Democratic Dilemmas

December 4, 2016

Rohit Dhankar

Accepting democracy as way to form government of the day means accepting one citizen one vote. That is also an acceptance that every human being (where there is universal adult franchise) is capable of contributing to the process of formation of that government and has the right to do so. It also implies that anyone’s supposed wisdom does not give him/her any more right to have a say in this process than one whom the wise consider ignorant. The only way the wise can play a larger role is by persuading others to accept their wisdom, and this acceptance itself has to be their own free choice.

If that is the case in a democracy: what should be the response of the wise if the general public elects someone whom the wise consider absolutely disastrous and unacceptable?

Should a wise true democrat accept one’s own limitations that s/he failed to convince the people, and work for their better understanding? Or should s/he declare that ignorant public’s choice is unacceptable to her/him, and s/he does not recognize the legitimacy of elected government? Would the later mean that the wise reserve the right to accept democratic decisions only as per their prescription, and by dent of their wisdom are not bound by the outcome of democratic process if it does not suit them?

The Indian Lok Sabha elections is 2014 and recent US presidential elections is also a revolt against the hegemony, obscure verbose reasoning, and political correctness of the wise. It is assertion of unsophisticated thinking of the larger public. This assertion has thrown up results that may undermine the very democratic process. Democracy so far it seems have been functioning on the recognition of the common citizen that s/he may not understand the complicated matter of statecraft, and therefore, accepted the thought-leadership of the select few. Now it seems either that set of the select few is being replaced or every citizen is claiming his/her own right to have his/her own say. That means they are becoming more responsible and asserting their own will, be that sophisticated or rude; be that right or wrong. Can we say that the democracy actually is deepening in this sense?

Everyone has equal interest in life in the nation. The supposed to be unsophisticated public will learn to be more reasonable and responsible only when they start using their own opinion in government formation rather than opinions handed over by the wise. In this sense it might be a moment to cherish for a truly democratic mind: that an opinion counter to his/her own has emerged more powerful, but at the same time that also distributes the responsibility of remaining on course among a much larger set of people. Is capability to cherish the win of the opposite view a necessary condition to be a true democrat?

In this half worked out (at this moment, more work has to go into it) thought I have ignored the argument that the public is swayed, or cheated or coned or intimidated or made a fool of in any other way. This needs to be considered. But that will involve a very careful shifting of ideas. Reason being that even in the claim that the “public” is swayed or coned etc. but “we are not” there is inherent superiority of judgment attributed to “us”! Which might be actually true, but has no force in one-citizen-one-vote principle. That again raises the issue: whether the simplistic or ignorant “public” which can be swayed and coned should have rights equal to “us” who are wiser?

All this raises some very sharp questions (at least in my own mind): does the ideal of democracy necessarily involve acceptance of an opinion counter to my own and which I consider also inferior to my own? Does it necessarily imply submission to the popular will while at the same time I consider my own judgment to be superior to that popular will? Does it necessarily imply that when one stands in the public the wise have to leave the halo of their wisdom at home, and count themselves as anyone else?

It seems to me that a legitimate struggle against a popular mandate in a democracy can be waged only by first accepting the mandate; and then through a peaceful rational persuasion to right the wrongs in the popular mandate, bringing about a shift in popular thinking. It involves unrelenting resistance against the wrong decisions of the elected government, but also acceptance of the right ones. It involves more work with the common citizen (the public) than with the government. Are we doing that?