we often talk about it keeping political equality in mind. The liberal school of thought considers political democracy as the means to realise social and economic democracy — the ends, whereas Marxists believe economic democracy is the means to achieve political democracy. While political democracy focuses on political rights, liberties and freedom, in economic and social democracy, the stress is on equality of wealth, welfare and positive discrimination.

Democracy in today’s world is largely confined to the political arena. Democratic nations have failed to push the scope of democracy from the political to economic and personal domains and have failed to instil a democratic spirit in the minds of citizens. It is important to recognise that democracy has a personal component in it. A true democratic citizen would practice democratic values both in political and personal space.

Acceptance and ability to accommodate diverse views, exchange of ideas and tolerance form the bedrock of democracy. Yes, conducting free and fair elections on a regular basis and a rule by the majority are important for the normal functioning of democracy. But a matured democratic nation tries to expand the scope of democracy to every walk of life. This clearly reflects in the attitude of its citizenry.

The growing intolerance and hostility towards diversity across the globe are the signs of failure of democratically elected governments, not democracy. There is no doubt that democratic systems provide mechanisms for different groups to articulate their interests. Sometimes, the conservative forces try to capture power by mobilising the support of majority at the cost of unity and diversity. What is more disturbing is that the leaders who come up with this medieval mindset have been receiving humongous support from their followers.

Laying a Trap

In a democracy, voters cast their votes based on her/his conscience. Generally, the uninformed and unenlightened voters fall into the trap and end up electing the wrong candidates. The rise of right-wing politics has its roots in economics. The global financial crisis in the late 2000s, economic immobility and falling living standards have forced most people into a state of misery and despair. Eventually, the right-wing leaders banked on this disenchantment among the masses.

Democratic regimes, by and large, would remain secular. In fact, the modern day democracy has its roots in secularism, the separation of religion (Church) and the state. On the contrary, the right-wing forces couple politics with religion, culture and race. They glorify their ancient and medieval pasts and project themselves as saviours. This kind of unscientific approach towards societal problems not only fails to address the core issues but also poses a threat to democracy in the long-run. This backward-looking hinders societal progress and also replaces the human brains of scientific temper with irrational beliefs and practices.

India and US

If we consider the recent political developments in one of the oldest democracies, the US, and the largest democratic nation, India, the political systems, although remaining democratic, have turned into a state of mobocracy.

Trump has succeeded in dividing the US society along religious, cultural and racial lines. Going by the numbers of popular vote and electoral college in the recent US elections, Trump’s rhetoric has appealed to a major chunk of American society. Ever since he entered the White House, his actions were anti-left, anti-Chinese and anti-Muslim.

Although constitutions in liberal democracies restrict the power of political executive by making it accountable to the legislature and by guaranteeing the independence of judiciary, the right-wing parties will try to bypass these constitutional mechanisms and press on with their conservative agenda, in view of popular support. The right-wing forces try to invade the minds of masses through their networks of communication. The conservative ultra-right forces often use the patriotic card to suppress the dissent.

The nationalism that the right-wing leaders advocate not only has a dividing element in it but also targets certain minority groups whose cultural and religious beliefs are not in line with the conservative notion of the right. In the economic domain, rather than coming up with a solution-based approach to resolve economic problems, the right-wing leadership resorts to protectionism. To assume power, the right-wing parties spread irrational fears and promise the moon to their constituents.

Political Consciousness

The true success of democracy depends upon the political consciousness among the citizens. The more the political consciousness, the higher the democratic and secular quotients of a citizen and a nation. Democracy, as an ideal, enlightens the citizens and allows them to acquire knowledge about society and its functioning. If elections are to be free and fair in a true sense, voters should be able to think based on rationality and without any undue influence.

In the age of social media, there is a high chance of voters falling prey to right-wing IT cells. The IT cells of conservative forces hoodwink the voters by spreading false information. They not only resort to twist the history and culture to their advantage but also attack the very essence of democracy. The decline of social capital and the political apathy among the youth are also contributing to the rightist parties’ holding sway over politically inactive sections. If the present trend goes unchecked, democracy would be in peril.

(The author is Director, Samudrala VK IAS Academy)