Political and Social Democracy

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar made the following pertinent observations regarding democracy in the course of his speech in the Constituent Assembly on 25.11.1949:

“What we must do is not to be content with mere political democracy. We must make our political democracy a social democracy as well. Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it a social democracy. What does social democracy mean? It means a way of life which recognizes liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life. These principles — liberty, equality and fraternity — are not to be treated as separate items in a trinity. They form a union of trinity in the sense that to divorce one from the other is to defeat the very purpose of democracy.

Liberty cannot be divorced from equality, equality cannot be divorced from liberty. Nor can liberty and equality be divorced from fraternity. Without equality, liberty would produce the supremacy of the few over the many. Equality without liberty would kill individual initiative. Without fraternity, liberty and equality could not become a natural course of things. It would require a constable to enforce them. We must begin by acknowledging the fact that there is complete absence of two things in Indian society. One of these is equality.

On the social plane, we have in India a society based on the principle of graded inequality, which means elevation for some and degradation for others. On the economic plane, we have a society in which there are some who have immense wealth as against many who live in abject poverty. On January 26, 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man, one vote and one vote, one value.

In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man, one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which we have so laboriously built up.”

Free and Fair Elections

In Indira Nehru Gandhi Smt. v. Raj Narain and another[1], Supreme Court adverted to the importance of elections in a democracy as follows:

“198. … Democracy postulates that there should be periodical elections, so that people may be in a position either to re-elect the old representatives or, if they so choose, to change the representatives and elect in their place other representatives. Democracy further contemplates that the elections should be free and fair, so that the voters may be in a position to vote for candidates of their choice. Democracy can indeed function only upon the faith that elections are free and fair and not rigged and manipulated, that they are effective instruments of ascertaining popular will both in reality and form and are not mere rituals calculated to generate illusion of defence to mass opinion.

Free and fair elections require that the candidates and their agents should not resort to unfair means or malpractices as may impinge upon the process of free and fair elections. Even in the absence of unfair means and malpractices, sometimes the result of an election is materially affected because of the improper rejection of ballot papers. …”

Many Aspects of Democracy

Aharon Barak, President of Supreme Court of Israel in his book ‘The Judge in a Democracy’ articulates concepts about democracy succinctly. He says the following while answering the difficult question as to what is democracy:

“What is democracy? According to my approach, democracy is a rich and complex normative concept. It rests on two bases. The first is the sovereignty of the people. This sovereignty is exercised in free elections, held on a regular basis, in which the people choose their representatives, who in turn represent their views. This aspect of democracy is manifested in majority rule and in the centrality of the legislative body through which the people’s representatives act. This is a formal aspect of democracy. It is of central importance, since without if the regime is not democratic.

The second aspect of democracy is reflected in the rule of values (other than the value of majority rule) that characterize democracy. The most important of these values are separation of powers, the rule of law, judicial independence, human rights, and basic principles that reflect yet other values (such as morality and justice), social objectives (such as the public peace and security), and appropriate ways of behavior (reasonableness, good faith). This aspect of democracy is the rule of democratic values. This is a substantive aspect of democracy. It too is of central importance. Without it, a regime is not democratic.

Both aspects, the formal and the substantive, are necessary for democracy. They are “nuclear characteristics.” I discussed them in one case, holding that “these characteristics are based … upon the recognition of the sovereignty of the people manifested in free and egalitarian elections; recognition of the nucleus of human rights, among them dignity and equality, the existence of separation of powers, the rule of law, and an independent judiciary.”

He dilates on the qualities that inform a substantive democracy as follows: –

“Democracy is not satisfied merely by abiding by proper elections and legislative supremacy. Democracy has its own internal morality based on the dignity and equality of all human beings. Thus, in addition to formal requirements (elections and the rule of the majority), there are also substantive requirements. These are reflected in the supremacy of such underlying democratic values and principles as separation of powers, the rule of law, and independence of the judiciary.

They are based on such fundamental values as tolerance, good faith, justice, reasonableness, and public order. Above all, democracy cannot exist without the protection of individual human rights – rights so essential that they must be insulated from the power of the majority. Democracy is not just the law of rules and legislative supremacy; it is a multidimensional concept. It requires recognition of both the power of the majority and the limitations on that power.”

On the topic of Change and Stability and elaborating on ‘The Dilemma of Change’, the learned Judge writes: –

“The need for change presents the judge with a difficult dilemma, because change sometimes harms security, certainty, and stability. The judge must balance the need for change with the need for stability. Professor Roscoe Pound expressed this well more than eighty years ago: “Hence all thinking about law has struggled to reconcile the conflicting demands of the need of stability and of the need of change. Law must be stable and yet it cannot stand still.”

Stability without change is degeneration. Change without stability is anarchy. The role of a judge is to help bridge the gap between the needs of society and the law without allowing the legal system to degenerate or collapse into anarchy. The judge must ensure stability with change, and change with stability. Like the eagle in the sky, which maintains its stability only when it is moving, so too is the law stable only when it is moving.

Achieving this goal is very difficult. The life of the law is complex. It is not mere logic. It is not mere experience. It is both logic and experience together. The progress of case law throughout history must be cautious. The decision is not between stability or change. It is a question of the speed of the change. The decision is not between rigidity or flexibility. It is question of the degree of flexibility.”


Anoop Baranwal v. UOI (2023)

[1] 1975 Supp SCC 1