Majority Rule and Democracy
A recent article in the Indian Express talked about the Tyranny of the Majority, especially in the context of India. The article itself is written wonderfully. It begins with an introduction to Mahatma Gandhi's views on democracy: specifically his aversion to representative democracy. It goes on to talk about the ideas Gandhi had as alternatives to representative democracy: non-hierarchal village communities, each of them functioning as a direct democracy. It then puts them into context for India's present. The advent and rise of Hindutva and right-wing-ism has the potential to pull India into an age of Hindu Nationalism, an age when strength in numbers might lead to the oppression of minorities at the hands of the majority. Gandhi's view on democracy might be the rope India needs to pull herself out of this hole. Direct democracy at the village level and a change in the nature of representative bodies (such as the legislature) which would allow a legislator to not be bound to the party line, but be able to vote independently, would help in bringing about a change to this descent into majoritarian politics.
As arguments go, the presentation is beautiful, but the statements and conclusions themselves deserve more careful examination. Let us go through them point by point.
Direct democracy has been presented as a panacea to the ills plaguing representative deliberation. Under this system, an assembly of the people would be the legislative body of the land. The author, sensibly, does not state that this should be done for India as a whole, but he does believe that this can be done at the village level. There are a number of problems with this.
The first problem I can think of would be dissemination of information. Legislation requires a certain understanding of legalese. India has a rather poorly-educated population. Getting them to understand the minutiae of the laws governing them is, perhaps, a tall order. Given that most of them can do no more than sign their own names shakily at best, getting them to understand the pages upon pages of legal statements which make up the corpus of a law would be mighty difficult.
Second is understanding. Understanding the statement of a law superficially is something achievable by most educated people. One can understand the arguments being presented, the conclusions being drawn, and the soundness of the whole. However, understanding the validity of each premise and more importantly, each conclusion, requires careful study and specialisation in many areas of the social sciences. Asking an educated person to be able to talk about a law intelligently is doable. Asking her to talk about multiple laws intelligently is only possible if she has a degree in law.
And finally, we come to debate. Debate is an essential part of law-making. The more the people engaged in it, the less fruitful it becomes. Asking an entire village to debate among themselves a law, agree upon amendments and pass a compromise least bothersome to all is not merely impossible, but ludicrous.
The last great nation to be ruled by direct democracy was Ancient Rome, where power was shared among Patricians and Plebeians through an elaborate power-sharing scheme involving multiple consuls, a senate, and a bunch of officers called tribunes (representatives of the tribes of Rome, literally). The system ran for a long time, right up until it began breaking under the stresses of running an Empire, causing dictators like Marius, Sulla, and finally, Caesar to undermine and break apart the Republic which their forefathers had set up. The system of the Romans involved no more people than those who lived in the city of Rome, yet histories speak of populism, demagoguery and riots. An appeal to direct democracy brushes up against the hard facts of history, which show that direct democracy leads to failure when people don't fully understand and scrutinise the laws they're willing to pass.
In theory, party independence exists. There is no law which compels lawmakers to toe the party line. In fact, lawmakers constantly vote against party line in the US and the UK, which is why things like party whips exist.
The reason lawmakers dare not step out of the party line is because of the nature of political parties in India. Political parties mushroom in India not merely because people have the right to form them, but because parties as they currently exist are no more than cults of personalities around a central, charismatic leader. The exceptions to this rule are the Congress, which seems to be organised around a dynasty, not a person, and the Left Front and the BJP, both bound to (relatively) extreme ideologies. Voting against the party line is seen as a personal affront to the party leader or the party ideology.
Why is this so? The straight answer: because of a lack of internal democracy in these parties. While the Left Front has some form of internal democracy; the Congress and the BJP lack even that. There is no formal process of getting electoral candidates vetted by members of the party. Rather, electoral seats are distributed according to the preference of the party leader (or high command) without anyone else really having any meaningful say. The party leader may, of course, be "convinced" using money, for there is no barrier to this.
The author mentions this, yet the solution being offered makes no mention of being able to change this tendency. Politics and policy go hand-in-hand, and organised politics is simply a way of doing it better. The solution is to build a party with proper internal structures, greater member-involvement, and a sane political ideology. Allowing each independent MP to have his or her own independent power base (having been chosen by the people and not nominated by the party leader, for starters) might give them more courage to stick to their own convictions.
The rise of Hindutva does not imply that one needs to change the way the country fundamentally functions. Direct democracy is a solution to nothing: witness Brexit. Giving the people a choice without fully explaining the pros and cons of each option can lead to disaster and instability. It is apparent that David Cameron's gamble on direct democracy backfired spectacularly on the British government and people. And as satisfying as it may be to watch the British trip over themselves trying to walk themselves out of this mess, it's much more pertinent to draw meaningful lessons from it.
A more important exercise would be to try and see why Hindutva won out over more secular ideologies. The author, K. P. Shankaran, seems to be trying to shift the onus of the events of this age onto the nature of representative democracy itself. That is the equivalent of a child wanting to stop playing a sport just because he's started losing at it. It might stop the beating he's receiving, but he's never going to get better without proper analysis and an alteration in his play-style.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was a great man, philosopher and leader. His contribution to the Indian Independence movement was unquestionably magnificent, and one ought to be humbled by it. However, one should not apply the same mantra of person-worship to Gandhi as one applies to modern political leaders and Rajnikanth. Gandhi was a flawed man. Nehru rightfully discarded Gandhi's model of post-independent agrarianism and pivoted instead to modernisation. Indeed, if one reads Nehru^[I am talking about Glimpses of World History, in particular.] carefully, one might manage to glean his distaste at going back to a self-sufficient village-republic lifestyle.
Direct Democracy is a closed door. Ancient Athens tried it, and was conquered by Sparta. Ancient Rome tried it, and birthed an empire. If modern India tries it, she might just lead herself to disaster.