Necessary, not sufficient

Polls in a representative democracy

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The announcement of the election schedule by the Election Commission of India has put all political parties in top gear. Merely going through the motions of elections and voting is not enough. Political parties, their leaders and the voters need to come to terms with the real meaning and purpose of elections. The dilemmas and challenges facing representative democracies are real and have to be faced fairly and squarely.  Elections are necessary but not a sufficient condition for representative democracies. It is a mechanism that holds political parties and their leaders primarily accountable for their political actions. 

Questions are being raised whether the costs of voting exceed its benefits, and whether voters exercise their franchise as a matter of obligation or with the belief that their vote can make a difference for the better. Voting should not become an exercise only to express one’s fidelity to a political party or leader. One also wonders whether the mandate matters to the extent it is believed to. There are also cases where some of the candidates who have won with very narrow mandates have turned out to be very successful representatives. Ultimately, how one perceives and exercises the mandate matters. 

Citizens must not only vote to express themselves but also need to consider it as a moral obligation. For many, it is a sacred duty even if their candidate has only a slim chance of being elected. They vote for what they perceive to be the best outcome. We need to realise that it is not just a duty to vote, but also a duty to help produce a good government and to ensure that it remains one. The crisis in modern democracies has to do with how the elected representatives interpret the responsibilities of representation.

Alexander Hamilton reminded us way back in 1788: “Hey sir, the people govern; here they act by their immediate representatives”.  John Adams once observed that ‘representative democracy was rooted in the idea that the representatives think, feel and reason like the people’.

The danger is when the people’s representatives tend to cynically laugh it away. The growing divide between the citizens and representatives is widening the democratic deficit. This creates a sense of powerlessness, helplessness and resentfulness among the citizens, which is a dangerous trend. The danger is when the representatives perceive this feeling among citizens as being quaint, weird and even funny.

Citizens who do not vote can also abet the problem. Staying away from voting is like staying at home and not going to work. The implications are the same. Moreover, those who do not vote tend to shamelessly piggyback on those who have voted. By not voting, such citizens are also complicit in the non-performance or mal-performance of the government. Compulsory voting does not necessarily solve the dilemma since it can only succeed in getting the citizens to cast their vote but no more than that.

Technically vote-buying and selling are immoral. Each and every vote has a community dimension which is often ignored and dismissed. Socrates opined that voting in a democracy is a skill and not a random intuition, and like any other skill it has to be taught institutionally to the people. Hence, he opined that only those who thought about issues rationally and deeply should vote. He had a problem with citizenry voting without education. Socrates was put on trial in 399 BC and convicted on fabricated charges of corrupting the youth. In essence, he had favoured a system that privileges the most politically informed citizens.

Low voter turnout

The world has come a long way since then because the educated class tends to be very unreliable and unpredictable when it comes to voting, as many modern democracies have shown. Voter turnout tends to be low in many democracies. In US presidential elections, voter turnout hovers between 55% to 60%, and around 45% in the case of other elections. Likewise, voter turnout in urban areas in various elections in India has shown a much lower voter turnout compared to the rural areas. Many would argue that this could abet the problem of ‘unrepresentativeness’ in representative democracies.

Because of the machinations of politicians and political parties, there is a trust deficit emerging in democracies, including India. Many studies have shown that political parties are now the least trusted. This has led to a dilemma where, on the one hand, there is a rising interest in politics, but on the other, faith in politics has been declining. Passion and distrust in politics seem to coexist. The message is perhaps loud and clear for the political parties and people’s representatives.

Reducing democracies merely to an institutional formality of elections and voting is a danger facing most representative democracies.  Let not the voters be caught in a voter fatigue syndrome. This has less to do with the voter and more to do with the machinations of the politicians and the political parties. Election should not become a ritual and an end in itself. 

Elections are necessary but they do not automatically foster democracy. Elections are no guarantee of liberty because, as Rousseau used to argue in the 18th century, as soon as the representatives are elected, the voters are once again in chains. Hence, the onus is also on the elected representatives. Voting should not merely be a topping up of legitimacy once in five years, as most political parties and leaders tend to believe it to be.

(The writer is Professor and Dean (Faculty of Arts), Dept of Political Science, Bangalore University)

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Necessary, not sufficient

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