By Kumar David –
That quip attributed to Churchill about democracy being the worst system except for all the others is usually greeted as humorous witticism; but we live in times when there is more at stake than the muddle and mess the old rascal had in mind. The economic success of the Chinese one-party model is gaining currency in the developing world while ‘democratic’ majoritarian racism is driving societies to rebellion, mayhem and civil war The challenge to democracy is developmental inefficacy and failure to ensure democracy (sic). While democracy is the least-worst option, indisputably so in Lanka and India, it is also wise to temper expectations with a dose of sober and sombre realism.
Last Sunday a lunatic walked into a Sikh temple in Milwaukeeand shot dead six people, seven died including the assassin. It was only a few weeks ago that another madman burst into a cinema in Denverand blasted twelve people. Still, America will not abandon its gun laws which allow any adult dolt to buy shotguns, rifles, automatic assault weapons and cartloads of ammunition, even by internet order and courier delivery. An insane cockeyed society manipulated by the National Rifle Association (NRA) which has big bucks to swing elections you would think.
Well think again, you are quite wrong. True the NRA has big bucks and can swing votes, but the real nigger in the woodpile is not the NRA but the people, the American people themselves. The majority of Americans are opposed to gun control (many surveys have proved this) and in fact some 100 million guns are held by a public which vehemently opposes any restrictions on gun ownership. And NRA money does not come from Wall Street or big corporations; no sir, it comes from ordinary Americans like that nice family you had dinner with when last you visited god’s own country. US gun laws are an antiquated and incomprehensible manifestation of collective madness, but untouchable by virtue of a Kafkaesque nightmare called American democracy.
Racism and democracy
In India when Hindus and Muslims slaughter each other, or just hate each other, they call it communalism. Over here we call much the same phenomenon the ethnic problem and in Africa the merry melee continues but you need to add or subtract a few noughts at the end as you flit from place to place to know how many were slaughtered here or there. Man’s inhumanity to man is not always democracy’s bastard child, sometimes it is the absence of democracy that fathers deformed societies; but there seems to be no definitive pattern. It is hard to deny that the exacerbation of religious and ethic intolerance in India and Lanka comes from majoritarianism cashing in on elected mandates. Slime-balls like Narendra Moody who deserve to spend their days in prison or swing on the gallows are rock solid chief ministers of States, and possible prime ministerial options. Why, becauseIndia’s mass-market democracy confers impregnable immunity on communal hooligans.
I take it as well understood that from rendering Upcountry Tamils stateless, through Sinhala Only, the 1972 Constitution, the Sinhala-Buddhist state, to the civil war, an underlying thread is that 70% of Lanka’s population is Sinhalese and Buddhist with no compunction about exercising electoral majoritarianism to exert hegemony. Those who do not comprehend this causal continuity within our history will never understand it anyway; so let’s pass over their atrophied crania. My point is this; it was democracy that made racism a powerful and hegemonic social force and a political tool. No I do not buy the ‘good-people, bad-leader’ theory; that is the theory which says “people are good and untainted but evil leaders (Banda, JR, Mathew, some monks) come along and corrupt the dears”. Poppycock! The people always had a choice, for example pre Sinhala Only, the LSSP and CP were on the menu, but these venerated repositories of democracy, comprehensively rejected the left to choose leaders and programmes closer to their tribal hearts. Like it or not, this was democracy at work.
I am not picking on Lanka; it has been much the same in many parts of the modern world; nor do I refer to old (pre WW2) times as this is irrelevant, the story of democracy not yet having spread far and wide as a resplendent new social order. It is the shortcomings of modern democracy that I am bemoaning; that there is no better alternative does not debar me from lamenting how wretched is the blight man was born for. I can recite no end of noble minded and rhetorically inspiring passages from founding fathers of nations, splendid declarations of this of that charter, and writings of righteous men about liberty, freedom, emancipation and the rest of the democratic tool-kit, but it will not get us one jot closer to dealing with concrete problems and the stunted reality, a few examples of which I have described. These great men have inspired us no end – thanks – but there is no pedestrian guide to do-it-yourself democracy for practical people struggling with the realities of third world societies.
There is no end of anomaly in the story of Twentieth Century democracy spilling over into the Twenty-first; I will limit myself to two examples. They have formal democracy in Singapore; they have clean elections, ballot boxes are not stuffed and people can vote out the government – that is if Singaporeans had opinions. But they have no freedom in Singapore, or rather they can have it if they only had the guts to stand up and take it into their hands. They have no democracy in Hong Kong – no universal suffrage, a Chief Executive in effect chosen by Beijing, etc – butHong Kongis a free society. When I was working in Hong Kong the rivalry between the two city states had the locals thumbing their noses at the Lion State: “They have democracy and no freedom, we have freedom but no democracy”. Imagine a protest march in Singapore like the June 4 demonstrations in Hong Kong, or the evisceration of the government like what the central government in Beijing gets at the hands of local HK activists! Not on your life. This is not an anomaly that one can nod, say tut-tut, and walk away from. How does one incorporate this reality in a sensible theoretical framework other than call it a historical oddity, which is simply to beg the question?
The other incongruity is where the people themselves in their majority, that is democratically, decide that they do not want democracy in the formal (not Western, that is a misnomer) sense. One example I have in mind are stable and contended traditional dispensations such as Bhutan, the countries of the Sahael (Western Sahara), Lesotho and other places that have not been drowned by the onward march of world capitalism and liberalism in the last two centuries. The other is where religion and culture militate against accepted democratic norms. Traditional Islam versus women’s rights for example – did anyone ask women anyway? – and I don’t mean extreme Sharia alone but Saudi, Iranand many places; it is an across the board thing. When the demos don’t want the cracy how is the paradox to be resolved in practice and in intellectual space?
Two cheers for diminished democracy
So that’s settled, except in the best of circumstances which means long historical experience, economic stability, well developed pluralism, and deep secularism, except where all of these coexist, actually existing democracy will be a diminished manifestation of what people shout about when they march against authoritarianism from Syria to Sri Lanka and Bangkok to Bahrain. Nevertheless and notwithstanding the many gross perversions I have fretted and groaned about, democracy remains the political model to which we must link our wagon. A few of my friends on the left are wont to say “See China works,India does not; autocracy trumps democracy”. Though they are not actually talking theory but only working up excuses for the Rajapakse jackboot, it is necessary to respond.
Though India’s Hindu rate of growth was much derided till recently, its democracy has anchored a stable country and society – except in Kashmir which must be allowed to go, and in the red-belt which is responding to the curtailment of democracy. Oh yes, all over India they riot and they rally, they hunger-strike and they defecate in public places, but all that is a sign of bursting health, political and alimentary. India will muddle through in some zestful trance and survive politically but one more Tiananmen Square kind of uprising and the demons from the Berlin Wall will come visit the Polit Bureau inBeijing. This is why, not withstanding stupendous economic success, the leaders atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace live in fear, and forever search for consensus. China will change, in twenty years you will not recognise the political system, it will become a consensus society; that is certain. So two hearty cheers for democracy; three if socialist!