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Is Representative Democracy Really Democratic?


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“You have two cows. All your neighbours pick someone to decide who gets the milk.”

^This running joke on Representative Democracy that captures it in one line got me thinking about Representative Democracy and the Social Justice Issue associated with it.

Structure of the Paper

This paper talks about Representative Democracy as the bigger ambit and concentrates on Electoral Democracy as its basic premise leading to injustice and makes Policy Recommendations by suggesting a model that makes the Policy Framing Process more inclusive, more just and more collectively as well as individually fair.

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My argument building starts by showing how Representative Democracy (Feature: Electoral Democracy) chooses Collective Justice over Individual Justice by following the Majority Rule and is not really representative. I would further through statistics show that in a country like India; the Collective Justice doesn’t remain Collective as the Majority isn’t real, which basically implies that the premise of majority that Democracy starts with, is in itself not adhered to.

Violation of Individual Justice

At its most fundamental incarnation, Representative Democracy is synonymous with Majority Rule. It’s a system of governance in which people choose their leaders by casting votes, giving rise to the usage of the term ‘Electoral Democracy.’

Theoretical-Practical Paradox:

Theoretically, Electoral Democracy as a feature of Representative Democracy implies people within the country decide who will govern them. However, in reality, the existence of limited choice and the illusion of complete choice makes electoral democracy restrictive and non-representative in the truest sense. The voters have to pick their representatives from a subset of people, who are usually the ones with enough financial or political backing. This makes electoral democracy unjust, for the individual, as individuals are not really free to choose, they are only free to choose from the given choices.

The Right to Rejection[i] passed by the Supreme Court of India in September’13, even though gives voters a “none of the above choice” that is the right to record disapproval of candidates, makes no provision yet to count the “rejection” votes. Therefore, this move is in reality, only symbolic and will not impact the results of the elections. The Right to Rejection, as it stands, does little to help individuals from being governed by the ones they don’t want to be governed by.

Tyranny of the Collective

Furthermore, where Electoral Democracy loses its representative character and violates Individual Justice in favour of Collective justice is its basic premise, the rule of the majority.

In India, it has been noted there has been a declining margin of victory. The average margin of victory in a parliamentary constituency between 1962 and 2009 has decreased with time. From a 15% margin of victory in 1962, the average margin of victory has come down substantially to 9.7% in 2009, the thinnest margin since Independence with the average winning margin in parliamentary elections being 70,000 votes only. This evidence supports the claim electoral democracy isn’t really representative.

The “tyranny of the majority” means that the will of the majority prevails over the minority. But if that is so, what is to stop a dominant group from using democracy to further entrench the oppression of minority groups? Worse yet, how will the interests of oppressed minorities ever be taken seriously if they can always be overruled by the votes of the majority?

Despite Electoral Democracy sounding well in theory, there could be cases where a hostile, organized majority takes on the minority and systematically sidelines them, thus undermining the whole essence of democracy for the latter. Gujarat riots (2002 Gujarat Violence), and the way they helped create factionalism, leading to the right-wing forces to capitalize on the organized majority’s sentiment in the 2002 state elections in India is a classic example of this kind of failure. Democracy means collective self-governance among equals. If a segment of society push for the segregation and subjugation of another segment of society, then it is fundamentally undemocratic for it means undermining the ideal of collective self-rule.

Slim majority still qualifies as majority and there is no bare minimum a contestant needs to get in order to be elected, he only needs to beat his competitors. In the view of its majoritarian nature, the fact that when it comes down to measuring the mood of the people, one cannot really ignore 49% of the people who voted against the selected candidate, casts a shadow over electoral democracy being fair and just. According to EB White,

“Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half the time.”

The Actuality of Majority

In the name of Collective Justice, Electoral Democracy hangs Individual Justice at the altar. Though, I understand that it is impossible to consider every opinion in the country and a choice has to be made between Individual and Collective Justice and Collective seems like the more obvious choice, I am going to further debunk Electoral Democracy by asserting that the Collective Justice in this case does not really account for a majority. Even though Electoral Democracy finds its roots in majority so as to say, it is not real majority and in fact all governments in such systems are elected by a minority of voters.

Voter turnout has varied historically in India between 50-60%.[ii] So a potential winning majority of 51% of 60% of voters who turn out would imply the views of only about 30% of the nation. Additionally, according to estimates, in each Lok Sabha constituency in the country, the number of unregistered voters could be as high as 2.1 lakh.[iii]

The votes can be touted as representative, but the election in itself can’t be called the same because of votes to seats ratio not being one. A party which gets 90% of national votes does not necessarily get 90% of seats, as seats depend on constituencies and their demographics.

According to statistics, if we take the Congress Party for example, for every 1% share of the vote Congress garnered in 1977, it was rewarded with .9 seats. But in 1980, that changed drastically: a 1 percentage point increase in vote share was suddenly worth nearly 1.7 seats. Even very small changes in the vote share can have dramatic impacts on the number of seats won. For instance, in 1999 and 2009 the Congress Party won an almost identical share of votes (28.3 versus 28.5%, respectively but the party’s seat share rose from 140 seats to nearly206 seats. What triggers this effect is how broadly spread/concentrated a party’s vote share is at the level of individual constituencies. So in practice, a party may be winning only because its voter base lies in lesser populated constituencies which incidentally may be more in number than the heavily populated ones.

At best, representative democracy with its focus on electoral democracy can be just for a sub group of the population at a particular point of time and not for the entire population itself. In such cases, Electoral Democracy is neither individually just nor collectively.

Policy Recommendations

Until an alternative model to Democracy is formulated which considers all individual opinions in the country, the violation of individual justice can be minimised by increasing the number of choices in terms of candidates available to individuals and by instituting quorums with respect to Right to Rejection, according to which when a certain percentage of population rejects the existing candidates, the polls should be held again with new candidates.

Arrow’s impossibility theorem states that a clear order of preferences cannot be determined while adhering to mandatory principles of fair voting procedures, implying that for numerous decisions, it is impossible to aggregate individual preferences in a meaningful way. Given the difficulty in counting for the choices of all individuals in a particular country while forming the Government, collective justice, despite its demerits, is a feasible alternative, entailing the Rule of the Majority. However, what every country should strive towards is Real Majority, by increasing the voter base in the country, alongside voter turn outs by creating awareness in its populace.

Another way of minimising the Tyranny of the Majority is by building Collective Intelligence. The degree to which various perspectives are included increases the collective intelligence of the whole. Mary Parker Follett understood the potential of dialogue and group process to create a larger whole within which both the individual and the collective are interdependent and in synergy, rather than opposed to one another. She wrote:

“The great cosmic force in the womb of humanity is latent in the group as its creative energy; that it may appear the individual must do his duty every moment. We do not get the whole power of the group unless every individual is given full value. It is the creative spontaneity of each which makes life march on irresistibly to the purposes of the whole. Our social and political organization must be such that this group life is possible.” (1918)

The notion that people living under a democratic government are ultimately responsible for that government’s policies i.e. collective moral responsibility can be reinstated so that individuals as a part of a collective take rational decisions.

What can make Representative Democracy more representative is a Right to recall an elected representative if the electorate is dissatisfied with his or her performance, instead of waiting for five years for the next election.

Also, injustice that pertains to being governed by unwanted candidates can be minimised by including the voices of people in the Policy Making Process. What this would encompass is that irrespective of whether the candidate governing me is chosen by me or not, I still get to have a say in the policies I want for myself. This would take care of both cases, wherein my elected representative’s take on a certain policy is different from mine as well as when the representative isn’t the one I voted for. Thus, Electoral Democracy which proves to be a failing of Representative Democracy doesn’t become a major deterrent to actual representation in a model like Direct Democracy that deals with involvement of all individuals in Policy Planning and limits the power of the representatives. In Direct Democracy, citizens co-create government on a regular basis and not just at the time of the election. However, one must keep in mind the volatility of this form of democracy and if executed, it must be done through very small steps by letting people debate and make decisions on how to spend the government money that is allotted to their locality in the very beginning. Slowly, when this system stabilizes, more power could be given to people to debate and make decisions on issues in their town, district and so on.

In cases where Direct Democracy as a model itself seems infeasible because of sheer numbers, higher citizen engagement should be encouraged and valued in examining broadly defined questions of regional or national importance through mechanisms such as Consensus Conferences (from Denmark), Planning Cells (from Germany) and Scenario Workshops. A combination of internet data and technology, big data and real time analysis can be fruitful in this regard. Portals such as Twitter[iv], Facebook, YouTube, etc. can be used to infer the general sentiment of people. Indices such as the Asian Barometer[v], Happy Barometer[vi] and projects like SPIDER[vii], HeyCrowd[viii], GovTogether[ix], VoteIQ[x], Democracy Audits, Actly[xi] should also be embraced at a large scale.


In the words of Sir Winston Churchill,

“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

So till the time, a model comes which does away with Individual injustice, while maintaining Collective Justice, Democracy is our best bet and we should look at minimising the injustices perpetrated by it by experimenting with alternative models within Democracy and effective citizen engagement.


[i] NDTV, Supreme Court gives voters right to reject all candidates in a poll, http://www.ndtv.com/article/cheat-sheet/supreme-court-gives-voters-right-to-reject-all-candidates-in-a-poll-424424, (September 27, 2013), Accessed on 27th February’14, 10 PM

[ii] International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, Voter turnout data for India, http://www.idea.int/vt/countryview.cfm?id=105

Accessed on 27th February’14, 10 PM

[iii] “His (Modi’s) assessment is that half of the 18 to 24 year-olds across the country are not registered or familiar with ways to enroll themselves even though the Election Commission has advertised the process. An estimate done by his key aides show the number of such unregistered voters could be as high as 1.5 lakh in each Lok Sabha constituency. Even the older unregistered could be as high as 60,000 voters.”

Hindustan Times, Modi eyes young voters to clinch victory in 2014 polls, http://www.hindustantimes.com/India-news/NewDelhi/Modi-eyes-young-voters-to-clinch-victory-in-2014-polls/Article1-1125680.aspx, (September 22, 2013)

Accessed on 27th February’14, 10 PM

[iv] Co.Design, Infographic of the Day: Twitter Tracks the Entire Country’s Mood, http://www.fastcodesign.com/1661966/infographic-of-the-day-twitter-tracks-the-entire-countrys-mood

Accessed on 27th February’14, 10 PM

[v] Asian Barometer is an applied research program on public opinion on political values, democracy and governance across the region and represents a careful and systematic comparative survey of attitudes and values toward politics, power, reform and democracy.

[vi] Vilnius mayor Arturas Zuokas insists that the Happiness Barometer is a “great tool for politicians,” pointing out that: “If we take a decision and see a sharp fall in the mood of the city, then we know we have done something horribly wrong.”

[vii] SPIDER is a project which aims to create an enabling environment for dialogue on elections, democracy and good governance through capacity building on access to information and ICT skills.

[viii] HeyCrowd is an entirely mobile opinion-sharing platform.

[ix] GovTogether is a network to connect voters to politicians.

[x] VoteIQ allows users to get political news/information, rate politicians, watchdog politicians and the media.

[xi] Actly enables users to enter a politician’s Twitter handle and briefly tweet an idea and hook a politician to a petition.


  1. Accessed on 28th February, 2 PM


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