Procedural Versus Substantive Democracy: How India Fares

So far, Indian democracy has endured rather well in a multi-ethnic, linguistically diverse and rather large country with a billion people. People’s faith and moral approval of democracy continues despite distaste with corruption and criminalisation of politics.

Karnataka elections and the subsequent events have opened up an interesting debate about resilience of democracy and the strength of its institutions. The victory of Congress and JD(S) alliance over BJP is also being hailed as a victory of the judiciary. The reduced time frame for proving majority to BJP by the Supreme Court is being seen as one of the reasons why horse-trading, while attempted, failed (besides the loyalty of the MLAs and excellent strategic work by the alliance). Congress president Rahul Gandhi hailed the institutions, mainly judiciary but also some brave media, for ensuring that no one was above the Constitution. In short, the win has, to some extent, cheered the people who feared for the future of democracy.

Two aspects of Indian democracy

Successful democracy is a holistic idea; it encompasses both procedural aspects – political equality, effective institutions, free and fair elections, legislative assemblies and constitutional governments, and good voter turn outs; and substantive aspects – socio-economic equality of citizens, tolerance for different opinions, ruler accountability, respect for the rules, and a strong political engagement.

Both aspects are complementary and dependent. They reinforce one another and also interfere with one another. Socio-economic inequality will interfere with the achievement of political equality. Thus, successful functioning of procedural aspects of democracy requires some aspects of substantive – tolerance, equality etc.

In the same way, it is precisely the successful implementation of the procedural aspects (particularly the principle of one man one vote) which has the potential to, and indeed in many cases has, led to the achievements in the substantive front, especially by breaking down (even though in a very limited way) rigid hierarchical caste structure and thereby achieving (partial) equality.

Recently a film tackled this conundrum. Mid way through the film Newton, actor Rajkummar Rao’s character by the same name, an idealistic government personnel working as presiding officer on election duty in a remote region of Chhattisgarh, Dandakaranya, is completely frustrated. So far he had soldiered on, doggedly in his belief of conducting free and fair election in a hostile region, thwarting attempts by the security personnel to abandon the exercise, and facing the fear of Naxals with determination.

However it is when he is confronted by the complete ignorance and hopelessness of the voters, that he embarks on a lesson in governance and the nature of democracy. The questions of the people are genuine –Who should they vote for when they are hearing the names of the candidates for the first time? What is their manifesto? In other words, what will this exercise in voting mean for their fearful, ignored and diminished existence? Towards the end, Newton realises that it ‘takes years to make a forest’ and while he has managed to obtain a high voting percentage, that ‘real’ democracy still eludes the remote villages.

A still from the movie 'Newton'. Credit: YouTube

A still from the movie ‘Newton’. Credit: YouTube

The film Newton thus can be seen as microcosm of the country. A country with seven decades of independence and equally long democracy that still struggles with achieving ‘real’ results. A conflict best described as a paradox between procedural and substantive democracy. As President K.R. Narayanan’s Golden Jubilee Speech in Parliament asked the people, “Is it the Constitution that has failed us, or have we failed the Constitution?”

Procedural democracy in India

So far it has been largely agreed that procedural democracy in India functions quite well. Elections are held regularly and India has never faced a military coup. The three constitutionally mandated institutions, the Supreme and the high courts, the President and the Election Commission are autonomous. Several examples in the past have proved this. In the 1990s, the era of unstable government, not only did the court approximate the framework of lawfulness that protected the citizens, but it also moved to restore the independence of the CBI. The proof of the fairness of ECI lies, M.S. Gill, former Chief Election Commissioner asserts, in the fact that incumbent parties are defeated. The President of India has the power to request reconsideration of a problematic piece of act. For example, former President R. Venkataraman expressed displeasure at the Bill authorising the government to read suspect mails – the Bill was withdrawn.

It has been argued (notably by political scientist Arend Lijphart) that the success of procedural democracy has been made possible due to reasons many of which predate independence and can be traced to writing of the Constitution. First, the Congress party’s inclusive nature and political dominance effectively achieved grand coalition cabinets with ministers of different linguistic, regional and religious groups. Second, Indian democracy ensured cultural autonomy, by making state and linguistic boundaries roughly coincide, giving religious and linguistic minorities rights to open their educational institutions, and recognising personal laws as legitimate. Lastly, the Indian cabinet has provided proportional representation to minorities and reserved seats for scheduled castes, tribes and OBCs, who have also benefited from quotas in public service employment and education.

Many believe that this alone proves that the Indian democracy is successful since democracy is a valued end in itself by giving the citizens self-government that is explained by high voter turn outs especially among the marginalised. However, substantive goals may be temporarily overlooked but never completely abandoned since participating in a democratic process does not always lead to transformation of the democratic polity.

Substantive democracy in India

Even on the eve of adoption of the Constitution Ambedkar had warned against the split, or the “life of contradictions”. He stated, “In politics we will be recognising the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic, we structure continue to deny the principle of one man one value… If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril.”

Indian Constitution was written with the benevolent and ambitious task of removing both social and political inequalities; in fact removing social inequalities precisely by giving political equalities (one man one vote principle). It did to some extent achieve this. It shifted the basis of right from inherited status to numerical preponderance. Greater participation by the marginal groups has guaranteed that the institutional space is now opened for them and parties comprising Dalit leaders have come to power. Local governance through the Panchayati Raj institutions has ensured a space for the marginal through reservations in posts. The challenge now is in ensuring that such parties ensure substantial betterment of oppressed groups and instead of focusing on playing the politics of the moment, they actually articulate a comprehensive programme for long-term change. Care should also be taken to ensure that such parties do not slip into populist, caste based identity politics, and instead present an inclusive agenda for development.

Substantive democracy continues to elude the country as development promises are seldom met. India’s rank on the Global Hunger Index is dismal. Public health is in shambles – children in Gorakhpur died because oxygen ran out. Poor are being systematically excluded from MNREGA wages and pensions because of Aadhaar. Farmers are marching relentlessly with no redressal and are being met with violent crackdowns in some states.

Infrastructure is collapsing everywhere and incidents from Elphinstone road railway bridge tragedy to deaths due to Varanasi flyover collapse prove that lives of Indians hold little value. Employment has hit an all time low. And even though the principle of one person one vote has had transformative results in politics, Dalits continue to face discrimination and humiliation – attacked for keeping moustaches and watching garba dance or for riding a horse.

The failure to deliver goods is because of the basic problem with the political style that underplays the importance of institutions and structures. Instead, it tries to win the masses by evoking symbols and encouraging blind trust in leaders. The opposition too sometimes loses focus of the larger developmental issues, focusing its energies just on displacing the party in power. Political scientist Rajni Kothari discusses ‘a crisis of institutions’ that has resulted both in terms of morale and effectiveness by overemphasis on leaders. Tendency to treat power for personal aggrandisement and state as means of patronage and profit threatens the basic pillars of procedural democracy – Parliament, the bureaucracy and law and order machinery, the party system and the judiciary. Lastly ‘a crisis of values’ is the consequence of failure on the part of the people running the system to respect the norms of behaviour and the rules of the game. Fairness and equality guaranteed by the constitution has still not affected change in the mindsets, especially when it comes to religion, caste, or gender.

While elements of substantive democracy still leave a lot to be desired, it is worrying that even procedural aspects of democracy are weakening. In the recent Karnataka elections, the role of the governor, a staunch RSS man, came under scrutiny and has opened larger debate about the office of governors and their ‘neutrality’.

Karnataka governor Vajubhai Vala has opened larger debate about the office of governors and their ‘neutrality’. Credit: PTI

Idea of free, ethical, and fair press has already been fast eroding. Media is losing credibity and independence, has stopped questioning the government and routinely abounds in fake news.

A few months ago, the deep crisis in judiciary came to fore when four judges called a press conference that covered, among other pertinent justice delivery issues and assignement of cases, circumtances surrounding CBI Judge Loya’s death. Many called it the black day for judiciary – akin to how the present Karnataka crisis was termed black day for democracy. Recently, former CJI Lodha has questioned the independence of judiciary and linked it to the role of present CJI Dipak Misra who he labelled, ‘master of the roster’.”

The role of Election Commission of India has also come under scrutiny (there have been allegations of it being prejudicial). While the malfunctioning EVMs have kept popping up, most recently, in Gujarat elections, Congress accused ECI of allowing PM’s road show on the day of the polling, while ECI served notice to Congress president for airing of his interviews. CBI is also routinely being used to target opposition and give clean chits to the government.

However, so far, Indian democracy has endured rather well in a multi-ethnic, linguistically diverse and rather large country with a teeming billion people. People’s faith and moral approval of democracy continues despite distaste with corruption and criminalisation of politics. Regular elections have given space to people to hold their representatives accountable. Most importantly, procedural democracy continues to give rise to national consciousness among the people who have used this space to unsettle antecedent structures of power and demand accountability, an attempt towards substantive outcomes.

Yet the system of constitutional supremacy and checks and balances can erode quickly. More worrying is that average Indian voter is becoming either apathetic or actually wishful for a homogenous benevolent dictatorship model than a plural democracy. This can be seen in growing intolerance towards dissent and attempts to impose a monolithic majoritarian identity. This cannot bode well for democracy. As Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt point out, that democracies no longer end with a bang – a in a revolution or military coup – but with a whimper: the slow, steady weakening of critical institutions, such as the judiciary and the press, and the gradual erosion of long-standing political norms. There are several exit ramps on this road and they must begin with rejection of authoritarianism and continual brave resistance by the pillars of procedural democracy – the judiciary, the election commission, the press and the citizens.

Swati Saxena is a social science researcher with a PhD in public health and policy. She is interested in health policy, politics and gender.