By Kumar David –
During the half century or more after the Second World War a refrain one heard from enthusiasts of Soviet style states was that the poor can’t eat democracy and freedom of this or that wouldn’t put cloth on their children. Hang these liberal deceptions it was said, poor countries need regimes which will improve the material lives of their people. Interestingly, aficionados of unblushing capitalism when addressing cases like Singapore said the same thing. Those who objected and declared that both were possible simultaneously were European social-democrats – British Labour Party, the Scandinavians – and small Trotskyite sects. I won’t pursue the question of who was right at the time, but one thing is sure in today’s, post about 1990 or at least 21st Century world, the this dichotomy is bereft of all weight today. Is democracy fake liberalism foisted on the hungry poor and do authoritarian (left or right) regimes offer the downtrodden food, shelter, education, health care and better material lives? If ever this was true then, now this dichotomy is bollocks.
The opposite is true now. The best way to illustrate this is to see what happens when democracy is snuffed out and consider democracy’s greatest enemies in modern times. “They” snuff it out to silence the people, to eliminate “their” most vocal critics and to rob. This is the method “they” employ to enable rampant corruption, rob the nation’s wealth and to enrich “themselves”. Democracy is not crushed to feed and succour the people but to rob them and depress their miserable material conditions and to facilitate this robbery. Livelihood needs and democracy in modern times are not dichotomous, not at all, they are twins conjoined at the hip in Twenty-first Century polity. The relationship is symbiotic.
Who are the “they”? Every modern dictatorship from Belarus to Burma, Columba to Cambodia, Ethiopia to Egypt and Somalia to Syria, fits the bill. Democracy is snuffed out not to make way for a regime that improves ordinary people’s lives, but to remove impediments to robbing the public, corrupting the state and to amass wealth in off-shore accounts. Therefore, democracy is no longer a sham slogan of the liberals; it is a tool for activists to use here and now to explain to the masses why it is a weapon of mass mobilisation against the perils of authoritarianism, militarisation, uninhibited corruption and crass robbery.
Sri Lanka, is not yet a worst-case example. Economic conditions are nose diving and the regime is making a cock-up of everything it touches. At rock bottom yes the regime may be compelled to impose autocratic rule not to serve the people but for its own survival though that space is slipping away. But large scale unrestrained robbery can start if and when the autocratic option succeeds – if one assumes that the now going robbery is constrained by contradictions. Everyone who desires to forestall Robbery must therefore join in a Save Democracy minimum agenda and all who desire Democracy have to mobilise under a Stop Robbery slogan. Chicken or the egg no matter, they hatch together. Only if the two actions are coordinated will either be successful.
It is public pressure that is emboldening senior public servants to defy the government and speak their minds (covid, fertiliser ban and LNG deal) and has brought Cabinet unity to shambles. The SLFP seems to be gearing to split and three dead-left Cabinet ministers have spurned the AG and hired their own counsel for today’s Supreme Court hearing against the LNG conspiracy. Democracy in the sense of space for dissent and defiance of the powers-that-be has made these deviations possible. The reason these usually supine actors are speaking up is because anger in the public domain is boiling and is freely expressed. This is the democracy that we must preserve, protect and enlarge.
Within the scope of this column the term democracy is used for the setting where public opinion can express itself openly and if need be in defiance of the state. Its more common use for when people can elect their government at regular intervals is broader and not identical with my usage here. I need to state this distinction because the latter includes instances like Donald Trump’s loony right-wing populism, Erdogan’s tantrums, Gotabaya’s thumping 6.9 million votes and communalist Modi’s 60% (I think) of seats in the Lok Sabha. That side of democratic polity deserves a separate essay in its own right.