Can democracy be translated as rule by the people? Yes, but with very restrictive qualifications. For far too often, too many self-proclaimed gurus of democracy in our troubled land have been forgetting these qualifications in their abusive definitions of a political system that may be the closest in guaranteeing basic freedoms to its subjects. Perhaps it is because of their close relatedness that both freedom and democracy mean very different things when they are not bound by limits that discipline them. It is a very easy and effective political rhetoric to shout from the rooftops that democracy is a government by the people, for the people and of the people and whatever other cliché associated with it, but quite another thing when the clichés are to be given substance. And so we have “democratic” bandhs and blockades, “democratic” indefinite choking of lifelines, very soon we may begin hearing of “democratic” lynching and “democratic” murders, followed by “democratic” ethnic cleansing and “democratic” pogroms. The disturbing question often has been, what if the people, or at least a majority of the people begin wanting these things? Would democracy still be comfortably defined as a rule by the people, for the people and of the people? In the Balkan nightmare, such questions have troubled democracy theorists, just as it did liberals in India when the Gujarat communal frenzy happened in 2002. In Serbia, Serb right wing parties responsible for ethnic cleansing of Muslims and Croats returned majority in the “democratic” elections that were held even as court trials for genocides were on in the international courts of justice at the Hague of monsters like ex-Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic. In Gujarat, Narendra Modi’s hate campaign still guaranteed him victory in the election that followed the riots. Democracy defies easy definition, so let us handle it with care. Let it not be left up to anybody and everybody, especially politicians and mob leaders, to define its terms and make it a mockery. What we are witnessing in Manipur today may be precisely this.
Many eminent democracy scholars, including the well known scientist turned philosopher, Karl Popper, came to the conclusion that the spirit of democracy, if it is not routed through the formal system of representative government can only amount to anarchy, or in modern journalese, mobocracy. Once this can be taken for granted, as Popper says in “All Life is Problem Solving” (Routlege) that democracy’s debate should be on its finer points, such as, which mechanism of evolving this representative government is best suited to the purpose. The point that we are getting at is, democracy is a much more weighty issue than the illusory simplicity of a government for, of and by the people. It is in the least, a rule from the streets, be it students, women or our multiplying number of “civil society” bodies. They have a role in fostering democracy, but they do not automatically amount to democracy. The challenge then is to chisel, fine-tune and mould the sublimated system of governance by elected representatives to as close to perfection as possible.
No democracy model can be perfect. Be it the Parliamentary system as in this country where democracy is translated as rule by direct elections of leaders; or the indirect election of leaders through first voting and electing the political party (as in continental Europe), each will fall short of the ideal. Democracy, as Churchill said “is the worst system if not for the others”. The aim must hence be to make the democracy model “fit for the purpose”, and this purpose, to refer back to Popper, is to have a system in which the people can not only elect but also change their leaders without the need for bloodshed. Democracy is also about a people electing its enlightened elites to be in charge of their affairs for a certain fixed period after which these leaders would have to seek fresh mandate of the people to rule again. The ultimate sovereigns in such a rule are the people, or to be precise the individual voter. The responsibility of ensuring that only the enlightened elite of our society and none else is at the helm of our affairs so as to optimize our collective sense of well being hence requires the individual voter to be discerning and at the same time for the enlightened elite to be committed enough to be in touch with the masses and courageous enough to step into the hurly burly world of politics so as not to leave the field open for the criminal and vulgar to hold sway.