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GS-II : Governance

Democracy- Background, major pillars and Indices

  • 18 March, 2021

  • 10 Min Read

Democracy- Background, major pillars and Indices

Power vs. Legitimacy

  • Throughout history, the vast majority of governments that have ever existed have enjoyed essentially unfettered power over their subjects.
  • Some rulers have been more enlightened and benign than others and grasped the insight that ruling is easier when one’s right to do so is viewed as legitimate than simply through coercion; but even such philosopher-kings were not above the exercise of arbitrary power when necessary.
  • And these were the exceptions: most elsewhere, power was maintained and known by its iron fist.

Rise of Democracy

  • The first institutional check on sovereign power is arguably the establishment of the English Parliament in what British historians term the Glorious Revolution, 1688.
  • Tired of unending wars that it was asked to fund through people and treasure, an emboldened nobility asserted its right to be consulted by the monarch in matters of war and the purse.
  • But for the non-Lords of the British Isles, precious little changed.
  • French and American Revolutions of a century later spawned political theory of the highest order proclaiming the inalienable freedoms of all men created equal, the truth is that the era of colonialism, and continued exclusion of women, as well as racial and religious minorities, meant that it was not until the mid-1950s that the revolution only dreamt about for millennia before became reality.

The emergence of 4 pillars of democracy

  • Finally, leaders were expected to return periodically to face the judgement of the governed through universal suffrage elections, and their power in office was constrained by a constitution whose guardian was an independent judiciary, and whose actions were scrutinised and made public by an empowered press charged with a sacred responsibility to speak truth to power on behalf of the powerless.

Rise of spirit of nationalism

  • In the heady days that followed the Second World War, with colonial rule beating the retreat, the spirit of national self-determination heralded the proliferation of newly independent countries around the world.
  • The ideological battleground of the Cold War forced these new states to choose between democracy and communism.
  • But a mere few decades later, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the start of a unipolar American era led many erstwhile dictatorships to announce elections.

Pillars of governance

  • Democracy is just one leg of the governance stool.
  • The others are:
    • The strength and independence of the other public institutions of the state.
    • The vibrancy and vitality of the press who served as the people’s representatives, asking questions and uncovering truths.

Global scrutiny and indices

  • Freedom House (based in Washington DC) and the Varieties of Democracy project (V-DEM, based in Gothenburg, Sweden) are two of the more well-regarded efforts to conceptualise and measure the state of democracy globally each year.
  • Both indices had independently decided to downgrade India’s democratic rating has set off a firestorm of indignant protest by many who view it as a frontal assault on the current government.
    • India’s External Affairs dismissed these ratings as irrelevant certificates issued by self-appointed arbiters in the West for which India had little use.

What drove the decision to reduce India’s score on these indices?

  • Their key facet is a conception of democracy that is holistic, and that gives considerable weight to the freedom of the press and the independence of the judicial branch.
  • Concerns about the undermining of these institutional checks and balances on the power of the Indian state led both institutions to reduce India’s score on their index.

Way ahead

  • India’s democratic credentials are intrinsic to its identity and its greatest source of legitimacy internationally.
  • The suggestion that these credentials have been tarnished merits a serious, thoughtful, and respectful response, rather than a clever quip that plays to one’s preferred gallery but does nothing to assuage one’s critics.
  • Second, the courts and press must own up to their part in this debacle.
  • Institutional independence is a hard-won resource to be husbanded and invested wisely by its custodians.
  • Third, strong democracy requires a strong Opposition, as much as it does an incumbent secure enough to face criticism without getting defensive.



Source: TH


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