Sunday, January 27, 2008

Democracy not only permits dissent but raises it to a place of honour

SWAMINOMICS Democracy depends on the unelected STOI 27 Jan 2008, Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar
Republic Day, January 26, celebrates the day India became a democracy with a written Constitution. Indians are proud of their democracy. Yet, they view politicians who win democratic elections as knaves and thieves. What a paradox!
The institutions that command the most respect are the Supreme Court, Election Commission and Army. All three are unelected. We have little respect for the elected and immense respect for some who are not. Why?
Because democracy means much more than elections. Dictators across the world hold elections and make quite sure they win. Enver Hoxha, former communist head of Albania, was outraged when he got only 99.9% of the vote, and not 99.99% he expected. Across swathes of the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa today, you get elections but not democracy. The fundamental mark of a democracy is not elections but an institutional framework that lays down the rights of the people and rules of political engagement, and cannot be trampled on by the ruling government. The framework is typically a Constitution. In many countries, Constitutions are mere pieces of paper, ignored by rulers.
In a true democracy like India, the Constitution is actually enforced. So, democracy stands on two pillars. One is Constitutional democracy, which lays down the rules of political engagement. The second pillar is popular democracy, which elects politicians. Popular democracy dominates our attention. Yet, Constitutional democracy is more important. Popular democracy empowers majority groups. But Constitutional democracy protects minorities, and that is crucial. The Bilkis case is an example of Constitutional democracy enabling a fair trial being denied by popular democracy embodied in the Modi government.
Majority rule does not guarantee equality before the law. The Constitution does. Popular democracy empowers the majority. Yet, democracy is critically about the right to dissent and make life difficult for the ruling majority. Historically, dissent was equated with treason - you could be beheaded for daring to oppose the ruler. But democracy not only permits dissent but raises it to a place of honour. The leader of the Opposition is not merely a dissenter, he is potentially a future prime minister. That is why he is given Cabinet rank. Constitutional democracy nurtures dissent, which elected politicians would dearly love to squash if they could. Left to themselves, politicians would place no voluntary limits on their powers.
The Constitution erects a series of checks and balances to ensure that elected politicians do not become a law unto themselves. It creates institutions - such as the Supreme Court and Election Commission - to limit abuse of political power. Politicians know how fleeting power can be. So, they seek to create patronage networks and make money while they can. They create vote-banks by catering to the narrow interest of some groups, rather than aim for the national interest. Left to themselves, they would convert the entire economy into a series of vote-bank enclaves. Fortunately, the Constitution lays down equality before the law. So, governments have a lot of power, but this cannot be exercised arbitrarily.
Popular democracy is very short-termist. Politicians are elected for only a few years, and want policies and actions that yield immediate, visible results. They are not very interested in long-term reforms which might help the country immensely, but will only benefit some future government. The main focus, therefore, is on quick-fixes. It is quicker to create job and educational quotas for backward castes and Muslims than to invest in basic education that empowers them to compete without props. This accounts for the huge political emphasis on quotas, reservations, subsidies and permits. This enables politicians to be seen as champions for this or that cause. They lose this visibility if they go for reforms that make them redundant.
From a long-term perspective, every country needs strong institutions that work without political interference. But it is against the interest of politicians to have a system where everything works smoothly. Rather, they want a system where things do not work well, enabling politicians to intervene and be seen helping voters. Besides, to make money politicians have to first create hurdles and then charge a fee for overcoming them.
The framers of the Constitution did not face such perverse incentives. Members of the Constituent Assembly were not elected, and did not face re-election. So, they had no need to create patronage networks, or make money for fighting the next election. They were not obliged by the electoral cycle to focus on short-term fixes, and so could concentrate on long-term aims and ideals. They could focus on creating independent institutions that would provide checks and balances, limiting the discretionary power of politicians.
On Republic day, we need to remember with thanks those framers of the Constitution. Ironically, they contributed greatly to Indian democracy precisely because they were not elected. The Constitution created other unelected bodies - such as the Supreme Court and Election Commission — which are the most respected in India precisely because they keep elected politicians in check. Democracy needs unelected positions of power, no less than elected ones.

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