Business News/ Opinion / Testing direct democracy

There is an inherent tension between the twin principles that define the modern nation-state: democracy and liberty. Democracies can unleash xenophobic majoritarian sentiment and repress the liberties of minorities. The classic 20th-century example is the Nazi government of Germany, which was democratically elected (although it suspended democracy soon thereafter). Likewise, sacrosanct individual liberties—as enshrined in constitutions the world over, beginning with the US at the end of the 18th century and as exemplified in the Indian Constitution of 1950—constrain the illiberal impulses of democratically elected legislatures.

Overzealous, putatively majoritarian, popularly elected legislatures are further hemmed in by systems of checks and balances, such as indirectly elected upper legislative chambers, as in India, and independent judiciaries. In India, even the most illiberal disfigurements of the Constitution, muscled in during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, and which attempted to establish parliamentary supremacy over liberal principle, were largely reversed by the Janata government which swept to power in 1977.

Democracy has many enemies—most notably itself, as in Nazi Germany or the Emergency. But today in India, in a development strangely little discussed by our hyperactive commenting class, the notion of direct democracy is being challenged. This is not so much in the name of liberalism, as that of technocratic efficiency—which is another time-tested route to dictatorship at worst or constitutional oligarchy at best (Singapore being an exemplary case of the latter terminus).

Last December, the Supreme Court upheld the legality of a Haryana law which disqualifies as candidates for panchayat seats those who are charge-sheeted with, but are not yet convicted of, serious criminal charges, would-be loan defaulters, those in arrears on electricity bills, those without a functioning toilet at home, and those without requisite educational qualifications (which vary depending upon gender and caste). Such individuals, while barred from standing for office, are not disenfranchised (that is, they are allowed to vote).

Quite apart from the arbitrariness of such a law—for instance, why require only a toilet, why not a washing machine, or even a fuller set of requirements as in an online matrimonial ad?— it is a corrosive anti-democratic impulse. The very essence of direct democracy in the context of a parliamentary system such as ours is that every citizen, regardless of his or her educational qualifications, material possessions, whether he or she is a good or poor debtor, and so forth, has an inalienable right to vote and an equally inalienable right to stand for political office (in the latter case, assuming that entirely reasonable requirements such as nationality, residency in a constituency or assembly district, and so forth are met). These fundamental rights are simply not open to legislative tampering, or they ought not to be.

In the supposedly advanced economies of the West, these rights were denied to the bulk of the electorate for centuries. Famously, Great Britain during its rise as an industrial and imperial superpower could be better described as an oligarchy, rather than a democracy, since franchise restrictions based on property effectively disenfranchised the vast majority of the population. Likewise, in the states of the old Confederacy at the end of the bitterly contested American Civil War, so-called Jim Crow laws, which enforced racial segregation, also effectively disenfranchised African Americans. This was not overturned until the latter half of the 20th century. And, of course, most self-styled democracies disenfranchised 50% of the population—female voters—in most instances, well into the 20th century.

It is to India’s abiding credit that the members of the Constituent Assembly— itself, ironically, constituted on the basis of a very limited franchise—resisted the siren call of those practical men of affairs who argued that a largely illiterate, poor, communally divided and caste-ridden society could not be trusted with the vote. In a further irony, this, of course, was the argument of the departing colonizer—most notably the imperialist Winston Churchill (an individual I must confess to detesting thoroughly, despite his brilliance as a war hero, cigar smoker, whiskey drinker, and so forth).

Rather, the framers of our Constitution chose to entrust their faith in the Indian people, and to affirm their belief in the twin principles of liberalism and democracy. These latter principles, coming out of a glorious Anglo-American tradition of classical liberal thought, were, after all, the philosophical foundation of constitutionally constrained parliamentary democracy in Britain and elsewhere.

So-called classical liberals such as the Mills, father and son, believed in these principles for the colonizers, but not their subjects. With all of their erudition, they could not shake off that Orientalist albatross, the white man’s burden. Our elite were indoctrinated into that mode of thinking, but, in a noble and far-sighted decision, repudiated it when enshrining “one person, one vote" into our Constitution.

The Haryana law, and a similar one in Rajasthan, contravene this fundamental principle—opening, perhaps, a crack through which our cherished democratic values may eventually seep away. That would be a tragedy.

Every fortnight, In the Margins explores the intersection of economics, politics and public policy to help cast light on current affairs.

Comments are welcome at To read Vivek Dehejia’s previous columns, go to

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Updated: 18 Jan 2016, 01:29 AM IST
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