Happy Banana Republic Day

Someone, I forget who, recently tweeted “Happy Banana Republic Day.” It is funny and tragic since it cuts so close to the truth. If it isn’t already a banana republic, India is well on its way to become one under the stern guiding hand of an Italian lady ably assisted by loathsome sycophants like Digvijaya Singh and Sushilkumar Shinde, people who can easily be mistaken to be spokespersons for the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. What’s leading India down that path? My answer is simple: democracy. Give any democracy enough time and it is likely to degenerate into a banana republic. Well, you may ask, what was the alternative? The alternative was to make sure that India was a republic and not a democracy.

“A republic — if you can keep it”

The Constitutional Convention was held in Philadelphia in 1787 to create a new government for the newly independent United States of America. In other words, a convention to create a constitution for the US. At the close of the convention, as the delegates were leaving the building, a lady asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what have we got — a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin (1706 – 1790), then 81 years old, replied without a moment’s hesitation, “A republic — if you can keep it.”

I take Franklin’s reply very seriously. First, not a “democracy.” Not a “democratic republic.” But a republic. Second, you have to work to maintain it in good working order as you would any complex instrument. If you neglect it, it will break and fail.

Democracy Scares Me

I am not a fan of democracy. It scares me. Pure reason persuaded me that pure democracy is against liberty and freedom. Basically, pure democracy is mob rule. Note what happens when mobs take over — from tyrants or from benign rulers. Think of the so-called “Arab spring” and you’ll see a mob in action. That’s democracy. As someone put it, “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.”

Liberty has to be shielded from democracy. That’s why there has to be a mechanism which prevents the majority from oppressing the individual. The proper focus of liberty is the individual and in a democracy the individual is powerless against any coalition of voters.

I take particular delight in noting that those who were the authors of the American republic were not in the least enamored of democracy. They appear to have had a dislike for it. James Madison, the “Father of the American Constitution” and the 4th president of the US, wrote in the Federalist No.10,

. . . [pure] democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.

It is not hard to find evidence that the founding fathers of the American union did understand the dangers of a democracy and therefore made the new nation into a republic.

What’s the Difference?

A democracy is where the government does what the majority of its people want it to do. The people have essentially unlimited power and it does degenerate into what de Toqueville called “the tyranny of the majority.” In a republic, the people — and by extension the government — is restrained from arbitrariness by the institution called the “constitution.” To be sure, the constitution itself is a product of human intentions and therefore can be flawed. So if you have a good constitution, a republican form of government frees the individual from despotic rulers and despotic mobs.

Soft Despotism

For much of its existence, one can say that India has been under what Alexis de Tocqueville in his book Democracy in America called the “soft despotism” of corrupt citizens and its democratically chosen corrupt government. About such a government, de Tocqueville writes

It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

. . .

Our contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions: they want to be led, and they wish to remain free. As they cannot destroy either the one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy them both at once. They devise a sole, tutelary, and all-powerful form of government, but elected by the people. They combine the principle of centralization and that of popular sovereignty; this gives them a respite: they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians. Every man allows himself to be put in leading-strings, because he sees that it is not a person or a class of persons, but the people at large who hold the end of his chain.

By this system the people shake off their state of dependence just long enough to select their master and then relapse into it again.

Is there a way out?

India’s constitution is flawed. This claim can be supported by the evidence that India’s government is corrupt. It’s not a new phenomenon. It has always been so but it’s become more starkly evident as the system degenerated. The rewriting of a constitution is not a matter that happens on its own. It only happens at times of great change, at revolutions. Revolutions require an “external shock” and people who are awake to the need for change. Both these are imminent but not yet manifest.

Until then, we have to be content with celebrating India’s status as a banana republic.

Author: Atanu Dey


8 thoughts on “Happy Banana Republic Day”

  1. True, personally I have been a big votary of democratic form of governance but after seeing that reduced to a sham in India, its exploitation of its weakness (beginning of it?) In US & the failures of other forms of governance – communism, dictatorship, monarchy , world wide feel that no system will work unless people who form it, are a part of it ( at least strive to) make it work. Swami Vivekananda once said about revolutions making a change in people lives “There is no greater revolution than inner revolution” unless there’s an internal change – of masses not just few individuals; no form of governance will succeed.

    Felt it apt to share some thoughts about democracy by Sadguru Omkar

    “Democracy is a luxury, my friend. Democracy has to be maintained by power obtained otherwise than by democracy. It is a dictatorship that establishes a democracy; it is a dictatorship that can maintain a democracy; it is a dictatorship that succeeds a democracy. Dictatorship is permanent like the sun; democracy waxes and wanes like the moon. Vote for dictatorship, my friend-not of leaders, cliques, parties-but dictatorship of Dharma which is Sanatana”

    “Democracy is government based on personalities. Monarchy is government based on principles. In democracy rulers are elected on votes and votes are given in consideration of personal merits or cleverness. In monarchy, whoever the ruler be, is ignored; the government is run on established usage, constitution or principles.”

    “Will democracy and party government succeed in India? Democracy and party
    government will succeed in India as much as the institution of caste and Agnihotram can succeed in England. Will Caliphate succeed in India? You cannot succeed with a borrowed culture. It must grow out of you. The American Negro, whose cultural past
    is cut off, can call himself a McDonald. But where is the proud past of the Scottish clan for him? “

    “It is to the interest of the politician to have a mob comprising all sorts of people without cohesion for a constituency. For the politician is good at fooling a mob. But, how many of our top politicians can get elected in an organized association of intelligent men – say of lawyers, doctors, professors, journalists or even of manufacturers, traders or tillers. But, this is democracy, my friend, where a group of clever men unite – strongly under a leader, capture power and feed on the people.”

    “Democracy is an argument; it is not a fact. Human nature is the unchallengeable fact everywhere, which is not democracy.”

    “Democracy versus Dictatorship.
    Dictatorship is natural. Democracy is artificial. Nature is run on dictatorial lines and not on democratic. There can be no democracy in truth. What is called democracy is
    either a confusion, compromise and drift without a definite aim and will or if
    successful, a camouflaged dictatorship.”

    “Democracy, socialism or any other idealist system is the product of human wish and thought which can soar as high as you want and be as perfect. But they have to be
    worked out with human nature which is rigid and limited and can neither soar, expand nor adjust itself to the needs of human wish and thought. Why labor in vain.”


  2. Dont you think the implementation details matter in the working of the democracy? I am trying to understand the effects of voting method on the functioning of the democracy. First Past the Post System forces “ruling class” (for lack of a better word that I could think of) to encourage groupism among the voters. When a few votes more than your nearest contender could win you the seat, why concentrate on everybody?

    I whole heartedly agree to your point that republic, liberty are more important than democracy. But isn’t first past the post system, the most undemocratic way of electing a representative? Wont a simple change of voting system to a version of Range Voting (my personal fav but not sentimental about it 😛 ) improve the situation drastically?


  3. Compare this enunciation of free speech

    Constitution of India, Article 19. Protection of certain rights regarding freedom of speech, etc.-

    (1) All citizens shall have the right- (a) to freedom of speech and expression; …._15[(2) Nothing in sub-clause (a) of clause (1) shall affect the operation of any existing law, or prevent the State from making any law, in so far as such law imposes reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred by the said sub-clause in the interests of _16[the sovereignty and integrity of India,] the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation

    with this:

    American Constitution, Amendment 1- Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press (no further caveats)

    In the first case the constitution hands out rights and freedoms to individuals. In the second case the constitution assumes pre-existing rights and freedoms, and places limitations on the government instead.

    In the first case, the state is supreme with practically no constitutional limits because of all the myriad caveats and exceptions. In the second case, the state is but a constitutionally restricted agent of the individual.

    In the first case the onus is on the individual to show that he is within his rights to do something; in the second case the onus is on the government to show that it has constitutional authority to regulate something.

    That is the difference between lip-service to freedom, and true freedom.


    1. Slightly better.
      1. Right to property was a fundamental right. Changed into a legal right by Indira Gandhi.
      2. Party bosses had no power over MLAs and MPs in their voting on bills. This was changed by the Anti-defection amendment, which I like to call “the obsoletion of legislative bodies” amendment.


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