January 18, 2016

Testing Direct Democracy

Resident Fellow in Political Economy, Vivek Dehejia, in this Mint article, writes about "an inherent tension between the twin principles that define the modern nation-state: democracy and liberty. Democracies can unleash xenophobic majoritarian sentiment and repress the liberties of minorities...Likewise, sacrosanct individual liberties—as enshrined in constitutions the world over, beginning with the US at the end of the 18th century and as exemplified in the Indian Constitution of 1950—constrain the illiberal impulses of democratically elected legislatures.

Democracy has many enemies—most notably itself, as in Nazi Germany or the Emergency. But today in India, in a development strangely little discussed by our hyperactive commenting class, the notion of direct democracy is being challenged. This is not so much in the name of liberalism, as that of technocratic efficiency—which is another time-tested route to dictatorship at worst or constitutional oligarchy at best (Singapore being an exemplary case of the latter terminus)....

 The very essence of direct democracy in the context of a parliamentary system such as ours is that every citizen, regardless of his or her educational qualifications, material possessions, whether he or she is a good or poor debtor, and so forth, has an inalienable right to vote and an equally inalienable right to stand for political office (in the latter case, assuming that entirely reasonable requirements such as nationality, residency in a constituency or assembly district, and so forth are met). These fundamental rights are simply not open to legislative tampering, or they ought not to be.

In the supposedly advanced economies of the West, these rights were denied to the bulk of the electorate for centuries. Famously, Great Britain during its rise as an industrial and imperial superpower could be better described as an oligarchy, rather than a democracy, since franchise restrictions based on property effectively disenfranchised the vast majority of the population. Likewise, in the states of the old Confederacy at the end of the bitterly contested American Civil War, so-called Jim Crow laws, which enforced racial segregation, also effectively disenfranchised African Americans. This was not overturned until the latter half of the 20th century. And, of course, most self-styled democracies disenfranchised 50% of the population—female voters—in most instances, well into the 20th century.

The Haryana law, and a similar one in Rajasthan, contravene this fundamental principle—opening, perhaps, a crack through which our cherished democratic values may eventually seep away. That would be a tragedy".



Topic : Transitions / In : OP-EDS
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