Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 03 April 2024

Democracy, autocracy, or both?

Relevance: GS Paper II

Why in News?

Since 2018, the V-Dem institute, based in Gothenburg, has consistently labelled India an "electoral autocracy.” The author argues that the V-Dem methodology has its flaws but acknowledges that there will always be tension between freedom and authority, as all states require the power to legitimise their actions.

Variability of democratic and autocratic systems:

  • Every major democracy (or autocracy) is in a category of one because the starting and current conditions are different for almost everybody.
  • Whether a country will be more autocratic or more democratic at any point in time depends a lot on its core culture, its degree of diversity, economic conditions, demographic trends, and internal and external threat perceptions.
  • A country that wants quick, radical change will tend to be less democratic because big change needs more concentration of power.

Paradox of democracy, freedom and tolerance:

  • In his famous work Open Society and its Enemies, philosopher Karl Popper refers to three paradoxes — the “paradox of democracy”, the “paradox of freedom”, and the “paradox of tolerance”.
    • The first paradox of democracy relates to the fact that people may sometimes elect autocrats in a free society.
    • The second paradox relates to the problem that unlimited freedom could facilitate rule by the strong over the weak, the majority over the minority.
      • Hence, there must be restraints on the freedoms enjoyed by the powerful.
    • As for the paradox of tolerance, Popper warns that extending unlimited tolerance to intolerant individuals without defending tolerant societies against intolerant attacks could destroy tolerance.

Monopolies of power:

  • When a group of people decides what is considered intolerable behaviour and when they decide to limit the democratic rights and freedoms of those they deem intolerant, democracy and autocracy become two sides of the same coin.
    • Democracy can only be sustained if some monopolies of power are vested in select, important institutions.
  • One obvious example is the judiciary, which is protected from libel and contempt in most countries and effectively accountable to no one.
  • Another example is the bureaucracy. While no country can function without an administrative service, this group can become an unaccountable power unto itself.
    • For instance, many unions fought for and received the right to revert back to the old pension scheme.
  • Citizens may agree to give the government greater powers whenever they perceive threats from violent non-state actors, also known as "terrorists," to be very high.

Measures leading to erosion of civil liberties and freedom of expression:

1. By democratic nations:

  • Legislation to legitimise surveillance: After 9/11, the US enacted its so-called Patriot Act, which gave the US huge powers of surveillance to prevent terrorism on US soil.
    • These powers have been used to legitimise assassinations on foreign soil.
  • Variations in free speech standards: In Denmark, after widespread Islamist threats to some publications that published cartoons of the Prophet, the country has legislated banning “inappropriate treatment of religious books”.
    • Denmark once thought of itself as the bastion of free speech.
  • Model code of conduct: India’s model code of conduct during elections would be considered a negative for free speech anywhere else, but we think this “electoral autocratisation” is healthy for our democracy.
  • Legislation against hate speech and extremism: Recently, Ireland and other European countries (and also Scotland) have been planning to (or have already legislated) laws to prevent “hate speech,” and Britain has expanded the meaning of "extremism" to include the advocacy or promotion of an ideology that is rooted in violence, hatred, or intolerance and that could potentially impede the rights of others.
    • This includes any ideology that aims to undermine, overthrow, or replace the UK's democratic system of liberal parliamentary democracy and democratic rights.
      • The new definition, which arose from public demands for the eradication of Jews, could have a concerning impact on freedom of speech. This is because it may be utilised to silence voices that criticise Israel's actions or certain policies of the government that endorse Israel.

2. By private sector platforms: There are certain risks to democratic liberties that arise from the private sector.

  • Social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter (now known as X) and even email services such as Gmail wield tremendous power to censor and control free speech.
    • This was evident in January 2021, when they jointly de-platformed a sitting President, ostensibly because Donald Trump incited violence on Capitol Hill.
  • Today, the same “democracy”, supported by liberal media, is employing various legal and non-legal tactics to prevent Donald Trump from contesting the November presidential elections. While these actions may seem justified if Trump is seen as the next Hitler, why would a future establishment not use the same powers to prevent a genuine critic from being elected?

Perception of authoritarianism in India:

  • Exaggerated accusations: As India approaches another divisive election, it is common to hear exaggerated accusations against the current government.
    • Some people assume that the government will be re-elected, and therefore, they make extreme claims against it.
  • Constitutional design: The Constitution itself is predisposed towards centralising power.
    • For instance, Article 19(2) places significant limitations on free speech and was included in the Constitution even before its implementation.
  • Political polarization: Furthermore, some of the criticism against the current government may actually be directed towards the government's efforts to improve its ability to tackle crime, tax evasion, and fraud.
    • In the past, it was expected that the powerful would always be able to evade the law. But now, as the state has become more effective, some people may see this as a sign of authoritarianism.

Issue of biased enforcement actions against political leaders:

  • Although the Opposition is correct in highlighting the biased approach of tax and enforcement actions against their leaders, it doesn't necessarily imply that the actions themselves are unjustified.
  • It is a widely accepted fact that the law favours those with greater financial resources, creating an uneven playing field for those with limited resources.
    • However, the system itself is to blame for this inequality, not the law.
  • Therefore, we need to establish more robust mechanisms to ensure that the law is enforced fairly and objectively.


All democracies have flaws and are constantly evolving. A good democracy should be able to adapt and change as needed. Unfortunately, this is not the case with any country today, as complex issues like immigration, terrorism, inequality, and climate change remain unsolved due to a lack of consensus among democratic leaders. Unsurprisingly, many citizens prefer strong leaders who can solve their daily problems quickly, even if it means sacrificing some democratic principles.