The idea of conceiving a system of governance for a society that is ruled by the people, kicked started the concept of democracy. And democratic ways of governing a society has been around for few thousands years now. Modern history tells us that, it is the Greeks who came up with the original conception of self-rule thereby, creating first democratic society around 430 B.C, but other historians are of the view that, in fact Athenians were probably not the first group of people to live in a democracy, as there are strong evidence of self governing societies in places around India.
And whatever maybe it’s origin, over time the idea of democracy has certainly evolved, and in the process got quite complex. Today most democratic societies are a representative democracy where, a society elects a group of people to represent their interests, and these elected individuals then come together to form a government through a political party system. Parliaments as temples of democracy is the legislative body creating laws to govern the economic and all the other aspects of a society. In a way, people don’t tell each other, what to do and how to live their lives, but instead people elect a government that in turn tells people, what to do and how to governs their lives. Yes ! the statement may sound a bit harsh, but there is an element of truth in it.
As a way to better govern and exercise its authority, governments through acts of legislation create institutions. And these institutions then become the power centres through which a governments operate and deliver its policy initiatives. There are institutions to enable governments and also provide checks and balances as and when required. But over time as these institutions become more powerful, they do tend to blur and suffocate the concept of self-rule. People become more fearful of the institutions, and the disconnect between people and institutions grows wider. Resulting in the sense of loss of empowerment of people that was the original goal behind the idea of a democracy, a system for the people and by the people .
When religion as a concept started representing Gods, the idea of a possible God got institutionalised in the process. And therefore, the interaction between people and a potential God came under the guidelines and governance of a religion. The religion then started conceiving rules of engagement and interaction with a God, and obviously transformed itself into a real power centre. So Gods got confined to religion, and religion as an institution started setting the narrative. Religion and religious leaders got empowered at the cost of people.
That has been the status quo and the modus operandi so far, but in the past few years, a change has been brewing inside the belly of the society. A disruption that is clearly shaking up the foundations and the architecture of modern democracy. The flaws within the system are becoming increasingly more visible and the disruptive forces more potent.
No doubt that institutions have played an important role in sustaining the idea of modern democratic societies across the world, and some would probably rightly argue that, increasingly these institutions are under constant attack from a wave of populism, therefore needing protection. But in my view, we are missing the big picture.
There is a strong case to be made for carrying out a real top down reform of institutions. I am of the opinion that, institutionalisation of democracy and Gods are one of the reasons why democracy is starting to struggle and the society is increasingly finding itself at odds with religion.
People shouldn’t fear a government or an institution. The role of a government and that of an institution should be of an enabler, a service provider, and not of a power centre. By the act of electing a government or an individual, to act as their representative, people do end up empowering a government or the individual that they have elected to represent them.
But this idea of a self – rule has its limitations, because to govern and exercise its mandate from the people. A government or the leader acting on behalf of that government, in order to serve the people, has to govern and try to deliver on its mandate through the established institutions as channels. Be it the economic well-being of the society or keeping the law & order for example, requires institutional infrastructure in place to help a government govern. Having said that, the complex structure of these institutions and the hierarchy creates inherent flaws within the system, thereby making the system inefficient over time, resulting in these institutions failing people.
Institutional power grab as a narrative was used as one of the key reasons for Brexit. People in the United Kingdom who voted to leave the existing membership of the European Union did find the idea of taking back control quite appealing. A larger percentage of the people who voted leave are of the view that democracy is being outsourced to undemocratic institutions in Brussels that is setting the agenda and also the narrative of how a society should function or govern itself. And the idea of self-rule is being slowly eroded. Now,we may have a different view or perspective on the subject matter, but what is becoming very clear is that, people are pushing for a change. Which is also testing the design limits of a representative parliamentary democratic system as evident from the chaos in the top British legislative body aka the Westminster.
In the end, if people aren’t the priority then institutions won’t work for people, it is people who will end up working for institutions. If people don’t feel empowered then, eventually there will be push back against the system. And that is what’s happening today across the world. The pundits may call this, a rise or revival of populism, and it may be true, but in my opinion, we will be doing ourselves and the society at large a great disservice by ignoring to examine the underlying causes, and then failing to find a long term fix.
And as a part of the probable fix, maybe it is time for the society to explore the idea of a universal citizens charter, whereby people agree to grant each other the same rights that they would give themselves. A legally binding agreement that people will have towards each other through a well defined set-off responsibilities and accountabilities. An idea that may empower people and also make them accountable as responsible members of a society.