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May 1, 2009

Forms of Democracy

Filed under: democracy, India, politics — neosurya @ 02:07

Democracy was introduced in several of our history or civics books as “Government for the people, of the people, and by the people”. The statement came from Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address. Most arm-chair politicians in India (The middle class has scores of them) have passed judgment that democracy has ceased to serve its intended purpose. But has it? Is there nothing we can do to improve upon what we have? There are several variants of democracy; some are practiced, and some are in theory (These subjects are poorly studied *). We follow a parliamentary democracy with first past the post system of elections. A few salient repercussions of our form of democracy, and how we could improve:

  1. A representative is elected by a very large population of people; it is unrealistic that the representative can directly interact with even a small percentage of people that voted for him. For a population of a billion people, we have 543 representatives [1, 2].
  2. It is difficult to dismiss or replace the representative. I think the only legal option for people to demand that an Lok Sabha MP step down is to file a Public Interest Litigation. The executive (Rajya Sabha / President) positively does not have any powers to recommend that an Lok Sabha MP should be fired. The speaker can suspend a Lok Sabha MP (Rule 374A). The only conclusive, and fast way is for an MP to resign voluntarily. In such a scenario, our rules specify that another MP may be delegated the functions of a resigning MP, or a request would be sent to the election commission to organize bye-elections. Bye-elections are often expensive [1]. A Rajya Sabha MP may be disqualified if he changes his political affiliations after getting the seat; he may not even vote against his party opinion.

The US has a presidential system, and you can read about the differences with a parliamentary system here. A couple of interesting democracies are:

Direct Democracy [1]: This is a system where all citizen directly participate in the decision process for their community. A partial version of this is present in the California Government.

Liquid Democracy [1, 2]: A concept where people can transfer their votes to each other. For example, 100 people decide to give their votes to X. Then X will have 101 votes (100 votes given by others plus his own vote). X can also transfer these 101 votes to another person. Further, a voter can take his vote back at any time. Variations of liquid democracy have the ability to solve problem 1 given above, and to a certain extent even 2.

Primaries among political parties: Political parties hold internal elections to determine who their candidates for a particular constituency should be. LokSatta is one such party in India; when two or more LokSatta members wish to contest elections from a single seat, an election is held by the party in that constituency, and the member who gets most votes is taken as the candidate [Example: 1, 2].  In the US, primaries are held slightly differently; only members of the political party get to vote during the primaries. This is a simplistic explanation though, there are rules like for example senior members of the democratic party having more weight [1].

One model is better than the other in certain aspects, and some could be very useful to enhance the system in India. But until the electorate get interested in their society, no system would help.


*The formal study of politics is limited to humanities or social sciences.The low market value of these studies is stark in India, but it is equally true elsewhere. Typical US University budgets allotted to areas like the humanities are lousy; humanities cannot be “sold” unlike an ipod and this makes it a less attractive magnet for funding.

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