The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, December 8, 2002
Time Off

The language of democracy vs dictatorship
Manohar Malgonkar

SURELY A.D. 2002 should be called ‘The Year of Elections’? Columbia had one, and so did Brazil. In Europe, Turkey. Nearer home, Kashmir and Pakistan. In West Asia, Israel is to have one in a few weeks. In Africa, Zimbabwe. In the U.S., a mid-term election. Oh, yes, Iraq, too got on the bandwagon with what is called ‘Referendum.’

An election, which, after all gives a country its rulers, is always big news. The world’s major news services and radio and TV networks keep a close watch on them, and report on their fairness or otherwise. Their watchdogs are hardboiled men and women who are supposedly unbiased.

But they seldom are: In fact an unbiased person is a contradiction in terms. To be human is to have feelings, develop likes and dislikes, take sides. That is why media observers giving their verdicts on elections are not necessarily right. But then mere statistics can be just as misleading. To go by them, Iraq has the world’s most popular leader, for did not Saddam Hussain get one hundred per cent of the one hundred per cent votes cast?

By any criterion, our own election in Kashmir is a truly triumphal achievement. The Governments both at Delhi and in Srinagar have shown their commitment to the letter and the spirit of the book of rules in the face of the most ruthless campaign of terror organised by the factions that did not want elections to be held in Kashmir. The candidates and voters became the targets of verbal abuse, bullets, bombs, arson. Streets were mined, houses were booby-trapped, grenades hurled at public meetings, motorcades were ambushed. The voters came to the booths in the full knowledge that they were risking their lives. And still they came, in hearteningly large numbers.


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Before September 11 — and after
January 6, 2002

These men and women of Kashmir merit a citation as the heroes and heroines of their land, having displayed a degree of fortitude beyond the call of a citizen’s duty!

Rejected by their own people, the separatists resorted to cries of ‘foul! This election has been a farce! The statistics of voter turnout are cooked up! Not more than ten per cent of registered voters could have cast their votes.

These pronouncements have a familiar ring; for they echo what General Musharraf said about the Kashmir elections: that they were a farce, and that the number of those who voted, no more than ten per cent. Coincidence? — Or a clear pointer to the allegiance of the separatists, whom that veteran war-horse of Kashmir’s soil, Farooq Abdullah, categorised as taking their orders from Uncle Musharraf .

The General’s dismissive remarks were made while he himself was busy steamrolling an election he had ordered in Pakistan, by which democracy was to be restored to that country.

That election gave the people of Pakistan an opportunity to vote for men and women of their own choice to become members of an assembly which will function under the supervision of a Military Council which, in turn is answerable to the President who, of course, is self-appointed as well as irremovable.

Such is the new democracy of Pakistan: Watched over by the army and housed in military barracks. True, for a few weeks after the election, the elected representatives protested against these restraints, but they soon came under starter’s orders and now, Pakistan has a working democracy ruling it.

But a controlled democracy is no democracy at all, was the verdict of the Commonwealth leaders who recently met in London to consider the precise issue: whether, after its elections, democracy has been restored to the people of Pakistan. The verdict was a resounding ‘no!’.

What all this shows is that democracies and dictatorships don’t speak the same language. Despotic rulers have no patience with the shades of meanings in the usage of English. So they have invented a language called Newspeak. In democracies, they resort to a language called ‘Gobbledygook’ to distort and confuse their statements in such a way that they can never be pinned down for having said something that they later want to retract.

Both languages have been around for centuries, but the names by which they’re now known are recent. ‘Gobbledygook’ was what an American Congressman in the early 19th century called the language of debate used by his fellow congressmen. ‘Newspeak’ was the name invented by George Orwell in his novel portraying an absolute dictatorship, Nineteen Eightyfour. Gobbledygook has become the language of democratic oratory and our own Lok Sabha members use it fluently. The purpose of Gobbledygook is to confuse, to deliver speeches which must remain vague in their purport. Newspeak, on the other hand is precise, clean-cut, sinister. A kind of English from which all abstract words or even antonyms have been removed, and conventional meanings reversed, so that ‘peace’ is the word for ‘war’, and ‘freedom’ for ‘slavery’.

Pakistan, an iron-clad military dictatorship calling itself a democracy is pure Newspeak, almost on a par with Saddam Hussain telling us that his country has a Parliament. Whoever had heard of a Parliament in Iraq before that body is said to have met to vote on the U.N. resolution’s ultimatum on weapon’s inspections? It is an overnight creation, an instant-brew magicked by Saddam by saying: "Let there be a parliament!" And there it was, ready-made, a full house and a Speaker in his high chair.

But then democracies too have their own brand of sleight-of-hand. An almost perfect example is provided by the methods that the Americans have devised to conduct their elections, so bewilderingly complex that few people, even in America, can be said to understand them, fully. A candidate whom the people choose is not necessarily the winner. In the 1991 Presidential contest, George Bush Sr, was ahead of Bill Clinton by a million votes. Clinton won.

In the USA, the upper house, analogous with our Rajya Sabha, Britain’s House of Lords, or, for that matter, Pakistan’s Military Council, is called the Senate. It has only 100 members, and they’re elected to their offices. How free, fair, clean these elections are was the subject of a recent Letter from America by the world’s most listened-to broadcaster, Allistair Cooke.

It seems that, in the 1950s, when Lyndon Johnson had stood for election to the Senate, he told his agent that, if only he could be sure of 2000 votes from Massachusetts, he was sure to be elected. And right enough, he got those 2000 votes, they were in the exact alphabetical order as they had been on the list of voters, and among them was a name of a prominent Boston gentleman who had been dead for nearly 50 years!

It is such stories that have earned that state a reputation for, well, electoral gamesmanship? Shall we say? This, too, caused an embarrassing moment in the late 1960s when the USA, after compelling the Vietnamese to hold an election, send observers to report on their fairness. When the team returned to Washington, its leader announced. "Oh, certainly, fair in fact as fair as any election in Massachusettes."

This revelation, we’re told, was received with a stunned silence.

And finally, the presidential election of the year 2000. For weeks, no one knew who had won while a war of words went on between the two main contenders. Then it became a court case in which batteries of lawyers argued themselves hoarse about such unprovable issues as to whether the impressions on voting papers were distinct enough for machines to register them. Then it went on to a higher court which shrugged it off and hurled it right back at the lower court. And finally the winner, as mysterious as at an Oscar award ceremony. George W. Bush, who we’re told, had won by a single vote: four judges against, but five for!