In the past, democracy has been taken chiefly to mean political democracy, roughly represented by the idea of every person having a vote. It is obvious that a vote by itself does not mean very much to a person who is down and out and starving. Such a person will be much more interested in food to eat than in a vote. Therefore, political democracy by itself is not enough except that it may be used to obtain a gradually increasing measure of economic democracy. The good things of life must become available to more and more people and gross inequalities must be removed. That process has, no doubt, gone on for some time in countries where there is political democracy.
We believe in democracy. Speaking for myself, I believe in it, first of all, because I think it is the right means to achieve ends and because it is a peaceful method. Secondly, because it removes the pressures which other forms of Government may impose on the individual. It transforms the discipline which is imposed by authority largely to self-discipline. Self-discipline means that even people who do not agree – the minority – accept solutions because it is better to accept them than to have conflict. It is better to accept them and then change them, if necessary, by peaceful methods.
Therefore, democracy means to me an attempt at the solution of problems by peaceful methods. If it is not peaceful, then to my mind, it is not democracy. If I may further elaborate the second reason, democracy gives the individual an opportunity to develop. Such opportunity does not mean anarchy, where every individual does what he likes. A social organisation must have some disciplines to hold it together. Those can either be imposed from outside or be in the nature of self-discipline. Imposition from outside may take the form of one country governing another or of an autocratic or authoritarian form of government. In a proper democracy, discipline is self-imposed. There is no democracy if there is no discipline.
The question arises: If people cannot observe discipline, then does not the democratic structure tend to crack up? Something will have to take the place of democracy to enforce discipline. The enforced discipline may come – as it sometimes has – from military dictatorship. If a vacuum is created, external authorities may fill it or some internal authority grows up to fill it.
A theoretical enunciation of the Constitution does not solve any problem. The Constitution may be excellent, but it is the measure in which the Constitution reflects not only the thinking but the character of the people that will make for its successful working. We have seen some very excellent Constitutions going to pieces after a few years because of people not acting up to their own Constitution or because the Constitution does not fit in with their thinking or solve their problems.
There is one aspect of democratic government to which we in India must give more consideration than other countries. In western Europe they developed their parliamentary system gradually, in the course of a hundred years of more. Occasionally there were conflicts; occasionally there was a danger of a crack-up, but somehow they managed to get over it all. Except for these occasional conflicts, it has been a long period of relatively measured advance, and progress has been without too great a stress.
In India, we have certain advantages and certain disadvantages. In the course of the last thirty or forty years, we built up a movement of an unusual type. While it was largely a peaceful movement, it was nevertheless a revolutionary movement. This unusual combination of revolutionary content and peaceful methods changed the character of the people in the course of a generation. Freedom was not suddenly thrown into our laps. We struggled for it; we conditioned ourselves for it; we went through great strain and trouble over it. But the change was far less difficult than in any other country that I can think of because we were conditioned to function peacefully. The trail of bitterness and conflict did not pursue us and we could adapt ourselves mentally and physically to the changed conditions. At the same time, since our whole training has been in opposition, it has not been easy to get our people out of the habit of thinking and functioning as though they are in the opposition. It is a natural feeling, and has developed in all countries, particularly in countries which have had major revolutions. Sometimes, the very people who made the revolution have been put an end to. There have been counter – revolutions. When a country is shaken up in a big way there are all kinds of consequences. One cannot, in an academic manner, lay down what should happen first and what should happen next. When millions of people are on the move, they go their own way. The bigger the country the more difficult the problem of leading them. If our methods had not been peaceful, and if in the course of our struggle we had not developed a great measure of self-discipline, our problem might have been very difficult to solve, it not insoluble. If we had developed self-discipline even more, the country would have been much stronger. What saved us was the measure of self-discipline we did have. It is that which put us in a position to utilise for the right purposes the strength we had gathered in the course of our struggle. Otherwise, as has often happened in revolutionary struggles, Otherwise, as has often happened in revolutionary struggles, that very strength might have turned against us and might have done us a great deal of injury, in the form of internal strife and so on. A revolution, whether it is violent or peaceful, produces difficult problems of adaptation. In a violent revolution, the crack-up and the break the naturally much greater. You can see many countries in Asia – I do not wish to mention their names – which have also come out of revolutionary crises and struggles, and which still have to face and solve their problems. You can see other countries where changes have been made which have not grown out of the conditions and circumstances of the country.
To sum up, all our institutions, including the parliamentary institutions, are ultimately the projections of a people's character, thinking and aims. They are strong and lasting in the measure that they are in accordance with the people's character and thinking. Otherwise, they tend to breakup.
Address to the First All-India Seminar on Parliamentary Democracy, New Delhi, February 25, 1956