The Illusion of Democracy​

In his first article for the Forum, Suchintan reflects on the nature of the world’s largest democracy and questions its deeply rooted ‘undemocratic’ characteristics


Since the promulgation of the Constitution in January 1950, the democratization of a country as diverse and as inexperienced as India has been a tumultuous phenomenon. Questions are therefore bound to arise as to how far we have really been successful. Democracy in India is taken for granted to such an extent that politicians have ceased to aspire to progress and have begun seeking complacency through comparing the Indian experience with those of the South-Asian neighbours, who, needless to say, have been through much worse. Explicit factors such as electoral violence, rigging, intervention through the state machinery and political manipulation have never really been the deterministic factors capable of turning the Indian Democracy over its head. The subversion of democracy in this country has to be attributed to the fundamentally undemocratic nature of the dominant means of political representation and recruitment, which have by and large been fairly successful in putting up a façade of the popularly perceived notion of democracy.

In a representative democracy which follows the parliamentary pattern, the political parties as the dominant means of such representation are inevitable and all-important

Barring a few exceptions, almost all Indian political parties, whether national or regional are ‘undemocratic’ to the core in structure and consequently in function. This is not just symptomatic of the existing internal dichotomy of the party system in India but is also indicative of the deliberate sustenance of the same by those who have a major role to play in politics of the country and is evocative of the much larger problems which the country faces, namely corruption and nepotism, both of which have become institutions in their own right, facilitated by the glaring socio-economic inequalities and a substantial lack of education, resulting in political unconsciousness.

The lack of internal democracy within the Indian political parties (almost all of which seem to have a perfectly democratic constitution without any regard for its provisions, let alone adhering to them) distorts the very processes of political recruitment and representation. Since almost all elections are contested along party lines, the choice before the electors is limited in the first phase through what should have been a ‘sieving procedure’ of the various parties so as to ensure that certain standards of abilities are met by the candidates. But this very procedure has unfortunately turned out to be a process of eliminating the more suitable such that people are left to choose the lesser evil in the elections. This unfree manner in which most parties recruit their future leadership (who also happen to be the potential leaders of the country) boils down to nothing but a prejudiced recruitment of those favoured by and the descendants of political bigwigs.

This breeds nepotism in Indian politics, which is perpetuated by over-centralization and a top-down approach of political inclusion, thereby restricting access to those who are supposed to be the representatives of the people. Intra-Party democracy thus becomes elite-dominated, characterised by a mutually reinforcing favouritism and servility. A large number of Indian political parties are outright dictatorial in character and have their organizations and policies determined by their respective ‘Party Supremoes’ (often the founders themselves or their named successors). The privilege to represent is hence appropriated by a few and is often commodified as becomes the case when the Supremoes decide to auction a few seats among persons of financial influence. Others tend to keep on a veil of being democratic, while in reality, they promote what is known as a culture of the ‘High-Command’ where the party itself is metonymized as the former.

Under this, the will of the handful of leaders always prevail notwithstanding whether they enjoy the support of the majority of the party members or not. Whims and tantrums of the central leadership always triumph and intra-party elections are rarely held. In the absence of organic/ideological integrity, these are justified in the name of preserving a mechanical party-unity. Dissent is hardly allowed to be ventilated within the party, and often entails disciplinary actions. Initiatives from below are actively discouraged and expression of opinions rudely suppressed. Being outside the purview of the Right to Information, the actual workings and decision-making processes of Indian political parties remain shrouded in secrecy. Members of the political parties merely accept the nominees of the elusive central leadership as their candidates. People in India have the right to vote but they do not get to choose for whom they can actually vote.

In a country where the very channels of political recruitment and representation are so restrictive and so corrupt, democracy cannot prevail and in reality, it does not.

The semi-feudal power relations within the large majority of Indian political parties are devoid of the democratic ethos. Characterized by a steep hierarchy of organization, these happen to be antitheses of what democratically formed associations should be like. The illusion of the popularly perceived notion of democratic India which is preserved in and nurtured by the wonderfully paradoxical piece of document called the Constitution of India falls apart when subjected to the test of actuality. Without any considerable checks and balances to ensure that the leadership of the political parties in India are somehow kept accountable to the people, a true plural polity would never be able to flourish and what will remain instead is the ghost of democracy!