What’s in an election?

A democratic society:

  • A democratic society is defined by its elections. The principle of one person, one vote (with some conditions) is seen as a defining principle of democracy.
  • This principle has become so dominant that it has successfully reduced the idea of democracy to a ritual of casting votes.
  • As a consequence, participation in democracy, instead of being a dynamic and continuous process, has been reduced to one act of voting, that too once in a few years.

Significance of voting

  • The process of voting is extremely important. But its importance is not because it is about choice. Very often, we tend to mistake democracy with choice — the ability to choose between different candidates. The significance of democracy does not lie in the act of voting somebody to power but only in the way that power is exercised by those elected.
  • Elections are a means of making sure that those who have power are accountable in some way and that they exercise that power in a democratic manner. The focus on elections as a sign of democracy is a classic instance of the means overtaking the ends. Elections are only a means towards the goal of controlling those who wield power, but instead they have become the end in themselves.

The essence of Democracy

  • The essence of democracy is not really about the freedom to choose or the freedom to exert choice. Rather, it is primarily about how the elected wields power. The incorrect association of democracy with choice has even led to the absurd claim that the free-market economy reflects democracy. What has happened in India is that given the emphasis on choice as being equivalent to democracy, we end up choosing people who then govern most undemocratically.

The meaning of an election

  • Elections are important only because they are based on the fundamental principle that all of us have an equal claim to the public goods in the society we belong to.
  • This is equivalent to saying that all of us belong to a society equally and have an equal say in its governance as well as its wealth. 
  • Electing someone is merely choosing a representative to take care of our share of the public domain, and nothing more than that.
  • The true act of democracy lies in how this job is done by this elected representative.

The idea of good governance

  • The idea of good governance also follows from this. What the elected representatives are supposed to do is to ‘govern’ only in so far as they are true to their task of governing on our behalf. To govern on our behalf is merely to take decisions and implement them so as to protect the common public goods that we all have an equal share in.
  • The lack of a true sense of democracy in politics influences every other aspect of our society.

Private institutions & Democracy:

  • Private institutions anyway have little pretence of democracy since the private, by definition, has little sense of the shared trusteeship of the public. But we can demand some ethical conduct from the private because even the private needs a stable public space to be available for its existence. But whether in politics or in institutions which claim to be democratic, the demand is for much more than mere rituals of choice. That can only happen when it is power that is democratised, and not choice alone.


  • The people who vote belong to the political process only at the moment they vote. Once they finish voting, they no longer have any place in the democratic process. Any process that does this has no hope of truly being democratic. This is what has led to the deep sense of political alienation among the people.
  • It is this political alienation which often leads to cultural alienation, which in turn leads to right-wing movements.
  • If we want to get rid of most of the problems we are facing today, the first step is to make the political process truly democratic and inclusive.


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