Though democracy as a form of government has replaced monarchy in most countries of the world, monarchy continues to be preferred in some tradition-bound societies. In many Islamic countries either monarchy or military dictatorship is in practice. Bruni, Eswatini, Oman, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates have monarchical form of government. The reason is that in those countries, people are either blind to their anachronistic beliefs or their level of political consciousness is low.
Greeks were the first in the world to develop a nascent democracy. They introduced democratic principles in the governance of Athens around 508 BCE. Their direct democracy in city-states enabled all the free citizens to take part in the process of decision making and law enacting, notwithstanding the fact that half of the population remained as slaves. But, after the formation of states and substantial increase of population, monarchy as a form of government came into vogue even in Greece.
British were the first to introduce legislation restraining the powers of their king. Even as early as 1215 CE the passage of Great Magna Carta by the nobility curtailed the powers of the King John II. According to Magna Carta, nobody could be arrested without a warrant or imprisoned without trial. No one’s property would be confiscated except by legal procedure. Under no circumstances the means of subsistence shall be seized. When the Stuart kings like James I of England (1601) proclaimed that he was above law because he was representing god on earth, the Parliament citing the spirit of Magna Carta challenged his claim. King James failed to see the political development that had taken place since 14th century. His successor Charles I was beheaded for functioning autocratically (1649). Finally when Stuart dynasty was replaced by Hanover dynasty constitutional monarchy became the form of government in England.
By the dawn of fifteenth century, a new wave of reason and daring had begun to sweep the whole of western Europe, originating in Italy first. There emerged a renewed interest in the study of Greek literature and art, ever since Constantinople was captured by Turks, necessitating discovery of new sea routes from the West to the East. The fleeing of scholars from Bagdad to Italian cities like Florence, provided stimulus to learn about the Greek philosophers, artists and literateurs. The invention of printing press in Germany helped to carry the new, progressive and rationalistic ideas into other parts of Europe. This affected the life of the time in every direction. Historians call this Renaissance or the Age of Reason.
The Scientists and Philosophers of this period inculcated in people a sceptical mind. People began to reason out everything and refused to accept any concepts or ideas before they scientifically tested them. In that period, there were widespread debates on economic organization, political institutions and methods of governance of a country. This critical attitude made them analyse the role of State and Church. The authority of Pope too came under review and was critically scrutinized. On critical analysis, they found democratic political system, as explained by John Lock and his other contemporaries, would be better than monarchy.
In continental Europe, absolute monarchy was the order of the day. The French monarch Loius XIV (1643-1715), when asked to define state, he said, “I am the state.” But rulers like Joseph II of Austria (1765-1790) were enlightened and ruled the country keeping the welfare of the subjects in mind. In the meantime democracy had triumphed in the United States of America and inspired by it the French overthrew the Bourbon dynasty and decided in favour of constitutional monarchy.
Today, many countries practice representative democracy. In this political set-up elections are held periodically to elect people’s representatives. The elected representatives form a government and rule the country for a fixed period i.e. four or five years. If they do not perform well or if acted against the collective interests of the people, then the party in power is overthrown and the opposition party is given opportunity for the successive five year term.
Is this form of government free from all deficiencies? The first demerit of this arrangement is that all decisions are being taken merely on the basis of simple majority. This concept itself has an inbuilt weakness. Because, many democratic governments, at times, take wrong and immoral decisions based on simple majority. They don’t bother whether their decisions are beneficial to a vast majority, let alone its worth in terms of moral rectitude.
In many democracies fundamental rights are denied to ethnic and linguistic minorities. The Charter of Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) guarantees against denial of human rights to any individual or any group on grounds of race and religion. In all democratic countries, including in India, these rights have been incorporated in the Constitution. How can an undemocratic and blatant infringement of fundamental rights enshrined in each country’s constitution be justified just because the ruling party could muster majority in parliament? How can a government that functions with a sectarian outlook be considered a civilized government?
Thinkers assert that ‘defining majority rule as a democratic rule’ is wrong. They argue that a good government is one that looks after the welfare of all, inclusive of the marginalized, the disadvantaged and the economically deprived. Another weakness they point out is that most representatives of the people are not faithful and loyal to the main principles of democracy. For this condition, moral degeneration is attributed. In the initial period, public-spirited people adhered to ethics upholding the spirit of honesty and integrity.
In course of time, the objective of one entering into party politics has become a means to earn tainted money. Moral degeneration has led to neglect of public welfare. Materialistic and self interests have come to dominate the minds of the people. It has weakened the humanistic outlook of the people. Humanitarianism and righteousness have become the casualties. Degeneration at all levels has made the electoral politics as a gamble. In many constituencies contesting candidates have to spend a lot of money to hold rallies, demonstrations, public meetings and to make publicity through television channels.
How can we expect the members elected by greasing the palm of the electorate to be public- spirited? By using the money power, cheats. crooks and criminals become people’s representatives. They bribe both the voters and the media. The enslaved media portray the cheats and criminals as virtuous people. They give wide publicity to the populist, economically non-viable schemes promised by the party. Once returned to power the ruling party ditch the people and focus their attention only on amassing wealth. They abuse their power. Corruption of the political leaders has to a large measure lowered the image of democracy. So, we need to reform the electoral system suitably for the public- spirited people to become people’s representatives.
Another weakness in the functioning of the present democratic government is the ‘party system’. Initially the party system was not in practice. In the legislating forums, all the members discussed various subjects impartially and open-mindedly and took decisions. All the members supported or opposed an issue based on its merit and according to their own conscience. The members acted independently of the party to which they belonged. This discretionary power that they enjoyed augured well for democracy. Today the political parties are sectarian and would oppose any measure for the sake of opposing.
A glaring anomaly in party politics is, the legislature is rigidly divided into ruling and the opposition blocks. By the brute majority, the ruling block always wins while the opposition is rendered ineffective. These days the opposition parties are denied their right even to record their views in the Parliament. So, party democracy is virtually dictatorship of the majority-controlled ruling party or of coalition of parties. Members cast their votes in State legislatures and Parliament on the direction of the party leaders. Block voting is routinely followed.
Thus, there are many problems in the functioning of democratically elected governments. People are bewildered, not knowing how to overcome these problems. We have to find solutions to these problems. Even now, many elected governments are authoritarian in its functioning. For example, in Afro-Asian countries the elected governments deny many inalienable fundamental rights to the citizens. They deny freedom of expression. They don’t allow the people to criticize the religious beliefs and customs. In short, they don’t assimilate the democratic ideology. They practice a few democratic procedures with some institutions in place. Their culture remains undemocratic. So, the democracy they practice is only a pseudo-democracy.
A survey taken recently for studying the democratic status of various countries, proclaims that India is not qualified to be called democracy. The reasons it states are “India practices Hindu – Majoritarianism in politics and the government of India clamps down on political dissent and on the media”. Democracy works well in societies where democratic culture exists. Democratic culture refers to the acceptance of human equality and the fundamental rights enunciated in the Constitution. The society needs to have the social structure based on human equality. These things develop feeling of oneness in society. It makes people love the fellow human beings and co-operate with them for the common causes. It makes people cultured and democratic.
Democracy and ethics are interlinked. They are interdependent with one another. Good democracy fare well wherever people assimilate ethical values and practice democracy sincerely and honestly. Democracy cannot be dissociated from righteousness. It is often said that democracy stands on four pillars. They are: legislature, judiciary, executive and media. Each organization and institution needs to act within its domain but not lose sight of the whole picture and lofty goal it is expected to achieve. The strength of a democracy depends upon the strength of each pillar and the way the pillars compliment each other.
In what conditions the four pillars are now. In most democratic countries, all the four pillars are weak. The conditions vary from country to country. What is the reason for the weakness of pillars of democracy. A critical analysis shows the people who operate these four institutions (i.e. legislature, judiciary, executive and media, print and electronic) are not faithful to the main principles of the democratic institutions. A substantial number of people misuse their power for self-gain. The power of money lures them. This makes them greedy.
How to change this milieu? This is the basic question before us today. Philosophers say that raising the moral standard of the people is the right means. It means that we must cultivate in young minds values of honesty, integrity, impartiality, courage of conviction, mercy and justice. Great intellectuals assert that a spirit of egalitarianism and a practice of humanitarianism are basic requirements. Because, loving the fellow human beings is the fountain head for all positivity and virtues. According to them, love is the elixir of life. The great moral preacher Gautama Buddha once said, “We are here in this world to live in harmony with the fellow people. By developing a sense of respect for one another and a concern for each other’s welfare, we can reduce our own self-centeredness which is the source of many of our problems”.
A good democracy is defined as an institutional structure that preserves liberty and equality of citizens through the correct functioning of the government and its method. About democracy, the American writer Henry George (1839-1897) in his book titled Progress and Poverty says that a corrupt democracy is a great evil to humankind, because in a corrupt democracy, the tendency is always to give power to the worst. Honesty and patriotism are weighted and unscrupulousness commands success. The best gravitate to the bottom, the worst float to the top. In short, ‘Gold weighs in the scales of justice.’ In corrupt democracy, the vile will only be ousted by the viler. Gradually, people assimilate the qualities that win power. People lose faith in moral values. In turn, the society becomes immoral and undemocratic.
In a corrupt government, rulers are selfish and accumulate wealth for themselves. They are keen is appeasing the persons who lend support to them. They don’t bother about the welfare of the people. They ignore democratic moral values. They don’t uphold the fundamental rights of the people. Their activities cause much suffering to the people since in the present age, the government controls the lives of the people more than in the past.
In view of the foregoing facts, we need to think of introducing suitable reforms in the electoral system and in the functioning of government. To strengthen democracy, we have to ensure socio-economic equality. We need to develop a sense of tolerance. We need to respect fellow human beings wholeheartedly. If we don’t act now, corrupt people will eternally occupy the seats of power. Our hard-won democratic rights will be snatched away.