The following text was authored by Indian Parliamentarian and liberal thinker, Minoo Masani. It was originally published by the Harold Laski Institute of Political Science, Ahmedabad in March 1989. In the essay, Masani discusses several necessary conditions of a liberal democracy.
In a Parliamentary Democracy, the role of a speaker is crucial. A good start to a young Democracy on the achievement of Independence was given by Mr G.V. Mavlankar, who was an excellent Speaker of the Lok Sabha, and set a good example of independence from all political parties by his fair play and keeping the Prime Minister of the day in his place.
Unfortunately, there has been a continuing fall in the behaviour of those occupying the Speaker’s office since the prevailing sycophancy has engulfed even the Speaker’s office, with a corresponding lack of respect for the chair shown by the Member of Parliament.
Many years ago, Mr. E.F.M. Durbin, a junior member in a Labour Government in Britain, published a book entitled The Politics of Democratic Socialism. In one of his chapters Mr. Durbin, after rejecting various tests of a real democracy, came to the conclusion that where there was no effective opposition there was no democracy. According to him, the right to dissent is useless unless it is actually allowed to be exercised.
Some people would reply that democracy means majority rule. How wrong they are! Stalin and Hitler after coming to power, repeatedly won elections by huge majorities which were presumably bogus, and then carried on ruthlessly oppressive and tyrannical regime. The dictators of the Black African countries, who are often ferocious autocrats, also claim to have been elected by a majority. As the anthropologist, Elspeth Huxley, has put it: “One man, on vote, once”.
Mr. R. Venkataraman, President of our Republic, mentioned this in his Inaugural Address as President on July 25, 1987 that ‘most of the newly independent countries which adopted a democratic form of government have lapsed into dictatorships’. There are countries covered by Mr. Venkatraman’s statement in Asia and Latin America which also qualify along with Africa.
The concept of majority rule is a particularly pernicious one in countries which are not of a homogenous nature ethnically, linguistically or by religion. Examples of such countries are the Union of South Africa, Fiji, Sri Lanka, and, of course, our own country. In these countries there is a built-in permanent majority based on race, language or religion. Majority rule in such cases would mean the tyranny of the majority community over the minority community or communities. In South Africa the result of “one man one vote” majority rule would be the domination of the Blacks over the Whites and the coloured peoples, including Indians who are all minorities. In Fiji it would mean the domination of the Indian immigrants over the original inhabitants there. In Sri Lanka it would mean the domination of Sinhalese over Tamils and in India it would mean the domination of the Hindus over the Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and other minorities. It is quite obvious, therefore, that majority rule is not democracy and can often be undemocratic. Having disposed of this myth, let us now turn to the various factors that make a real democracy.
It is quite clear that a government which is not limited to essential purposes but dominates economic, educational, literary and artistic life of the country cannot be a democratic one. Where this happens, an effective opposition ceases to be possible, and Mr. Durbin’s test cannot be fulfilled.
This has been proved by the case of the Soviet Union, Communist China and others in our time.
Italian theorist Benedetto Croce was able to foresee this when he wrote in the last quarter of the 19th century that where the Government or the State tends to become the only employer and the only landlord, that society ceases to be democratic, because there would be no one left to oppose except at great peril. That is why he argued that in a free society there have to be “autonomous social forces ” such as the farmer owning his land, the industrialist owning his factory or business, the shopkeeper owning his shop and the professional man like the lawyer or doctor or consultant who works for himself. Later developments have proved how right Croce was.
In my opinion, India is in the border line between a limited government and a total one because of excessive controls, destruction of the balance of the mixed economy, control of the dominating heights of the economy, as Jawaharlal Nehru grandiloquently described it, through giant industrial units, the control of the State over universities, the absence of economic freedom, the institution of Sahitya Academics and other government institutions which have undermined the independence of writers, artists and other members of the intelligentsia. Writing on 5th January 1969 in the Times of India, Mr. Nirad Choudhary asked :
“Where do contemporary Indian writers stand in the light of these ideals ? I cannot say they are not involved in current affairs. On the contrary, I would assert they are only too much involved in them, which means that they are wrongly involved. Most of them are doing their best to have a share of the loot of public money that has become the vocation of the upper middle class since Independence. All of them are enlisting or trying to enlist in the horde of Pindaris that the present ruling order of India is. The writers in this army will not indeed be Amir Khans or Chittus but they aspire to become quite prosperous thugs.”
There have been repeated attempts to destroy the freedom of the press. All these have brought India to the position where it is possible to say that the so-called ‘socialist pattern’ and democracy cannot co-exist for long. This already happened for a brief period of two years after 1975, and could easily happen again for ‘ a longer duration. Therefore it is that the liberal insists that unless Government is limited and kept in its proper boundaries, it cannot be called a democratic one. Mahatma Gandhi said : “That Government is best which governs the least.”
SHARING OF POWER
Democracy has been defined as government of the people, for the people, and by the people, the last of these being the most important of the three. The sharing of power has to be both horizontal and vertical. It should be horizontal in the sense that minority groups have a right to participate in the government of the day along with the majority. It is not enough for members of the minority to be condescendingly included in the cabinet as are Muslims, Sikhs and others in India, and, Tamils and Muslims in Sri Lanka, at the ‘meherbani’ of the majority or of the White ‘Uncle Toms’ whom the Communist- dominated African National Congress would perhaps include in their new government, if ever they are allowed to come to power. What is necessary is for the Tamils and Muslims in Sri Lanka to be represented by those chosen by them. That Muslims and Sikhs in India should similarly have the right to choose their own members of the cabinet and that the Whites in a Black dominated country should have ministers of their own choice. This has been ensured only by the Swiss Constitution to which I shall refer later.
Vertical participation is equally important. The infrastructure of a democracy lies with grassroots vigilance and initiative which keeps political parties and governments on the straight and narrow path. Where such grass- roots vigilance and initiative are weak as in India today, political parties float on top without any infrastructure, without internal democracy, and with “Kangaroo courts” which ‘expel’ members without even asking them to show cause.
The element of grassroots vigilance is not one that can be created by law. It is primarily one that is dependent on home and school education and training of the young in the right to think for themselves, training in the right to stand up to authority-whether domestic, industrial or political, when the conscience demands it. Gandhiji defined a real satyagrahi as one who defies a law which he thinks is immoral even if he is in a minority of one, provided he is prepared to pay the price for his act. 111other words, democracy is contingent on the existence of independent, aware and courageous citizens who are prepared to speak up for their rights and do not always count the cost. As the poet said:
“They are slaves who dare not be In the right with two or three”.
The main enemies of such initiative are the cult of personality, misguided loyalty of party “high command”, sycophancy which abounds in the capital and other parts of India and the presence of a controlled economy where the permit-license or quota is a precondition to economic survival.
Here we are on very weak ground, The concept of good and active citizenship is not well understood in India, The result is “too much politics, too little citizenship”. We need much more grassroots vigilance and action. It is not periodic five-year elections that determine the quality of democracy but the day-to-day intervention of the ordinary citizen in the affairs of the state. Here we are very weak, and unless the quality and activity of our citizenship and becomes much more democratic, our political parties will continue to float on top and be utterly irresponsible as they are today. It is important that the people of India be educated on this subject. The Leslie Sawhny Programme, with which I am associated and the Harold Laski Institute of Political Science at Ahmedabad, are both examples of the kind of activity that may result in making India a real democracy.
There remains the problem of ensuring participation and sharing in power by the backward classes in society who are unable to pull their full weight along with the rest of society. Such are the Schedules Castes (Harijans), the Scheduled Tribes (Adivasis) and the backward classes. As a remedy, but not to last more than ten years, our Constitution provided for reservation of seats in legislatures and jobs in government service for these classes. Unfortunately, this device has become a habit, like a pair of crutches. Every ten years Parliament prolongs its life because by now the spokesmen of the poorest classes have become a vested interest. Also, it provides one of the main points of corruption in our public life. The politicians, therefore, go along with this easy way of professing to provide social justice.
This matter is dealt with in detail by an excellent report of a Seminar on Reservations organised in Bombay in may 1985 by the Indian Liberal Group and the Freedom First Foundation. I believe that time has come for Reservations to be terminated and if that is not feasible, at least to be phased out expeditiously.
Both the U.S. Supreme Court in Bakke’s case, and the Supreme Court in our country in the case of the State of Kerala vs Thomas, have arrived at rather similar judgements taking the line that affirmative action in favour of these classes has to be both temporary and moderate. Any discrimination that is permanent or excessive should be struck down as ultra vires of the Constitution.
A much more civilised way by which minorities including the backward elements of society can be ensured fair representation in these legislature in some form of Proportional Representation. The only democratic countries in which the rule of race course, viz. “First past the post” is practised, are the U.K. and the U.S.A. the recent re-election of Mrs. Margaret Thatcher, however, welcome it might be on political grounds, illustrates the archaic nature of this system, since she obtained only a minority of votes cast but a big majority in Parliament as a result of gross under-representation of the Alliance of Social Democrats and Liberals, who polled a large proportion of votes cast but succeeded in getting only a miserable number of seats in Parliament.
The Anglo-Saxon system involves a waste of millions of votes which remain unrepresented in parliament, Votes cast in the country do not carry the same weight, since the votes cast for some party carry more weight than those cast for other parties. Even the principle of “one man, one vote” is thus violated, since one man does not get one vote. Some get more than a vote and yet others have no effective vote at all.
In India, which has followed the archaic British system since independence, not once has the Congress Party secured majority of the votes cast. Yet in every Parliament including the present, the Congress Party has been a huge majority which is entirely bogus and does not reflect the will of the people.
If, therefore, justice has to be done to the voter and particularly to minorities, the acceptance of some form of proportional representation is a must. With an illiterate electorate like ours, the Single Transferable Vote is not feasible. Some form of the List System such as is prevalent in West Germany, Israel and other countries is worth considering.
SEPARATION OF POWERS
Where power is allowed to be centralised in a few hands, democracy shrinks. That is why, in all written democratic constitutions, there is a provision for a division of powers or functions.
The separation of powers in the U.S. Constitution between the President or the Administration, Congress and the Supreme Court is a good example of three independent authorities functioning side by side and often clashing with one another. Even where there is a Parliamentary form of government, as in France after Gaulle amended the Constitution, and in Sri Lanka after Mr. Jayewardene amended it, though there is a Prime Minister responsible to Parliament, there is also a President, who acts as a check on the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. It is not, therefore, true that in every Parliamentary Democracy the Prime Minister and Cabinet can overrule the President. Quite the contrary. The Constitution of the Republic of India as it emerged from the Constituent Assembly, of which I was proud to be a member, did precisely this by curbing the powers of the Prime Minister and Cabinet of the day through:
- a) The President
- b) The Supreme Court
- c) The Civil Service
- d) The States
- e) The Fundamental Rights of the citizen
Unfortunately, most of these checks have been eroded by those in office in Delhi through their lust for centralising power in their own hands. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was able, with the bogus majority in Parliament that she enjoyed, even to amend the Constitution and truncate the Prerogatives of President and the Fundamental Rights of the citizen.
THE RULE OF LAW
An essential precondition of democracy is what the British called in Britain the Rule of Law and in the USA ‘due process of law’. This protects the citizen from arbitrary action on the part of government of the day and gives him the protection of the courts in case the law is violated. Obviously, when the courts are not independent and there is no Rule of Law, rule by parliamentary majority can be highly tyrannical and undemocratic.
“The state is made for the individual and not the individual for the State”. This is a basic principle of liberal democracy. The rights of the individual, therefore, become the supreme consideration. As Lord Action has put it, liberty is the supreme good. Hence, freedom must come first. In countries like the USA, India and several others, the Fundamental Rights of the citizen are guaranteed under a written constitution or what is often called ‘A Bill of Rights”. Britain is one of the few real democracies which have no written constitution or Bill of Rights, and technically Parliament is sovereign and can pass any law it likes. However, as Dicey points out, if the House of Commons were to pass a law that all blue-eyed babies should be put to death, the people will throw the Parliament out the following day! This is what he calls the ‘external check’ which exists in Britain which has no written Constitution.
Another old saying which draws attention to this priority is the Biblical one which says: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s”. In our context, the individual’s conscience is his god.
FREEDOM OF THE PRESS
What applies to the individual’s right to dissent applies with even greater force to the Press. Freedom of the Press, is of course, an essential part of a free society.
In the case of multi-lingual, multi-ethnic or multi-religious societies, the importance of these safeguards becomes more marked.
Majority rule can have no meaning where there is a permanent majority of those bound together by a common race, common religion or common language. It is not democratic for such a majority to impose its will on minorities. Thus for instance, in Sri Lanka the nomination by Sinhalese of Tamil and Muslim minorities is not democratic. In India the nomination by Hindus of Sikhs, Muslims, Christians and others is not democratic, and in South Africa, the nomination by Blacks of Whites would be undemocratic.
It is not enough in such cases that members of minorities are included in governments or cabinets. In Sri Lanka and India as of today, such minority membership is only at the behest or ‘meherbani’ of the majority. It is important for ministers belonging to minorities to be elected by their own kind through proportional representation.
The only country where this is being practised is Switzerland owing to the existence of three groups- German Swiss, French Swiss and Italian Swiss, and of cantons which are jealous of their independence. The Government of Switzerland is run by a Council which is elected by proportional representation by Members of Parliament who, in turn, are themselves elected to Parliament by proportional representation. This means a National Government or a permanent coalition of sizable linguistic groups and political parties.
The Swiss Constitution goes further and provides that the position of the Chairman of the Executive or the Prime Minister shall rotate among the members. It also provides for maximum autonomy to the cantons which are almost sovereign and have minimum government.
Switzerland is among the least but the best administered countries of the world. Politics counts for little. Production counts for a lot. It is customary for a Swiss Cabinet Minister to call at the office of a Bank President, and not vice-versa.
I have only briefly outlined my views on what constitutes the essence of democracy.
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