Democracy is alive, and like any other living thing it either flourishes and grows or withers and dies. There is no in-between. It is freedom and life or dictatorship and death.” – SAUL ALINSKY
Former US President Franklin D Roosevelt once remarked, “The democratic aspiration is no mere recent phase in human history. It is human history.” The traces of democracy can, in fact, be found in some of the oldest societies. Democracy essentially means giving power to the people that it aims to govern. Over the last decades, most countries have adopted, or at least seemingly adopted different variants of the basic essence of democracy. In this light, it becomes crucial to examine whether one form of home in societies which are so different, and at times even repugnant to each other. Democracy is an institution that affects not only our political, but also economic, social, and legal spears.
Today, democracy is often recognised by negative annotations. In other words, it is defined by what it’s not. It is a government that does not exploit the power vested in it against its own people. It is a regime which cannot thrive against the will of its people. It supposedly is so because it provides the people a sense of power, much unlike any other forms of government.
The United Nations avoided the term ‘democracy’ anywhere in its original texts. But the nature and spirit of democracy and a rule by the people is present in all of its bodies’ principles, goals and aims. Not only does it find a mention in the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), it also has its own funding; especially dedicated to the spread of democracy in different parts of the world. The UN says that a rule by the people encourages an environment that allows growth of a person to the best of their capacity, protects human rights and upholds the rule of law.
The term Democracy has not been successfully defined to have one universal meaning. However, gauging through several different definitions, a general idea can be formed to determine the essential elements that constitute democracy. Some common definitions are discussed below.
i. The word ‘Democracy’ has been derived from the Greek word ‘demokratia’; where ‘demos’ means ‘people’ and ‘kratos’ means rule. Thus, democracy is literally speaking, ‘rule by the people’.
ii. The Cambridge dictionary defines Democracy as:
“the belief in freedom and equality between people, or a system of government based on this belief, in which power is either held by elected representatives or directly by the people themselves”
iii. British author Andrew Heywood defines it as:
“Rule by the people; democracy implies both popular participation and government in the public interest, and can take a wide variety of forms.”
iv. Joseph Schumpeter defines it as:
“The democratic method is that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote.”
In the book, he also states that the main purpose of democracy is not election, but essential rule of the people.
v. Dr John Hirst defines Democracy as:
“A democracy is a society in which the citizens are sovereign and control the government.”
vi. The most recognized definition however, comes from sixteenth US President, Abraham Lincoln gave at Gettysburg, pa., in 1863. Lincoln defined democracy as:
“A government of the people, for the people, by the people”
At first glance, all these definitions, and several others seem to be significantly different from each other, at least in concept. However, over a period of time, political thinkers and philosophers have identified some basic elements that are necessary for a State to be recognized as a Democracy. As can be inferred from above, they are characteristics such as suffrage, freedom of speech, political will, etc. However, these elements were legitimised by the United Nations in their Commission of Human Rights. In 2002, the Commission passed a resolution which stated the essential elements of Democracy as:
“Declares that the essential elements of democracy include respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, freedom of association, freedom of expression and opinion, access to power and its exercise in accordance with the rule of law, the holding of periodic free and fair elections by universal suffrage and by secret ballot as the expression of the will of the people, a pluralistic system of political parties and organizations, the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary, transparency and accountability in public administration, and free, independent and pluralistic media:”
These elements can, recognised by the UN, and ratified by its signatories, can serve as parameters to determine the quality of democracy in a nation.
3. Origin and Evolution:
Although it is often assumed that democracy was a system of government that began in 5th Century, BC in Athens, Greece, governance resembling democracy were present throughout prehistoric societies without any form of exchange of ideas between them. It is possible that a kind of rule that was governed by the will of its people has been one of the most natural and logical in times where communities developed strength from within itself. However, as humans began to settle for longer periods of time, there was a shift in power within the society due to accumulation of wealth and establishment of influential families. This gave rise to monarchies, oligarchies and other types of governments that would soon replace democracies for a long time.
- However, democracy as we know it today formed it earliest foundations in the Greek city of Athens. The Greek model of democracy was a model of self governance. The people met up to discuss policies, gave their opinions and decisions were taken on the basis of popular vote. However, the Greek Democracy did not include women, slaves or people with no property in their governance. Hence, the rule of the people was limited.
- The Roman Empire took inspiration from the Greeks and formed the first assembly, known as Comitia Curiata. It was an assembly that consisted of representatives of different tribes of the region. Hence, it was the first representative form of democracy, as compared to the Greek direct democracy.
- The first mention of Rights with respect to democracy was found in the English Parliament in 1689, where the parliament passed a charter which was called the Bill of Rights, the ancestor of several such charters by it counterparts. The bill of rights recognised the significance of an individual’s freedom in all aspects of life, particularly in political, cultural and social aspects. This was the first time the term Democracy was associated with other spheres of the state than just the governance. It was also the first charter that legitimised the existence of rights of the individual as an essential part of democracy.
- The American Revolution, which began by the American colonists in 1775 of the British Regime, had strong ideals of democracy ingrained in their demands. Their statement was that there could be no governance if they did not have representation. Thomas Jefferson, who penned the Declaration of Independence, noted that a ruler only has power so long as it given to him by his people. However, it would be pertinent to note that it was only in 1863, that Abraham Lincoln stated that the American government was a rule by the people.
- It was the French Revolution of 1789 that significantly radicalised the concept of democracy not only in Europe, but all over the world. It was the first government in Europe which was a rule by the people. And its ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity are found even in constitutions today as the basic fundamentals of a sovereign. This revolution changed the meaning of democracy, and evolved it from its ancient meaning to the new modern form of government.
- Democratic institutions were faced by dire challenged in both world wars, both Eastern and Western powers trying to delegitimize the power of a strong democracy. The end of World War II however, marked the majority of the States adopting some kind of democratic governance. The end of the war forced European countries such as the UK, France, and other powers to give up their control over their Asian and African colonies.
- The End of World War II also marked the inception of the United Nations, which recognised democratic values even its Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Article 21 of the declaration. The spirit of democracy is captured in Article 21(3) of the UDHR which reads:
“The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”
8. The United Nations, over the years has incorporated elements of democracy in several ways in their core values, their programs and their projects. The Sustainable Development Goals by the United Nations Development Program aims to spread values which are essentially democratic in nature under their 16th goal. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights also mention some key elements of democracy such as political freedom, equitable distribution of wealth, as key Rights granted to individuals.
9. The goal of democracy was further reaffirmed in the 2004 declaration on Rule of Law, where it was held in the United Nations General Assembly that:
“Human rights, the rule of law and democracy are interlinked and mutually reinforcing and that they belong to the universal and indivisible core values and principles of the United Nations”
The concept of democracy has evolved from a kind of rule to an idea of a State that puts the individual’s development and freedoms first. This evolution has been a long one; however, the amendable nature of democracy is essentially what has kept it alive and thriving throughout all these years. In the present times, when the values of democracy are being threatened in several parts of the world, it becomes important to examine how strong these values are thriving in our own nations.
4. Democracy in India
India is the world’s largest democracy. Since its Independence, India vowed to be a representative democracy. India is a Democratic Republic that enshrines the values of liberty, equality and fraternity in its core governing principles. The preamble of the Constitution declares India to be a ‘Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic’. The term ‘democratic’ signifies that India has a responsible and parliamentary form of government which is accountable to an elected legislature. The Supreme Court has declared ‘democracy’ as the basic feature of the Constitution. In present times, with the onslaught of the COVID-19, several nations have been forced to take extreme measure which treads the line of legitimate democratic principles. At this point, as a citizens of India, it is pertinent to examine Indian institutions of Democratic principles vis a vis the elements of democracy enshrined by the UN .
- Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms: The Constitution of India has dedicated Chapter III to the fundamental rights which are entitled to all the people of the country. These fundamental rights enshrine the freedoms and rights provided in the UDHR, the International Covenant on civil and political rights, and the International Covenant of Economic, Cultural and Social Rights.
Article 13 of the Indian Constitution enshrines the supremacy of fundamental rights over all laws that may be made in India. Articles 14-18 consist of provisions for Right to Equality, Article 20 provides for Right against self incrimination and double jeopardy, Article 21 gives Right to Life and Personal Liberty, and Article 22 provides Rights against unlawful arrest. These rights, which form the basic structure of the Constitution, keep the spirit of Democracy alive in all systems of Indian governance.
Article 19 on the other hand, enshrines the fundamental freedoms of an individual; such has freedom of speech, occupation, assembly, trade, etc. Articles 25-30 consist of freedoms of Religion and of minorities. Hence, the Indian Constitution ensures that this element of Democracy is never compromised in our country.
The supremacy of these fundamental rights has been upheld in several judgments in the past. Article 32 of the Indian Constitution empowers people to contest against the exploitation of their fundamental rights by the government, and empowers the Supreme Court to issue Writs in such cases. Under this jurisdiction, there have been several judicial pronouncements which have solidified the principle of supremacy of the people’s freedoms. The most landmark example is the introduction of the Basic Structure Doctrine in Keshavananda Bharti vs. Union of India, where the Supreme Court held that no amendments could be made in the Constitution which were against the Basic structure of the constitution, as was envisaged by the Constituent Assembly.
Another important judgment was the case of Maneka Gandhi vs. Union of India, where the Supreme Court introduced the golden triangle of the constitution and the doctrine of reasonability. It was held that while the fundamental rights were limited by the procedure established by law, they could not be curtailed by any procedure. The procedure in itself had to be just, fair and reasonable. It also stated that the Articles 14, 19, and 21 were the golden triangle of the Constitution and could not be read in isolation from each other.
These provisions and judgments have ensured the significance of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the individuals in our country.
2. Free and Fair Elections: Free and fair elections are a basic element of a democracy by the people. In V.S. Achuthanandan v. P.J. Francis, the Supreme Court had held that free, fair, and impartial elections are the guarantee of a democracy. The Constitution on India envisages this concept in Part XV of the Constitution which, inter alia envisions the formation of an Election Commission to ensure the fairness and impartiality in the process of elections. It also enshrines in this part the concept of Universal Adult Franchise, electoral rolls, and provisions that will govern the process of elections.
The parliament enacted the Representation of the People Act in 1951, which enshrines the provisions which govern the elections that are held in the country. Though in principle, the Constitution of India does not allow the interference of the judiciary in the electoral process, the Act allows the filing of an election petition against malpractices in elections in written form. The appropriate court under the Act is the High Court of the concerned state. Appeals from the high court go to the Supreme Court. Section 100 of the Act provides for grounds for the election petition.
In addition to the Act, an Election Commission of India was formed under Article 324 of the Constitution. The function of the Election Commission is to hold free and fair Elections at regular intervals, and to uphold the provisions of the Representation of the People Act. It is a Constitutional body, hence it an institution which can work with both autonomy and freedom. Thus, it ensures that the people coming into power are the true representatives of the voting population.
3. Separation of Power and Independence of the Judiciary: India is a parliamentary democracy that exercises the separation of powers in its functions in transparent terms. At a bare perusal of the Constitution of India, it can be observed that there is clear distinction of powers between an executive, which is headed by the president, the judiciary, which is independent from the influence of other organs, and the legislative which makes the laws of the country in accordance of the Constitution.
The powers of the President are elaborated in the Constitution itself. The power to make laws has been given to the legislation, and the only check they have is the Constitution itself. The judiciary completely independent, but it also has the power to examine the Constitutionality of any law made by the legislation. Hence, it can be said that the doctrine of separation of Power has not been adopted in India in its true sense, however, it still holds ground in its fundamental meaning.
In the case of Indira Nehru Gandhi vs. Raj Narain, the Supreme Court held that the adjudication of a case was the power of the Court, and not even the president could interfere with this power. In Keshavananda Bharti vs. Union of India, it was held that the separation of powers was a part of the basic structure of the Constitution and could not be amended out of the Constitution.
In the case of Ram Jawaya Kapur vs. State of Punjab, the Supreme Court too, held that although the doctrine of separation of power has not been expressly mentioned in the constitution, it is in fact violated if the function of one body of the government is taken over by another body.
Despite the doctrine not being recognised by the Constitution in exact words, the spirit of separation exists throughout the text. Article 50 of the Constitution is a DPSP which states that the state must endeavour to keep the three legs of the government separate and free from each other. Articles 122 and 212 do not allow any court to question the validity of the proceedings of the parliament.
Hence, looking at the provisions, statutes and case laws, it would be fair to assume that India has formulated strong foundation within its own institutions of governance to ensure that democracy and its ideals flourish for a long time in the country without crumbling.
The United Nation celebrated International Democracy on the 15th September every year. This day is embarked as reminder to all nations who observe democratic principles to check the status of democracy in their country. The evolution of democracy as a dominant form of government all over the world has been by way nature, as well as a result of emancipation of people all over the world. It is one of the only forms of government that gives its people the right, and the duty to make their own their decisions.
India is one of the newest Constitutional Democracies in the world. It not only observes the principles of democracy in its texts and functioning, but it also holds its government accountable to its people through provisions such as Article 32, Article 226, and the Right to Information Act, 2005. Hence, democracy thrives in India, not only through its government models, but also by the active participation of its citizens. This participation of can be said to be the heart and soul of Democracy.
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