Democracy and the Changing World

Jawaharlal Nehru with daughter Indira Gandhi at Atlantic Terminal, Nigeria

From inaugural address at the Seminar on Parliamentary Democracy, New Delhi, December 6, 1957.

By Jawaharlal Nehru

Deliberately and after long argument we in India adopted a Constitution based on parliamentary government. The fact that nearly eight years of the working of our Constitution have not in any sense made us waver in our allegiance to it indicates our strong faith in it. We prize the parliamentary form of government because it is a peaceful method of dealing with problems. It is a method of argument, discussion and decision, and of accepting that decision, even though one may not agree with it. However, the minority in a parliamentary government has a very important part to play. Naturally, the majority, by the mere fact that it is a majority, must have its way. But a majority which ignores the minority is not working in the true spirit of parliamentary democracy. 

In a period of dynamic change, the institution of parliament has to function with speed. Does the parliamentary form of government enable a country to move with speed when speed becomes essential? Take an emergency like war. When a war occurs, parliaments continue to function, but with certain limitations because of the emergency. A great deal depends on the conditions of the times, on the environment and on the problems which a country has to face. Having approved of parliamentary democracy as the right approach, we have to see how to temper it and how to fit it in, so that it can answer the major questions of the age. 

Sometimes it is said that parliamentary democracy is inevitably combined with a system of private enterprise. Private enterprise may be good or bad, but I do not see what parliamentary democracy has to do with private enterprise. I do not see any connection between the two except the connection of past habit and past thinking. In fact, the arguments about socialism, private enterprise and public sector, important as they are, have tended to become less and less valid. There is no country in the world where some middle way between the extremes has not been or is not being found. In the U.S.A., which is said to have a highly developed form of modern capitalism and private enterprise, there is more public enterprise than in most countries which apparently have a different objective and ideal. 

In Europe, we see many countries having advanced very far on the road to socialism. I am not referring to the communist countries but to those which may be called parliamentary, social democratic countries. There is no conflict between socialism and parliamentary democracy. In fact, I would venture to say that there is going to be an increasing degree of conflict between the idea of parliamentary government and full-fledged private enterprise.

Parliamentary government is a democratic conception. It means the gradual widening of the franchise till it becomes adult franchise. It is only in very recent times that any country has had adult franchise. The effects of adult franchise are being felt in full only now. This political change having fully established itself, it has become obvious that a political change by itself is not enough. 

From political democracy we advance to the concept of economic democracy. First of all, that means working for a certain measure of well-being for all, call it Welfare State. Secondly, it means working for a certain measure of equality of opportunity in the economic sphere. Every country, whether it is communist, non-communist or anti-communist, is going that way. 

We can hardly have a political democracy without mass education. In other countries full-blooded political democracy came after education had spread a good deal as a result of the economic revolution which had prepared the ground for it. 

But in most Asian countries, certainly in India, we have taken a huge jump to hundred per cent political democracy without the wherewithal to supply the demands which a politically conscious electorate makes. That is the essence of the problem in all the Asian countries. All our political life is really concerned with how rapidly we can bridge this hiatus between desires and their fulfilment. India’s Second Five Year Plan is an attempt to bridge the hiatus. We have to think not merely in some academic way of the form of government which we should have, but in terms of a political structure which will fulfil the demands made upon it. If the political structure cannot do so, it means that it has become out of date and may have to go. 

With revolutionary changes in communication and with the coming in of atomic energy, the whole structure of human society is changing. On the political plane it becomes more and more obvious that while countries, small or big, wish to retain hundred per cent national independence, they can hardly continue to do so in the present context of the world. I have little doubt in my mind that some kind of a world order will have to arise, but I hope it will not be the kind which takes away from the attributes of national freedom and individual freedom. The world moves more and more towards centralization, for the whole process of scientific advance tends towards centralization, but we have to see that this centralization does not limit, reduce or kill liberty. The biggest problem of the age is to resolve the problem of centralization and national freedom. 

I do not know whether ultimately the parliamentary structure answers this question or not. But I should imagine that the parliamentary form of government is more likely to do so than the other forms which lead to some measure of authoritarianism. But we have to realize that no authoritarian government can be absolutely dictatorial except for a brief period. In the long run it has to reckon with public opinion.

The high level of education that prevails in industrialized societies makes people think and ultimately rebel against things they do not like. Therefore, I am not very much afraid of dictators and the like coming in the future. Nevertheless, centralization means a restriction of liberties. To have both centralization and decentralization is therefore the problem of the age. In India, during the last generation or two, we have been powerfully impressed by Gandhiji’s idea of decentralization. Seeing the dangers of too much concentration of power he advocated decentralization — whether it was political power or economic power. 

Where society becomes more and more complex, the official apparatus grows tremendously. Bureaucracy grows. Bureaucracy means a trained person doing a job. But as trained persons fit into a huge machine, they become cogs and lose initiative and purpose. Any system of government which tends to become passive and static is bad. The parliamentary system of government, with all its failings, has the virtue that it can fit in with the changing pattern of life. 

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