Dialogue  April-June, 2015, Volume 16 No. 4


Democracy: Universal & Contemporary+

Naresh Kumar Ambastha*



Democracy is that institutional arrangement which seeks to realize the common societal good of the people through free exercise of their right to elect their representatives, who would have the power to take decisions on behalf of them. All people having therefore to agree, in principle at least, that there is also a common will of the people. To manage the common good, it requires special attitudes and techniques. These specialists simply act in order to carry out the will of the people exactly as the doctor acts in order to carry out the will of his patients to get well. It is also true that in a community it would be highly inconvenient for every individual citizen to get into contact with all other citizens on every issue in order to do his part in governing. It will be more convenient to reserve only the most important decisions and to deal the rest through a committee appointed by them — an Assembly, Parliament, Senate and others whose members will be elected by popular vote.

       In other words, democracy is the right, held universally by all citizens to have a share of political power, that is, the right of all citizens to vote and participate in politics and it must have the liberal attitude. It needs simply as a rule of law that recognizes certain individual rights or freedom from governmental control and it is the fundamental rights of citizens. A country is democratic if it grants its people the right to choose their own government through periodic, secret ballot, multiparty elections, on the basis of universal and equal adult suffrage. Democracy indeed acquires a perfectly unambiguous meaning. It is a plan for building of a perfect State in which every citizen is really happy. In my view the concept of democracy seems to be consistent and hardly refutable. Democracy professes a love for true freedom and is opposed to tyranny. True freedom is not merely propaganda, but it is an ideal goal of democracy. If the democratic government has to run efficiently it must use its laws, and write them down; this is the only way in which democracy can be preserved. Any violation of the laws should be punished. Although, change is determined, change must be on rationality. Hence it is reasonable to assume that common welfare is enthroned by no other form of government than by democracy.

     It is a well known paradox of democracy that there exists a distant possibility of a majority rule turning into a tyrannical order. The principle of majority rule may lead to self-contradiction. A democratic government remains committed to promote the happiness of the people which in ultimate analysis comes down to be the happiness of the individual. Thus it is clear that the government would not be justified in infringing upon the hapiness of the minority, even when it is backed by the majority of people. According to Gandhiji, “The rule of majority has a narrow application, i.e. …………… Democracy is not a state in which people act like sheep. Under democracy, individual liberty of opinion and action is jealously guarded. I, therefore, believe that the minority has the perfect right to act differently from the majority”1As Gandhiji believes the goal of Swaraj had to be the welfare of the whole people. People want honest, efficient, prompt, just and sympathetic governance.

      Particularly in India the Constitution has been framed on the basis of democracy, universal adult suffrage being the foundation thereof. The election of peoples representatives with supreme legislative as well as contitution amending power is left to the people. Our democratic system is based on the principle of equality without any discrimination whatsoever.  No qualifications are prescribed for standing as candidates; any one may be elected. That is a settled and final affair not to be disturbed till another Plato or Manu is born.

      A Constitution is not merely a document defining the powers and dealing with the function of the different organs of the States. It is also a vehicle for the onward march of the nation and for shaping its future life. Our Constitution tells of our solemn resolve to constitute India into a sovereign democratic republic and also speaks to secure to all the citizens justice — social, economic and political. Liberty — of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; Equality of status and of opportunity; and promote among them all. Fraternity — assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity of the nation. According to Bismark the policy of the State must be one which would cultivate the idea among the propertyless class that the State is not only an institution of necessity but also one of welfare bringing recognizable and direct advantages. The modern use of the term is associated with the comprehensive and interrelated measures of ‘Cradle to the Grave’ as visualized in our Constitutional democracy.

      The people expect a rise in the general standard of comfort, and this too, not for one class at the expense of another but among all classes, generally, urban as well as rural. It is true that technological advances do help to the rise of national income which in turn contributes towards raising the general standard of living of the people. But the importance of good, efficient and impartial administration in the entire process could hardly be overemphasised. This is more so in our country which is marked by caste and class differences in a very marked way. No people can be happy with an inefficient government or with a government that is not firm and impartial. The psychology of the caste nexus and of class differences is strong in India. All the greater is the need for firm and impartial, executives, and the common people know this.  

     In 1948, G.B.Shaw proposed that in order to remove misunderstanding, and confusion about the meaning of democracy, the leading scholars and thinkers of the world be summoned at one place and the issue be settled once for all but the suggestion was not carried out. Disagreement about the meaning of democracy reflects differences of its nature. Lincoln and Hitler thought about democracy in different ways. When an American or English talks about democracy, they do not mean the same thing as a Russian or Chinese.

      Democracy has been variously defined by different writers. According to President Lincoln, democracy is the government of the people, by the people, and for the people. It is thought of democracy in terms of free elections, a free press, freedom of association, freedom of religion, freedom of thought and speech, equality before law, right to form trade unions, right to oppose government, freedom of choice of profession, freedom from fear etc.

      Lord Bryee defined democracy in these words: The word democracy has been used ever since the time of Herodotus to denote that form of government in which the ruling power of a state is legally vested , not in any particular class, but in the members of the community as a whole. This means, in communities which act by voting, that rule belongs to the majority as no other method has been found for determining peaceably and legally. What is to be deemed the will of a community which is not unanimous? Usage has made this the accepted sense of the term and the usage is the safest guide in the employment of the words.2 

      According to Gandhi: “Democracy must in essence ………. Mean the art and science of mobilizing the entire physical, economic and spiritual resources of all the various sections of the people in the service of common good of all.”3 

      In a democracy which respects the value of an open society and transparency in governance, citizens are entitled to know the true facts about the administration of their country, a right to know about every public act, about everything that is done in a public way, by their public functionaries. The press, therefore, ought to serve as a forum for the public, through which people would know what is happening in government and in public institutions. In my view, the freedom of the press should be an instrument of democratic control.

    According to Gandhiji: “When people come into possession of political power, the interference with the freedom of people is reduced to a minimum; a nation that runs its affairs smoothly and effectively without such State interference is truly democratic; where such a condition is absent, the form of government is democratic in name.” 4 

       Human rights are the ultimate norm of politics. Only democracy can truly guarantee human rights. It is through democracy that individual rights and collective rights, that is the right of people and rights of persons are reconciled. It is through democracy that the right of the States and the rights of the community of States are reconciled. There can be no sustainable development without promoting democracy.

      Human rights are the rights which every human being is entitled to enjoy and be protected. Such rights and fundamental principles must be respected in the treatment of all men, women and children and it also exists in some form in all cultures and society. Universal Declaration covers two broad sets of rights—Civil and Political Rights, and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Both sets of rights aim to give  people freedom from fear and want.

      A democracy is characterized by its representatives; the government’s answerability to the people; and the government’s efforts and activities directed towards the welfare and betterment of the people. Democracies can function only when the rule of law and human rights prevail, in addition to the truly elected governments. The rule of law envisioned equality before the law and equal protection of law without any distinction. This has been provided in the Constitution of India and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

     Thus, the foundations of democracy are strengthened by the existence of human rights and their enjoyment by the individuals. Human rights, in fact, ensure dignity of ‘Human Beings’, which are the life blood of democracy. The quality of democracy would, therefore, depend to a large extent on the degree to which these rights are available to the individuals.

     Democracy does not mean majority rule; it means majority rule coupled with human rights. In the absence of human rights, democracy is not possible. Civil society is based on the concept of human rights which are essential not merely to fulfill the biological needs of mankind, but for the dignity of the individuals as well. Without recognizing the concept of human rights, no polity can be democratic one. Every democratic Constitution tries to recognize the concept of human rights in one way or other. The Indian Constitution recognizes the concept of human rights through its Preamble. Besides, the chapter of Fundamental Rights and the Directive Principles of State Policy are an expression of the fundamental Human rights of the individuals in the form of civil liberties and democratic rights respectively. These rights are essential for the fullest development of human personality and for human happiness. Undoubtedly, the concept of human rights has always been regarded as the backbone of every democratic set-up.

      Democracy intended to provide an ideal form of Government to the ideology of the Rule by the People. The people hold a definite and rational opinion about every individual question and that they give effect to this opinion — in a democracy – by choosing ‘representatives’ who will see to it  that the opinion is carried out. Thus the selection of representatives is made secondary to the primary purpose of the democratic arrangements which is to vest the power of deciding political issues in the electorate. Democratic revolution meant the advent of freedom and decency, and the democratic creed meant a gospel of reason and betterment.

       It must not be forgotten that there are social patterns in which the classical doctrine will actually fit facts with a sufficient degree of approximation. This is the case with many small and primitive societies, which as a matter of fact, served as a prototype to the democratic doctrine. It may be the case also with societies that are not primitive provided they are not too differentiated and do not harbour any serious problems. Switzerland is the best example. There is so little quarrel about in a world of peasants which, excepting hotels and banks, contains no great capitalists industry, and the problems of public policy are so simple and so stable that an overwhelming majority can be expected to understand them to agree with them. In such cases the classical doctrine does not appear to fit because it is big and highly differentiated.

      Democracy belongs to the sphere of collective and public decisions, rather than individual and private ones. It is based on the principle of equality between members and equal citizenship; full information and free discussion on all issues for collective decision, the citizen’s power of voice, and vote in association with others; and the right to stand for key elective office, and to hold elected representatives accountable for their decision. We could call these in short the principle of popular control of public decision making and decision makers, and political equality. They are equally applicable to a small local association and to the government of large state. Democracy is based on the following key ideas:

*      All members have interests that are affected by collective decisions.

* Everyone (by the time they are adult) is capable of reaching a view
                        about what the best or least bad decision – would be both for
                       themselves bad for the association as a whole.

* The best decisions over the long-run will be ones where all such
                       views have been public

* Where debate and discussion fail to produce a single agreed outcome,
                       decision should be taken by a vote of all participating members.

* The principle of one person, one vote, and one value reflects a wider
                      conception that all persons are of equal worth.

      It is worth pointing out straightway, however, they have historically only very rarely been either believed in or practiced. Even in ancient Athens of the fifth and fourth century BC, which gave us the word ‘Democracy’; the people did not include either women or slaves, both of whom were believed to be naturally inferior to male citizens. Despite this serious limitation, however ancient Athens, and its democratic allies in cities across the Aegean, provided two key features which have been an inspiration to democrats ever since. The first was an effective working example of a popular assembly, in which ordinary citizens debated and decided laws and policies for their society in person, including issues of peace and war. Other democratic practices included the rotation of citizens in turn, selected by lot, to serve on an executive body or council, and to act as jurors in the courts. This model of popular self-government, of people controlling their own affairs, survived for a century and a half, and demonstrated that public debate and disagreement were not incompatible with effective policy or decisive collective action. Moreover, its atmosphere of open enquiry and discussion led to a unique flowering of art, drama, literature, philosophy and the science.

     A most exemplary feature of Athenian democracy was the robust defense its supporters provided for the principle that poor citizens were every bit as capable as well-to-do if deliberating and voting on issues of public policy. “We gave no special power to wealth, says the Athenian in one of EURIPIDES’ PLAYS’, ‘the poor men’s voice commands equal authority.”

     The word democracy has been used ever since the time of Herodotus to denote that form of government in which the ruling power of a State is legally vested , not any particular class or classes, but in the members of the community as a whole. This means, in communities which act by voting, that rule belongs to the majority as no other method has been found for determining peaceably and legally, what is to be deemed the will of a community which is not unanimous. Usage has made this the accepted sense of the term and usage is the safest guide in the employment of the word.5 

       Democracy puts emphasis on individuals as the centre of all doctrine and policy. No social and political institution has a purpose of its own other than to serve and help the individual to have a better and fuller life. The democratic principles of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness are the opposite of authoritarian concept of citizenship as duty, discipline and death for the State. Fascism puts emphasis on nation, state, race and empire and communism on class.

      According to Prof. Hearnshaw, democracy demands that there should be high standard of honesty, not only among the leaders but also in their rank and file. It is rightly pointed out that a corrupt democracy is the vilest and most hopeless of political organizations. People should have a high sense of integrity and honour. They should stand for justice not only for themselves but also for others. There should be equality of opportunity and equality in law.

      The people should also have a high level of intelligence and a sound system of education. If the people do not possess the spirit of "normal reasonableness” democracy degenerates into mob-rule or is set aside by dictatorship that is often happening in Pakistan, and also these days, mobs demand  resignation of duly elected government by Imran Khan. In a democracy, the people are the masters and it is necessary that they should be educated. That is the reason why a lot of emphasis is put on the right to education in modern times. India has adopted the Right to Education through an amendment in the Constitution.

    Most non-communist modernizing countries after World War II, lacked both strong political parties and strong party systems. Most parties were too young to have demonstrated any real adaptability. The principal exceptions were several Latin American Parties and the Congress Party in India. Otherwise, most parties were not only young but also still led by their founders. The adaptability of the Congress Party was reflected in its changing leadership from Naroji, Bannerjee, and Besant to Gokhale and Tilak to Gandhi and Nehru. The weak parties depend upon their leaders. The death shortly after the Independence of their countries of Senanayake in Cylon, of Jinnah and Ali Khan in Pakistan, and of Aung Sen in Burma directly hastened the disintegration of their political parties. That the death of Gandhi and Patel in India has no such effect on the Congress was not due just to Nehru.

    Party competition is usually justified in terms of democracy, responsible governments and majority rule. It can also, however, be justified in terms of the value of political stability. Electoral competition between parties tends to expand political participation and at the same time to strengthen party organization. Party competition of this sort enhances the likelihood that new social forces which develop political aspirations and political consciousness will be mobilized into the system rather than against the system.

      In a dominant party system the assimilation of new social forces goes phase wise. The new group first expresses its claims on the political system through a minor party which is primarily devoted to those interests. In due course, the growth in the votes of minor party causes the dominant party to adjust its policies and practices and to attempt to absorb the leaders and supporters of the minor parties, which cannot hope to win control of the government. The political appeals and activity of the dominant party are directed primarily towards countering appeals of its strong opponent of the moment.

        In India the grievances of particular regions have often been initially expressed through minor parties or through non-party movements, but the Congress Party has then often absorbed the active protagonists of these grievances into its own structure. These days BJP is on the same path and several minor parties were assimilated in its fold.

     Democracy is a basic feature of our Constitution. Parliament and Legislative Assemblies are instruments created to give effect to the democratic content of people governing themselves. Political parties are the medium through which representatives are elected. It stands to reason that after election, the implementation of the principles and policies continue to govern the programme. That is of course text book teaching; but how close are these sound principles to the reality of the present politics?

        Other problems are regarding criminalization of polity. The minimum test for a candidate should certainly be that he/she is not foul of criminal law. Supreme Court has directed the candidate to declare or disclose about chargesheet against him before the election. But the political parties still continue to welcome the criminal elements to their bosoms. You can go through the records of parliamentarians having criminal cases registered against them; over half of these cases could lead to imprisonment of five years or more. The situation is worse in the case of M.L.As.  

      By voting corrupt, ignorant professional politicians to power, we kept a singularly gifted and enterprising nation in the ranks of poorest on earth. About 30  per cent of our people are still illiterate even after adopting Right to Education, and if the caliber of the politician does not improve, India will contain the highest number of illiterates in the world. Many politicians seem to have vested interest in illiteracy — Their survival depends upon the continuation of the forces of ignorance. Politicians and political parties talk about garibi (poverty) without having the will, the expertise or the imagination to eradicate it.

      The moral crisis is writ large on the entire political scene. In the early days of Independence, we had many eminent men in public life, who were gentlemen. In the later decades also we had many politicians who were gentlemen. Unfortunately, after seventies we have an unacceptable large number of politicians who are no inch a gentlemen. The noble processes of our Constitution have been trivialized by the power-holders, the power seekers and the power-brokers in our capitals. Elections have been reduced to a horse race by contesting politicians— the difference being that the horse is highly trained.

     The enormously increased cost of election campaign has made candidates and parties of all persuasions ever more reliant on contributions from wealthy individuals and businesses. This not only gives the latter a special influence over party policy which ordinary voters do not enjoy, but it also creates a tacit understanding over the granting political favour to particular contributors, even though there may be no explicit agreement to do so. In the last general Parliament election in India, election costs were enormous. In 2014, a seat in the Parliament cost the average victor between 20 million to 50 million and the expenses of campaign of National Parties like BJP and Congress were billions of rupees. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that contributors, who had funded BJP and Congress alike, expect to see their donations rewarded through the promotions of legislation favourable to them, or the blocking of the proposals which might damage their interests and attempts to limit government subsidies, in food security and other welfare schemes. After 1992, there was determined pressure on Government by the World Trade Organization and Indian Corporate Sectors to deregulate major sectors of the economy, such as energy, insurance, telecommunications media and banking etc. The non-banking sectors had robbed the investors and leaving investors with their funds destroyed. Number of companies collapsed and in response to public outcry, a number of committees were setup to investigate the scandals having no result and investors were cheated through economic law and having no regulatory body who can punish the master minds of cheating.

     It is the poor farmers and small farmers who are destroyed by the globalization of a negative economy. The whole economy has drifted from the welfare state and the nation is in the grip of Plutocracy. Thousands of Indian peasants have committed suicide because of increasing costs of seeds and chemicals. The poor consumers also suffer and starvation deaths have returned to India for the first time after Independence.  As 500 million Indians are under poverty line, rather face starvation, 60 million tons of farm produce are rotting in storage or for lack of storage – the poor cannot afford to buy food due to high increase in prices because of removal of food subsidies. Food denied to people is now being exported with subsidies. While the people in India were paying Rs 7,000 per ton of wheat and Rs 11,300 per ton of rice because of withdraw of subsidies, exporters were getting the same at subsidized rates of Rs 4,300 per ton and Rs 5,650 per ton respectively. India is a sovereign, secular, socialist, democratic republic. But systematic attempts have been made gradually to bring the means of production under private ownership and control and expand the role of capitalist classes. But in my opinion, India cannot be clearly identified as a capitalist democracy. 

       It is an appropriate time when citizens must wrest the initiative from corrupt and professional politicians and from political parties , and insist upon men of knowledge, vision and character being chosen as candidates for Parliament and assembly elections. It is only such men who can give India the type of government it needs— a government without being authoritarian and humane without being weak. Poverty can be eradicated only by experts in finance, production and marketing, and specialists in social engineering and deployment of resources.. We have the example of Singapore; how fast a nation can progress when its cabinet is composed of outstanding talent and probity.

      There is a need for an intelligent and adequate organization of votes. There should be a citizens council in every constituency consisting of impartial not party individuals who will appraise the candidates and recommend the right candidates to the voters. It is the voters to consider the recommendation or reject it. We must shed the divisive tendencies which split the votes on castes , sub-castes and religion.

       Our people cast-off shackles of political feudalism. It is pathetic to see the servile behaviour of our people towards ministers and legislators. When Jayprakash Narayan talked of Total Revolution, he meant a total transformation of the spirit which would enable the people to control the government instead of being dominated and dragooned by the government.

      It is a funny thing about life, observed Somerset Maugham, “If you refuse to accept anything but the best, you often get it.” That is equally true of democracy . If people refuse to accept any but the best citizens as candidates, it would usher in the golden age of our republic. Democracy gives, as life gives, what you ask of it.       




1.  Mahatma Gandhi: Y1, 8-12-1921, p.403.

2.  Lord Bryce Democracy, Vol. 1 p.20.   

3.  Mahatma Gandhi: H, 27-5-1939, p. 143.

4.  Mahatma Gandhi: H, 11-1-1936.

5.  Hearshaw, Democracy at the Crossways, p.17.                                                               



*Professor Naresh Kumar Ambastha, Department of Philosophy, P.K.R.M. College, Dhanbad, Vinoba Bhave University, Hazaribag, Jharkhand.

+Paper presented in the Symposium in the Indian Philosophical Congress.

     Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

                                               Astha Bharati