Dr. Susmit Kumar
Democracy was first introduced over 2,500 years ago in the ancient Indian state of Vaishali, which was situated in East India in the present state of Bihar. It was there that the Licchavi republic framed the first written constitution. Prior to that, the word of the king was law and kings ruled according to the advice of their ministers. Women had voting rights, but they were barred from contesting elections. The origin of the democracy we know today in turn lies in a few Greek cities from about 2,000 years ago.
Like communism, the present form of democracy, based on the universal adult franchise, is a recent phenomenon. It is true that out of all the “-cracies,” democracy is the best, but it has deficiencies.
Even in the West, democracy has been based on restricted rights until only relatively recently. In the ancient Greek city-states, only males, not women or slaves, had political rights. A 1430 English statue provided that only those adult males with “a freehold estate the annual income from which was forty shillings” could elect members of the House of Commons. Forty shillings was the amount that in 1430 would supposedly “furnish all the necessaries of life, and render the freeholder, if he pleased, an independent man.” In France, property and tax payment qualifications severely limited the franchise, even during the revolutionary period. In 19th century Belgium, class domination by French speakers was perpetuated by laws limiting the vote to the propertied classes. Universal male suffrage arrived only in 1919. Until the 1800s, voting rights in many Western democracies were limited to only those men who paid a certain amount in taxes. Women lacked voting rights in most countries, including the U.S., until the early 1900s. Women’s suffrage was granted in France only after World War II.
Democracy in its present form is not truly successful anywhere, even in the U.S., the world’s richest nation, or in India, the world’s largest democracy. Almost 99 percent of Indian ministers, at both the state and central levels, would go to prison if corruption and other criminal charges were investigated impartially and vigorously in the same manner that the U.S. Department of Justice and FBI investigate crimes and corruption charges against American politicians. Although generally American politicians avoid taking bribes for personal gain, they accept thousands of dollars in donations from big corporations and the ultra-wealthy for their election campaigns. In return, their benefactors receive millions, if not billions, of dollars in the form of budget outlays and other government provisions like tax breaks and no-bid contracts. The American political system has forced politicians to become corrupt in this way, which can better be described as systemic rather than the personal form it takes in some developing countries. Allegations of large-scale government corruption in advanced democracies like Italy and Japan have been responsible for the fall of governments as well. Because of corruption and the influence of the “money power,” democracy needs major reforms.
In the former colonies, freedom fighters were initially at the helm of political affairs. They were usually great persons of good breed, because only people like them had the capacity to undergo torture at the hands of their colonial rulers. The first generation of politicians in any newly independent country was as a consequence generally motivated by genuine ideals of welfare. After the founding generation, however, the political environment would start to decline. In addition, a couple of decades of money and power generally corrupted the first generation of Third World leaders also, if they stayed in power that long, because of a lack of checks and balances; the latest example is Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Finally, in most newly independent countries illiteracy was usually very high, and illiteracy is one of the main obstacles to a healthy political system.
The Progressive Utilization Theory (Prout) outlines major political reforms that can be incorporated into democracy. It also proposes several major economic changes, changes that have now become more and more necessary as the U.S. is now heading down the path of economic self-destruction due to the Wall Street’s/capitalistic pressure of maximization of profit which have resulted into the shifting of good-paying jobs overseas. Prout is based on increasing the purchasing power of the individual instead of the gross national product. It is also based on economic decentralization and on the optimum utilization of local resources to generate full employment for local people.
1 Chua, Amy, World on Fire, Doubleday, New York, 2003, p. 193.