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.
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.