The Inward Eye

Democracy faces headwinds

Why do even elected leaders tend to move away from democratic norms? Is dictatorship better? Churchill said it best: ‘Many forms of government have been tried, and will be in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect… Indeed, it is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time’. Democracy offers us a voice, a vote. Dictatorships, none of these and also open doors for loss of liberty and perhaps life

Democracy faces headwinds

Gurbachan Jagat

“In Congress, July 4, 1776. The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen United States of America... We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness — that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

This was the vision of the founding fathers of the USA. However, although it says “all men are created equal”, yet at the time of writing this Declaration, there were millions of African Americans who were slaves and worked on the farmlands of the South. They were not treated as human beings and were made to do all the jobs that white Americans avoided, on the farms or in the households. They were not allowed to move freely or use government transport — it took a century and more for them to use public transport and sit where they wanted to. “Deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” — the blacks did not have the right to vote. Even women did not have the right to vote. It was after very long struggles that they got the right to vote, women in 1918 and black men in 1870. Even today, equality does not exist and a wide chasm divides the blacks and whites. The Trump years have reversed the process of integration and encouraged white supremacists. Trump rose to power on a divisive agenda whose fires he stoked during his tenure and continues to do so now. He has successfully sold his claim that the election was “stolen” from him and he has a solid base which believes it. He almost mounted a coup when he encouraged the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

Meanwhile, the attacks on the blacks have increased, random attacks on schools, malls, etc, have increased and purchases of various weapons have gone up exponentially. The whole situation is bleak, and the US appears to be sitting on a volcano which may erupt anytime.

Simultaneously, a more sinister development is taking place, i.e. the Republican-controlled states are trying to change the electoral laws in such a way so as to make it difficult for the minorities to vote and thus cut the Democrats’ base. Efforts are on to bring in laws enabling the state legislatures to overturn the election results. President Biden realises the challenges faced by democracy and has appointed the VP to devote full attention and time and lead the fight against anti-democratic forces. He is undertaking a tour of European countries and the UK, where he is going to draw strategies to bring all the democracies together to unitedly face the anti-democratic forces.

I have devoted so much space to the US because we all looked up to it as the beacon of liberty and freedom and the fountainhead of all democracy. The US stood up for democracy in the world but at the same time supported dictators in Latin America, the Middle East and Africa. This was to support their strategic and economic interests, and they have waged many wars to safeguard them.

During the Cold war period, the world was quite neatly divided between the Soviet and Western blocs — between dictatorships and democracies. Even after the fall of the Berlin wall, although many Soviet bloc countries broke away from the Soviet Union, the only change was that dictatorships replaced communist rule. Although some of them joined NATO, and some remain under Russian influence, wherever elections were held, the dictators crushed all Opposition, even in the face of results adverse to them. The short point is that communism collapsed and strong men took over, and the US, Russia and China made deals with them. Democracy was nowhere and only front organisations representing freedom of speech, religion, media, etc, continue to make some noises.

Even Vietnam, the Philippines, Cambodia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan (chaos reigns) are governed by democratically “elected” dictators. Voters are intimidated, polls are rigged and other strong-arm tactics used. The UK and western Europe continue to be democracies, even here there are growing rightist movements which spell danger to democracy.

This is a very brief bird’s-eye view of the state of democracy in the world. The question arises as to what is the reason for this: why do even elected leaders tend to move away from democratic norms? Why does a man tend to gather as much power as he can, legally, illegally or by subterfuge? The family is the first place where autocratic trends are observed. These continue in the workplace and finally spill over into areas of governance. One of the most fundamental obstacles in the way of an enlightened democracy is lack of a proper educational system. We are still not exposing our students to modern ways of learning and thinking.

Western societies are more open in this regard, especially their educational system which encourages thinking and research. We, on the other hand, do not welcome questions in the classroom and our educational system is geared to learning by rote — because of this, our universities hardly produce any worthwhile research whereas the same students do wonders when they go to the USA, UK and European countries. They even win Nobel Prizes and many are heading very important multinationals and others are engaged in cutting-edge research. We will have to overhaul our system, encourage discussion and dissent and heavily fund research in universities, if we wish to become a power house of research and democratic values.

In most democratic societies where discussion and dissent are not encouraged, the tendency for the leadership is to move towards unilateral decision-making. Transparency in governance decreases and accessibility to the public becomes less. The leader becomes more isolated and starts depending heavily on the armed forces, police and the administration setups. These coteries become increasingly loyal as they come to share some of the power and perks. Sometimes even political militias are raised to mobilise or intimidate the masses. All of these combine to make a solid platform for the leadership, which having secured its space becomes more brazen and bold in its actions. As in the case of Trump in the US, he may try to subvert the Constitution and democracy itself. This can be stopped or slowed only by the collective will of the people. “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”

I have not talked of our country because it is also open to the same ills as other democracies. In addition, we have a carryover from thousands of years — our caste system. In spite of the superficial efforts of successive governments to undo the injustice this system has done to millions of people throughout history, we have only perpetuated it. The caste system is the foundation of the divide and rule system which the British perfected and we have followed in our education system, employment system and elections. The British added to this by nurturing the Hindu-Muslim divide and we have built upon it for electoral purposes and for settling centuries’ old scores. We have weakened democratic processes and democracy itself.

Where do we go from here? We have seen that democratic values are not encouraged at home, in society or in the government. Is dictatorship better — dictatorship of one man or one party? I cannot do better than to go back to that wise old man — a consummate politician, a wily fox in war, a great historian — Sir Winston Churchill. He says, “Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

I cannot agree more — in this system, you and I have a vote, we have a voice, we have our views. In dictatorships, we would have none of these and also be open to loss of liberty and perhaps loss of life.

The writer is ex-chairman of UPSC, former Manipur Governor and served as J&K DGP

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