What the Heck is Democracy

liberty bellI am persuaded that the word ‘democracy’ is one of the most abused words in India (another being ‘secular’.) The common people certainly don’t know what it really means or entails, but even the “intellectuals” (second-hand dealers of ideas, as Hayek defined them) and assorted pundits have only a feeble grasp of the concept at best.

Politicians cannot reasonably be expected to understand anything that requires intelligence and knowledge but people who claim to be educated cannot be excused for their ignorance of such a basic concept as democracy. Journalists, especially, ought to know what it means before they pontificate.

As a public service, let me provide a clue for the hundreds of millions of Indians and their sainted journalists what democracy means, and most importantly what it does not mean.

As the etymology of the word suggests, it means “rule by the people.” That’s all. From the Greek dēmos, ‘people’, kratos, ‘rule.’ Join the two and you get “rule by the people.”

People could mean a collection of citizens who have the capacity to reason and deliberate about weighty matters of public concern and social wellbeing, and who join together in the solemn pursuit of the true, good and beautiful. Or people could refer to a mob that is moved by the impassioned speeches of demagogues and tyrannical autocrats.

Ah, two more foreign words. Demagogue from the Greek dēmagōgos — leader of people. Usually the leader of mobs. Autocrat also has Greek origins (as nearly all English words descriptive of various forms of government are) and today means someone who has unlimited authority to rule, such as an emperor.

But I digress. Democracy does not mean or suggest or imply or guarantee anything that is remotely associated with abstract concepts such as good, or freedom, or justice, or peace or unicorns and rainbows. It’s just — pardon me for repeating myself — rule by the people.

Democracy and freedom are frequently encountered hanging out together but they are not siblings, so to speak. And there are notable cases where you have democracy but no freedom, and you have freedom but no democracy. If I had to choose one or the other, I would choose freedom over democracy. I would rather live in a Hong Kong (before it reverted to China, it had freedom but no democracy) than in India (where people have democracy but have little by way of freedom.)

In many cases, democracy gives birth to the evil twins of tyranny and oppression. In fact, the reason that the Founding Fathers of the United States of America were so opposed to democracy is that they feared that a democratic government would degenerate into tyranny and oppression. How do we know that they didn’t have much regard for democracy? The word does not appear anywhere in the two most important documents that founded the nation: the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution of the United States of America.

Legend has it that Benjamin Franklin was walking out of Independence Hall in Philadelphia at the end of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 when someone asked, “Doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?” He replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Democracy is a Greek concept which arose in 6th century BCE Athens. In contrast, republic (from the Latin res publica which means “public affair”) is Roman in origin. The Founding Fathers of the US took their inspiration from the Romans, not the Greeks, and modeled their government to be a republic. Many scholars call the US a “constitutional republic.” And if a republic is understood as a “representative democracy”, then the US can be said to be a “constitutional representative democracy.” That’s quite a mouthful and so the US is described simply, but inaccurately, as a democracy.

As a matter of principle, I am philosophically against majoritarian democracy. It is simply mob rule which invariably leads to loss of freedom, tyranny and the oppression of minorities. Which minorities? The minority that most needs defending against the mob is the individual. Democratic governments are evil because they inevitably tyrannize the individual. I reject governments based on majoritarian democracy. They cannot possibly do any good. Pick your favorite majoritarian democracy government — mine is India — and note that it is bad. It cannot possibly serve justice and ensure peace.

Shekar Gupta DemocracySo you may ask what brought on these musings about democracy. Mr Shekhar Gupta’s little bit of wisdom did.

Dear Mr Gupta:

Greetings. You heard correctly that India is a democracy. And in a democracy it is totally permissible for it to be a crime to criticize the PM. You see the thing is that as long as the majority deems something legitimate, it is legitimate. PM Modi has a majority and therefore he can make it illegal to criticize him. How so? He has the power to regulate speech in India.

You have a problem with that? Then take it up with the man who gave the government the power to regulate speech. Go talk to Mr Nehru and ask him to explain the 1st Amendment of the Indian constitution to you. You may understand that Modi is doing exactly what Mr Nehru thought was good for the nation. That’s what democracy buys you.

Now, that wasn’t too hard, was it Mr Shekhar Gupta? You don’t need to have a deep ambulatory conversation with a professor of political science with a Ph. D. from an Ivy League school to understand why vengeful politics is part of the DNA of the system of governance. Sincerely, etc.

Author: Atanu Dey


7 thoughts on “What the Heck is Democracy”

    1. Ram:

      Thanks for the link to The Atlantic article. It’s very informative and goes into considerable details of the subject matter. I note that it is written by someone who is clearly a Democrat (a supporter of the Democratic party.)


  1. When internet was new, it was proposed as a solution for everything. From collapse of nation states ot collapse of money. All sort of virtues were assigned to the internet. 30 years later we have a much better handle on what internet is and what it is not. Without a doubt it has made world a better place despite its several faults.

    I think the idea of democracy at a large scale is a bit like internet. Prior to 1947 “independence” was sold as a snake oil for all problems of India, after independence it was clear that the fate of Indians was not changing for good, it was replaced with hollow term “democracy”.

    India is probably many decades away from coming to the realization that democracy is just one tool, an instrument and that too with many bell and whistles and requires fine tuning. Not happening during our life time. So do not worry too much.


  2. Personally, I try to define democracy as “collective rule” as opposed to “a king’s rule”.
    But I think we in eastern world have our own “eastern cultural wisdom” in articulating the terms democracy, human rights, and freedom of speech.


  3. Atanu,

    Would like to hear your thoughts on democracy based on PROPORTIONAL REPRESENTATION (such as in Germany, France) vs. WINNER TAKE ALL/FIRST PAST THE POST that the US and IU (Indian Union) are based on.

    My own intuition is that for a diverse collective like the IU, proportional representation would work better. A simple example:

    Given that even in 2019, BJP’s vote share was only 37.36%, while its seat share was 55.6%, it would be impossible to pass laws like “outlawing criticism of Modi” under proportional representation.


    1. Ravi,

      Those are engineering solutions that will not materially affect the quality of governance.

      What India needs is a freedom from government. But it is unlikely to get that.


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