Understanding Democracy
by P M Ravindran on 06 Jun 2019 8 Comments

The crisp definition of democracy – rule of the people, by the people, for the people – was popularized by one of the most popular presidents of the USA, Abraham Lincoln. But the idea had initially been mooted by Plato in Republic (380 BC).


Direct democracy, where people participated directly in the governance of the society, had existed in Athens, Greece, in it’s hey days. What we have today is representative democracy, where governance is through elected representatives. Even here there are two types - the Parliamentary and the Presidential. In the former, we have political parties contesting elections and the party that gets majority among the successful candidates heads the government. In the Presidential type, people directly elect the President to head the government and the President chooses his own team of Secretaries to assist him. 


But in democracies like The Philippines, the government is formed by all the parties sharing portfolios in proportion to the seats won by their candidates. While collective responsibility is a plus point there, the absence of a strong opposition to provide the requisite checks and balances is also a bane. Parliamentary democracies can also have a Monarch as Head of State, as in UK.


By default, these governments are transient. The tenures of elected representatives vary. It is 4 years in the US and 5 years in India. Continuity in government is provided by the bureaucracy. They are responsible for record keeping and follow up actions that include the executive functions of governance that are duly delegated by the President.  


Democracies usually have another institution that is very much part of the government, but insulated from the other two organs. This is the judiciary, responsible for interpreting the laws in the context of disputes brought before them. Since democracies lay a great stress on rule of law, the onus on this institution is also quite high.


Thus we have, essentially, three organs of government in any democracy: the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. Since India also has a federal form of government, these are replicated at state level. Though we have also introduced a three tier Panchayati Raj System, viz., Gram Panchayat, Block Panchayat and District Panchayat below the state, the powers devolved and resources made available are not commensurate with the projected objectives of grassroots democracy.


Whether at national or state level, one can often hear the refrain of balance of powers between the various organs and checks and balances. Before we analyse these, let us nail another question: who is the Head of Government at the national level in our country?


The Head of the Nation State is the President of India. He is elected by a Collegium of MPs and MLAs. No bills passed by the Parliament can be effective until approved by the President; only then do they become law. Interestingly, Governors in the States are in the image of the President, but they are not elected, even indirectly. They are appointed by the President on the recommendation of the Union Cabinet. They are therefore regarded as agents of the political party heading the government at the Centre. For now we shall limit our analysis to the Union Government.


The President is not merely a titular head. He is the overall Head of the Government and is assisted by the Union Cabinet of Ministers headed by the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister-headed cabinet is strictly the interface between the legislators in Parliament and the Executive under the President.


This is a tricky situation which could be confusing. The confusion arises from the fact that the Prime Minister wields ultimate authority on behalf of ‘the People’. The first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, reduced the office of the President to a rubber stamp. So it is not unusual to hear of the Prime Minister being referred to as the Head of the Government.


For the moment we can sidestep the turf battles between Jawaharlal Nehru and Rajendra Prasad. I shall just highlight one factor that will leave no room for doubt that the President is the Head of the Government in general and the Executive organ of the Constitution in particular. Every Government Order is always issued in the name of the President.


So it is the President of India who is Head of the Nation and its Government. The Prime Minister and his cabinet are ministers giving counsel and help in administration. True the Prime Minister is directly elected and along with parliamentarians represents the will of the people. This pre-eminence is expressed through the provision that when a Bill is not acceptable to the President he can send it back and if it is presented again, with or without changes, it has to be approved by the President. This does not dilute the powers or status of the President.


The role of the Executive is to provide administration in accordance with the laws framed by Parliament and approved by the President. Authority to exercise discretion in taking decisions is delegated in a calibrated manner to enable effective and efficient administration. But abuse and misuse of this discretion cannot be ruled out. However, there are provisions in the Indian Penal Code to address this also. The problem is only in using these provisions when needed.


This is a process that requires continuous tuning and refinement, which requires an effective feedback system. One is through the elected representatives who are duty bound to have their ears to the ground and pick up every signal for change that his constituency demands. The media, often touted as the fourth pillar of the State, is also a feedback channel. There has to be another one that is directly available 24X7. http://pgportal.gov.in/ is an attempt to provide this, if used diligently.


Unfortunately, in our country the performance of these channels is unsatisfactory. Has anyone heard of any MP or MLA discussing legislations in the offing with their constituents? An MLA in Kerala, new to his job, used Facebook to seek public opinion on a bill being presented in the Legislative Assembly. He was soon ticked off by the Speaker of the Assembly for breach of privilege of the House. If anyone observes the interactions that these elected representative have with the public, one wonders, are we electing these people to merely inaugurate various functions in their constituencies or project the will of the majority of their constituency during legislation?


Once, on the death anniversary of environmental activist Indiannur Gopi, of Palakkad, there were a good number of current and ex MLAs present. The special guest for the occasion was Rajinder Singh, waterman of India. He was to speak on his experience in rejuvenating water bodies in desert villages of Rajasthan and offer suggestions to bring alive the Bharathapuzha river, a project for which Indiannur Gopi had dedicated his life. All the MLAs mouthed the usual platitudes and left. The guest speaker never minced words in condemning the attitude of the MLAs who could not spare time to listen to his suggestions. If this is cynical, just try and recollect any legislation that is in keeping with the aspirations of the people, or try posting a suggestion/feedback/complaint at the pg portal.  


It should be obvious that when we discuss checks and balances between the three organs there should be practically no interference by any other organ in the legitimate functions of any organ.


Unfortunately, plenty of reports suggest political interference in the functions of the Executive. Even political party leaders at the lowest level are reportedly interfering with the day-to-day functions of institutions of public administration, including police.


I once sought information under the RTI Act on the posting of District Collectors and Superintendents of Police in the 14 districts of Kerala. Barring Thiruvananthapuram, Ernakulam and Kozhikode, the average tenure of these public servants had been less than one year. In the three districts it was nearly 3 years, the standard tenure. This revealed not just political interference but a deliberate effort to deny opportunity to these important functionaries to settle down and be effective. The even more sordid conclusion is that though the IAS and IPS are the most influential lobbies in the country, they would not take up this issue of denial of standard tenure for them to work effectively and efficiently.


While posting as an unofficial punishment is an unwritten rule in the country, it seems to be the only modus operandi known to the political masters to keep the bureaucracy toeing their line. This has been disastrous in the delivery of government services to the citizens. While bureaucrats blame political interference for their failure to perform, and even corruption, many reports blame the bureaucracy directly for impeding progress through sloppy procedures (red tape).


Raghunandan Raghavan, retired IAS, wrote:


There are actually six kinds of officers as follows, in two categories, the corrupt and the honest. The corrupt consist of the demanders (those who are aggressive and demand money), the takers (who often accept favours in kind) and the intellectually dishonest (who might not take money, but are not averse to giving the wrong advice or looking away, and who play the caste, region and old school tie card to get plum postings). The honest too fall into three categories; the honest doer, the honest non-doer (who comes to office and just pushes files put up to him/her) and the honest un-doer (who sees the honest doer as his greatest and most proximate enemy.) The only ones who actually get anything done are the honest doer and in some cases, the intellectually dishonest.


Now why does this happen? Because you cannot expect people to remain excellent if all they need to do is to pass one exam early in one’s life and then sail along protected from competition. It is like saying that since Sachin scored a century in his first match, he will be captain for 35 years. The IAS offers a great comfort zone for people. The way out is to throw open the bureaucracy to lateral entry. This has already been suggested by the Administrative Reforms Commission and in some sense by the 6th Pay Commission. But both these reports again go to Committees of Secretaries, for implementation! It is no surprise therefore, that these recommendations have not been implemented! By the way, what is said above is true of the police, the income tax, the audits and accounts service and indeed, of all permanently recruited bureaucrats.


Suffice to say that the politicians and bureaucrats are hand in glove in making a mess of governance and life miserable for law abiding citizens.


When it comes to the judiciary, we were taught in school that they not only sit in judgment over disputes between citizens but also between citizens and the government and between governments. The mandate is not only to sit in judgment over disputes, but also protect citizens from government excesses.


It can easily be said that this institution has failed citizens more than any other. It is not only a failure from the point of view of “justice delayed is justice denied”, but also from the point of view that “justice should not only be done but seen to be done”. Some reports claim it would take 325 years for courts to clear the backlog of cases, if no cases were to be filed henceforth. This failure has directly affected the other organs of the Constitution because they are not bothered about the laws and tend to push ordinary citizens to the court. After filing a case in the court, the only thing that the aggrieved citizens can do is to wait for death to visit them and relieve them of all agonies.


To conclude, here are some statics:

The US Constitution, adopted on September 17, 1787, is less than 12 pages and 4400 words. It is the oldest written Constitution and comprises of just 7 Articles. It has been amended merely 27 times. The last amendment (27th) was proposed in 1789 and enacted in 1992.


The Constitution of India, adopted on January 26, 1950, is more than 450 pages and 1,17,000 words. It comprises of 450 Articles and has been amended 116 times. The problem with this voluminous Constitution is that everybody agrees that “you can’t live by the book” and so it is back to “might is right”.


We can now agree with Thomas Jefferson who observed, “When the people fear the government there is tyranny, when the government fears the people there is liberty”.


The views expressed by the author are personal

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