State of Indian Democracy 2017-2018

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(Brig (retd) GB Reddi)

Indian democracy is perpetually caught at the cross roads. 2017 is no exception. So it will be even in 2018. My reflections on ‘riddles and paradoxes’ of democracy are reproduced to provide a perspective, howsoever worrying it may appear to be.

As per Western political scientists, observers and analysts today, “Doom and Gloom” of democracy is all pervading due to resurgent authoritarianism, weakened liberal democratic values, rising populism, and contagious illiberalism. Democratic decadence is on surge. Ipso facto, democracy is in retreat from the “hub” of origins of democracy in Europe and USA due to identity politics – race, religion and class.  White supremacists are reasserting in the West.

Is crisis haunting democracy in India? What with pessimists believing in India as a banana republic and contours of a failing state appearing on the horizon, hope for democracy is fading slowly.  If the current acrimonious trends 24×365 are allowed to continue due to ruthless pursuit of power, sans ideologies and values, and  what with criminals and gangsters masquerading as leaders, then the  “Gloom and Doom or decadence” of democracy  may become a prospect sooner than later.

Lack of realization that the Chemistry of societies and nations in perpetual transformation is the determinant of political order/concept best suited to realize their full potential is real. Understanding of defining features of democracy, which is a 2300 journey, is, therefore, vital to appreciate the course on which nations are traversing today. Robert a Dahl, a political scientist, identified three transformations in democracy: the Greek city-state democracy; the nation-state democracy. What next best suited to “Technology Age” what with globalization on ‘hold’ due to “Trumpism” sweeping Western nations.

First, the Greek city-state democracy was based on satisfying six requirements suited for primordial loyalties of primitive societies: Homogenous citizens inhabiting a small city (smaller than the forty to fifty thousand); harmonious interests; fully autonomous; strong sense of a general good; and unanimity. They should be able to not only assemble and directly decide on the laws and decisions of policy, but also actively participate in the administration. Women, long term alien residents and slaves were excluded.  Between separate Greek city-states, there was no democracy.

Plato, Socrates disciple, pontificated over 2300 years ago (Republic, VIII, Sections 562b-563e) “democracy ruins itself by excess of democracy. …Mob rule is a rough sea for the ship of state to ride; every wind of oratory stirs up the waters and deflects the course. The upshot of such a democracy is tyranny or autocracy.”  Is India traversing on ‘excess of democracy’ what with never ending elections?

Next, the republican thought, which swept aside Greek democracy, shared its premises: “small states’ and “good man, good citizens, good polity and good civic virtue for the good of all”. It developed around two views: aristocratic republican and democratic republican.

Montesquieu, Locke and Rousseau are held in esteem today as ‘emeritus’ political scientists. To Montesquieu goes the credit to conclude that “republics were best suited to the small countries, limited monarchies to the middle sized and more prosperous, and enlightened despotism’s to the large nations.”

Rousseau was against representation in the Social Contract (1762). He stated “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains”.  Freedom is the bedrock of democracy. Also, “formulating the general will and the laws based on it were the business of the whole people”. The power of legislation, he argued, could never be properly transferred to an elected body.  Thus, the growing conflict between those wielding power and the civil society may plunge the society into utter chaos.  Undeniably nature dignifies people; civilization corrupts them; people would be less corrupted, if civilized institutions followed nature more closely.    The coercive apparatus of the state cannot be made to trample it.

Will Durant lamented on the decay of democracy in his book “Pleasures of Philosophy” published in 1929: “democracy without education means hypocrisy without limitation; it means the degradation of statesmanship into politics; it means the expensive maintenance, in addition to the ruling class, of a large parasite class of politicians, whose function it is to serve the rulers and deceive the rule”.

As per ‘Duns Dilemma’, democracy is the name for what we cannot have – yet cannot cease to want it.  So also, freedom and order cannot co-exist. For freedom, which is the main tenet of democracy promotes anarchy, whereas order breeds tyranny. The difference between reactionary liberals and authoritarian conservatives is also slender. Such is the baffling complexity of democracy in theory.

The aristocratic republicans developed constitutions based on mixed government of democracy, aristocracy and monarchy somehow balancing the interests of the many, the few and the one for promoting the good of all – public good. As per their view, the function of the people is not to rule, but choose leaders competent to govern the entire polity. Leaders exclusively serve the ‘one’; yet, balance others interests. It too experienced conflicts of interests. The collapse of civic virtue was considered inevitable when factions and political conflicts torment societies. Alongside, if people or its leaders become corrupt, then the collapse of the republic was considered inevitable.

Viewed in a holistic theoretical construct, democracy is least suited for India. Yet, the founding fathers opted for it. And, many distortions have developed over the past 70 years. Democracy in practice is imposed from top by few autocrats (High Commands), mostly feudal or neo Maharajah’s, masquerading as democrats and hijacked by criminals with all other institutions toeing their line. No wonder, there is rise of Kleptocracy and mobocrcy today.  Yet, there is positive vibrancy even now.

 

Let me recount developments after the Cold War. It seemed that democracy was spreading; dictatorships were tumbling; and capitalism ascendant. According to a book “Authoritarianism Goes Global,” from 1990 to 2005, the number of countries identified as “electoral democracies” increased from 76 to 119. During the same period, the number of countries rated “free” expanded from 65 to 89.

However, as per latest survey, 2015 is the 10th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. Repressive regimes are on ascendency. Today, the common refrain is democracy is in retreat.

As per democracy index by regime 2016 published, there are 19 full democracies, 57 flawed democracies, 40 hybrid regimes and 51 autocratic regimes out of 167 nations. Both USA and India figure in flawed democracy category.

Liberal values such as transparency, rule of law, accountability and respect for human dignity are being widely trampled. Autocrats and even some Western politicians openly traffic in fear, xenophobia and paranoia. The enemies of democracy are growing bolder by the day.

“Enlightened Despotism” best suited to large pluralist nations!  Is China under Xi Jinping traversing on enlightened despotism path? Xi Jinping – single party CCP rule – is a mix of “authoritarianism, populism, ultra nationalism (Chinese Pride), socialism with Chinese characteristics and a key shift championing globalization” as opposed to Trump’s “America First” retraction.

Alarmists may view democracy delicately poised on the ‘brink of abyss’, but others believe that democracy is still on an evolutionary course. It is “more like a living, breathing organism”—and a fragile one, at that, constantly prone to “fragmentation, breakdown and decay.”

In reality, political conflicts are inevitable in democracy, particularly in a pluralist society like India – caste, communal and racial divide – what with deep-seated social identities and group affiliations motivate political action far more than national values, ethics, morals and ideologies.

Undeniably, factionalism is inherent in elections.  After all, people’s group affiliations tend to precede their values. Partisanship, like caste, religious and class identification are inherited, durable, and not about ideology and theology. Most people make their party choices based on who they are, not what they think.

Ipso facto, party politics and gross self-interest have rendered national political parties oblivious to its obligations to the Constitution and “We the People”. Rampant corruption, cronyism and nepotism have a vice like stranglehold to the detriment of the majority of the people, and serially attack the principles on which the country was founded.

 

The recent “Battle of the Ballot Box in Gujarat” reflects political party’s penchant to use the caste, religion and class cards to win elections with utter disregard detrimental to “Societal UNITY”.

Goes without saying that such vicious and acrimonious diatribe will further escalate in the State Assembly elections in 2018 particularly in Karnataka – the last stronghold of the Congress Party. It will be “now or never” and Do or Die” battle not only for the Congress Party but also to the BJP to regain their foothold in the South..

Experts, however, argue that one should not fear conflict but rather embrace it: handled properly, it permits the best ideas to win out, guards against the tyranny of the majority, and helps prevent special interest groups from gaining too much power.

As per western observers, Modi’s rise is based on nationalism. In its wake, ultra nationalism surge is emerging. At the same time, populism also plays a critical role in electoral outcomes. Conjointly, they are electoral outcome game changers.

Some of the reasons responsible for the decay of democracy or democracy decadence are given below. One, America’s decline besides resurgent Russia and rising China is the root cause.  Ipso facto, China’s and Russian models have proved attractive to some authoritarians, who think they can impose political repression whilst promoting rapid economic growth.

Two, the failure of U.S. democracy-building in Iraq and Afghanistan has discouraged attempts elsewhere. And, their dual faced support to authoritarian regimes where it suits its interests.

Three, the tyrants of today have become more sophisticated.  They erect a facade of democracy and subvert it from within. They hold elections that are not competitive, use government-approved shell groups to edge out genuine civil society, pass laws outlawing free association and speech, and force the news media into submission by pulling the strings of the owners and editors.

Four, use of “soft power” techniques by Russia and China through information networks to spread their anti-democratic views. Even the Islamic State, the most illiberal regime, is using social media to radicalize, recruit and terrorize. Authoritarian regimes are now actively shaping cyberspace to their own strategic advantage.  Bloggers suffer arrests for something as simple as a tweet.

Five, economic recession and dislocations of recent years, including the plunge in oil prices, have shaken authoritarian regimes and prompted repressive measures to head off popular unrest.

Six, nowadays, the European nations care a damn about democracy confronted by the threat of terrorism and the influx of refugees. They are making European authorities to view “civil liberties and human rights” as a luxury in today’s global terrorist onslaught. Their hardliners believe that freedom of speech should be treated not as yet another danger to the system.

For example, after November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, free speech in Europe have been hit from all sides.  France has enacted broad surveillance powers including warrantless wiretapping and mass metadata collection that critics call a “French Patriot Act.” France has extended post-Paris-attack state of emergency for another three months. Subscribing to the notion that hate speech can beget hate crimes and wider social unrest, Germany has taken a hard line on xenophobic speech.

Other European nations list includes:  U.K; Spain; Germany; Hungary; Poland; and others.

Finally, democracy is certainly messy even in USA considered a civilized nation with over 200 years old legacy. “Rankism”, abuse of power, is the new term coined, which is related to the spread of populism. Rankism, as per experts, is everywhere in plain sight:” Bullying, belittling, derision, corruption, harassment, and self-aggrandizement — these are all manifestations of Rankism.”

The injured dignity of a defeated middle class leads to calls for a strongman who will take on the corrupt elite. In turn, the strongman then tends to abuse power in ways associated with rank.

In the past, decadence seeped downward from the rulers to the ruled. Today, decadent elite give license to degraded behavior, and a debased public chooses its worst leaders – “Yatha Praja, Thatha Raja”.  Political leaders indulge in acrimony that aggravates xenophobia and racial hatred. So also, legitimizes the language of selfishness. So, a sense of shared citizenry or collective good, but even a shared body of fact or collective mode of reasoning toward the truth is anathema to political leaders.

In sum, India’s civilization decay and democracy decadence, that is cultural, moral, and spiritual disorder, is due to ongoing acrimonious political discourse – caste, religious, and race and class polarization and wars. Is Indian democracy too inexorably sliding into terminal decadence, which is usually understood as an irreversible condition — the last stage before collapse?

As per experts, mankind history abundantly attributes collapse of many regimes due to imperial decadence – grotesque displays of public opulence and waste, but also in the collapse of faith in reason and science.

Today, democracy decadence is not debauchery per se but terminal self-absorption — the loss of the capacity for collective action, the belief in common purpose, even the acceptance of a common form of reasoning. Democratic decadence is rapidly diminishing relevance of the word “we.” Anyone who doesn’t pursue self-interest is a viewed fool. Such is the absurd situation enveloping modern India. Wake up “We the People” (civil society) and act decisively on positive, creative and constructive ‘common good’ course or be prepared to face doom and gloom what with demographic, economic and social  challenges engulfing India.

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