Synergia Foundation organized a round-table discussion with Max Rodenbeck, Editor, South Asia Bureau Chief at The Economist, and moderated by OV Nandimath, Registrar, National Law School, Bangalore.
The event was attended by experts who shared their insights on various challenges faced by democratic institutions all over the world.
Democracy is defined as a government of the people, by the people and for the people. It allows every citizen of the country above the age of 18 to cast votes and choose their leaders irrespective of their caste, colour, creed, religion or gender. The government is elected by the common people of the country, and it is their knowledge and awareness that determines its success or failure. India is both largest and a recent democracy in the world, since its independence in 1947.
India has a federal form of democracy with a government at the Centre that is responsible to the Parliament and state governments that are equally accountable to their legislative assemblies. It is governed by the Constitution of India, which was adopted by the Constituent Assembly on 26th November 1949 and came into force on 26th January 1950. The document lays down the framework demarcating fundamental political code, defines the structure, procedures, powers and duties of government institutions and sets out fundamental rights, directive principles and the duties of citizens. It is the longest written constitution of any sovereign country in the world.
The Constitution of the United States of America, adopted in 1788, provides the world's first formal blueprint for a modern democracy. George Washington was elected unopposed as president in 1789, and again for a second term in 1792. Since then, America has carried out various laws, bills and reform movements to further the agenda of democracy in the world.
The United Kingdom is a unitary state with devolution governed within the framework of a parliamentary democracy . It functions as under a constitutional monarchy in which the monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II, is the head of state while the Prime Minister, currently Theresa May, is the head of government. The judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislature. The highest court is the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. The UK political system is a multi-party system.
Synergia Foundation’s round table discussion on ‘Unplanned Obsolescence: Democracy and Institutions’ witnessed a non-partisan debate on the relevance of democracy and the constitutional issues that have a bearing on it.
The discussion brought to the fore key issues concerning the evolution of democracy and the challenges it faces in a digitized age. Although democracy has been accepted as the best form of government globally, it is now facing a serious crisis. The fundamental tenets of democracy including guarantees of free and fair elections, the rights of minorities, freedom of the press, and the rule of law are under severe stress around the world.
Mr. Nandimath set the tone by highlighting the narratives of constitutional supremacy and the rule by majority vs. rule by reasoning. He stated that democracy is further strengthened on two counts - firstly, when a common man’s aspiration becomes reality and secondly, when the ‘rule by reasoning’ has precedence over the ‘rule by majority.’ He also suggested that the need is to make the Judiciary more legitimate with the Supreme Court having to only uphold and interpret the Constitution.
Max Rodenbeck in his keynote address made a comparison of democracies and institutions particularly in UK, USA and India. He pointed out ways in which the executive, the courts and other agencies are being continually undermined. He then highlighted out the ‘democratic conundrum’ as to how democracy has prevented the resolution of many societal problems in India. He observed that there is much similarity in the functioning of polity in America and India. According to him, the Indian constitution needs to be dynamic to deal with some of the fundamental problems that the country faces. Having spent a significant part of his life in the Middle East, he cited Turkey’s current political dispensation as a warning to the status quo in Indian politics.
The primary problem with Indian institutions is that they are used by political parties to fulfil their own objectives. According to him, the idea of India, the world’s largest democracy, metamorphosing into an undemocratic framework is frightening to most democracies in the world. Mr. Rodenbeck added that, “the country needs to build strong firewalls between the government and its institutions to protect their legitimacy, while citizens need to be vigilant.” For a functional democracy, counterbalances in conjunction with rule by reasoning and strong institutions is a necessity.
Mr Rodenbeck also responded to various questions flagged by core discussants on the definition of majority in the country, the importance of education in bridging the information asymmetry and the subversion of the constitution. He concluded the discussion with a general consensus that for democratic institutions to thrive in India there needs to be a far greater and more inclusive public engagement.
Some co discussants pointed out that in comparison to other older democratic countries , India has made significant progress in areas like women’s empowerment, poverty reduction , reduction in child mortality, economic development and science & innovation.
There were arguments and counter arguments whether the rule of reason in a democratic framework was sustainable without the right level of education. One of the discussants remarked that in his country in Europe, many people who vote are farmers and democracy has thrived well. A key question arose whether the idea of majority derived mathematically as 50+1 is appropriate in formulating rules needed to govern a country like India. The emergence of some of the world’s richest people from India, while also being deeply affected by income inequality, can be regarded as a potential failure of democratic institutions.
Our assessment is that the discussion provided a contextual understanding on some of the key aspects of democracy and the importance of preserving institutions. We feel that Mr. Rodenbeck’s insights on the ‘democratic conundrum’ in India provided an additional insight to understand the societal challenges we face. We believe that India will continue to play a pivotal role in bridging democratic societies in the world.