Posts Tagged ‘liberal democracy’

Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom

(After a nine month hiatus, the Gadfly Column resumes publication today. Blogs will be published on the first and fifteenth days of every month. The blogs will also be carried on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Comments are welcome)

 

It is a reflection of the irony of our times that a blog on liberal democracy has, for its title, the words of Chairman Mao in 1957, when he said “Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend.” Over sixty years later, the jury is still out on whether this represented a genuine attempt to encourage inner party democracy or whether it was a shrewd move aimed at weeding out dissidents, followed as it was by a ruthless purge reminiscent of the Stalinist Soviet Union of the 1930s. And yet, the beauty of Indian liberal democracy since 1947 has been the space given for alternative views to flourish and for state policy to reflect the consensus arrived at after listening to opinions from all shades of the political spectrum.

Of course, there have been the occasional hiccups like the Emergency and the tendency of successive governments in India (both at the centre and in the states) to use draconian legislation to curb views interpreted by them as seditious or as a threat to public order. But Indian democracy has survived so far, despite the gloomy prognostications of many Western “Cassandras”, precisely because of its diverse population, drawn from a khichdi of languages, religions, castes and ethnicities.

I will stick out my neck by saying that caste divisions in the majority Hindu community and the formation of linguistic states postponed the slide into a unitarian state ruled by one community. Undoubtedly, there is much to be said for reforming Hindu society through the “annihilation” of caste as a marker of social privilege. But the assertion of specific caste groupings through the electoral process in different states ensured that political power did not remain with a monolith like the Congress. When the Janata party experiment failed in 1979, one of the reasons was the discomfort of various coalition partners with what they saw as the efforts of the then Jan Sangh to use the levers of powers to build up its sectarian political base. The fall of the V.P. Singh government, backed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in 1990 was a foregone conclusion right from day one of that government. The Raja of Manda knew his survival as Prime Minister was contingent on withstanding the Ram Mandir Shilanyas programme and L.K. Advani’s Rath Yatra. His Mandal gambit was intended to check the possibility of the consolidation of the Hindu community on the emotive Ram Janmabhoomi issue. Unfortunately for him, not only was the Congress Party not willing to back him, the “Young Turk” Chandrashekhar was only too ready to assume the mantle of Prime Minister, even if only for a little over seven months. The 1990s rise of parties like the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Samajwadi Party (SP) and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), based on the support of specific castes and social groups, ensured that, for twenty five years after the Babri Masjid demolition, the party that stood to gain from its demolition was in power for just five years in Uttar Pradesh (UP).

Nehru and Rajaji were strongly opposed to the creation of linguistic states, worried as they were about the development of fissiparous tendencies in the new republic. It took the martyrdom of Potti Sriramulu to hasten the move towards linguistic states. Political developments in the 1960s seemed to vindicate their fears: the attempted imposition of Hindi provoked a backlash in Tamil Nadu (then Madras State) and the bifurcation of Punjab raised strong passions in the Punjabi Sikh population (to be unfortunately revived in the years after 1980). But the creation of linguistic states also had a positive spin off in the formation of strong regional parties, starting with the DMK in Tamil Nadu, followed by the star duo of MGR and NTR in the neighbouring states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh and spreading like wildfire to states all across the country, from UP, Bihar, Maharashtra and Karnataka to Odisha, Assam and Bengal.

The clout of regional parties has diminished somewhat in recent years, thanks to a variety of reasons. Poor governance, especially in states like UP, has cost parties like the BSP and SP dear, while the influence of “Big Brother” BJP has reduced the scope for independent maneuvering by parties like the Biju Janata Dal and the Telugu Desam Party. With legislators apparently ready to desert the ship that won them the elections (for reasons that do not need to be explicitly spelt out here), India has entered a phase of fluid politics, where the results of an election do not guarantee which party or parties will govern a state for the next five years. “Aaya Rams” are back with a vengeance more than fifty years after 1967, though whether they will metamorphose into “Gaya Rams” over time is still a moot point.

It is in this context that the recent statement at a conference by the Prime Minister endorsing the idea of “One Nation, One Election” and stating that this is not “just an issue of deliberation, but also the need of the country” has set the cat among the pigeons. No report on his speech has clarified whether “one election” is restricted to just parliament and state elections, though that is the inference we can draw for the present. The issues of expenditures on conducting elections every now and then and the impact of frequent elections on development works can be debated. What is more crucial are the implications of such a move for the federal nature of the Indian state. A state government does not draw its legitimacy from the central government, given that India is a Union of States, affirmed by no less sanctified a document than the Constitution of India. Issues that are prominent in state elections do not often figure on the national agenda. More importantly, in the absence of any provision to recall legislators, elections offer people the only opportunity to hold their representatives accountable. There is also the issue of the lack of predictability of the tenure of a Vidhan Sabha (or, indeed, of the Lok Sabha). Loss of majority of the ruling party or dissolution of the House could trigger fresh elections well before the due date. It would be well-nigh impossible, without major constitutional changes, to manage such contingencies were simultaneous elections to become the norm. I am not holding the simplistic view that simultaneous elections necessarily lead to the same party winning at both the state and central levels. But in recent years, there has been a marked tendency to highlight issues of nationalism and patriotism, with even the armed forces being dragged into election speeches. Playing on people’s emotions could skew results in state elections, especially where large sections of the electorate, including the so-called “educated middle class” have no nuanced understanding of the issues at stake, falling prey to the barrage of fake news streamed at them by social and electronic media. There is also the very likely danger that, given the opacity of the Electoral Bonds system, one party could garner a very high proportion of the funds donated, something that recently available information seems to corroborate.

But, above all, I value the festival of democracy characterised by elections at regular intervals at different levels of government, from the gram panchayat level up to the Lok Sabha. Having conducted and supervised elections at the Lok Sabha, Vidhan Sabha and municipal levels, I have observed the coming to life of people who are otherwise immersed in the mundane chores of life, whether in Motihari, Muzaffarpur or Mumbai. The right to vote is an affirmation by the citizen of her dignity as an individual. She has the unfettered right to exercise her discriminating judgment each time there is an election, whether to the Lok Sabha, Vidhan Sabha or local bodies, and the full authority to question those who seek to represent her on issues, be they national, state or local. She may be, in daily life, a domestic worker, nurse or shop salesperson. But come election time, she is the power behind the throne, determining the future of those who seek to govern the country or state. It would certainly be churlish to deny her her place in the sun for brief periods at regular intervals in a five year period. Why reduce it to just one time in five years, when governments spend money on so many unnecessary items? Nor are elections the main reason why governments function so inefficiently in executing development works. The ability to handle transfers of power without bloodshed is the mark of a mature democracy, no matter what the cost is in terms of time, energy or money.

The Strong Man Cometh

(*: Man refers in this article to the species homo sapiens and has no gender connotations)

Après nous le déluge(Madame de Pompadour)

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.(The Second Coming: William Butler Yeats)

“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.(Voltaire)

The apocryphal quote attributed to the mistress of Louis XV of France sums up the attitude of sections of the population to the demise (and the removal from the earth) of a strong, autocratic personality from their midst. One saw it in Uzbekistan, where one despot was replaced by another; why, even in a state like Tamil Nadu, which is part of the noisy, fractious democracy that is India, it was difficult for people to come to terms with Amma’s Anno Domini. The Pandava Yudhishthira was spot on in his reply to the Yaksha’s question “Day after day countless people die. Yet the living wish to live forever. What can be a greater wonder?” This futile desire of the masses to immortalise their icons is reflected in the conviction of those worshipped that they are destined to live, if not forever, at least into the distant future. This is possibly one of the reasons why there is no attempt at succession planning, though the fear of a far more competent successor may well weigh on the mind as well. Be that as it may, what is more worrisome is that more and more societies, especially those with a tradition of liberal democracy, are turning towards perceived “supermen” and “superwomen” to tackle the vexing problems of the twenty first century.

It is not as though there have been no dominant ruling personalities in history – just think of Henry VIII, Ivan the Terrible, Catherine the Great and Napoleon. What distinguished the despots of the twentieth century from their predecessors was the access to technology that enabled them to so totally dominate the minds and actions of their subjects. Stalin, Hitler and Mao, and an assortment of lower-scale tyrants, could impose their will on every citizen, using the reach of communication technology to create an atmosphere of unpredictable terror and herding together citizens into camps and communes (for reeducation, ethnic cleansing and indoctrination) in numbers never contemplated in earlier centuries. Superior weapons, instruments of terror and ideology-brainwashed bureaucracies eliminated millions in the name of future utopias. The inevitable end of the controlling autocrats led to the unravelling of their tyrannical systems. But Tiananmen Square and the fall of the Berlin Wall have not quite led to the expected explosion of democracy. In fact, China continues to combine a liberalised economy with a highly restrictive political system and Russia, after flirting with democracy for a few years, is headed for a one-man, one-party dictatorship for the foreseeable future. Authoritarian regimes are thriving in many countries in Asia, and Africa and Latin America swing between democracy and absolute rule.

What, however, gives greatest cause for concern is the growing tendency for citizens of liberal democracies to readily jettison the basic tenets of democracy – pluralism, tolerance, free expression – in a world where they perceive themselves as insecure, in the economic, political and social senses. It started with the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, led to the political earthquake of last year in the USA and is now spreading slowly but surely across Italy, France, Holland and Germany (although the citizens of France have thwarted it for the time being). A figure from the right end of the political spectrum is emerging in every democracy who promises heaven on earth to his leaderless flock. So what traits characterise such men (and women) and which environments provide the best soil for their growth and entrenchment in a society? I can think of six such elements:

Megalothymia

Megalothymia is defined by Francis Fukuyama (The End of History and the Last Man) as “the desire to be recognised as superior to other people”. This desire for recognition typically aims at dominating others and bending them to one’s will. Mostly observed in the political class, but equally recognisable in corporate chieftains, top bureaucrats and orchestra conductors, this trait manifests itself in the conviction of the megalothymic person that he has a unique mission to fulfil during his tenure on earth. Fukuyama argues that even a person like Socrates stressed the need for a class of courageous and public-spirited guardians who would sacrifice their material desires and comforts for the common good. But Socrates was also clear that the megalothymic tendency needed to be curbed if the political order was to be preserved. Liberal modern democracies attempt this discipline through the existence of countervailing centres of political power and the second, third and fourth estates (the legislature, judiciary and press respectively) and what could be termed the fifth estate (viz. civil society).

Social engineering:

The unique mission of the megalothymic leader has, since the early twentieth century, taken the form of engaging with the transformation of the very structure of society. Communism and National Socialism represented ideologies that had their own visions of the future course history should take. Forced collectivisation and gulags in the Soviet Union, the solution of the Jewish question in Nazi Germany and its wartime acquisitions and the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution in Communist China were efforts to direct societies in specific directions envisioned by the Great Leader, with the terrible consequences being borne by millions of people in the half century from 1925 onwards. Recent actions or intentions, like extra-judicial executions in the Philippines, demonetization in India, promoting the Islamic way of life in Turkey and the proposals of the new President of the USA to reduce immigration and restrict individual choice in personal matters like abortion and same sex marriage also bear the imprint of social engineering imposed from above.

Infallibility:

In the effort to impose his vision on society, the Leader has, always, to be steadfast in the certainty of his convictions. George Orwell’s “Big Brother” is always right. No opposition or dissent is tolerated, with likely competitors being dealt with through purges (Bukharin), assassination (Trotsky) or reeducation (Deng Xiao Ping). We can observe this trend in political life in India, both in national and state-level parties, where heresy (opposition to the Leader) is punished by banishment from the party and political exile. Democracies have this cardinal virtue: as the philosopher Karl Popper put it, governments can be replaced in a bloodless way, acting as a salutary check on the hubris and vaingloriousness of potential autocrats.

Authoritarian predisposition:

The megalothymic personality is quite likely to display authoritarian tendencies. What encourages this trait in him is the display of an authoritarian predisposition in the population he rules over. Karen Stenner (The Authoritarian Dynamic) has pointed out that, in times of perceived normative threats, this authoritarian disposition is activated and leads to support for the authoritarian who promises a return to a secure, glorious past. Support of the majority of the population is not required; it is enough if a vocal, aggressive section of the population backs the autocrat, with the rest of the population either too divided or disinterested in offering any meaningful opposition. The minority then employs extra-constitutional, vigilante methods to terrify the general population through its unpredictable responses, as Hitler’s Storm Troopers did in the early years of his rise to power.

Exclusivist ideology

The regime of the strong man requires the development of an insular approach, with the ‘other’ identified as the source of threat. Policies are tweaked to restrict the freedoms available to specific groups, related to association, livelihood, movement and expression. Media outlets are encouraged to spread an atmosphere of fear and insecurity. The results are already visible in the world’s two largest democracies, where vigilante groups and individuals are dispensing “street justice” to the victims of their ire, innocent citizens who are merely going about their daily lives.

Institutional capture

Institutional capture begins with the electoral process. Adverse domestic economic conditions, an insecure external environment, joblessness, inflation and (increasingly in many countries) a harkening back to past glories, religious dogma and perceived historical injustices bring electoral majorities to the strong man. With the legislature under control, other institutions are subtly subverted. The media, which is already overwhelmingly under business control, is slowly moulded to conform to the vision of the strong man and to hail the utopia he is bringing about. Packing the senior judiciary with persons whose ideological stances mirror those of the ruling dispensation enables dilution of the one check on executive power. The civil service is kept in line through side-lining independent professionals and promoting those committed to the ruling ideology. Above all, the control over pedagogic content is ensured through staffing educational institutions with loyal apparatchiks and rewriting history to mould the minds of the coming generation to accept a worldview vastly different from that of their preceding generation.

The emergence of the strong man in society after society comes at a time when liberal democracies are coming under increasing threat. Those who have benefited economically and socially from the efforts of past governments readily run down the achievements of these previous governments and place the blame for all ills on the inertia and corruption of the past. With a largely technocratic approach to life, and discounting the liberalism and pluralism that have been the fundamental bedrocks of prosperity, the citizens of the “Brave New World” yearn for certainty and security, forgetting that it is they who have the power to make or unmake their future. In this environment of disenchantment and hopelessness steps in the strong man fulfilling the dire prediction of Yeats “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”