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Democracy and its discontents

Topic covered:

  1. Functions and responsibilities of the Union and the States, issues and challenges pertaining to the federal structure, devolution of powers and finances up to local levels and challenges therein.


Democracy and its discontents


What to study?

For Prelims: Overview and functioning of democracy in India.

For Mains: Challenges present and the need for reforms.


Context: The system of democracy invented in the West and exported to the rest is failing in the West


What’s the concern now?

Elected governments are in office, but not in power. Many countries in Europe cannot form stable governments because the largest party does not command a majority. Coalitions are unstable. Parliaments are unable to pass laws. US is the best example for this.


Democracy in India:

With a strong government at the Centre, Parliament has passed a slew of big laws recently.

Yet failures of governance (and democracy) in India can be seen on the ground, in so-called ‘backward areas’ in the heartlands.


What’s ailing our system today?

Democracies need an architecture of institutions. Some institutions provide the vertical pillars. Other institutions provide the lateral binders that give strength and stability to the democratic structure.

In the popular discourse about democracy, too much attention has been given to the vertical institutions required for people to elect their leaders, and too little to the lateral institutions required to create harmony amongst people.


Issues with majoritarian democracy:

  1. The problem with a majoritarian democracy is that it is not designed to find solutions for complex problems with many points of view.
  2. A government with a majority, especially a large one, can become as authoritarian as a dictatorial one. It can deny minorities their rights for their views to be considered while framing laws and resolving contentious issues.
  3. Thus, a government elected by a majority can justify the exclusion of the minority. By doing so, a government reduces its own effectiveness. 
  4. Even, the courts are not set up to find policy solutions to complex problems and must interpret the laws as written.


What is needed to make our democracy a more effective one?

When problems are complex, good governance requires effective methods for people’s participation.

Referendums may increase people’s participation. However, voters should be educated about what they are voting for.

Healthy democracies need the following layers of institutions:

  1. The layer of constitutional institutions — parliaments, courts, etc. Social media has enlarged the public space enormously.
  2. The public space and the media in which people must be free to speak up if they want to.


Need of the hour:

The solution for strengthening governance and democracy at the same time is to strengthen the middle layer of institutions within democracies that lie between the open public sphere and formal government institutions.

These are spaces where citizens with diverse views can listen to each other, and understand the whole system of which they are only parts.



It is imperative for India to build intermediate level, unofficial or semi-official institutions for non-partisan deliberation amongst concerned citizens. The government must give more space for such institutions to form and operate. When there is global despair about the ability of democratic institutions to deliver the benefits of good governance to citizens, this innovation must become India’s invaluable contribution to the history of democracy’s evolution.


Sources: the Hindu.