While celebrating International Democracy Day today, a fundamental question may, or rather should, catch hold of our thought process. And that is: Is democracy actually being seen as delivering? After the third wave of democracy that the world witnessed in the 1950s, the discussion about the advisability of democracy almost disappeared. The latest example was that of East Timor. When this new nation took birth some two decades earlier, the question—whether people there can handle democracy?—didn’t arise. It was presumed that theirs would be a democratic government and governance systems were established there accordingly.
Obviously then, the acceptability of democracy has increased manifold. But this has not erased question marks about its efficacy. In CIS countries, as pointed out by several surveys during the last decade, nostalgia for Soviet days continues to grip popular minds. Today, the subject of diminishing popular satisfaction levels about democratic governance is not confined only to former USSR countries. As pointed out by a 2020 survey of the Centre for Future of Democracy of the Bennet Institute, UK, “Across the globe, democracy is in a state of malaise. In the mid-1990s, a majority of citizens in countries for which we have time-series data—in North America, Latin America, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Australasia—were satisfied with the performance of their democracies. Since then, the share of individuals who are ‘dissatisfied’ with democracy has risen by around +10% points, from 47.9 to 57.5%.” The report further points out: “This is the highest level of global dissatisfaction since the start of the series in 1995. After a large increase in civic dissatisfaction in the prior decade, 2019 represents the highest level of democratic discontent on record.”
Ironic, but it is true that democracy as a system of governance has still not been able to secure a true enduring popular mandate. The reasons for this are not far to seek. Like any other system of government, democracy too is judged by its ability to make a significant difference to the lives of people. Just because democracy is all about freedom, liberty and human rights, it may not be able to secure a moral high ground. Practically speaking, people who not just enjoy but also greatly value individual freedom, every kind of liberty and protection of their human rights too want democracy to go beyond all these inherent features. Understandably, they want democracy to make their lives comparatively and measurably better than life in a non-democratic country.
One of the main prerequisites of democracy for it to be able to deliver on these counts is scientific cultivation of democratic institutions. If we take into consideration the three cardinal institutions—political parties, Parliament and media—the way they operate today leaves huge scope for reforms.
Political party reforms are perhaps central to this discussion. Parties are primary vehicles in a representative democracy. Parties are symbols of the element of choice, which is at the very core of the idea of India. Once described as ‘empty vessels’ by The Economist, parties as institutions require a closer look and a slew of reforms are needed to strengthen them in all democracies of the world, including in India. Firstly, in India, not just for the formation but even for the dissolution of a political party today, there is no serious process framework. Out of over 1,700 political parties either registered or recognised, not more than 50 have representatives in either Parliament or state Legislatures.
Out of these 50, not more than a dozen are ideology-based. All others are mostly dynasty-centric. Secondly, issues like functioning of these parties, internal democracy in their organisational conduct and their distinct policy perspectives, etc., are factors that need systemic reforms. Thirdly, some key reforms in the functional framework of political parties are a must. Can we not make it mandatory for all recognised political parties to run a simple informative website that is updated regularly? Can it be made mandatory for all parties to publish their annual report of activities? Can running a policy research centre be made mandatory for all recognised political parties? Small but important measures like these may help parties establish popular connect even in a non-election period and perhaps also end opaqueness in their functioning.
The functioning of our Parliament and state Legislatures too need reforms. For decades, we have been working with the same old, traditional equipments of parliamentary business. We need to evolve new, imaginative ways and means of raising issues and satisfactorily resolving them. This will also add to the productivity of our Houses. Why should we allow smooth conduct of business and overall functioning of the House to be taken hostage by a handful of MPs/MLAs who are out to disrupt it? Especially when Question Hour or Zero Hour are lost, people lose an opportunity to raise important issues. These precious opportunities can be saved if the possibility of starting a new practice of conducting Question Hour/Zero Hour in the chamber of the presiding officer is explored. Similarly, why can’t we have a PPT presentation or screening of an authentic video as evidence by a minister or a member in the House? Aggressive use of IT may open up innumerable opportunities for a more participative functioning of Parliament. After all, new challenges demand new experiments.
Media and social media also need reforms. While print media is still retaining its seriousness, electronic media needs reforms coming from within. For years, the government has been waiting for the broadcasters’ association to come out with a self-regulation mechanism. Unless such self-regulations are willingly adopted and sincerely followed, electronic media is bound to lose credibility. Trivialisation of content coupled with sensationalism in presentation are the twin ills afflicting electronic media. While surrendering before so-called market compulsions, electronic media is refusing to discharge its duty of educating the masses, shaping public opinion and cultivating popular tastes. There is reason to be apprehensive about the emerging digital media and social media too. Social media has facilitated democratisation of opinion-making. But sadly, the benefits of democratisation are squandered away by irresponsible enthusiasts. The sad part is, not just political parties, but the media too is going populist.
And populism is like a pest, out to corrode every pillar of democracy from within. When the pillars of democracy start corroding, the edifice appears unsettled and unreliable. This is a perfect recipe for democracy to lose on the credibility count. A structural audit followed by repairs and reforms therefore are the need of the hour!
National Vice President of the BJP, President, ICCR, and Rajya Sabha MP