Saturday, May 28, 2005

The Persian Letters – I (What Democracy?)

Usbek to Rhedi,
at Ishfahan

There is no escaping the noise generated about the democratic status of this country. It comes through in many ways: state-sponsored celebrations twice a year, (relatively) high rates of electoral participation, (as a part of) explanation by numerous commentators for moderate rates of growth and change, the chest-thumping variety displayed by politicians etc. Importantly, this pride isn't restricted to the man on the street; journalists, social scientists, bureaucrats, lawyers (i.e. people who one can reasonably expect will know better) also use democracy to explain many successes and condone many shortcomings of what goes on around here. However, both in their writings and in my conversations with (a sub-set of) them, I can't seem to find anyone who truly appreciates (and applies) the range of conditions that need to be satisfied to earn the label of democracy.

Let us start at the beginning: "In a democracy, the people are sovereign. They may govern through ministers, or be advised by a senate, but they must have the power of choosing their ministers and senators for themselves." All around me, I see people that are servile, not sovereign; and ministers and parliamentarians who, in all senses of the word, are rulers. And the power of choosing ministers: that's been abdicated to a coterie of brokers. They used to ridicule one dynasty in this country - now these are too common to be ridiculed. Socialists of varying convictions are inducting their progeny into politics. A well educated, young, 3rd-generation politician was proudly holding forth on a talk-show: "if a lawyer's son practices law or a doctor's son also becomes a doctor, there's no comment so why should there be any when a politician's son enters politics", and the young lady who was hosting the show could do no better than "So there you have it: that's a pretty strong logic that Omar has laid out...".

You will recall that Montesquiue wrote of the principle of democracy being political virtue i.e. "the love of the laws and of our country". By just this yardstick, this democracy doesn't measure up at all. The love of the laws has all but disappeared: in its place, you now see anything ranging from impatient tolerance to impudent flouting of it. Indeed, this has come to pass, in no small manner by the fact that laws have proliferated to an extent that they that are now too numerous to even track while enforcement is sporadic at the best of times and, in worse instances, it is motivated and malafide. Is it changing, you ask? Just consider this: almost one-fifth of the Central lawmakers have serious criminal charges pending against them; and this ratio is trending steadily upward. Any demand for changing the rules of the game - not that there have been very many coherent ones - is met with strident cries of "attack on democracy" and "anti-people elitist conspiracy".

Let's stay with Montesquieu for some more time today. He wrote of democracy becoming corrupted in two possible ways - "the spirit of inequality" and "the spirit of extreme equality". It is clear to all animals - save, of course, the ostriches that we have many of - that this land was been systematically pillaged in the first manner over a long period (and the loot hasn't ceased yet) and, of late, the second kind of corruption has also spread to many parts (in different guises).

The spirit of inequality - "when citizens no longer identify their interests with the interests of their country, and therefore seek both to advance their own private interests at the expense of their fellow citizens, and to acquire political power over them" - was possibly always with this country but in the post-independence era, it characterized the governance and administration of the entire country. Bureaucrats and politicians (mostly owing allegience to the Congress party, as those were largely unipolar days) literally ruled the country and while I hear talk of inequality and differnces in development as if these are issues of recent vintage, I open my books and see that poets were cautioning the rulers about inequality in the 1960s: "Sakal desh mein haalahal hai, dilli mein hala hai/ Dilli mein roshani sesh bharat mein andhiyala hai/ Makhmal ke pardon ke baahar, phoolon ke us paar/ Jyon ka tyon khada aaj bhi marghat sa sansaar" (Ramdhari Singh 'Dinkar'; Samar shesh hai).

The spirit of extreme equality, when the people are no longer content to be equal as citizens, but want to be equal in every respect, when they "want to manage everything themselves, to debate for the senate, to execute for the magistrate, and to decide for the judges" is a more recent phenomenon but has taken roots as deep as the former malady. A number of individuals in politics have appealed to narrow sectarian interests (divisions on various lines: a mix of regional and religious identity with Mr. Bal Thackeray; caste-based groupings in the Hindi heartland) and, having established these vote banks have now extended the license to claiming to be above any law because they have the "popular mandate" and publicly wonder why "if the people don't consider us to be criminals and vote us to the parliament, who is the court to label us thus?"

Eventually, as Montesquieu pointed out, the government will cease to function, the last remnants of virtue will disappear, and democracy will be replaced by despotism.
What is the redeeming feature, then? The quinquennial electoral process which is "free and fair" and where a surprisingly high proportion of the eligible voters participate? People are justly proud of both the scale in participation and the overall conduct of this "festival of democracy". However, this is just the form of democracy and not its bedrock. Those bedrock principles, as I explained earlier, have been eroded over many years and are now less capable than ever of sustaining this edifice.

How can they shore up the structure then? Can they? One certainly hopes so (after all, one-sixth of the world is involved)! There are a number of steps that can be taken - indeed, must be taken - which vary in their points of incidence, in the significance of their impact and in the lag between their administration and results. Many of these are well known but the notion that the malady will only respond to a well-considered cocktail of drugs (or, for when you prefer less contemporarily inclined language, to a well-considered portfolio of interventions) is still not as developed as it should be (prescriptions that approximate a laundry list are plentiful, though).

In my next letter, I will make the case for the portfolio approach - and hopefully be able to distinguish it (in its reasoning) from the laundry lists - and then, in subsequent dispatches, talk about some of the most urgent and some of the most important elements within the portfolio.

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