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 always takes credible leadership to persuade the most, but not necessarily all, to embark on a journey towards the betterment. This process is continuous with no final destination. But more often it needs a spark in the form of a crisis or opportunity to get momentum. 

All human progress appears driven by the quest for security- both from forces of nature and fellow humans- and dignity. Man has never experienced a world where these were accessible to people universally and equitably. But it is efforts to move towards a more secure, just and fairer world that has shaped all political and social innovations that have led to advancement of our civilisations. However, our perception about what constitutes an optimally fair and just world, despite having certain broad similarities, has been evolving with passage of time or varies in different contexts. Vedic and Upanishadic wisdom of Dharma or right conduct or a just society varies not only from Confucian morality or Platonic justice but also later Sanatan values of Puranic or pre-Islamic or medieval era of India. Hence, it is natural that there can never be uniformity about what constitutes a just and fair social order. Simultaneously, we need constant investment of both ideas and initiatives to improve a societal order and political system that optimizes strengths of a society and bolsters the quality of internal cohesion and harmony, where individuals and societies mutually empower each other or s hare a sustainable synergy with each other. 

The idea of contemporary Western model of representative democracy arose a few centuries back and gradually evolved to pursue such aspirations for an increasingly larger number of people. The direction and pace of progress has never been unilinear and consistent. Nevertheless, the idea has evolved and expanded its ambit, at least on paper, to encompass entire citizenry to provide political participation to build a societal order that offered universal access to dignity, freedom and security. However, universal and equitable access to democratic dividends is not yet a reality. People not only in authoritarian states feel deprived of equitable and just access to dignity and opportunities but large sections of their counterparts even in some established democracies nurture similar grievances. 

Elections Insufficient To Build A Just and Fair Society
Despite 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 representing collective will of the people. Smaller cohesive groups or cartels or syndicates continue to exploit the loopholes in the institutional procedures to rig democracies of their core spirit and key promises. This is especially so in larger societies with large scale migration of people. Such challenges may be far too formidable in 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 a safer and fairer world. Phenomenon of Mahatma Gandhi, even though unacknowledged in UDHR charter, find resonance in these goals and decolonisation was a clear manifestation of such idealism. 
The evolutionary journey of accountable and representative political systems has never been unilinear and consistently progressive. There have often been setbacks, distortions, and degenerations, reversing the advances made over decades and centuries. One often wonders whether the democracy has reached similar crossroads since the turn of this century or has lost its direction, where it’s fate or sustainability has come in doubt. 

Today, democracy as a political system is facing one of the most serious crises of credibility. It can no longer ensure universal access to all round security, justice and dignity. United States and some of the West European countries may be doing better on several parameters of governance and innovation due to their accumulated prosperity and resultant strength of institutions over the preceding few centuries. At roots of their success lay, what has often been pejoratively described as "piratic" and "colonial" plunder, besides enterprise and innovation of sections of their elite.  This psyche, at least the urge to dominate the rest, has often manifested itself in their dealings with the rest of the world. But democracy as a political system has appeared too fragile and fractured in the developing world to push the agenda of comprehensive and harmonious advancement of people across all divides. 

Open and representative political systems, in their existing form, appear incapable of carrying out a course correction on their own and that too in a normal course.  But despite all their flaws and imperfections, open societies offer the biggest space for such initiatives from their members. There is need for a wider public discourse to explore a direction towards which the idea of democracy needs to evolve from this point onwards.

 What optimizes strengths of a society is its ability to provide the bigger space for individuals to evolve to their fullest potential and yet contribute to collective strength and cohesion of their society. 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 is limitless. This can push societies and civilisations towards comprehensive and sustainable advancement.  However, intent alone may not 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 come together to push something like this. 

Fairness and Justice As the Core of Democracy

Fairness or justice has 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 communities and societies in pursuit of these objectives only. Contemporary idea of democracy is an outcome of a more advanced and refined version of initiatives in this direction. It promises universal access to an optimally fair, just and secure social-political order at a much larger scale. It has incorporated available knowledge, experiences, traditions and values of the context, in which it has emerged. Hence, there are variations in the quality and nature of democracy or political system that we have in different parts of the world. 

Neither the idea of fairness and justice nor the wider values of society can 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 was available 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 may not be driven by universal altruism, empathy or even benevolence. These attributes, however, were critical for fostering bonds among humans or building 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 both internally and externally. There was extreme inequality in Western societies where early roots of democracy are traced. At the same time, these societies had managed to colonise even the rests of the world whom they plundered unabashedly.    

Some of the self-seeking, combative and aggressive attributes, identified with barbaric and savage humans, can probably never be eliminated entirely, even though these have been modified and contained substantially in most contexts. In fact, these remain necessary for survival of individuals and even societies to varying extents in different contexts.  But certain societies and communities, that did better than the rest, realised the worth of striking a balance between self-seeking, aggressive and combative attributes of humans at one level and empathy, benevolence, integrity and altruism on the other.  A progress towards better equilibrium in this direction differentiates robust and yet vibrant societies from the weaker and fragile ones. A right balance between these two conflicting sets of human attributes have determined the strength and resilience of societies and civilisations. 

Confusing Electoral Process With Responsive Governments:

In our context, we equate elections with responsive and humane governance. In certain contexts people fought and exacted the right to vote or political participation and representation or representation to protect their interests or obtain privileges. 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 political 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 of political participation or representation that they instituted quite early. In Rome, political participation and representation did help empower plebian class. But eventually heroics of military leaders dismantled the Republic itself. 

But these were not the only societies that had distrusted arbitrary authority, guided by whims and fancies of an individual. Hence, they sought to curb these. Some invoked reason and others divine sanctions. But initiatives of even the greatest among visionary leaders have been vulnerable to distortion at altar of self-seeking human ingenuity. Many rulers in the past 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. This is what scripted exceptional all round rise of India. Potentially such social and political order can push communities and people on path of collective and comprehensive advancement at a much faster pace. But it is difficult to build and sustain such orders due to behavioural and genetic constraints of humans as a race.  

Magna-Carta to Enlightenment and French revolution left their own impact on pushing the idea of a just and fair world, which gave a momentum to the idea of democracy. Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation Act or abolition of slavery or the global fight against Nazism, de-colonisation  or emergence of welfare state in Europe all contributed to expand the idea of a just and fair world. UDHR acted as a guide post for these. Subsequent rise in number of elected government demonstrated the strength of the idea of not only electoral process but also human quest for justice and fairness. But detailed democratic principles and practices seek to counter self-seeking,  dishonest and narcissist streaks of humans that are part of their genetic composition.    

Today, human ingenuity has managed to dilute efficacy of most of these instruments of checks and balances in most contexts. Only their degrees vary. Simultaneously, the forces of market, amidst globalisation, seem to be obstructing the process of  progressive evolution of the idea of democracy. 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. Simultaneously, ideas – howsoever powerful and strong- lose their vigour and appeal with passage of time, unless, these are consistently refined and reinvigorated. One wonders whether the idea of democracy has met a similar fate. 

Democracy As Governance Model 

Democracy,  as a political and governance system, appears incapable of addressing challenges of our time or 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 all this conflict, masses and large sections of even intelligentsia appear to be struggling to avoid irrelevance. 

Unregulated political competition in many contexts has turned into irreconcilable squabbles for power. 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 back-burner. Extreme inequality poses a problem beyond moral indignation. It destroys strategic balance needed in society. It destroys the quality of cooperation, collaboration and even competition, that have provided thrust to accelerated advancement of human civilisation. 

Extreme wealth or power drives people towards such levels of narcissism that they lose capacity to thank rationally. It brings laze and complacence at one level and undermines quality of competition. Extreme poverty pushes people to such levels of subservience and such deprivations that they lose capacity to optimise their all round capacities. Crippling of individual capacity of large majority of people undermines collective capacity of society. Inbuilt and institutionalised inequalities have always decapacitated societies. These destroy incentives for high quality efforts by people on both sides of the spectrum. In nutshell, such distortions in democracy are impeding optimal progress, output, harmony and collective security of people and  communities.

The current crisis of democracy is no longer confined to marginal shortfalls in its promises. In fact, barring a few exceptions, democracy as a political system seems to have lost the very direction and its trajectory. 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 cannot escape such fate. Expanding governance gaps, erosion of probity in public life, increasing social fissures and mass anxiety along with routine miscarriages of justice are realities, albeit to varying degrees, remain reality in most democracies. These distortions in post-colonial democracies may be at a higher level due to their fragile roots and sustained colonial plunder of their societies. 

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 and authoritarianism has been gaining increasing attention and yet suspected to be subverting established democracies.   

Greater Vulnerability of Open Societies:

A careful observation and analysis of facts suggest that open and transparent societies are more vulnerable to subversion. Representative democracies derive their strength from stronger institutional capacities and a healthy equilibrium within and among them. Excellence or strength of one institution depends on similar or corresponding strength of others. Any disturbance in this equilibrium or decline or degeneration in one institution can cause similar impact on others. Similarly, a stronger thrust in key institutions towards excellence and integrity through higher quality of collaboration can optimise excellence and integrity levels in the rest of the 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 or desires into reality. In a complex web of procedures, many democracies are foregoing certain fundamental attributes needed for heathy human existence. Evolving democracies are particularly tolerant to absence of integrity for incumbents at key leadership level roles. The challenge in some of the powerful democracies may vary only in degree. In absence of integrity, social trust and harmony suffer, which in turn destroy the quality of collaboration, which should ideally be the bedrock of democratic political process. 

Extreme inequality in most democracies has disproportionately empowered fairly larger number of people. Only few of the beneficiaries of this extreme opulence can claim to be legitimate leaders of society and people by leading relatively modest and austere life and investing in charity or philanthropy. In most cases, extreme wealth, earned even though legitimate and lawful means, is more an outcome of market dynamics rather than quality of efforts alone. There are also 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, who in turn may appear a net liability on society.

If we scratch the surface a little more, we come across several forces, who have profiteered by exploiting loopholes in lax governance or distorted markets. In autocracies and totalitarian systems, such entities may require direct patronage of the state, in democracies they just need to exploit gaps in institutions, which are multiple. Hence, people do prosper and flourish by defying larger social, national and humanitarian considerations and they need no guilt sense to trouble them. The net outcome of such phenomenon is serious rupture in social and national bonds. 

 In a globalised world, trade and technology have enhanced quality of lives of people. But these have also emerged as lethal tools of depredation- from both internal and external quarters. Under these circumstances, inefficient and subverted institutions augment the vulnerability of people, eroding their all-round security, almost everywhere but more so in democracies.

The current facing democracies can also translate into potential opportunities for refinement of institutions of open societies. 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 governance to optimize quality of individual and collective output of people and societies. Accumulated strength of scientific ideas and innovations equip us with stronger capacity in this direction. 

At a conceptual level, the idea of democracy rests on a stronger and sustainable synergy between individuals and societies, where both strengthen each other. The genuine leadership in democracy warrants not merely a push for universal access to all round security and dignity for people but also building common stakes for collective goals. These appear increasingly essential for security and progress of societies and people. Technologies have enabled segments of people to profiteer from ventures and hard work of others. They, in turn, can hold larger societies on ransom for sheer insanity or lust  for power.    

Need To Go Beyond Western Stereotypes:

The very idea of democracy needs serious and sustainable innovations in its visions, goals, structures and processes to pursue its own promises to their people. Well thought out moves in this direction can unleash latent potentials of people and societies to bolster levels of economic prosperity, security and dignity for all. It is also time for democracy to move beyond the shackles of the recent Western experiences and perceptions. 

Ongoing debates on challenges facing democracy 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 ecosystem for open societies to thrive globally. 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 resources by bribing or clandestinely supporting autocrats. 

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.

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. Nevertheless, 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. At the same time, most beneficiaries of upward social mobility  have sought to restrict equitable access to opportunities for others by subverting their own institutions, and rendering many of them severely dysfunctional.

 These have eroded overall authority and capacity of the state to uphold rule of law. Such phenomenon in the context of erosion of equitable access to opportunities even in the established democracies of the West, or decline in some of their institutions, raises doubt about adequacies and strength of democratic institutions as a whole. 

Conflicts, contradictions and gaps in societies, communities and institutions cannot be entirely eliminated. But these can certainly be addressed better in pursuit of goals that can push quality of internal cohesion and collective output of societies. 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 logjam facing democracies. 

Simultaneously, initiative for serious change has always faced resistances. 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 carries its own risks and costs. 

Indocracy: progressive Evolution of 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, dawns the realisation  Democracy as a political-governance structure and model must chart out a newer course towards pursuit of its own promises and potentials. 

Governance structures and processes need to instill greater integrity and encourage greater energy, enterprise, excellence and innovation to optimise collective output of societies and people. The current idea of democracy has gradually evolved over centuries.  It’s orientation and objective has been geared to addressing challenges of these societies and meeting newer requirements of people in largely Western cultural contexts. Its journey has been driven by conscious human initiatives and endeavours of a few that found endorsement of the most.  In many phases and contexts, the idea of democracy or equitable to access to dignity and opportunity has also witnessed phases of disruption, distortion and even sustained degeneration.  

Most post-colonial states have borrowed the current model of representative Government from the West. Barring India and Japan, 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 its own civilizational roots and the earliest traditions and values  of democratic republicanism on the subcontinent. Today, India's goals, challenges and priorities and overall context substantially varies from the West.  Hence, India must evolve the idea of democracy 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 of ancient India. The newer model can be described as Indocracy.  

As a political and governance system, democracy, like any other idea, must continuously evolve. But it must do so by moving forward and not backwards. Indocracy or Bharat Tantra, driven by the ideals of Raja Bharat, must amount to advancement of the very idea of democracy in quest of a fairer and safer world. Raja Bharat is believed to have laid the foundations of not only Indian state and civilisation but also the first democratic republic in the world. Focus on values like social trust and amiability, individual integrity, bravery, courage and respect for knowledge laid the foundations of a scientific knowledge driven society that pushed the limits of human ingenuities, excellence and innovation in every sphere.   

[Detailed structural and procedural changes  for transition from Democracy to Indocracy shall be spelled out in due course.]

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