Limits to Democracy

Democracy has been repeatedly forced on the back-foot by academics over the years. That we cannot take growth for granted in democracies is well researched already. There many other questions one can ask of democratic institutions. Some of them could be – Does democracy assure us of narrowing income inequalities? Does it guarantee civil liberties – does it assure there will be no communal riots? Are democratic regimes less corrupt? The evidence available to a layman blogger like me suggests that we are far from any conclusive answer to these questions.

Now, there is more. Through Duncan Green’s blog, I came across this great paper by Olivier Rubin, dissecting Amartya Sen’s theory that ‘democratic institutions together with a free press provide effective protection from famine’ and describing how conclusive causal links are not to be found. This is done using case studies from Indian states (Bihar, Maharashtra and Orissa), Niger and Malawi.

I have to confess that I have been one of those naive young researchers who are given to quoting Amartya Sen like gospel. I love his books and his ability to weave together economics, politics and philosophy. And that is why I am a bit taken by this. The political analysis Rubin uses in this paper is not complex at all – in fact, the analysis of the Indian cases are so simple and obvious, that it could well have been a local newspaper editorial or a conversation in a village tea-stall. No doubt, that is the strength of the paper and the weakness of Sen’s famine-democracy theory – that a simple political economy analysis reveals the cracks in democratic institutions and the contradictions that develop which place these institutions (including the media) at cross-purposes, where self-preservation becomes a greater priority than public welfare.

Thus this paper by Rubin is a great read and very instructive as to how the politics of implementing relief strategies in times of famines hinder effective governmental response to crises. However, the fan-boy in me cannot take this lying. I think there is an important debate here – One, Sen mentions that famines are hardly ever widespread even when they occur. And therefore, he assigns the the responsibility of making this an issue to the media. This role of the media is probably more significant than was originally envisaged. That said – is it the case today that the media is not fulfilling its social responsibilities? I for one, believe that the media in India is largely sensationalist and often has little to offer in terms of substance, especially on matters of social welfare. In recent years, P Sainath has been fighting a lonely battle reporting widely on the appalling farmers’ suicides. In India, in about the last decade, 182,936 farmers have committed suicide. These are only official statistics, the real number of farming distress-related suicides are likely to be far higher. This, in spite of regular democratic processes in all the states involved; the south Indian states are known for their superior literacy levels, heightened political consciousness etc.

In analysing Sen’s eulogy to democracies, Rubin leaves out the role of the media. Is that the missing link in the analysis? If farmers’ suicides may be taken as analogous to famines, it is easy to identify the role of the media as a factor that exacerbates the failings of the democratic institutions. Rubin points out how ‘inflation’ is a game-changer in Indian politics, with incumbents often facing the wrath of the electorate in times of spiraling food and fuel prices. This is an issue that finds huge attention from the media (probably because it affects those who run the media??) while farmers’ suicides reports are relegated to the ocassional Op-Ed that Sainath writes or some small statistic somewhere deep inside the newspapers. Almost everyday, we have the Finance Minister appearing before the media (newspapers and more importantly, these days, television) to assure the nation that the government is doing all it can to contain inflation. Indices of wholesale prices and consumer prices and their rates of increase or decrease have established themselves firmly in the day-to-day lingo of the middle-class, cutting across age groups. The farmers’ suicides, on the other hand, remains a preserve of the development sector, a far smaller and politically weaker community. Hence, the electoral backlash that Sen empasises strongly in his theory works much more effectively in cases of general inflation, rather than in isolated cases of famine in the sparsely populated hinterlands.

In the first place though, did Sen mean the democracy-famines theory as a general rule or was it supposed to be a watertight causal relationship. As a political message, to guide policy and one that allows the odd exception, it makes sense and is a useful guiding principle. Democracy, to a large extent, is an article of faith. In that light, Rubin’s paper is an inspiring critique, forcing us to review our beliefs and figure out the inconsistencies that may have crept into our world-views.


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