Can Market Outweigh Democracy?

Democracy and the free market are not compatible. Most democracies are pushing free-market economics as a tool of development. But markets have a dynamic of their own, place profit above all else and in the long run,…

By Arvind Mohan

IT’S time to hail democracy. The democratic wave, which started about a century back, has reached its final destination of dictatorial Monarchy (as in the Arab Nations). Many believe it as an era to applaud markets as well. Advocates of market economics say markets are inherently democratic, only those goods liked by the people get sold. A bad quality product and bad
service will not sell as the consumer is king. But in my view, democracy and markets are quite contrary to each other. Both are
battling each other in order to bring the world under their control.

In a Democracy, equality has supreme importance, whereas the free market is thriving on loot, profits and nepotism. Democracy lives on the theory of one-man one vote, while capitalism booms over one-dollar one vote, which implies those with more money will be wielding more power. The basis of democracy is equality of opportunity and equal or impartial treatment. The motive for the market economy is purely profit and selling a product worth a few pennies for many dollars is smart economics, there’s nothing morally wrong here.

The sole aim of the market-led economy is to enhance profit margins through the brand building by advertising and marketing. The advertising world builds images and plays on the consumer’s tastes and preferences to push a product or products and make a profit. They have no obligation to inform, warn and create awareness. There are many brands in the world that produce or manufacture nothing, such as multinational trading houses or brokerage firms dealing in the stock market but they do offer specialized services crucial to market economies. In fact, the services sector as this component of business and industry is called, is huge in market economies. Some of the problems of globalization arise from here.

Therefore, there is no need to compare democracy with the market. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that in the past 50-60 years, if democracy has earned its repute through political philosophy and administrative structures, the market too has followed a similar paradigm. It is difficult to tell if religions or countries would have ever reached the kind of heights the market has scaled today. Some of the world’s greatest conquerors and adventurers, from Alexander to Napoleon, never exercised the kind of authority to match the markets. In the name of globalization, the market has grown ubiquitous and all devouring. Efforts are being made to bring all natural resources, capital, labour, all intellectual and creative actions and each and every living being (interference in the lives of animals, plants and humans) into the realm of trade and free markets. This is being achieved through power and malevolence.

Governance is crucial here, if the system works properly and within the legal framework, then rule of law prevails and people remain alert and democracy gets its job done

Democracy, on the other hand, has a quiet appeal and the ideas of democracy are spreading all over the world more so in countries where dictators reign supreme. However, even dictators have tried to stem the appeal of democracy by opting for diluted democracy at local or lower levels of administration. There are examples where democratically elected governments have turned dictatorial, but there are also instances of dictators, absolute monarchs and military rulers giving up their powers and settling for democracy. It also accounts for the spread of universal adult franchise. It only existed in New Zealand in 1900 but now extends to 149 countries. Today, there is hardly any country left which at some point or the other has not experienced democratic governance.

Where there were absolute monarchs like England and Japan, governance has moved into the hands of democratically elected authorities. There are countries like Pakistan, where the army has time and again usurped political authority only to hand power back to elected bodies.

In India, democracy and democratic institutions have strengthened but markets too have grown powerful. This could be the reason for the change in outlook and component of the parliament and state assemblies. But policies do not change, witness the BJP government treading the same economic path laid by the former UPA government.

Democracy has seen ‘champions’ in the form of the United State of America, which pushed that ideal to counter communism and has begun to ‘export’ and ‘implant’ democracy on the lines of Communist Revolution. This has also involved providing weapons to various groups and it’s difficult to assess whether such efforts helped the cause of democracy or not. But there’s no doubt that supporters of democracy even among the Arab nations, rest their faith in America although the undemocratic regimes ruling over them have Capitol Hill’s complete support. Result, one often sees anti-American slogans raised during pro-democracy rallies. It lends weight to the argument that the US would rather protect and expand its commercial interests than push the cause of democracy. There is no doubt that the American support to democratic movement has in turn led to growth of the market and so called globalisation.

In fact, America is keener to establish controlling hands in the world rather than spreading Democracy. It wants to ascertain that its commercial interests remain intact and keep growing. Apart from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, it wants to establish democracy even in those nations, which have been victims of its colonial desires. Even after much humiliation in countries like Vietnam, America is not ready to give up its ‘Mission’. If America and its ally Britain, which ruled nearly half the world about 70 years back, have any doubts about exporting democracy, they only need to see the reality: Today, 150 nations are electing and changing their governments democratically. Democracy gives an opportunity to every citizen to participate and be part of the government.

If the government is run through their elected representatives, they cannot forgo their responsibility as they have to return to their voters and seek a fresh mandate. If people have to face the risk of choosing the right or wrong representative, it does not mean they can turn away from their voting responsibilities.

Democracy lives on theory of one-man one vote, while capitalism booms over one dollar one vote, which implies those with more money, will be wielding more power

The revolution of Information has strengthened democracy. Thanks to technology today every kind of information is readily available and people are informed and aware. Democracy leaves no room for selfish manoeuvre. Discussion and debate are
integral to making better decisions in a democracy, which also acts as a bridge between various beliefs and ideas. In a democracy, the common man or his representative are treated as equal citizens. But perhaps democracy’s greatest quality is the chance it offers to improve upon one’s mistakes. India has been fortunate in that the idea of universal adult franchise was agreed upon way back in 1938. At that time, very few countries had granted women (and non-whites in colonies) the right to vote. When the Indian Constitution was being written, there was unanimity over universal franchise, over making untouchability illegal, granting fundamental rights and of course secularism. Interestingly, today not just universal adult franchise is considered the basis of democracy, but the parliamentary system of government and first past the post voting are considered among the best practices. President’s rule, single party rule and proportional voting are not considered the best option for diverse countries like India. The kind of freedom India’s Election Commission and political parties enjoy is not seen elsewhere.

Moreover, we have lived up to the expectations of our forebears: India is not only the world’s largest democracy, but is considered a good example for an ideal democracy. There are very few democracies in the world whose political authority has never been under threat. India did experience the State of Emergency, but Indira Gandhi herself lifted it and initiated the process of election, which she lost. India’s record in upholding freedom of expression and fundamental rights are also commendable. As democracy matured, the voting percentages of the weak and poor, people of backward regions, dalits and tribals have steadily gone up. In
developed nations the rich and educated do vote but disadvantaged sections are drifting away as they feel the political system does not offer a solution to their problem.

Democracy has quietly done the job of replacing old power equations. Whether it is parliament and state assemblies or the social, cultural or academic fibre of MPs and MLAs, it has changed in every manner. In the southern states this change was visible just after Independence, whereas it has started happening in the north only in the last three decades. Increasingly, the poor and weak have gained the courage to voice their opinions. Even tribal communities are fighting exploitation and demanding a better life. The tribals’ fight for water, forest and land is underway in Orissa, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Kerala.

Visionaries like Sachidananda Sinha are of the opinion that the socialist revolution might have failed in India, yet it helped to enliven the democratic system. Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, for instance, had no challenge to his authority, and there was certainly an element of truth in his sister Vijaylakshmi Pandit’s remark: “if my brother wanted, he could have become an autocrat.” But let’s not forget Nehru was a Fabian socialist. The communist parties had no use for democracies, nor for that matter the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and some other parties. It was the socialists who kept the flag flying despite splits. Whether it was public campaigns or active participation in parliamentary debates, the socialists were active. Every party worker could question authority on any issue. Socialists were at the helm during the movement against the emergency. Even today, the socialists, although scattered, continue to champion the cause of Dalits, Tribes and backwards. Real democracy therefore calls for participation from every group, minor or otherwise. No section can be ignored. If democracy is working properly, then every group finds its own party or community, which works for its welfare. It is no less true that those who have benefitted the most from democracy, have failed to live up to it.

Those who transitioned from huts to palaces behave like kings and there’s no limit to amassing wealth. There is hardly any internal democracy left in many political parties and fund raising is considered a big talent since money is required, ironically, to fight elections. The common man’s role has been reduced to that of a mere voter. Parties have not changed economic policies in three decades. Unanimity in foreign policy is one thing, but blindly following the United States and the West is quite another. It would
seem that democracy and the markets are working in tandem. At one point the ‘Mandal’ and ‘Mandir’ movements awakened the public but within no time they were forgotten. Once influenced by market forces, the issue of swadeshi and the cause of the backwards were sidelined. Whether it is Lalu Prasad Yadav or Narendra Modi, their pro-west stance is bound to grow in the promarket direction.

Democracy, however, should not limit itself to government and politics alone. Democracy is the true expression of equality and there has to be regard for every person, every opinion and every situation. Democracy means adhering to the demands or decisions of the majority, but it also means freedom of expression and freedom in political work which does not go by majority alone. The idea is that institutions allow people, groups to put forward their demands and get their work done. A responsive government will not ignore even a single right idea coming from the people. If the demand is justified, even an individual can stick to his point. In turn, if the government and the majority are sensitive to the needs of every individual and the defeated community, then we all have an obligation to accept the decision of the majority, even if it is against our wish. Governance is crucial here, if the system works properly and within the legal framework, then rule of law prevails and people remain alert and democracy gets its job done. We have seen some of the kings and queens of yesteryears begging for votes. Indira Gandhi could not set up her autocracy; in fact no leader’s anti-democratic manners will be acceptable. In that sense the future of our democratic set up is bright. What globalisation has done to our agriculture and food safety is no more a hidden fact.

But where globalisation or commercialization has not worked, the tendency is to blame religion, caste, community, gender, linguistic or feudal traditions. If parties lack internal democracy and criminals and moneyed men rule the elections, then every administrative decision is taken on caste and communal basis. But the blame will fall on our traditional values. In fact, religion, caste, money, crime and to a great extent the power of the media is being utilised to gain mileage in democratic system. Old thoughts and traditions, which do not match with democracy, are dealt with in a wrong manner.

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