INSPIRED by recent events in Central Europe, the term ‘illiberal democracy’ has gained currency of late. It is used to describe governments duly elected by the people, who set about wrecking the very system to which they owe their power – democracy.
Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban won a massive majority in parliament in 2010. Friendly tycoons control much of Hungary’s media. He soon set about eliminating the checks and balances on which democratic governance rests, overhauling the electoral system to benefit his party. In 2014, it won a two-thirds majority in parliament with less than half the popular vote.
In Poland, the ruling party emulated Hungary’s example since it came to power in 2015. The public broadcaster was made a propaganda organ, the civil service was packed with loyalists, the army was purged, and the constitutional tribunal packed with supporters. On July 12, it began to impose political control over the judiciary – ministers would now be able to sack judges.
Democratic governance depends a lot on the people’s temperament. Dr B.R. Ambedkar, architect of India’s constitution, steeped himself in history and political science. On two notable occasions, he delivered stern warnings that, predictably, went unheeded. Introducing the draft constitution in the constituent assembly on Nov 4, 1948, he said, “Constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realise that our people have yet to learn it. Democracy in India is only a top dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic.” More precisely: feudal.
After the assembly approved the constitution, Dr Ambedkar defined the conditions for preserving democracy. “It is quite possible for this new born democracy to retain its form but give place to dictatorship in fact. If there is a landslide, the danger of the second possibility becoming actuality is much greater. If we wish to maintain democracy not merely in form, but also in fact, what must we do?
“The first thing in my judgement we must do is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. … These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy.
“The second thing we must do is to observe the caution which John Stuart Mill has given to all who are interested in the maintenance of democracy, namely, not ‘to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions’. … The third thing we must do is not to be content with mere political democracy. … Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy.”
The modern state has come to wield considerable powers over the citizen. It provides a large number of benefits jobs, contracts, licences, quotas, mineral rights, etc. It pours forth wealth, money, benefits, services, contracts, quotas and licences. Many enjoy largesse in the form of government contracts, which often resemble subsidies.
In the US, the state’s power is more limited. The mayor of Puerto Rico can sharply criticise the president, and a TV station can refuse to take a call from the White House saying that the telecast was on. In 1936, Walter Lippmann said the reason democracy has worked in the US is that “outside the government and outside the party system, there have existed independent institutions and independent men. Foremost among the independent institutions has been the judiciary, with its power to review the actions of the legislature and the executive. But the judiciary has not stood alone outside the political government and the parties. There have been others, notably the free churches, the free press, the free universities, and, no less important to the preservation of democracy, free men with sufficient secured property of their own, farms, factories, shops, professions, savings, which were protected by the law and not dependent upon the will of elected or appointed officials.”
Democracy rests on two prerequisites: a national consensus on the basis of the political order, and restraint on the part of the winner and acceptance of defeat by their rival at the polls. In themselves, elections do not guarantee democratic governance unless the people as well as the leaders are committed to liberal values. We do not have to travel far to see this.
The writer is an author and lawyer based in Mumbai.