Limits of Formal Democracy and Deepening of Democracy

Arshiya Bhutani

One must not overestimate the power of formal democracy, for it is only as good as social democracy allows it to be, and vice versa.

Before independence, the Indian sub-continent was riddled with class and caste inequalities. With feudal structures and caste hierarchies defining power relations, India’s transition to a democracy was one that was besmirched with a multitude of social inequalities. With the advent of universal suffrage and procedural democracy, the founding fathers hoped to pave the way for a more equitable society. The pre-supposition was that a social and substantive democracy will eventually be borne out of procedural democracy (Baiocchi, Heller, & Silva, 2008).

Months before India became a republic, Babasaheb Ambedkar during a constituent assembly debate expressed his anxiety over the future of Indian independence. Ambedkar never failed to bring to the fore that caste and creed were enemies to independence of Indians long before the British stepped foot on the subcontinent. Now that India was to become a formal democracy, it was important to maintain it “not merely in form, but also in fact”. In the same debate he said, for the survival of democracy,

“We must not be content with mere political democracy. We must make our political democracy a social democracy as well. Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it, social democracy”

Dr. BR Ambedkar1

But pre-existing power structures rooted in caste and class hierarchies succeeded in penetrating the thin walls of procedural democracy – as they often tend to do – and is visible in the crony ties between in the political elite and the business elite in democracies across the world. In the following sections, the article attempts to draw from Patrick Heller’s works to build the argument that: Firstly, institutional change in India preceded social change, and hence, the effectiveness of democratic processes and institutions remain weak. Secondly, democratic deepening is contingent on interactions between the society and the formal institutions.

Effectiveness and Limits of Formal Democracy

A marker of an effective democracy is the spread of democratic processes and values not only within the institution, but also within the society. That the lines between society and politics are blurred and both have a cyclical effect on one another, are commonly accepted truths. This invokes the debate of effectiveness of a procedural democracy. To some extent, effectiveness of democracy in present-day India justifies Ambedkar’s fears of democracy existing in form and not in fact. In principle the electoral process follows the ideal of one person, one vote, one value; and every citizen enjoys the same set of constitutional rights. In principle also, these votes are cast in absence of any form of coercion; but in the socio-economic and political spheres of democracy, equality seems amiss with societal hierarchy still dictating power structures. Guillermo O’ Donnell’s discusses this using the concept of “low intensity citizenship” (Donnell, 1993), wherein the state is unable to enforce the legalities associated with democracy.

Representative Democracy and its Exclusion of the Marginalised

Democracy is frequently clothed in egalitarian tones, but among the opposing-minority are thinkers like Schumpeter who consider democracy an arena of political elites competing to rule the populace (Medearis, 2020). While this may not always be the case, democracy being turned into a competition by political elites, functioning akin to a free market (voters become consumers and competing parties become sellers; consumers vote for the party that offers a programme closest to voter preference) might be an ugly manifestation of formal democracy. If it so happens, representative democracy ends up having an exclusionary tendency towards the already marginalised.

When inequalities run so deep that they create extraconstitutional authorities in the forms of caste subordination, patriarchy, and crony nexuses, citizenship loses its value and the effectiveness of democracy falls.

The Difficulty in Rational Decision Making by the Voters

For a formal democracy to be effective, voters must be willing and able to make rational decisions and put common interests above the inherent biases towards their own class, caste, creed, and religion (Heller, 2000). In the deeply heterogeneous Indian society where political elites have class nexuses with the bourgeoisie, the socio-economic conditions of communities that are low in the class and caste hierarchy push them further down the ladder, away from the power centres (ibid.). Traditionally defined rights take precedence over the constitutionally defined citizenship rights.

In effect, representative democracies more accurately represent the caste, class, and religious dynamics of a state, than they represent the needs and demands of the populace. A possible consequence is the colonisation and the privatisation of state power by extra democratic authorities.

Extra Democratic Processes in a Society Riddled with Inequalities

Social patterns influence the functioning of institutions, and conversely the legitimacy of institutions have the capacity of altering social patterns. While the two systems can enhance one another, mutual corrosion is the other side of the same coin. A limitation that befalls the effectiveness of formal democracy is its partial contingency on social change. In India, the introduction of procedural democracy predated positive change in the social structure. In such a case, crony ties between the political elites and the upper class/ upper caste reinforce rigid vertical hierarchies, that further push marginalised communities away from their rights. Thus, while the formal democratic apparatus works with fluidity, extra-democratic processes create graded inequalities among citizens (Baiocchi, Heller, & Silva, 2008).

Extreme Political Fragmentation

Amongst other problems, the extreme political fragmentation can divert the focus of democratic institutions from development and fulfilling substantive demands to divisive issues borne out of polarising politics (Heller, 2000).

An important prerequisite for any democracy to work well is for the subordinate groups to be brought to a level playing field in terms of human capabilities… As the most marginalised acquire the social skills and the intellectual ability to understand basic democratic processes, their involvement in informed participation increases.

The Need for Social Democracy

A truly effective democracy is one where people from all classes can freely exercise the rights given to them by the constitution. When inequalities run so deep that they create extraconstitutional authorities in the forms of caste subordination, patriarchy, and crony nexuses, citizenship loses its value and the effectiveness of democracy falls. A very fundamental aspect of the Indian Constitution is its focus on distributive justice and substantive demands (Heller, 2000). The civil and political rights of subordinate classes are of no consequence if they are systematically violated by extra democratic power or are not backed by the authority of the state. Unless this aspect of the democracy is realised, the effectiveness of the democracy remains dubious. It becomes imperative to ensure that the democratic values and processes are imbued not only for state-society interactions, but also for interactions within the society (Center for Law and Policy Research, n.d.). Equality must translate from being on paper in principle, to becoming a practical reality.

While political democracy allows political contestation and universal suffrage, Ambedkar’s idea of social democracy meant interactions and associations within the society based on liberty, equality, and fraternity. Without these three basic tenants, a formal democracy would become nothing more than a means for power capture by way of winning elections. In such a case, as we see in present day India, subordinate groups are incorporated into the political scenery through populism and clientelism. This added to the lack of socio-economic integration leads to exacerbated woes of the democratic structure due to a rise in social tension (Heller, 2000).

Deepening of Democracy

An important prerequisite for any democracy to work well is for the subordinate groups to be brought to a level playing field in terms of human capabilities. Patrick Heller uses the classic case of Kerala and its quest to deepen democracy to drive home this along with many other points. A state that once homed rigid class and caste inequalities has become the front-runner of equality and social welfare in India. With a strong emphasis on primary education, Kerala has successfully educated its most marginalised, namely women and dalits. As the most marginalised acquire the social skills and the intellectual ability to understand basic democratic processes, their involvement in informed participation increases. Political awareness and associational life are furthered by the provision of basic public goods such as education, healthcare, and subsidised food grains – contributing towards better integration within the community and dismantling of traditional clientelist networks. Increased associational autonomy is intrinsically linked to the cropping up of several civic organisations, and a vibrant civil society is linked with democratic deepening. But a vibrant civil society comes with its own set of risks. With extremely narrow interests, civil societies must be viewed with their capacity to foster exclusionary identities and rent-seeking lobbies (Heller, 2000).

Mass mobilisation of workers through trade unions and caste and class communities though civil societies too play a critical role in the making of a vibrant democracy. Several of these organisations are politically sponsored, while some are self-sustaining. Regardless, when masses come together on the basis of goals and demands, rather than associating solely along the lines of identities, politicising and polarising such movements for electoral gains becomes tricky for political parties; and hopes of democratic governance may be retained.

Another aspect that is of cardinal importance is competition in the electoral arena without being riddled with excessive political fragmentation. The latter is what we see in India. A healthy number of political parties contesting against one another can help streamline the electoral agendas to developmental issues, without narrowing down the interests excessively. Absence of such competition leads to an upsurge of authoritarian leaders, notwithstanding the presence of an active opposition. This only further tramples the democratic fibre of a procedural democracy.

Dismantling Crony Ties and Policy Capture

Crony ties are often the biggest enemies of a democratic society. When power structures get corroded, and nexuses among the elite manifest into crony capitalism or even oligarchic capitalism, it invariably results in policy capture. With the concentration of power in a few hands, welfare of the populace remains of little significance to the political elites. A degree of separation between the state and the businesses is important for a free-market democracy like India to function effectively. This is not to say that the state must have no say in how businesses operate. Instead, personal ties between the political class/bureaucracy and the big businesses must be discouraged. Local governments and institutions should also be rid of the wealthy landowners that usually occupy authoritative posts, particularly in rural India. Before independence, the positions of power were held by feudal lord; the same has now been passed down to wealthy, often upper-caste, landowners. Local government seats should be contested by political formations with vigour to help avoid capture of power by such individuals.


For democracy to serve its intended purpose, it is imperative that citizens realise their role in running it. When masses organise and enable horizontal association to prevail over vertical association, clientelist networks choke. One must not overestimate the power of formal democracy, for it is only as good as social democracy allows it to be, and vice versa. Both formal and social democracy perpetuate one another, and both are perpetuated by citizens taking cognisance of their collective power. Democracy in India was born amid poverty, in a deeply casteist and patriarchal society, with a brilliantly concocted constitution to help the people of India learn about and normalise liberty, equality, and fraternity for all. Though currently in a fragile state, democracy in the country has evolved and deepened over time with an active civic society, increasingly politically aware citizenry, and a transformative constitution. Formal democracy has brought about change in the traditional patterns of associational life, and the evolution of associational life has in turn forged the path for several additions and amendments to the law. At the heart of any equitable society is a truly democratic society.

Arshiya is a student of Public Policy at NLSIU, Bangalore. Her interest lies in financial and tech policy. She can often be found sipping chai and recommending works of fiction to anyone who listens. She can be reached at


1 CAD Volume XI, 25 November 1949


Baiocchi, G., Heller, P., & Silva, M. K. (2008, March). Making Space for Civil Society: Institutional Reforms and Local Democracy in Brazil. Social Forces, 86(3), 911-934.

Center for Law and Policy Research. (n.d.). Constitutent Assembly of India Debates (Proceedings) – Volume XI. Retrieved from Constitution of India:


PROBLEMS (A Latin American View with Glances at Some Post-Communist Countries). Retrieved from Kellog Institute:

Heller, P. (2000, July). Degrees of Democracy: Some Comparative Lessons from India. World Politics, 52(4), 484-519.

Medearis, J. (2020, July 4). Party Politics/ Ideology. Retrieved from Jacobin:

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of NLSIU, Lokniti or its members.

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