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A simple bicycle and the complex practice of democracy

Prof Rajeev Bhargava for The Hindu

If we don’t have a stake in democracy, don’t see it as belonging to us, it might even be hijacked from right under our nose

What is democracy? Abraham Lincoln’s phrase — that it is political rule of the people, by the people, for the people — is surely a cliché. But is it also a good description of democracy? Is it weightier than what we have come to suppose and frequently dismiss?

The cycle as a metaphor

Let’s take a simple example. A village has a bicycle to fetch goods of daily use. So far, the cycle is used exclusively by the Pradhan, to procure goods only for himself and his family; but now, following a change of heart or popular pressure, the Pradhan also uses the bicycle to ferry goods he thinks would meet the basic needs of other village folks. The cycle is now used, at least some times, also for the people. On receiving some articles of subsistence, they begin hoping that a day will come when they would be able to ride the cycle, see, touch, smell the goods themselves and choose what they really want. Instead of being content with things handed out to them, they can now go to the market, see the entire range of goods on display and decide what, by their own reckoning, best satisfies them. So, they somehow manage to persuade the Pradhan to let them ride the bicycle and visit the market. They now realise that there were many things that they had not even conceived they needed. They also begin to enjoy the ride to the market and back. Indeed, the cycle takes them to entirely new worlds, beyond the market, beyond the immediate world of things they need. It fires up their imagination, helps them forge new relations, conjure up new worlds. Riding the cycle has its own rewards, its own thrill. The bicycle now doesn’t merely work for them, but is also worked by them and for that reason works even better.

At this stage, however, the Pradhan changes his mind and takes this cycle away from them; and the village is back to square one — the people return to their deprived state. In a fix, the poor villagers realise that the mere opportunity to use the cycle was never enough. It should always have belonged to them. They should have claimed it as theirs, have had a greater stake in it. They, and not the Pradhan, should have collectively owned it because, in the last instance, its use depended on their having a permanent, inalienable right to it. So now they strive to make the cycle theirs, to prevent it remaining an exclusive possession of the Pradhan. They realise that they should not even view the cycle as a thing of mere use, with an instrumental value. Rather, it should always have been something of intrinsic value, indeed an integral part of who they are. Losing it would not just be a temporary deprivation from which they can recover easily and quickly by getting a replacement, but the alienation of a basic capacity to determine the course of their life, a shattering blow to their self-confidence and self-esteem, to their very sense of self. Once they reclaim it, they can legitimately say that the cycle not only functions for them, is run by them, but also belongs to them. It is theirs; for them, by them, and even more importantly perhaps, of them.

Decision-making and identity

I hope the reader has understood that what is true of a simple bicycle is also true of the far more complex practice of democracy. Democracy is an institutional mechanism which helps us obtain resources that potentially satisfy us, enable us to lead the life we wish and choose. But it works for us only if we all take part in running it. If we allow some elites (the Pradhans) to take charge, rely exclusively on them to get us the resources that we need, the chances are that we may never get the resources, or receive them sporadically, dependent on the elites’ whims and fancies. Besides, we would be deprived of the sheer pleasure of decision-making, of taking an active part in choosing and allocating resources, of determining the course of our collective and individual lives. And, finally, if we don’t have a stake in democracy, if we feel we don’t own it, don’t see it as belonging to us, as a constitutive part of our identity, then one day it might even be taken away from us; hijacked from right under our nose by someone. So, we must ensure that democracy is not just for the people, is run by the people but also is of the people. It belongs to us; that is to say, it is ours. A lot of thought, it appears, was invested by Lincoln in this short, by now clichéd, phrase!

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