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Tyranny of the majority

By K.P. Shankaran

It is a little known fact that democracy, which is today celebrated worldwide, was anathema to Mahatma Gandhi. His disdain for the institution of parliament was evident when in 1909, writing in the Hind Swaraj, he described it “a costly toy of the nation”. Gandhi was, of course, referring to the British parliament of the day. But his unequivocal belief that the parliamentary form of democracy was ill-suited for India was clearly evident when he wrote in the Hind Swaraj, “I pray to God that India may never be in that plight”.


Gandhi was undoubtedly a thoroughbred democrat. Throughout his life he remained a champion of democratic rights and lent his voice and support to democratic associations, wherever he happened to be. But the democracy that Gandhi supported wholeheartedly was the direct form of democracy as opposed to the representative one.
Representative democracy is a product of an idea of a nation state that developed after the French Revolution. It certainly looks dignified in comparison with the alternative — dictatorship that could potentially lead to fascism.

However, for Gandhi, the idea of a nation state was itself a trap and he feared that once India adopted it, it would forever be forced to run a representative form of government in order to avoid the menace of a possible dictatorship. This dislike for representative democracy sprang from his conviction that it would in no time degenerate into an anti-people institution in a multicultural and multi-religious context like India. Gandhi was the first theoretician of democracy to foresee this danger.

It was to forestall such a possibility that Gandhi envisaged the creation of interrelated self-sufficient non-hierarchical socialist village communities called “swaraj”, with each of them functioning as a direct democracy. Gandhi devised his constructive programme for the implementation of “swaraj”. He believed that “swaraj”, if implemented through the constructive programme, would help people conceive development as freedoms instead of economic advancement. He also needed, a non-violent interim arrangement during the transition from a capitalist state to a stateless socialist society. Gandhi’s idea of trusteeship, like Marx’s idea of dictatorship of the proletariat, was intended for that purpose. He believed that this was the only way India could escape the threat of becoming a nation state and being forced to choose between the two evils.

Was this a reasonable proposal? Or was Gandhi’s proposal reactionary and unintelligible, as Nehru said in a letter to Gandhi on January 11, 1928. One of the persons who thought it would have been wonderful if India had paid heed to Gandhi was Noam Chomsky. In an interview Chomsky said: “There were some positive things — for example, his (Gandhi’s) emphasis on village development, self-help and communal projects. That would have been very healthy for India. Implicitly, he was suggesting a model of development that could have been more successful and humane than the Stalinist model that was adopted (which emphasised the development of heavy industry, etc.).”

In the democracy index of 2017, India has been categorised as a flawed democracy. To most of us this may not have come as a surprise. The dark underbelly of representative democracy is out there in the open for everyone to see. Like American democracy, this is also a managed democracy. Money, other incentives and the presence of criminals play a significant role in the elections. Except for the left parties, all other political groups are either owned by an individual, a family or an institution for all practical purposes. Intra party democracy thus stands seriously compromised. This tendency first manifested in the Congress with the ascent of Indira Gandhi. Gradually this had a domino effect on the other parties as well. This resulted in parties working for the private interests of the person(s) “owning” the party and in the process, the interest of the masses often got ignored.

Moreover, in a multicultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious society like India, representative democracy has the inherent propensity to generate “vote banks”. It is inevitable that in such societies, different groups would vote for the parties/candidates who they think are most likely to protect their interests. This tendency is, as the logic of the system demands, exploited by all political parties. But the Hindutva movement and its ascendency that is feeding on this tendency, is now threatening to convert Indian representative democracy into a majoritarian democracy. The Hindutva movement is poised to create a unified “Hindu religious group” and a consolidated “Hindu vote bank”. In the upcoming parliamentary elections, the fate of India would be sealed quickly and decisively if the Hindutva parties are returned to power. Even if this possibility is averted this time by the combined effort of the opposition parties, given the logic of electoral politics, this threat will become more acute after five years.

The consequence if India should become a majoritarian democracy and a “Hindu Rashtra” will be serious. If we do not wish India to become another Syria because of electoral logic of a representative democratic system, we have to pay heed to the Gandhian option. This would require us to find ways of getting direct democracy into our system in all significant areas. One possible way is to experiment with deliberative polling. Deliberative polling has been successfully experimented in many contexts even in China. Along with direct democracy introduced through deliberative polling, we should simultaneously convert the parliament and the legislative assemblies into institutions of deliberative democracy. That is, the members of these institutions should have the freedom to decide their preferences independently of their party affiliations, after a through deliberation of the matters at hand.

These are only tentative suggestions put together to urgently call attention to the impending danger.