Thursday, June 28, 2018

An Impartial Perspective on UK Russia Ties and Democracy

I recently attended a debate on Russia organised by Global Strategy Forum at National Liberal Club in London. I was a little surprised to see former British Ambassador to Russia Sir Tony Brenton KCMG making a strong pitch for more comprehensive UK-Russia engagement  even by overlooking provocations like the "Skripal" episode.  Displaying an exceptional understanding, or even empathy, towards Russian position on a host of issues including Crimea, the former British Envoy to   Moscow made a series of interesting observations on how the Western policies could be causing anxiety to Moscow. He was, however, emphatic on the need for Britain to engage Russia. Conceding that UK-Russia bilateral ties had touched one of their   lowest points recently, he shared anecdotes on how  Russians "disliked" Britain   for the latter's tough global stance against their country.

      Diplomats are often a distrusted community.  Their difficulties increase when the relations are not so buoyant with the host country where they are posted. However, most Ambassadors do sincerely attempt to find common grounds on which they can contribute to building endurable ties between their home country and the host country. It is virtually impossible to live in a country and make friends and still not  see its positives. Sir Tony Brenton not only demonstrated a remarkable depth in his understanding of Russian psyche and Russian political position on many of the contentious issues, but acknowledged the contribution of President Putin in bringing an order and stability in that part of the world despite there being concerns on health of democracy. His emphasis on finding common grounds for cooperation, especially on the issue of terrorism, must be heartening both for the Russians and  votaries of closer UK-Russia ties in his own country. He recommended avoiding any move that could potentially antagonise President Putin, pushing him  to over react. 

            There is absolutely no doubt that a clean and transparent democracy has to eventually gain roots in  every part of the world for a safer, fairer, just and more equitable global order. Virtually everyone who has grown up in an open and democratic  environment can appreciate concerns or even indignation of the Western world  over non-democracies or societies with weaker democratic traditions.   However, the West has always engaged and dealt with non-democracies, and at times even at the cost of their ties with more liberal democracies, on considerations of real-politic and national security. The stance of many of the experts in the West towards Russia appears rooted in history of cold war and continuation of some of those  sentiments or anxieties.  It will of course be one of the biggest challenges in the  history to re-write the script in this direction  to see warm friendly ties between Russia and NATO countries. Let us hope that leaders across all divides pursue it in a quest for a safer and more secure world and especially to combat radical religious terrorism.  

            From Indian perspective, especially for those Indians who have grown up in 1970s and 1980s, it is extremely  difficult  to take any position on the ongoing confrontation between the Russia and the West.  Russia (or the erstwhile Soviet Republic) has always been looked as one of the most dependable friends of India who consistently stood by the latter, notwithstanding ideological or political divide between an elected democracy and a single party controlled centralist  totalitarianism.  The then Soviet  support to India at UNSC over Kashmir issue used to be a tale in 1970s that virtually every Indian child knew. Considerations of bi-lateral economic interests and common position on democracy have brought India much closer to the West and Russia is no longer the global power that Soviet Republic used to be. Despite this, Russia and Russian people do have a strong  connect with large number of Indians who at the same time remain committed to contemporary liberal and democratic ethos attributed to the West. Russia has a formidable task at its hand to smoothly  transition into a more open and transparent society with firmer roots of democracy to regain it economic clout at the global stage. This will certainly enhance its global acceptability and credibility. From the governance perspective, one has to concede the role of President Putin in bringing stability in a somewhat volatile context, as acknowledged by former Ambassador Tony Brenton. The toughest challenge in transition to democracy has always been maintaining stability. After initial turmoil, Russia has succeeded in addressing this challenge. 

            Democracy takes a longer and arduous journey to build and consolidate institutions on which it can sustain itself and grow. People have to get used to the idea of handling their political opponents without developing a sense of animosity. This has been a difficult proposition even in  democracies. In transitional polities, this becomes much more challenging. In a country as small as Maldives, which displayed remarkable maturity in transitioning in to a democracy almost a decade back, when President Gayoom stepped down from Presidency after eventful 27-28 years at the helm, the process of democratisation soon ran into rough weathers. First democratically elected President has been slapped with terror charges and he is currently in exile with most other opposition politicians either being jailed or facing some or the other criminal charge.

   In this context, I believe that democratic countries, especially those with well established credible institutions, do have a responsibility to share at least their knowledge and experience of running institutions that can sustain robust and efficient representative governments. Despite decline in its military and political stature, the Great Britain probably commands the status of the biggest soft power in most parts of Asia and Africa. This is  not entirely due to its colonial past. Rather, it is credibility and integrity of the British democratic institutions and values that have helped it earn such distinction.  

    Russians are among a host of people who have adopted London and Great Britain as their home.  I recently heard  a Russian gentleman observing during  a casual chat that "the London courts were one of the cleanest anywhere in the world." He added that 'it gave a huge sense of security to stay here or keep one's family even though one may have business interests in any part of the world.' Secure social space and clean efficient  judiciary are probably the biggest strengths of Great Britain, distinguishing it from even some of the other advanced democracies. 
    Probably, it would be an excellent idea that retired judges or experts in the British judicial system explore possibility of taking initiative in sharing their knowledge and experience of running  transparent and autonomous judiciary in those parts of the world where integrity of criminal justice system is in doubt. This must be done not with an intent to exactly replicate all the British procedures but with an open mind to engage and persuade them to create and devise something that may be more consistent with local realities but would still move towards transparency in judicial processes. Results may not be instant but such a move is bound to make a strong impact. 

 Democracy thrives largely on integrity of its institutions. Efficient and transparent criminal-justice system is probably one of the most   critical among these. Liberal laws and inclusive values of the United Kingdom thrive under the protection of transparent and efficient judicial system. The contemporary world would certainly have been a poorer without such example of the United Kingdom. The ardent champions of democracy in the UK should look beyond building commercial and economic ties with both friends and potential adversaries. An attempt to share the knowledge and experience on functionality and processes of some of the important institutions of democracy in the UK can be more effective way of reaching out to people many parts of the world.  This can go a much longer way towards building and consolidating democracy globally than an aggressive diplomatic pressure or policy of isolation.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Democracy at Crossroads

Time to Think Forward

The world has never been a perfectly fair place. And it is unlikely to be so even in future. Nevertheless, it can always be fairer and better than what it is. Probably this is the sentiment that has driven all great civilisations, societies and states. They have surged forward riding the imaginations, initiatives and persistence of a few who dared think big and ventured in newer directions. 

A major transformation towards betterment always takes credible leadership to persuade the most, but not necessarily all. The process is continuous without a final destination. But more often it needs a spark in the form of a crisis or opportunity to get the momentum. 

If we look deeply, all human progress appears driven by the quest for security. This begins with fundamental needs of survival amidst challenges posed by the forces of nature, other species and fellow humans. At a subsequent stage, dignity becomes a predominant need, which, if examined closely, shall appear extension of security only.

 Man has probably never experienced a world where fulfilment of such needs was possible for people universally and equitably. But the efforts to move towards a more secure, just and fairer world has shaped all political and social innovations, leading to comprehensive advancement of societies and Civilisations. However, our perception about what constitutes an optimally fair and just world, despite having certain broad similarities, has also been evolving with passage of time in same society, whereas it has always varied in different cultures and civilisations. 

Simultaneously, we need constant investment of both ideas and initiatives to improve the quality of human existence or a societal order and even a political system.  A society can optimize its strength only if it bolsters the quality of internal cohesion and harmony, where individuals and societies mutually empower each other or share a sustainable synergy with each other. 

The idea of contemporary version of Western democracy arose a few centuries back to guard European aristocracy from arbitrary actions of monarchy. Gradually it evolved to bring ordinary masses into its ambit to pursue their collective aspirations. But the direction and pace of such evolution of the idea of democracy has never been unilinear and consistent. Nevertheless, it is the only political system that promises, at least on paper, to provide entire citizenry an equal right to political participation in quest of building an optimally just and fair society that offers universal access to dignity, freedom and security. 

Despite all its flaws and shortfalls, democracy has succeeded in providing much higher quality of existence, with higher levels of all round security to people with more predictable opportunities for upward economic and social mobility. Resultant peace, even though relative, has unleashed much higher quality and pace pushing all round enterprise and innovation that has benefitted entire mankind. But dividends of representative political systems have not percolated to the lowest strata of society in probably most contexts. Large sections of people even in established democracies have expressed disillusion over inability of democracies to pursue its promises with optimal sincerity. 

Elections Insufficient to Pursue Goals of Democracy 
Despite a world-wide rise in number of elected governments as well as improvement in integrity and transparency levels in electoral processes, democracies appear increasingly incapable of pursuing collective aspirations of people or earning universal trust in nearly all contexts. Bitter political rivalries, raucous discourses and divisive electoral battles in most cases have been fracturing societal cohesion. Smaller cohesive groups or cartels or syndicates succeed in exploiting the institutional gaps to rig democracies of their core spirit and key promises. 

The phenomenon may be particularly disturbing in larger societies facing regular influx of people different parts of the world or even internally. Such challenges have always been formidable in most post-colonial societies. But erosion in integrity of institutions is a reality even in some of the most established democracies. Probably, human beings have not yet psychologically and socially evolved to a level where they can build sufficient trust and integrity amongst themselves to sustain a social and political order that was envisioned by the world leaders in the aftermath of second world war through Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948.

 Devastations experienced by mankind during the second world war had probably pushed them to set such goals that could avoid recurrence of such or similar catastrophe. These goals may be difficult to achieve but a little progress towards these pushed the mankind towards zones of higher safety and fairerness. Phenomenon of Mahatma Gandhi, even though unacknowledged in UDHR charter, find resonance in these goals. Decolonisation was again a manifestation of such idealism, howsoever limited or acquiesced with reluctance by colonial powers. 
If we examine closely, the evolutionary journey of accountable and representative political systems has frequently battled setbacks, distortions, and degenerations. Very often these reversed the advances made over decades and centuries. One often wonders whether the democracy has reached similar crossroads since the turn of this century. Today, democracy as a political system appears to be facing one of the most serious crises of credibility. It can no longer claim to be committed to universal access to all round security, justice and dignity. It compels us to believe that the very process of evolution of democracy has lost its direction, where it’s fate or sustainability is in doubt. 

Rich Western democracies, especially United States and some in the West Europe may be doing better on several parameters of governance and innovation due to their accumulated prosperity and strength of institutions built over the preceding few centuries. But institutional decay appears to be threatening them as much as it threatens the rest, even though the impact may not be as serious as it may be in other parts of the world. At roots of their strength lays, what has often been pejoratively described as wealth earned through "piratic" or "colonial" plunder, besides enterprise, innovation and leadership of sections of their people. 

But democracy as a political system does not have same advantages in the developing world. Hence, these appear too fragile and fractured to push the agenda of comprehensive and harmonious advancement of their people. Hence, the temptation to look at the Chinese model and attempt to replicate it, while maintaining an outward facade of representative democracy and competitive politics, remains high.   

It would be fair to contend that open and representative political systems, in their existing form, may not be able to carry out a course correction in normal course. But the silver-lining is that, despite all their flaws and imperfections, they do offer the biggest space for such initiatives from societies and citizens. There is need for a wider public discourse to explore a direction towards which the idea of democracy needs to evolve in pursuit of its own promises and objectives.

 What optimizes strengths of a society is its ability to provide optimal space for individuals to evolve to their fullest potential and yet contribute to the collective strength of their people. This is possible only in a trust based social ambience that fosters optimal cooperation and collaboration at one level and fairer competition at the other. Progress in this direction could be limitless. This can push societies and civilisations towards more comprehensive and sustainable advancement.  However, this is easier said than done. Intent alone can never be sufficient for pursuing such aspirations. We need deeply thought-out ideas and initiatives at one level and ability of key stakeholders in a society to build some consensus to push the agenda of transformation. 

Fairness and Justice At the Core of Democracy

Even though no society has ever been absolutely fair or just, these two ideals- fairness and justice - have always been, and shall remain, the most critical ingredient of a robust, sustainable and progressive societal-political order. The man transitioned from band of cave-dwelling hunter-gatherers to an amiable creature living in harmonious communities and societies only in pursuit, as well as on strength, of these two attributes. Contemporary idea of democracy is an outcome of probably more advanced and refined version of initiatives in this direction. It promises universal access to an optimally fair, just and secure social-political order in much larger societies. Hence, it needs complex instruments and tools with elaborate procedures that at times become far too cumbersome as well. 

These institutions and procedures manifest accumulated knowledge, experiences, values and traditions of the context in which the idea of democracy evolved. Some of these may be incongruent with prevailing social realities in many of the Afro-Asian states and societies. Besides, one cannot be faulted for believing that some powerful sections of society have managed to influence the practices and procedures of democracy to retain their own privileges and entitlements. These do negate the idea of fairness and objectivity that was a key promise of democracy 

The ideas of fairness and justice or the wider values of society can never be static. Values of mankind in general and societies in different parts of the world have been evolving on the basis of their newer experiences. Democracy too has transitioned from its early stages when a minuscule property- owning white males created exclusive clubs for themselves. They imposed limits on royal authority to create an order where equality, justice, fairness and security became accessible but only for themselves. It took centuries to bring the masses into the ambit of political participation, representation and equal access to opportunities.  

A careful examination of rise of Western model of democracy suggests that genesis of this political system was not driven by universal altruism, empathy or even benevolence. Those who forced signing of Magna Carta in 1215 or declared independence of 13 British colonies in North America were driven by urge to protect their economic interests rather than usher in a humanist society. Nevertheless, the attributes mentioned above are critical for fostering bonds among humans or building vibrant institutions like family, kinship groups, communities or society. These also helped transition humans from band of beasts to amiable social creatures.  

But the social context in which Western democracy germinated was highly unequal and oppressive. This was both internally and externally.  From Magna-carta to French revolution era, the working classes in Europe were condemned to a wretched life for sheer existence. They were poorly paid and were reduced to complete servitude. At the same time, these societies had managed to colonize even rests of the world whom they plundered unabashedly and enslaved able-bodied men and women from Africa for centuries. These did help lay foundations of the spectacular prosperity that these states have today.

It was only since the beginning of the 20th century, when the idea of democracy started gaining momentum, the inequality levels were reduced in Western societies. The trend continued till 1970s. But this was the time when the famous Tri-lateral commission report of 1975 captioned as "Crisis of Democracy.." had highlighted how the democracies of West Europe, North America and Japan etc were not able to act cohesively and decisively on key issues of governance. But the larger process of privatization initiated during Reagan and Margret Thatcher era- popularly known as Reaganomics and Thatcherism - or the globalisation that followed subsequently, inequality levels became increasingly steeper almost everywhere. Democracies are yet to find an answer to this challenge. 

Some of the self-seeking, combative and aggressive attributes, identified with early barbaric and savage humans have been modified and contained substantially in most contexts as societies have progressed and evolved, However, these human instincts can never be eliminated entirely. In most contexts, these appear necessary for survival of individuals and even societies to varying extents.  But certain societies and communities, that did better than the rest, did so by their ability to strike a right balance between aggression, combat and self-preservation at one level and empathy, benevolence, integrity and altruism on the other.  A sustainable equilibrium between these two conflicting sets of human attributes have added to the strength and resilience of societies and civilisations that have done better than the rest. 

Inability of Democracy to Provide Responsive Governments:

Though elections are ultimate hallmark of political accountability, but their ability to usher in responsive and humane governance appears inadequate. In most contexts people fought and exacted the right to vote, or political participation in ancient societies, to protect their interests or obtain some privileges for themselves. In many others, these had evolved out of certain necessities in their own unique context. Electoral process in ancient Greece or Rome germinated among local elite because none wanted to lose out to others following collapse of existing authority structures. Citizens were much smaller in number in these societies, compared to slaves and landless workers. They had no great humanist vision behind this principle that they instituted quite early. In Rome, political participation and representation, though largely dominated by elite patrician class, did help empower the under-privileged plebian class as well. But eventually heroics of military leaders and their personal ambitions dismantled the Republic itself. 

Ancient Europe was not the only civilization that had distrusted arbitrary authority, guided by whims and fancies of an individual. There were many others who did so. Some invoked reason and others divine sanctions. But even the greatest among leaders have been vulnerable to human frailties. Reason or divine sanction often crumbled in face of self-seeking human ingenuity. Many rulers in different societies of yesteryears have claimed divinity to silence and oppress any resistance to their power. They often eliminated, intimidated and commodified the rest within their own society and beyond, to varying degrees. Hence, genocide, misogyny, slavery, loot and plunder had been part of traditions and values of several communities. In many contexts, their forms and intensity have changed but not the underlying human instincts, which seem to be deeply ingrained in their psyche and genes. 

Simultaneously, there have also been efforts to build social orders that are based on altruism, integrity and humanism. Europe discovered and perfected these values much later. But ancient India, despite certain exceptions, had widely incorporated practices and principles that can be considered scientific humanism, rule of law, and participative governance under the overall ambit of Dharma. Licchavi republic of ancient India or the concept of 16 Mahajanapadas of India have often been referred as the earliest republics in India. But probably, these traditions are far more ancient than what Western history books may suggest. Transparent and accountable authority structures, with wider freedom and security for people, is believed to have scripted exceptional all-round rise of India much before Roman, Chinese and Persian or even Egyptian empires. 

Potentially a free society, driven by scientific and conscientious rules as well as corresponding societal values and norms can push communities and people on path of collective and comprehensive advancement at a much faster pace. But it is difficult to not only such an order, which may have taken generations, but also sustain these due to behavioural and genetic constraints of humans as a race.  In absence of adequate vigilance and sustained reinvigoration, such political-societal order are vulnerable to decay, degeneration or subversion. Probably this is what happened with India, much before Islamic invasions.  

In Europe, developments like Magna-Carta, Rennaissance, Reformation, declaration of American independence, French revolution, industrial revolution and Enlightenment philosophies etc all left their impact on pushing the ideals of a just and fair world. These helped lay broad contours of contemporary Western democracy. Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation Act of 1863, abolishing slavery or the subsequent global fight against Nazism, de-colonisation  or emergence of welfare state in Europe all contributed to expand the vision of democracy that we have today. Subsequent rise in number of elected governments demonstrated the strength of the idea of representative government and popular yearning for the same. But many of the detailed principles and practices of democratic politics have failed to curb narcissistic self-seeking and even dishonest ways to profiteer at the cost of society. Probably self-seeking combative and aggressive ways are integral to genetic make up of humans and there is need for further conditioning human minds and regulating societies to create amiable and congenial societal spaces for people to collaborate and compete more fairly.    

Driven by some of the primal instincts, sections of people have managed to dilute the efficacy of most of the instruments of checks and balances that democracies have instituted. This appears to be a reality in nearly all contexts, to varying degrees, with few rare exceptions. Simultaneously, the forces of market, amidst globalisation, appear to be creating a spiral of inequality where large sections of masses are getting increasingly irrelevant. Most democracies are receding on access to freedom, equality, liberty and justice. 

It is also possible that what may have been sufficiently fair and just in the past may not be so today. With evolution of human sensibilities, our ideas about fairness and expectations from democracy have also risen too high to achieve. But we have to concede that an idea – howsoever powerful and strong- loses vigour and appeal with passage of time, unless it is consistently refined and reinvigorated. The idea of democracy appears to be battling a similar predicament. 

Key Challenges Facing Democracies 

At this juncture of history, Democracy - as a political and governance system- appears incapable of addressing challenges of our times.  The relative success of Chinese model, compared to Indian one, also demonstrates that it is not effective towards optimising collective potential and output of people, at least in its prevailing shape and structures. The conflict between its values and practices has been steadily expanding. Competition in markets often turns in to war - sans physical violence- due to deficient regulations. Amidst this ruthless competition for power and wealth, masses and large sections of even intelligentsia are struggling to avoid irrelevance. 

Unregulated political competition in many contexts has turned into irreconcilable squabbles. Instead of pushing excellence in governance or empowering people, democracies are increasingly breeding conflict and fracturing societies. Exploitation of contentious identities, for political mobilisation, pushes larger governance obligations on the back-burner. Similarly, extreme inequality poses a problem beyond moral indignation. It destroys strategic balance needed for healthy evolution of society, which is crucial for its stability and progress. It destroys the quality of cooperation, collaboration and even competition, that have provided thrust to accelerated advancement of open societies at early stages. 

Extreme wealth or power, especially the one emanating more from entitlement or inheritance, has potential to drive people towards unmanageable levels of narcissism. The culture of power without responsibility, can doom any society. It is not merely the laze and complacence of wealthy that threatens progress, it is absence of adequate restraint on their capacity to distort the governance priorities of their society to their own advantage, and to the detriment of the rest, that may peril collective plight of people. A globalised world appears rife for such potential, where some the most powerful corporate leaders or corporations have no bond or connect with the communities or people anywhere. 

On the other hand, we are aware of de-humanizing impact of extreme poverty. It not only pushes people to high levels of subservience but even dishonesty in certain situations. This is both in quest of sheer survival or unrestrained personal aspirations kindled in face of temptations. Such a phenomenon cripples potential and productivity of entire society because people are more likely to find innovative ways to enrich and empower themselves rather than reap rewards of their labour and industry. Such a scenario has potential to destroy incentives for high quality efforts and excellence by people on both sides of the spectrum. In worst case scenario, wide-spread deprivations for large mass of people can impair physical-cognitive capacity of the work force. This in turn shall impede optimal progress, output and collective security of entire society.

The current crisis of democracy is no longer confined to marginal shortfalls. In fact, barring a few exceptions, democracy as a political system seems to have lost the very direction and the trajectory of its evolution. In many cases, it has been pushing societies towards steeper inequality by eroding space for social mobility. Not only evolving democracies like India or South Africa face this challenge but even the most established and the most powerful democracy of our times, United States has failed to escape this trap, albeit with lesser consequences for the time-being. Expanding governance gaps, erosion of probity in public life, increasing social fissures and mass anxiety along with routine miscarriages of justice are realities, albeit is lesser degrees, even in rich democracies. These distortions in post-colonial democracies may be at a higher level due to their fragile institutions and a culture of sustained plunder of public resources that has continued even after their independence. 

Institutional dysfunction in many of the established democracies is only a matter of degree. In past, many advanced civilisations and societies have declined or have suddenly been decimated by their failure to detect and negotiate similar challenges and contradictions. Ramifications shall be much wider for decline and subversion of governance institutions in major democracies in the current technology-driven integrated world. This is especially when the Chinese model of opaque authoritarianism has been gaining increasing acceptability. Many reports and research suggest that Chinese state is clandestinely subverting established democracies.  This is difficult to verify but it appears quite logical as world-wide erosion of democracy is likely to ease pressure on CCP to loosen its stranglehold on the vast landmass that has very high population and an economy that is likely to overtake that of the even United States in not too distant a future. 

Greater Vulnerability of Open Societies:

A careful observation and analysis of facts suggest that open and transparent societies are more vulnerable to subversion. Open societies operate more on volition and trust rather than intimidation and control. If larger culture of integrity and trust are missing in a society, democratic institutions are likely to struggle to sustain and deliver. Simultaneously, a culture trust and freedom for people also makes it more vulnerable to external subversion, especially in a globalised world. It offers bigger space for subversives - local or external- to abuse trust and exploit gaps. 

Democracies derive their strength from stronger institutional capacities and a healthy equilibrium within and among institutions. Excellence or strength of one institution depends on corresponding strength of others. Any disturbance in this equilibrium or decline or degeneration in one institution can generate cascading impact on the rest. Similarly, a stronger thrust in key institutions towards excellence and integrity through higher quality of collaboration can bolster capacity of other institutions. 

Dysfunctional or even sub-functional institutions enhance vulnerability of democratic states multi-fold.  Weaker institutions translate into lesser capacity of a state to translate its vision into reality. In a complex web of procedures, many democracies are foregoing certain fundamental goals of creating a healthy, ethical and technically skilled citizenry that can contribute to collective economic, social and intellectual strength of a society. Evolving democracies are particularly tolerant to absence of integrity for incumbents at key leadership level roles. These have nullified some of the key strengths that the democracies possess towards bolstering collective capacities of people. The challenge in some of the powerful democracies may vary only in degree. In absence of adequate degree of integrity, ethic and even intelligence among citizenry, a higher level of social trust and harmony become unsustainable. This in turn destroys the quality of collaboration, which otherwise constitutes the key strength of democracy.  

Extreme inequality in most democracies has disproportionately empowered substantial number of people. Only few of the beneficiaries of such opulence can claim to be legitimate leaders of society.  In most cases, extreme wealth, earned even though legitimate and lawful means, is more an outcome of market dynamics rather than quality of efforts invested. Though a few self-made billionaires of our times are living a relatively modest and austere life and investing a lot in charity or philanthropy, their numbers is far too limited. There are large number of instances where extreme wealth is neither an outcome of legitimate or ethical pursuit nor does it contribute to social wellbeing in any manner. In many societies, huge inheritances have produced a massive class of rent dependent people, some of whom could appear a net liability on any society.   

If we scratch the surface a little more, we come across several forces, who have profiteered by exploiting loopholes in lax governance or deficiently regulated markets. In autocracies and totalitarian systems, such entities may require direct patronage of the state to flourish. Situation is not too different in most fragile democracies. But even in established democracies, there are far too many gaps in institutions that allow transfer of public resources for private enrichment of a few. Some of the detailed case studies are being held back for the rime being but these are available in any case in open domain. Further, such individual enrichment in most cases is far too disproportionate not only to efforts of the beneficiaries but threatens people across the world. The resultant phenomenon has been retarding collective resilience and net capacity of open societies across all divides. 

 Simultaneously, in a globalised world, trade and technology have augmented the quality of lives of people nearly everywhere barring some of the least developed nations. But these have also emerged as lethal tools of depredation for both internal and external actors. Some of the cutting-edge technologies not only threaten to take away jobs of substantial sections of work force or render them entirely irrelevant but technologies are empowering autocrats and despots to use various shades of surveillance weapons to snuff out political opponents. Technologies also open up possibilities for people both in economic and political sphere to eliminate all competition and hold societies on ransom. Under these circumstances, inefficient and subverted institutions appear incapable of resisting such urge among section of people almost anywhere. These also augment the vulnerability of people, eroding their all-round security, almost everywhere that the process of democratization has assured in whatever limited degree.

On a positive side, the current crises facing democracies can also translate into potential opportunities for refinement of their institutions. Leaders with credibility in different sectors and regions, may have to make a concerted effort to push for greater innovation in re-defining the broader rules and norms of regulation to enhance the quality of competition and collaboration to push for more excellence. That alone can optimize the quality of individual and collective output of not only these societies but also the entire human race. Accumulated strength of scientific ideas and innovations equip us with stronger capacity in this direction. 

Today, we find a far bigger gap, if not conflict, between individual aspirations and collective empowerment of societies. The idea of corporate robber barons has been discussed since late 19th Century in the Western democracies. Some of the famous names included John D Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and James J Hill among others, who later became known for their philanthropic ventures as well. It is possible that large-scale public indignation, among other factors, forced them to take high moral position by investing heavily in charities. However, today's context is very different. Such pressure appears to be easing out, notwithstanding the pledge by some of the top billionaires of our time. 

Rising number of billionaires, concentration of wealth and, what some of the Western philosophers describe, marketisation of society appears to be pushing the world towards an era of some form of disguised slavery. These threaten to reverse not merely the peace and prosperity that the mankind has experienced in the aftermath of second world-war but also very sustainability of some of the key features like rule of law, equal access to opportunities, free press, independent judiciary, efficient bureaucracy or sagacious legislatures.    

Need To Go Beyond Western Stereotypes:

The very idea of democracy needs serious and sustained innovations in its vision, goals, structures and processes to pursue its own promises and objectives in each context. Priorities of different societies differ substantially. Each need different focus and probably a little different set of tools to pursue its own priorities. Well thought out ideas and initiatives in this direction are required not only in the West but even in post-colonial societies. These can unleash latent potentials of people and societies to bolster levels of economic prosperity, security and dignity at a much bigger and comprehensive levels. It is also time for democracy to move beyond the shackles of the recent Western experiences and perceptions. 

Ongoing debates on challenges facing democracy in the West have remained largely West-centric, condemning populist parochialism and rising distrust against institutions in these societies. These rarely mention challenges faced by democracies in Asia and Africa, howsoever fragile or nascent these may be. Success of these democracies is also critical, not only for plight of their people but also preserving a better global ecosystem for open societies to thrive universally. Subversion of resource rich fragile democracies, or absence of democracy in such pockets of Africa and Asia or even South America, have enabled a resurgent China to fuel its own accelerated growth by ensuring monopolistic access to these by either bribing local elite or clandestinely subverting their democracy. This phenomenon has the potential negatively impact not only democracies in Asia but also some of the rich democracies of the world, including the most powerful one of our times-United States. This brand of neo-colonialism enables a small caucus of Chinese Communist Party to render even the most powerful democracy powerless in many parts of the world. 

Simultaneously, many a times, the debate on fate democracy appears driven by an agenda of retaining material and technological superiority of West over the “Rest”. Probably, the Western democracies need to realise that their fate depends more on refinement of democracies at home and abroad and not subverting these anywhere. Hence, building a stronger partnership among democracies is critical for exploring ways of reinvigorating their governance institutions to push for greater individual and collective empowerment of people in all open societies.

Democracies in developing world have perennially struggled against instability, corruption and poor performance. Inefficiency or inconsistency in public services in most evolving democracies, against the paradox of rising opulence of a small elite, was accepted on the pretext of weak institutions. But there should be no space for such phenomenon in the established democracies. There is need for a serious discourse on these issues in that part of the world. Simultaneously, many democracies even in the developing world have advanced, consolidating their political and governance institutions and their output, as well as overall record on transparency, integrity and individual freedom under stewardship of visionary leaders. But beyond a point, they too seem to have lost direction.  Most beneficiaries of upward economic, social and political mobility, or their progenies, have sought to restrict equitable access to opportunities for others by subverting their own institutions, rendering many of them severely dysfunctional. These have eroded overall authority and capacity of the state to uphold rule of law uniformly and consistently. 

Conflicts, contradictions and gaps in societies, communities and institutions cannot entirely be eliminated. But these can certainly be addressed better with innovation and intellect, driven by integrity. It would also be na├»ve to assume that major challenges facing democratic societies and states could be addressed by normal dynamics of political competition or market forces. Probably in absence of major restructuring of institutions, and conscious investment of ideas and initiatives in this direction, it may be nearly impossible to break the current challenges facing open societies anywhere. 

Simultaneously, initiative for serious change has always faced resistances and more so from beneficiaries of status-quo. Hence, my recommendation for evolution of democracy is also likely to be frowned upon or even dismissed. A potential change in the existing structures and processes entails not merely risks of failures but also reversing the advances achieved in this direction. It is quite logical to argue that 'every change may not lead to progress' but we must remember that almost every progress involves serious changes and carries its own risks and costs. 

Evolution to Indocracy: An Improvised and Higher Democracy 

We are at a stage where democracy as an ideal, or form of governance, can neither afford a reckless distortion nor even stagnation. An authoritarian China's resurgence, especially in the context of highly lackadaisical governance output of democratic India, erodes both credibility and desirability of democracy as a political-governance structure and model. Nevertheless, despite all the comforts of prosperity and luxury, the Chinese model is incapable of providing a sense of security to not only masses but even large sections of its own elite. Absence of phenomenon like rule of law, free media and independent as well as efficient judiciary can potentially push anyone towards disguised slavery, deprived of basic dignity and rights.  

        Most post-colonial states have borrowed the current model of representative Government from the West. Barring India and Japan, and now South Korea and Singapore, democratic political systems have struggled to take firm roots in Asia and Africa. Many in India believe that success and sustenance of democracy in India can be attributed to its own civilizational roots and the earliest traditions and values of democratic republicanism on the subcontinent. But relatively poor and deficient governance-security output of India negatively impacts not only its own citizens but also security of people in nearly whole of Asia and even other parts of the developing world or even rich democracies beyond a point. 

    Hence, resurgence of a democratic India is critical for not only plight of its own people but also for a more conducive ecosystem for open societies to thrive. This in turn can augment the quality of security accessible to people across most divides. In recent years, not only autocracies but even some of the nascent democracies from Africa to Central Asia have found the Chinese more attractive and even sustainable in their own contexts. Such interest emanates from a variety of reasons. While some may be drawn due to stability, or sheer survival of the ruling dispensation, there are many others who have admired the Chinese model due to its capacity to push accelerated economic transformation. 

 It would be unfair to blame these nations entirely. Chinese state is believed to be propping up autocrats in most parts of Asia and Africa by subverting fragile democracies. But democracies shall have to share the blame for such vulnerability on their part. It is pity that an authoritarian and opaque system of China, that is supposed to be driven more by loyalty, patronage and intimidation, is able to better perform on most parameters of governance compared to an open, transparent and competitive model that India claims to pursue. There are definitely serious gaps in India's political-governance institutions that are manifest in their under-performance. These need to be addressed and no existing solution from West or China is going to work.  

    India's goals, challenges and priorities, as well as overall internal and external context, varies substantially from both West and China.  Hence, India has to chart out its own course. It has to devise more scientific and potent tools of political representation as well as governance of state and society to suit its specific context and priorities. This must be done by further advancing and refining the core ingredients of democracy by infusing humanist-pacifist values with a thrust on individual excellence and innovation at one level and collective synergy on the other. The newer model can be described as Indocracy.  

    As a political and governance system, democracy, like any other idea, has to continuously evolve to retain its vigour and resilience. It is logical that the initiative comes from the largest democracy of the world. Indocracy or Bharat Tantra, driven by the ideals of Raja Bharat, is capable of refining and further evolving the very idea of democracy in pursuit of a fairer and safer world. Raja Bharat is believed to have laid the foundations of not only Indian state and civilization but also the first democratic republic in a prosperous and stable civilisation. Even if he may be a mythical character, which appears unlikely despite all exaggerations associated with ancient records, the very fact that people could visualise certain ideals so early in the history, only reconfirms exceptionally scientific and humanist roots of India as a civilisation. Raja Bharat is credited with adhering to the noblest principles of governance as well as leasing and austere and principled life himself. While relinquishing power as Head of an empire or civilisation, he had nominated an able successor named Bhuvayu, who was not his relation, through a process of wider consultations among stakeholders and masses. He had rejected claims of his biological progenies in the interest of his people and empire. But more importantly, it is the idea of his people-centered governance or observance of Dharma of a ruler that appears more appealing.     

    Analysis of other available records suggest that for a long time, the focus of governance in ancient India had remained on building social trust by fostering higher levels of individual integrity, excellence, wisdom and spirit of renunciation of biological pleasure and material comfort by the rulers. Kautilyan Arthshastra has recorded a large number of rules, laws and principles of governance that were prevalent earlier. Each of these had focused on building an amiable and vibrant societal order for which emphasis had remained on building attributes like physical strength of the population, bravery, courage, knowledge, wisdom and detachment from material lust. Sovereign or ruler never enjoyed absolute or divine authority. These were later era innovations. Hence, until India started decaying, and that too at a much faster pace, wise sages and scholars or practitioners had invested lots of efforts through scientific knowledge to build a humanist and progressive civilization, pushing limits of excellence and innovation in every sphere. This was much before Greece, Rome, China or even Egypt. 

This is not to claim that every small community or society or kingdom through out ancient Indian subcontinent followed the same sagacious principles or rules of governance. There must have been variations and credible history books do suggest frequent deviation and distortion of these rules, especially outside cities or dense habitations that were directly commanded by sovereigns. There were vast land spaces in between, including that of various forest dwelling or other tribes, which followed their own principles and rules of governance, that were more egalitarian due to very nature of these societies. 

But no system is infallible in face of human frailties, including the greed and lust or sheer narcissism of the powerful. India had started decaying much before the Buddhist era when nearly 200 social reform movements were going on protesting deviation from original principles of Dharma or right conduct as envisaged for individuals and incumbents of the state. Even Buddhism and Jainsim laid emphasis on earlier virtues of compassion, ethic, altruism and detachment from material pleasure, something that had been known and practiced earlier in the subcontinent. Our real and detailed history is probably not even known even though newer researches are revealing new information about our past. But the ideals and values that have been narrated in some of the scriptures do find resonance in our societies, despite all decay and degeneration. These need to be reinterpreted more scientifically. But it is clear that without higher levels of integrity, enterprise and innovation, exceptional material prosperity, social amiability, something for which ancient India is known, would never have been possible. However, any scientific study of governance and politics of ancient India should focus far more on possible factors that brought about its decay and downfall as well what could have driven its comprehensive advancement and expansion. 

Some of the principles that drive comprehensive advancement of societies remain eternal. But with change of context, many of the detailed instruments, structures and processes need to incorporate not only lessons from our failures but also wider advancement of all-round knowledge. While India's glorious past should be a source of inspiration, its downfall and decay offer probably far bigger lessons. We must never shun our eternal humanist orientation. But with better awareness of the wider global context and civilizational journey of the others, it is possible to devise more scientific and robust structures and principles of governance. Our objective must not be resurrection or replication of the past as no society, state or civilization or even individual can go back in the time zone.  

India has to move forward by devising a new model of democratic governance that should optimize its own strengths as a state, society and civilization, and yet enable it build stronger and mutually empowering bridges with rest of the world. It will test limits of both thinkers and practitioners in the sphere of governance and politics. But it appears very much possible, given long humanist roots of pre-medieval India that have helped it sustain an open and accountable system amidst adversity and throw up a small and yet a substantial pool of highly skilled and influential professional leaders all over the world. 

[Details of proposed structures and procedures Indocracy are being held back for the time being. These shall be spelled out in due course.]

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Debate on Democracy Continued

1.    Challenges of Democracy in the Developing World:

The ongoing debate on challenges confronting democracy has remained West-centric. There are fairly valid reasons to argue that governance capacity of democracy must not be evaluated on the basis of performance of rich democracies of the Western world alone. Most glittering democracies of the West are built and sustained not entirely by enterprise and energy of their own people but also on wealth extracted from former colonies. In case of North America, the vast expanse of land with all its resources was also backed by uninterrupted supply of enslaved labour from Africa for over two and a half centuries. 

This is not to question all-round advancements and refinements in ideas, knowledge, values and scientific technologies that the European and North American democracies have achieved. Nevertheless, it is difficult to visualise governance capacity of these democracies in absence of material prosperity that they have achieved, which in turn has helped them build stronger public infrastructure, efficient and transparent administration and various public services with a strong emphasis on welfare dimension of the state. These did create a stronger ecosystem at home to sustain and refine a democratic political order, which appears to be in some peril in at least some of these societies.

Under these circumstances, true governance capacity of democracy, as well as its ability to sustain and progressively evolve itself under all circumstances, can be measured by performance of democratic states in developing world. India accompanied by other major states like Indonesia, South Africa, Brazil and many others too shall have an important role in defence of democratic values and ideals. Barring Brazil which secured independence in late 19th Century, others were de-colonised in mid and late 20th Century. They continue to grapple with several competing priorities, making the task of institution-building for vibrant democracies quite difficult. They have been evolving in a global order that has been easy to negotiate. Nevertheless, these states have progressed and continue to do so from a somewhat difficult and disadvantageous position. Their economic consolidation and political stability do inspire confidence in innate strengths of democracy as a political- governance system. Under these circumstances, the role of the most powerful democracy and its ability to provide a partnership-based leadership to help these countries evolve shall be critical for security and stability of the entire world.

When we emphasize on importance of examining democracies in the developing world or pushing these towards greater excellence, we do not discount significance of the most powerful country in the world. It will continue to influence and shape up events in the world to a great extent. Democracy being in peril in this country has potential to negatively impact much larger number of people way beyond their national frontiers. At the same time, it is also a fact that its own global power is in decline. It is irrelevant whether it is complacency or over-confidence that has engineered such decline. Further, even if a democratic country remains all-powerful and still it pursues and supports highly oppressive policies internationally, its democratic credentials may not evoke the same sense of security and assurance that peace and freedom seeking world aspires. 

We have to remember that democracy itself emerged as a revolt against unfettered powers and discretionary authorities. Hence, when we equate democracy with a more harmonious and stable international order, then it should be one where power and authority are accompanied with accountability and restraint. A global order where states are in healthy equilibrium with adequate checks and balances alone fulfils the vision of democracy. Hence, what we need a world, which is dominated not by one or two power blocks but one where authority and responsibility are shared by a large number of established and powerful democracies. Under these conditions, all-round advancement of democracies in the developing world is important not only for addressing aspirations of people in these countries but also for security of people even in the established democracies. These warrant equally serious discussion on challenges, constraints and strength of democracy in every part of the world and especially in the larger developing nations of Asia and Africa.

India and China:

One of the key factors that has raised doubt about the governance capacity of democratic states is relatively modest economic progress of India, compared to spectacular economic rise of a communist China. It has successfully combined some of its own cultural and civilizational values and traditions with the contemporary Western practices of economic governance, while drawing and retaining some of the politically totalitarian dimensions of communism. India as a civilizational state and entity had also sought to resurrect many of its traditional values in fusion with Western democratic practices and institutions. However, unlike China, with experience of only hundred years of humiliatingly unequal and exploitative treaties, that too it has used to invoke nationalism, India, as a civilizational state, has a much longer experience of being ravaged frequently and extensively with a far longer history of plunder, pillage and colonial subjugation that has altered values and psyche of incumbents in leadership roles.

As a civilizational entity, India has a stronger heritage of a liberal and transparent society with considerable space for intellectual and creative freedom. The degree of such freedom or attribute must be viewed only its relative and not in absolute terms, nevertheless, these are more in sync with key ingredients of modern democracy. On the other hand, Chinese civilization always had a much higher degree of state-centric orientation but both ruler and the ruled were put under moral obligation to adhere to certain code of conduct. Deviations were of course there but the concept of absolute right or divine right to rule were absent. Ancient Indian texts do have recurrent references, though not on a continuous basis, obliging state authority to act as per rules and norms devised by the wise sages. Chinese values from Taoism to Confucianism appealed more to conscience of the ruler while emphasizing on obedience and commitment of the ruled. 

While continuity of these values and norms is neither claimed nor possible but some degree these values still being part of larger behavioural and cultural ethos, not on uniform basis and with all normal deviations and exceptions, may have to be conceded. These are manifest in the prevailing state of affairs in the two major civilizational states of the world. An open and liberal society need not be weak and badly governed. India as a common civilizational entity expanded from modern day Afghanistan to Indonesia, even though there was never being a single political entity bigger than Mauryan empire of 4th to 1st Century BC. In the East was restricted only up to Assam, and yet it was far bigger than any civilizational state of its era. Some of its governance and security principles appear relevant even in contemporary context. As a civilizational state and political entity, China has been relatively smaller but was far more cohesive. It overcame an era of intermittent wars and conflicts, which too had been devised into elaborate science, to evolve such norms of governance of society and economy to experience considerable advancement.  

Both the Asian giants decayed and degenerated and both faced colonial plunder and pillage, to varying extents and forms, before re-embarking their journey as sovereign independent nation-states, seven decades back. While in the Western psyche, comparative performance of India and China may appear relevant only to the extent of challenges and competition that they face from either of the two countries but for others the comparative analysis of all round performance of India and China offers a real test of governance capacity of democracy. Strangely, compared to some degree of unease and discomfort post 1962, there no records of two ancient civilizations coming into major conflict in the past even though there were multiple areas of confluence and intellectual exchanges.

Governance model of India and China differ not only from each other but also from the West. Varying degrees of Western contents can be found in their governance structures and processes and yet several continuities are there  from their respective pasts. Political-military consolidation of Chinese state, its economic turn-around to challenge the supremacy of the West or its ability to avert direct colonisation or its rapid strides in fields of technological excellence are demonstrative of its stronger governance capacity. We must not forget that contemporary China has politically and administratively subsumed three independent and yet interlinked major ethnic, cultural and civilizational entities, namely Tibet, Eastern Turkistan and Inner Mongolia. These constitute two-thirds of its existing territory, provide huge natural resources but account for less than Ten percent of its total population. Economically and militarily, China remained comparable to even a truncated India of 1947 with both countries being similar on all parameters of governance and remained so until early 1980s. Today, barring on issues like state of human rights or treatment of political dissidents, China has comprehensively outperformed India on every parameter of governance varying from healthcare, education to trade, technology and economic growth.

As the biggest democracy in the world, mired with multiple internal and external challenges, relative success of India is probably still the most inspiring testimony of governance capacity of democracies as well as their viability outside the Western world. However, as a civilizational entity, India has been familiar with several ingredients of democracy or an open and transparent society with people-centric governance, notwithstanding distortions, disruptions and degenerations of late ancient and medieval era, that must not be equated with external invasions of medieval era alone. Hence, it has been too harsh and highly patronising to attribute success of Indian democracy to Western exposure of its post-independence leaders, which of of course may be one of the multiple contributing factors. 

Post-independence democratic India is a unique fusion of a resurrected ancient Indian identity, amalgamated with contemporary Western values along with several medieval and traditional ethos which appear incompatible, if not conflicting at the surface. Democratic India has succeeded in achieving certainly transformational changes both socially and economically, of course with a flip side of their own, but the country is nowhere close to its potential. In a little over three decades, a communist and somewhat totalitarian China has surpassed India on almost every parameter of governance. To many, it appears a manifestation of inferior, but not altogether bad, governance capacity of democracy.

A careful examination suggests that a relatively slower progress of India stems not from inferiority of democratic governance but several inbuilt conflicts, distortion and even subversion on institutional practices and procedures. This is a reality, albeit to varying degrees and forms, in every part of the world. A modern representative government derives its strength and superior governance capacity more from a harmonious equilibrium among various institutions at one level and similar harmony between larger social values, outlook and orientations and these institutions. Great leaders and great promises and good intentions mean little if governance institutions are and social realities breed conflict. 

Democracy Remains A Superior Model of Governance

A deeper analysis suggests that open and transparent societies offer bigger space for universal empowerment as well as sustained stability which are critical for collective advancement of people. However, open and liberal societies, states and their institutions take a longer time to evolve, require greater and continuous leadership efforts and initiatives to sustain and evolve, and at the same time these are vulnerable to both internal and external subversion. The inter-dependence or inter-linkage between such societies and states is much higher than the authority oriented governance structures. The governance capacity of these societies depends not merely on the state or leader or incumbents in authority but also on wider social values and outlook. Leaders and role models do play their own role but in absence of credibility, they shall struggle to govern. Under these contexts, one needs to look for underlying conflicts between state and society in some of the democracies, which may be hindering their optimum growth or progressive evolution.  

Practical observation suggests that a stronger system of checks and balances along with a larger harmony between institutional and governance goals along with wider values of integrity may stretch and enhance capacity of both individuals and societies. In absence of these, several inbuilt conflicts crop up, institutions become sub-functional, and society as a whole slip into under performance, which builds its own spiral of under-performance, distortions and degeneration. The process of progressive evolution of democracy is a continuous one, which does require regular infusion of stronger ideas and initiative besides good leadership at every level and in every sector.

Sub-optimal governance output of democracies, in many of the developing nations, due to weaker institutional capacity and integrity, as well as autonomy, often differentiates them from totalitarian states more in degree than in substance. In certain cases, a few coercive or semi-coercive authoritarian or totalitarian states are doing better on several governance parameters. Prosperity and accelerated economic development of some of these smaller or mid-sized states is often attributed to abundant natural resources that they are endowed with. However, many similar resource-rich states in Africa that experimented with democracy are struggling to provide even political stability, leave optimally efficient and transparent governance. Many of them are lagging far behind on most human development indices compared to even poorer countries.

Such phenomenon warrants examination of democratic principles and practices, especially from a non-European and non-Western prism.  Totalitarianism has thrived on the premise that “civil liberties and national consolidation are incompatible”. This is what has also justified erosion of democratic freedom or principles in many of the established democracies. There is no confusion that democracy is a far more evolved and refined political order compared to any shade of totalitarianism and autocracy. Its success or governance output depends as much on reasonableness in exercise of state authority or rule of law, as on capacity of governance institutions and corresponding social values and larger behavioural patterns of the citizenry. 

Today the doubt is not about the desirability or virtues of democracy but about the efficacy of its existing institutions and practices to defend and protect its avowed goals and objectives.  It is subversion of democracy that may have robbed its of its ability to fulfil its promises of equitable access opportunities including the rights like life, liberty, freedom, dignity and all-round security. However, no system is perfect and every idea and instrument has to evolve. It is time for democracy also to evolve to the next higher stage. Lamenting is not the solution but the innovation is and such innovation is. 

ps: The above write-up is also part of the introductory component of a larger research captioned: "Beyond Democracy". Ideally, I would like to name it as "Quest For Indocracy" which would be a superior form of political order than even Democracy.  The proposed research would offer a futuristic vision of governance. It shall examine certain fundamental questions on what constitutes an ideal and happy life for an individual and community. How can these be reconciled? How can humans live in harmony with nature? 


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