As Indians, one of the things we truly ought to be proud about is that we are the world’s largest democracy! We’re about 1.4 billion people sharing space on this ancient land and, so far, we have found a way to coexist relatively harmoniously despite the great diversity of geographies, languages, communities, and cultures. From a time when we were hundreds of small and large kingdoms jostling for space on the subcontinent until the present day where we are formally organised as a nation of 1.4 billion people practising a particular political process called democracy, we have come a long long way.
In some ways, democracy has been the ideal political choice for India. With so many cultures, both ancient and relatively modern, trying to carve out space for themselves in the same country, one could imagine things would get a bit messy and chaotic. Thankfully, democratic processes happen to be perfectly structured to deal with that kind of chaos.
Democracy is always active and evolving, never passive. It requires regular and consistent vigilance and participation from the demos, the old Greek word for ‘the people’.
And if we look for some lessons from something else that is always changing and evolving – Nature – we find its processes mirrored in the practice of democracy as well. Just like in Nature, in democracy too there is no centralised ‘brain’ telling us how to live. Instead, it is an always-changing, shape-shifting creature that constantly adapts to the changes taking place in its environment.
As in ecology, where even the smallest of living beings has an important role to play in maintaining the integrity of the whole, a strong democracy too recognises the value of every voice, no matter how small or marginal.
If at all there is something akin to a centralised brain in a democracy, that would be our Constitution. However, this document itself is the outcome of a deliberative process drawn up by a committee of some of the brightest minds of the land who were elected or selected by the people of this great nation for this very purpose.
Let’s make our way to the present day now. Since our independence about 76 years ago, India has seen a constant interplay between the three pillars of any democracy – the legislature, the judiciary, and the executive – shared here in no particular order. We’ve all learned about these three powerful pillars in school, but I’d like to focus in this essay on a few key ideas that, in my opinion, form the backbone of a democracy.
Two concepts that I find to be particularly relevant in the context of a democracy, are representation and participation.
Representation is the idea that every Indian has a voice, or at the very least, has someone representing their voice for them. Without this, governance in India would go down one of 2 paths:
- Some people’s voices would not be heard at all, or
- Other people would decide for them, whether or not they consent to these decisions.
If we look back at our own political processes over time, as a nation we seem to have stopped giving much importance to Participation. During elections, once we’re done electing our representatives, we feel we’ve done our job. With our voting done, we hurry back to our busy lives and let them take charge of politics and governance.
Naturally, they end up deciding everything for the citizens of the country. Our political representatives end up deciding our present and our future in so many ways. For example, they decide how and where our tax money is spent. They have to decide how to allocate the available resources between a variety of important areas such as education, hunger and poverty alleviation, health, defence, infrastructure, protecting our environment, etc. Our political representatives also have to build strong relationships with neighbouring countries and form alliances with other countries to ensure our economy thrives and our defences stay strong. All this is important work that will have huge implications on our collective futures.
But, if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice we’re only focusing on one half of the term here – only on the political part in ‘political representative’! In fact, we mostly don’t even use the latter word. We simply call them politicians or our elected leaders or sometimes, quite disconcertingly, our rulers (as in, the ruling party)!
Rulers they most definitely are not. There is no space for a ruler-subject relationship in a democracy. If there’s one thing we must always remember about a democracy, it is truly of the people, for the people, and by the people.
However, in my opinion, the more important part of the term political representative is the word ‘representative‘. They only have one job – to represent the citizens of this great country, Indians of all kinds, of all genders, from all communities and regions, from every economic class, and even Indians who did not vote for them. As our political representatives at the national level, they cannot choose who they represent. By definition, they represent all Indians.
This is not an easy ask; to represent someone else accurately requires great wisdom, a strong intellect, and a deep sense of ethics. Representation is required for a very simple reason – can you imagine 1.4 billion people trying to have conversations daily about the most important issues of the day? It’s not possible; the potential for misunderstanding is humongous and that can lead to a wide range of problems for everybody concerned.
Representation, in its simplest form, is then just a way for these 1.4 billion people to share their individual ideas, problems, and desires at the next higher level. This level comprises a few million bureaucrats who act as the interface between the elected Central and State governments and the people the government represents. On the ground, it is often the bureaucracy that interacts with the larger public through its various services such as the IAS, IFS, IPS, etc. These departments then funnel the public’s wishes up to the several thousand political representatives whose job it is then to represent these voices as accurately as possible at the highest levels of governance.
Of course, our political representatives do not access the public’s voice in just this one form alone. They meet their constituents in their constituencies and hear directly from them. They also get the pulse of the nation through the media whose job it is to report on what the people of India are going through or want in their daily lives.
Unfortunately, this delicate balance between the representatives and the people they represent, is somewhat broken today for a variety of reasons.
A lot of our mainstream media is no longer independent; they are often controlled by a few key players with vested interests who control and influence the flow of information between these two vital stakeholders – the people of India and their representatives – in the larger democratic process.
This is just one of the many reasons why participation in public life has declined, both in quantity and quality. Without access to real information, a genuine conversation between the people of India and their representatives is not possible. Another key reason is the dilution of the Right to Information Act which allows common citizens to ask for information about the government that they have elected and the work they’re doing.
We can now see how this interplay between representation and participation is one of the key processes that allows a democracy to thrive. Somehow, over the last several decades, an incorrect perspective may also have crept in that out of the 3 pillars of a democracy, the Executive branch plays the most important role. Once again, when we pay attention we see this is not the case at all. The Executive branch simply happens to be more visible in everyday life because of the nature of their work. This does not, in any way, diminish the importance of the Legislature and the Judiciary without which no democracy can survive intact. As a collective, this is another important idea to reflect on and strengthen in younger generations.
There is ample scope for improvement on this front but we’ll leave that for another article at a later date.
This is also why it isn’t enough to stick with slogans like ‘India is the world’s largest democracy‘. People, on the ground, must feel like we are a democracy.
That means, every single Indian must feel like they’re 100% part of the fabric of this nation.
Every Indian must feel they have the power to speak up against anything they perceive to be wrong or unjust.
Every Indian must feel like their voice is heard, whether they’re speaking about how their tax money should be spent, or what they feel governance in the country must prioritise, or how India must relate to its neighbours and other countries.
This must be true across all regions in India and across economic, communal, and other divides. A democracy where certain segments of the people feel powerless to voice their opinions or feel they don’t have any standing, has a lot of work to do. It’s time for us Indians, to objectively ask ourselves – does India have scope for improvement when it comes to practising democracy?
This is what it boils down to, then — representation cannot happen without our participation. They are two sides of the same coin. What will our political representatives represent if we don’t tell them what we want? That is our primary job as citizens – to ensure we participate actively and consistently in our democracy, that we speak up about what we want, and to make sure we hold our representatives accountable for their work.
Indian youth can make a valuable contribution towards strengthening democracy in India today, by holding each of the three pillars of our democracy accountable for their primary roles as lawmakers, as representatives, and as upholders of justice to the people of India.
If we can normalise the idea of true representation and service to the public over the next generation, we are sure to have a population in 10-15 years that understands the true meaning and practice of democracy.
Mr. Vinod Sreedhar founded Journeys With Meaning in 2007 to bring inspiring stories of hope, resilience, innovation, and change to urban Indians who are often disconnected from nature and the life lessons it can teach. Over the last two decades, he has worked extensively in the social sector, focusing especially on deepening ecological sustainability, whole systems thinking, democracy, and active citizenship. Between 2001 and 2007, he was a co-founder at Phase Five, a social enterprise that designed and conducted intensive workshops for youth on these issues.
Apart from continuing Journeys With Meaning’s award-winning work, he is now working on bringing Systems Thinking into the forefront of research, policy, and solution-design through his new venture, All Systems Reboot.