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Thoughts on the International Day of Democracy

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Amita Singh

United Nations had declared 15th September as the International Day of Democracy way back in 2007. What made UNO declare such a day when it has itself mostly failed to abide by the concerns of democracy around the world and across decades? Freedom House data has already shown that a global deterioration of democratic concerns is sweeping through the world like a tornado and democracies have been sinking into authoritarianism, militias, or rule by mercenaries.

Take for example the latest barefaced defiance of all UN resolutions in Afghanistan by just a small rustic group of medieval terrorists called Taliban, legitimized and made big by UN’s highest funding nation USA to smoothly squash civilian population, dump Geneva Conventions and human rights. UNO is repeatedly guillotined by powerful nations which are legitimizing their undemocratic decisions in many ways.

UN’s most powerful organ, the Security Council is a face of unrepresentative and imperious decision making at United Nations which blatantly ignored even some most compelling demands made during the pandemic by nations beyond its five permanent members. So what provokes this world body to declare a day of democracy?

The Declaration came exactly twenty years after the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) adopted a Universal Declaration on Democracy in 1997. IPU is an international organization that has an observer status in United Nations. It is composed of world parliaments, parliamentarians and later several civil society organizations also joined in. IPU promotes democratic governance, gender parity amongst legislatures, empowers youth for political participation, and ensures that nations adopt sustainable development in their models of progress.

The 1997 Declaration was well researched as slippages in the democratic functioning of governments were abound. It also affirms principles of democracy, the exercise of democratic government, and the international scope of democracy. There exists a historical link to this declaration of 1997 which and can be traced back to people’s struggles during the 1980s against the stifling of democratic processes by authoritarian regimes.

In 1988, a peaceful revolution in the Philippines called ‘People Power Revolution’ which was also called the EDSA Revolution getting this name from manila’s most prominent highway ‘Epifano de los Santos Avenue’ blocked by people to overthrow a 20-year dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. In the Philippines, an innovative democratic model of governance was brought up through a movement of an International Conference of New or Restored Democracies (ICNRD) under the initiative of President Corazon C.Aquino of the Philippines.

In ICNRD’s international meet at Doha in 2006 this new model of democratic governance with a tripartite structure having three essentials participatory pillars ie; governments, parliaments, and civil society was explicitly recognized by the United Nations General Assembly resolution 60/253 of 2 May 2006. This movement of new and restored democracies acknowledged the fact that if even a single pillar of governance is weakened, democracy would derail.

A year before the declaration of Democracy Day in 2006, another small Himalayan Kingdom state Nepal experienced what is known as ‘Nepal’s Magna Carta’ of 18th May 2006 when the Parliament unanimously voted to strip the King of his discretionary superior powers over people’s representatives. This day was hailed in Nepal as a ‘Democracy Day’ when all power that was vested in the King came under the power of people’s parliament including the 90,000 troops that the king controlled and in return all assets of monarchy became taxable.

Ironically, Qatar which a day ago had gone to meet the Taliban was given a lead by United Nations in 2006 to draft a text for a resolution on the democracy day by UN General Assembly. Finally, on 8th November 2007, the final resolution, titled, ‘Support by the United Nations system of Government efforts to promote and consolidate new or restored democracies’ was unanimously adopted by all UN member states to declare 15th September as an International Day of Democracy.

The Day of Democracy comes with an annual theme. Interestingly, the theme for 2019 was ‘participation’ and it talked of improving democracy by looking into institutional access and partnering with governments. Nevertheless, in 2020 it reverted to focus on basic concerns of democracy and selected a theme ‘2020 COVID-19: A Spotlight on Democracy’. In a very arbitrary frame of governance that lashed world events during the pandemic, there were raised concerns on due process of law, respect for international legal standards, and right to access justice during crisis period which was being denied by democratic governments.

In India as well, the execution of colonial era’s draconian ‘Epidemic Diseases Act 1897’ proved forbidding and humiliating to the underprivileged as they were denied transportation to reach their homes and one chief minister even allowed its administration to wash them with sanitizing chemicals as they enter a city.

The 2021 theme remained undecided for long but then the focus garnered around the importance of ‘parliamentary oversight’ to maintain adequate checks and balance in any healthy democracy. It indicates that parliaments across the world have been failing to address their key role of maintaining a parliamentary oversight over an executive or a due process of law which should be followed in sustaining democracy. So, fear is that Parliaments which are a creation of democracy are now becoming threats to democracy.

A parliamentary system is a fusion of legislature and executive since the leader of a majority party in Parliament is designated as the Prime Minister who then constitutes his Cabinet. Art 75 in the Constitution establishes that ‘pleasure of the President’ is the condition for a Minister to hold office and the Council of Ministers is collectively responsible to the House.

There are mutual checks and balances to establish intra-institutional controls. There are several Parliamentary Committees including the Standing Committees which are constituted in pursuance of the provisions of an Act of Parliament or Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business. These Committees especially Finance Committees such as the Estimates, Public Accounts, and Public Undertaking Committees are powerful committees to check the government’s overreach as well as the health of administrative systems during emergencies such as the pandemic.

Judiciary remains independent and due to the separation of power maintains its independent status as a watchdog of democracy. The former CJI Ranjan Gogoi emphasized the judiciary’s watchdog role in several public speeches that he delivered but on retirement, he accepted being nominated to the Rajya Sabha. Watchdogs do not accept bones from those they are supposed to guard against.

This relationship of greed with power was well brought out by former High Court Judge B.Kemal Pasha in his response to allegations against the judiciary’s role in the multi-crore Rafale deal. He said that the judiciary should have a ‘backbone’ to continue as the watchdog of the Constitution. He was referring to Art 142 under which the Supreme Court has immense power for judicial activism yet it said they have no power to intervene in the deal.

Article 142 says, ‘The Supreme Court in the exercise of its jurisdiction may pass such decree or make such order as is necessary for doing complete justice in any cause or matter pending before it, and any decree so passed or orders so made shall be enforceable throughout the territory of India …….’

This is how our Constitution was formulated by brilliant and experienced minds but a few ideological vanguards like Sai Deepak in the latest talk show with Shashi Tharoor boldly declares that to protect this ‘Constitution at the expense of civilization is grave injustice’. Many who do not understand the balancing act of our Constitution also fail to understand that civilization is sustained because of this balance which they are trying to disturb.

Democracy’s lungful of oxygen comes from its respect for human rights. While the Day of Democracy focuses on ‘parliamentary oversight’ it is nothing but an assurance to people that they would be safe and justice would be done. Parliament is a primary forum for protecting human rights but it’s only on its failure that judiciary and civil society have to barge in.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 captures this relationship of democracy and human rights in Art 21 (3), “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”

The last perplexing question on democracy emerges from Art 21(3) mentioned above. This article is merely reflecting an 1861 model of John Stuart Mill’s ‘Representative Democracy’ which continued to be popular in post-second world war explorations of the Comparative Politics Movement in the non-western world. These studies conducted in emerging post-colonial nations experimenting with their cultural frames of democracies saw elections as a primary representative act of democracy as even that appeared difficult.

Seventy-five years later with fairly well-informed voters and high-paced technology, it is now well established that to think of elections as an assurance of democracy is merely stamping a procedure that has become a ritual. It rarely gets converted to substantive democracy in which those who elect also control their representatives through institutions of accountability and information dissemination. Much has been done to prevent substantive democracy through ordinances, notifications, and laws which shrink space for public discourse and twist democracy into a one-way ratchet.

This has now raised questions of ‘democratic backsliding’ in which governments ritually hold timely free and fair elections through an independent election commission nonetheless institutions for the participation of people and voicing their concerns are locked up and enforcement agencies have personnel policies that turn exceptional clause of discretion into regular norm to appoint compliant officials.

In a world governed by cyber interaction and veiled opinions, winning an election against poor and minimally educated may just be a sort of a digital craft in which a prowling cat can be presented as a gentle generous lion. Now that this obstinate pandemic has put everyone from primary school kids to the top governance officials over online internet-based information, one would fail to imagine now what intellectual disaster is cumulatively going to stand against democracies in times to come.

Democracy is short-term representative governance and a long-term substantive life based upon a due process of law, access to justice, freedom of expression, and protection of human rights including gender rights. Freedom of expression may give some shape to substantive democracy but laws inculcating ethics and integrity are weakening. Democracies have no viable alternative other than repression and surveillance. Unless this Day of Democracy is rightly observed we may continue to repeat Plato’s words that democracy is where donkeys march on roads with flags claiming to be perfect democrats.

First Published in The Daily Guardian Thoughts on the International Day of Democracy on September 16, 2021.

Read another piece on Ensuring Health Benefits for Marginalized sections in UP by Amita Singh titled Social Transformation Necessary to Ensure Health Benefits for Marginalized Sections in Uttar Pradesh in IMPRI Insights

Read another piece titled Women Judges and Raised Hopes for Substantive Justice in IMPRI Insights

About the Author

Amita Singh

Prof Amita SinghPresident, NAPSIPAG Centre for Disaster Research, Delhi;
Rtd. Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU)

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