Monday, September 11, 2006

Complex majority?

Bolivia, it seems, is living the curse of 'interesting times', as are we all.

This situation is very interesting. Some people are on strike, which is not very remarkable. What is, is what the strikers are objecting to. From the report,

"The strikers are objecting to plans to allow a constituent assembly to amend the charter by simple majority vote."

Now, will somebody explain - in a constituent assembly (in a democracy, one assumes), if you can't change things through a simple majority... how are you supposed to change the charter?

The report says that -
"A power struggle between Bolivia's wealthier, white elite - which opposes the changes - and its indigenous majority is at the heart of the row."



diksha said...

well it depends on how the variety of people in that assembly is...

but ya its funny for sure...

suresh said...

In answer to your - rhetorical? - question, one can adopt any number of voting procedures - consensus, 2/3 majority etc. Majority voting (50%+) is just one such procedure and it is not clear that it is always desirable, especially regarding such issues as the constitution.

I think that the objective of a constitution is to get a document that reflects the wishes of a broad majority. In this context, requiring 2/3 majority is not a bad idea at all since it prevents a very divisive issue from being written into the constitution.

I don't know if you are aware of this but the decision to make Hindi the "official language" of our country was passed by the constituent assembly with a majority of *one* and that was through the casting vote of the president of the assembly, Rajendra Prasad. Was it worth doing it? The original document envisaged a complete transition to Hindi within 15 years. In 1965, there were riots in Tamil Nadu at the onset of this deadline. The Government was left with no option but to invoke the "escape clause" which allowed the concurrent usage of English to continue. This had been thoughtfully inserted by a Tamilian, Gopalaswami Ayyangar. (Source: M. J. Akbar, "India: the siege within)

I would not doubt that the richer areas of Bolivia and its european elite are invoking "constitutionalism" in a cynical manner to preserve the status quo. However, there are serious issues involved here, something your post glosses over.

I am particularly intrigued by your invoking "majority voting" given your own background. I am sure that you recall only too well where untamed "majorityism" can lead to - the wounds of Gujarat are too fresh. Most democracies have worked out schemes to protect minorities from being run roughshod by the majority; in particular, such schemes have given minorities a greater say in matters than their population fraction would warrant.

Annie Zaidi said...

sheetal: you're right about that.

suresh: I'm intrigued, now. What do you assume my 'background' is? And what makes you think that my background will, in any way, determine my political opinions?

The point here, in essence, is about democracy. Democracy is based on 'majorityism'. Majority does win, whether we like it or not, whether it suits diverse minority backgrounds or not. And if you allow a government to be formed based on a simple majority, or even a coalition, which is no kind of majority, really, then you have no business questioning this majority when it seeks to make far-reaching changes, just because it no longer suits you.

As far as Hindi being the national language is concerned, I don't have much of an opinion on the issue. We had to have one language, after all... or perhaps, we did not have to have any one, and only one, state language.
But, tell me, what would you have preferred? Suppose the decision was yours to make; would you have chosen another language? Which one? On what basis? Would there ever have been a two-thirds majority?

suresh said...


You have mentioned your muslim background and I only meant to say that in light of that, I expected you to be more sensitive to the bad aspects of an untamed "majorityism" and to view arguments invoking "majority rule" more sceptically. That is all.

Democracy is more complicated than your simplistic representation. In some sense, it is about "what the broad mass of people want" and therefore the wishes of the majority are a part of that. But does that give the majority to do anything it wishes using the argument of numbers? I don't think so.

The issue of minority rights is crucial for multi-religious, multi-lingual states like India. As a matter of fact, even in India, we have moved away from the theoretical one-man one-vote. Note that parliamentary constituencies have been frozen since 1975 or thereabouts, and through an amendment moved by the Vajpayee government, this will continue to be the case until 2025. One reason that this has happened is that the southern states have argued against any changes. They know that if the constituencies are redrawn on population basis, then their relative share of seats in the Lok Sabha will fall because the Northern states have grown faster than the Southern states. So, TN, Kerala etc. have relatively more of a say in the Lok Sabha than their population share warrants; corresponding UP and Bihar have less of a voice than their population share. (We now have the absurd scenario where the constitution dictates that there must be one MP for every 0.5-0.75 million people but there are constituencies with more than 10 million residents like Outer Delhi. Taking the constitution's directive seriously means that the Lok Sabha should now have around 1500-2000 MPs!)

Our constitutional adjustments have been somewhat ad hoc but other countries have very formal adjustments. In the US senate, all states have two votes and this means that a state like Rhode Island (pop. 1 million) has the same number of senators as California (pop. 33 million). This type of scheme was evolved to prevent the "bigger" states from dominating the smaller ones.

Regarding the issue of language, I don't see why it had to be addressed in the constitution at all. We already had a functioning central government inherited from the British and we could have continued with that particularly given the strong objections to Hindi from the South. I think that would have been the wiser course; in the event, that is what ultimately did happen. Perhaps over time, a wiser future generation - as Annadurai argued - can move towards Hindi or anything else. But by precipitating a vote - and one bitterly divisive - the Hindi lobbyists (fanatics, more accurately) created a problem when there need have been none. (We were wiser, though, than the Pakistanis. By being insensitive to the Bengali fondness for their language - through such arguments as "Urdu is the only Islamic language" - they managed to break up the country.)

I don't want to carry this further; I will simply reiterate that democracy and constitutional changes are more complex issues than what you represent, especially in heterogeneous societies. I am willing to engage with this privately but I have said enough here.

Annie Zaidi said...

suresh: the discussion was just beginning to warm up, I thought. might have gone interesting places... but I will respect your wishes and not take this any further, not on this thread, at least.

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