Elections Alone Do Not Make a Democracy

The ideals of democracy and capitalism are antithetical to each other. 


Democracy is now accepted as the political system that nations should aspire to, since it seeks to decentralise power and strengthen the rights of individual citizens. Yet, even in countries where democracy has existed for more than a century, we find that all citizens have not been empowered equally. To understand why this has been the case, we need to think about the forms in which power can be held within a democracy. The primary paradox lies in the fact that democracy as a political system is expected to function alongside capitalism, the inherent logic of which is to accumulate wealth (and thereby power). The aspirations of both these systems are therefore antithetical. Evidently then, institutions and procedures, by themselves are not adequate to make a country a democracy.

In this reading list, we explore why it is not feasible for democracy to work within the framework of capitalism.

1) What Does a Successful Democracy Look Like?

A majority of the governments in the world today call themselves a democracy. But that does not necessarily mean that they function as one. Can there be a set of clear criteria that allows us to identify a government as democratic? André Béteille has argued that the strength of a democracy can be judged, not by the strength of the government, but by the strength of the opposition. Whether or not a country is a proper democracy can be measured by the organisation, legitimacy and the effectiveness of its opposition. The success of democracy in a country can also be measured by how it deals with disorder. He argued that a successful democracy copes with disorder rather than disowning it because “The accommodation of diverse, even mutually antagonistic forms of opposition is a way of recognising disorder and learning to cope with it”.

The successful operation of democracy depends upon what I have called democratic reasoning. Democratic reasoning proceeds through debate, discussion, negotiation, compromise and mutual accommodation. The accommodation of diversity, which is a cardinal feature of democracy, extends to ways of thought, including conceptions of the good life. The individual citizen is not required to abandon his own view of the good life, but he is expected to treat with consideration, if not sympathy other views of the good life cherished by other citizens.

2) In Practice, Can the Subaltern Speak in a Democracy?

Before the elections in 1996, Manoranjan Mohanty wrote that from the 1980s onwards, “there began a trend of fierce assertion of a majoritarian view of democracy” in India – one that was strengthened after liberalisation. He argued that though globalisation was propagated as a way to promote pluralist democracy in the non-Western world, it was only serving to neo-colonise previously colonised nations. In this manner, the idea of democracy was repackaged for the 21st century and co-opted into the civilisational mission of the West. But as Mohanty had pointed out, liberalisation actually limited the freedom of the oppressed sections of Indian society who remain disenfranchised because they “are unable to enter the bargaining process in the market will continue to remain deprived of their rights.” Globalisation, thus, made the rights enshrined by democracy into a commodity that can be bought. Economic power, therefore, is one of the primary forms of power in capitalist democracies.

There is an intriguing commonality between the ruling Congress and the BJP with an alarming adherence to majoritarianism. This alienates not only Muslims and other religious minorities, but also adivasis, dalits and the smaller linguistic nationalities from the polity. Thus the system is seen as an upper class, upper caste, Hindi, Hindu patriarchal state process in India. The 1996 Lok Sabha election is all set to con- solidate this trend of majoritarianism passing for democracy.

Another form of power comes with the ability to make decisions, which essentially constitutes political power. However, most countries today follow a representative form of democracy where a vote is the equivalent of handing over power to the representative. It is a transaction in which citizens empower an individual to make decisions for them. This transfer of power gives the elected representatives legitimacy, which means that in representative democracies today, elections become a spectacle for the sake of manufacturing consent. This power is often misused, and governments in general, have historically been corrupt in that the decision they make do not necessarily represent the interests of the people who voted them into power. Amit Bhadhuri argued that large-scale social movements, like the anti-corruption movement led by Anna Haraze, take place when this semblance of legitimacy disappears in the eyes of the people.

A functioning representative democracy is in effect a call to political inaction rather than action by ordinary citizens. However, this is something which the politicians have to earn by keeping democracy functional and legitimate in the eyes of its people. It is by no means their natural right for five years because they somehow managed to get elected.

3) Is Democracy an Illusion?

It has been quite some time since the trajectory of global capital has exceeded the limits of what was outlined by Karl Marx in his theory of historical materialism. Marx famously said that imperialism is the highest, most exploitative form of capitalism. Marx predicted that capitalism as a mode of production will be succeeded by socialism which would ideally be a more egalitarian form of society. Yet that has not happened. Instead, we are living in the technocratic times of late capitalism, under the political ambit of liberal democracies. Owing to these circumstances, historian Rajan Gurrukal argued that the idea of democracy is merely rhetoric that is deployed to hide the realities of oligarchy and monopoly that capitalism inevitably produces.

Among crony capitalist enterprises, SEZs exemplify the most undemocratic of all. They symbolise the capitalists’ de facto control over the country’s economic sovereignty. Corporate houses try to restructure the government by forcing it to be functionally autocratic through bureaucracy, and by legislating centralisation to substitute democratic procedures. All this puts the state in perfect alignment with the growing global techno-militaristic neo-imperialism and reaffirms the death of democracy; an inevitable possibility under capitalism.

4) Should Democracy and Development Go Hand in Hand?

The discourse around democracy and development has been that democratisation is necessary for development. However, Rebecca Eapen argued that as far as empirical evidence is concerned, development and democracy do not seem to share a symbiotic relationship. This is because the notion of development has been reduced to a set of economic indicators rather than being a robust reinforcement of social justice. The ideal version of democracy is not conducive to the narrow vision of development that capitalism is in pursuit of.

But the question then that comes to mind is that in spite of this a democracy seems infinitely better than living under fascist, authoritarian regimes, where basic universal freedoms like freedom of speech and the right to life are curbed. And where there is no scope of gaining a platform to be heard. A number of democracies also seem to fall into the above definition, especially democratic governments that come to power on fundamentalist hate ridden agendas, as has happened in India. This is where the matter of governance becomes crucial. Governance is much more complicated than it seems. Perhaps it is so because governance is based on notions of power and power has a history and the capability of corrupting most governing systems. The answer is difficult to find, but what becomes clear is that development and democracy do not need to have a 'trade off' relationship. An environment of globalisation often offers no choice to states that may want to pursue what they deem is best for the people. It almost seems like the world is caught in a trap of its own making and everybody is feeling the repercussions.

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