Political Principles - majoritanismFinally, in this Chapter on Democracy and Representation, I look at how countries can avoid the impression that their governments look after only particular sections of society. Making it clear that government is inclusive, and bears equal responsibility for all groups in a country is an important part of ensuring the unity and thus the sovereignty of any country.

 

Avoiding Majoritarianism

The idea that the winner takes all after an election has caused serious problems in many democracies. It reduces the need for constant consultation that will contribute to continuity of policy. In pluralistic societies, in particular, it leads to neglect of the needs and aspirations of minorities. Minorities need not just be racial and religious minorities. Particular regions and social groups, even though they are a part of the racial or religious majority in a country, can be neglected by a government based on a parliamentary majority that springs from a limited proportion of the vote.

Constitutional safeguards, in the form of entrenched provisions, can ensure to a certain extent that discrimination is limited. However, in order to satisfy the needs of all these groups, constitutional safeguards alone will not suffice. Increasingly therefore, states have begun to realise that regional structures of governance are necessary, if the needs of particular segments of society are to be addressed. A central government cannot be expected to appreciate and respond actively to the special needs of smaller units with the same devotion that a government concentrating on that unit alone can supply.

The argument that devolving power to smaller units will cause problems cannot be sustained if the process of devolution is systematic and coherent. Certainly, there are issues that are best handled centrally, and will have to remain the prerogative of the central government. But assuming that all issues are best handled centrally is a fallacy. Also, the argument that devolution of power can lead to separation is no more valid than the argument that failure to devolve also leads to separation. Historically, the latter has caused separatist movements more often than the former.

The argument that devolution suits only large countries is also incorrect, since rational devolution supposes that authority is devolved in accordance with convenience rather than abstract principles. Larger units may require more powers, but smaller units can also exercise some powers in a manner that will benefit their people. One of the most successful examples of a country that has remained unified despite marked differences among its people is Switzerland. It is a relatively small country which allocates considerable power to the several cantons that constitute it.

The Swiss evolved a principle known as subsidiarity. The principle of subsidiarity means that no unit exercises powers that can more appropriately be entrusted to a smaller unit. The main functions of government, like security, as discussed in the second chapter, would be exercised for the most part by the central government. National defence has to be organised centrally, as also the main departments of justice and finance. However, when it comes to issues of welfare and infrastructure, local agencies are likely to understand and respond better to the actual situation. Schools or roads are better administered by units directly responsible to those who use them.

We can go even further and note that areas such as religion, culture, sports, art, marriage and sexuality which concern individuals or families are best left to individual selves, avoiding governmental involvement. So also, perhaps, matters of food and drink, housing and schooling. This does not mean that governments, local or central, have nothing to do with such areas. The government must provide essential services to those who are deprived of them, facilitate development in those areas where people necessarily have to work together such as sports and most cultural activities, and regulate social interaction in a manner that ensures freedom for everyone. These are the necessary adjuncts to permitting freedom of choice and action to individuals in these areas. But the idea that the government should have powers of control in these areas goes against the very basis of democracy, which is empowerment of people. The powers with which people have entrusted the government may be limited to those areas where such powers are necessary for the smooth functioning of society.

 

Maximising Representation

We can see then, that devolving power in appropriate areas to local institutions should be an axiom of democracy. Which particular areas are appropriate for devolution, the extent of devolution, the areas where national policy needs to be centrally formulated while being implemented locally, are all matters that need to be decided through study and discussion. But reserving powers to the centre as a matter of principle is a throwback to the days of autocratic government which modern democracies should avoid.

In any state certain areas must be reserved for the centre. Since these will be among the most important powers of government, it is necessary even while practicing devolution that decisions in these reserved areas are not the prerogative of the majority alone. It is for this reason that in many successful states there are dual systems of representation in parliament. The main section of the parliament, or the first chamber as it is often called, consists of representatives chosen from the country as a whole. But many parliaments also have a second chamber, members to which are selected on the basis of another system. These members are elected on the basis of weightage allotted to regions. The most extreme instance of such weightage is the United States Senate, in which each state, however big or small, has two representatives. But even elsewhere, as in India, Germany and Australia, the smaller states or provinces have a greater presence in the second chamber than in the first.

 

The balance of power between the two chambers varies from country to country, though generally the first has more power, and in particular more control with regard to finances. However, where constitutional matters are concerned, or matters concerning devolution, the second chamber has a vital role to play.

The second chamber also contributes to promoting the unity of a state. Representatives who would be overwhelmed in the first chamber enjoy status and authority in the second which helps them to participate actively in debate and discussion. Recognition of their role also enhances appreciation of the activities of parliament in the regions they represent. Their involvement in decision-making at the centre also increases the sense of involvement of all regions in the state as a whole.

Switzerland, in fact, goes further and prescribes that the central executive should include representation of all regions. Though that may be difficult to implement in larger countries, it should be a goal of government to maximise participation of all stakeholders. Forming cabinets that consist of ministers who represent only a narrow section of the society is a recipe for disaster. Democracy, after all, means the power of the people, and power should be shared by representatives from a wide cross-section of society.

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