Socrates, the great philosopher of Athens, was perhaps the first wise man to put democracy in perspective when he likened voting in an election to a skill that needs to be taught systematically to people. Letting citizens vote without an education, he reckoned, was as irresponsible as “putting them in charge of a trireme sailing to Samos in a storm”.
Today, we see numerous instances of several modern-day triremes or warships headed to different destinations and inviting storms of various kinds, which have forced us to reexamine the notion of democracy as we have known it all along. Some of the nations where we find insular approaches taking root are well-founded democracies with well-defined electoral systems, where an unabashedly authoritarian leadership is abusing power to silence even a semblance of dissent, while zealots of all kinds have licence to incite vulnerable populations to take the law into their own hands.
Whether Afghanistan, Ukraine or Taiwan, emerging democracies are under constant threat of an invasion rooted in tyranny. This is a dangerous phenomenon no doubt, but equally fatal is the pattern in many established democracies where incumbent leaders are using despotic coercion to settle political scores. By jailing activists and crusaders and showing leniency to zealots and loudmouths, they have openly made fear a new variable of a ridiculously twisted democratic equation.
That brings us to the central challenge of democracy. If a majority of people elect a government to power inherently believing in the superiority of a certain race, religion or community as also in dictatorial agendas that are dismissive of tolerance and liberal values, it would mark an electoral triumph on the face of it, but would that be a democratic triumph? Contrary to popular perception, the very act of raising questions on the levers of a democratic set-up is not about dismissing the concept of democracy; it is only a conscious effort to strengthen it.
Democracy is made up of two words – ‘demos’ meaning people, and ‘kratos’ meaning rule. But does the conjunction ensure that people make the right decision about who rules over them and in what manner. Given that there is no in-built mechanism that validates the choice of people as good, how does one ensure that democracy serves the larger cause of humankind?
The key questions around democracy, hence, should not be as much about how to protect democracy from its detractors as about examining its effectiveness in upholding what is generally believed to be the common good. If common people are unaware of the common good, they need to be made aware of it, as Socrates aptly highlighted in his scathing critique of democracy.
A distinction between a liberal democracy and an illiberal democracy hence becomes imperative. A democracy must be acknowledged as a democracy only if it is committed to serving the larger cause of its common citizens. Else, the voices that are fervently building a case for the emulation of authoritarian regimes like China will get even stronger. India’s principal belief was that democracy will benefit one and all through equal opportunities, irrespective of differences like caste, creed, and economic status. But the reality at the grassroots is a tragedy of epic proportions. We are a nation of haves and have-nots, with extremely wealthy and privileged people and extremely poor and deprived people co-existing in water-tight compartments. The country’s economic engine is driven by a 300 million-strong privileged class whereas as many as 900 million are yet subservient, who continue to serve the other half, courtesy of a camouflaged feudal system.
Today, we don’t find enough societal reflection, leave alone introspection, on the glaring lack of accountability and transparency in our political system. No wonder, money and muscle power continue to play a pivotal role in election after election. We, the common citizens of India, must rise to the occasion to create mass awareness, especially among the youth of this country, on various issues plaguing our democracy, including the perceived simplicity of the first-past-the-post system, which is invariably prone to undesirable outcomes as the size of the winning margin becomes irrelevant in the lopsided focus on maximum votes.
We must educate the common voters to protect the value of their vote. Education here does not imply academic credentials but a conscious awakening among people that they can’t remain bystanders amidst the democratic mayhem. They must realise the shortsightedness of succumbing to the pull of non-issues like caste, creed, religion or the lure of freebies and personal favours. Once they cherish the value of their votes, they will learn to evaluate the given candidate’s manifesto in the context of key issues of social and economic significance that have a direct bearing on their lives, livelihoods, wellness, and wellbeing.
By B S Ajaikumar, oncologist and Executive Chairman, Healthcare Global (HCG) Enterprises Limited