The Indian Economy Blog

November 11, 2005

Democracy’s Drawbacks?

Filed under: Politics — Reuben Abraham @ 9:16 pm

Some time back I had linked to an Economist special report, Democracy’s Drawbacks, which talked about how India’s democratic process held back reforms from time to time. A reader from Princeton, Bruce Gilley, responds in this week’s Economist.

SIR – You write that India’s people have chosen representatives who have questioned dramatic economic reforms. You write that the ruling coalition has had to reconcile those views and that some of the opponents of reform have begun to agree to faster changes as they face the realities of trade-offs. You write that India’s economy is growing strongly and its stockmarket is rising. I noted a typo in the headline, which I assume should have been “Democracy’s attractions”.


  1. By definition “democracy” is at odds with individual liberty since 51% of the people can impose on the other 49% their wishes via legislation.

    One remedy is to have a firm “constitution” that protects individual liberties by limiting the powers of the state. However, our constitution through the “State Directive” encourages the state to provide for general welfare.

    The other remedy is to convince as many of the other 51% to our point of view through reason and persuation. Which is why we all appreciate weblogs like this one.

    Comment by Vivek G — November 11, 2005 @ 10:45 pm

  2. I think democracy virtue is in controlling the excesses of each action and find a middle ground that is acceptable to most. Taking a reverse example, say, if Sanjay Gandhi was still alive, living in time warp (like most Indian politicians seem to be), and became the PM, because of continued dumb monarchy politics of Congress I, and wants to implement a one-child per family policy and impose it as draconically as the Chinese Commies have. Which would one rather have to over turn such a policy – a democracy or a dictatorship?

    If PM Singh was smarter, he would have bargained for a yes vote on his top three economic priorities from Commies for supporting the expensive 100 day employment scheme (and may be for not touching the labor reforms) that the left wing seem to love so much. PM and FM Chidambaram are not doing enough to buy of, coerce, or challenge the Commies to make things happen. They just want to stay in power without making any hard decisions. Don’t blame democracy for that. Democracy will deliver the goods in few years time when they will be booted out of office for doing nothing economically while in power.

    Comment by Chandra Dulam — November 12, 2005 @ 3:22 am

  3. Vivek, The indian constitution provides for all kinds of fundamental rights that are available in western democracies. directive principles is only one part and these principles do not have mandatory staus. these principles are advisory framework for formulating state policies.

    Comment by sv — November 12, 2005 @ 6:24 am

  4. The article talks about how the democratic process is holding back the economic reforms and yet economy is doing so well,partly because India’s young population gives it the growing workforce and decreasing number of the dependants.These people spend and invest the money they earn in a way that will serve their personal interests and not ideological interests and thereby fuel the economic growth.This is the real strength or the attraction of the democracy

    Comment by aak — November 12, 2005 @ 11:46 am

  5. SV, I agree with Vivek. There are a litany of individual liberties that are not enshrined in the constitution, or that can be legislated away by a government of the majority. The recent banning of dance bars in India is a classic example of that. The continuing illegality of homosexual acts is another example. Hell, just see what poor Khushboo is going through.

    Comment by Amit Varma — November 12, 2005 @ 12:55 pm

  6. Um, just to clarify my last comment, I don’t mean to imply that I am against democracy. On the contrary, it strongly believe in it, as any other system would lead to a greater curtailment of individual liberties. But in a democratic system there should be safegurads constitututionally built in to guard those liberties, and this will necessarily mean limiting the powers of the state, as Vivek writes. We need to be protected from both the socialist left and the religious right, regardless of who may enjoy a surge of popularity at a given point in time.

    Comment by Amit Varma — November 12, 2005 @ 2:14 pm

  7. Because of common usage, people tend to use democracy and republic as synonyms. India is the “Republic of India”. We have chosen a democractic way of electing our representatives but in principle we are a republic. This is the problem in using terminology rather loosely. If we were really a democrarcy that the tryanny of the numerical majority would be the rule and a lot of freedoms that not been curtailed as of now would have been curtailed.

    Therefore, I suggest, we first start thinking correctly politically and then be extremely vigilant about the increasing curtailment on people’s liberties by the state (just that instead of a communist government or a dictatorship, in India’s case, it is a case of democratic paternalism).

    What is needed is a greater emphasis on what it takes to be a great republic where individual liberties cannot be easily curtailed. To get there, I think we need to first stop calling ourselves a democracy, but rather clamour for a new republic, the foundation of which is that individual liberties are not bestowed by the state, although as a result of a social compact, some of them can be curtailed to some extent. Now some may say that such liberties are bestowed by a higher power, well, be that as it may. To me, such liberties are part of living as much as breathing. Once this republican thought gains currency, we can start then think of a platform where the protection of individual liberties from state’s undue curtailment of such liberties can be used to bring about a change in the Indian political sphere.

    It is unfortunate that so many us think of democracy and republic in the same sense. Even when Atanu Dey talks about India being a cargo cult democracy, and bemoans the lack institutions that are required to protect individual liberties, those institutions, in my view, are an aspect of a republic.

    Finally, we celebrate Republic Day and not Democracy Day. Have we ever wondered why?

    Comment by sanatan — November 12, 2005 @ 7:33 pm

  8. Thanks sv. Valid point. The state directive is not mandatory but it does show an unreserved faith the framers had in the power of the state to achieve “utilitarian” objectives.

    Hi Amit: Good points about individual liberties. Especially your last comment that brings to mind a Churchill quote – “Democracy is the worst system except when compared with all others.”

    Comment by Vivek G — November 12, 2005 @ 8:21 pm

  9. good stuff

    Comment by docs dope — November 13, 2005 @ 3:18 am

  10. Amit, I agree that individual liberties are in bad shape. But that’s not the facult of the constitution. The Indian constitution, in my view, provides protection for all kinds of free speech and expression. The problem is with the way it’s interpreted by the judges. The judge who ordered the arrest of Khushboo has not read the constitution. Again, the judges are a product of the cultural mindset that is prevalent in the society. The people of Tami Nadu (and elsewhere in India) have not shed their feudalistic attitudes. It looks like they have not heard of Voltaire.

    Comment by sv — November 14, 2005 @ 9:17 pm

  11. SV, fair point. Deserving of an article in itself. Why don’t you write it? I’ll gladly give you contacts of places you can send it. Feel free to email me.

    Comment by Amit Varma — November 15, 2005 @ 11:07 am

  12. sv: I meant to add a point to this post but somehow slipped up. Regarding the “Directive Principle”, the judicial activism in India you mention (especially the so called public interest litigation) is often done on the basis of this Directive Principle. Also, some to the draconian laws including the MRTP law passed during the Emergency had its roots in the same Directive Principle.

    The Constitution is supposed to safeguard our liberties by limiting the powers of the government (including the judiciary). The Directive Principle give the state a Carte Blanche to pursue arbitrary policies that are deemed in public interest.

    Comment by Vivek G — November 17, 2005 @ 8:19 am

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