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 join a journey towards progress. The process is continuous process with no final destination even though it has always taken a spark in the form of a crisis or opportunity to get momentum. 

Man has never experienced a perfectly harmonious world that offered universal access to security- both from forces of nature and fellow humans- and dignity. But it is efforts to move towards a more secure, just and fairer world that has shaped all political and social innovations and advancements. However, our perception about what constitutes a just and fair world has also been evolving. Hence, it is natural that we need constant investment of both ideas and initiatives. 

Democracy as an idea arose and has continued to evolve in pursuance of similar aspirations for, at least a section of, mankind. The idea has continued to evolve and has  expanded its ambit, at least on paper, to encompass entire citizenry in it promise of opportunity, 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. 

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. Challenges are far too formidable in post-colonial societies but erosion in integrity of institutions is a reality even in established democracies. Probably, human beings have not yet psychologically and socially evolved to a level where they can build sufficient trust and integrity to build and sustain a social and political order that can pursue the goals envisioned in Universal Declaration  of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948 by world leaders of that time. Closer on the heels of devastations experienced by the mankind during the second world war pushed them to set such goals that were difficult to achieve but yet appeared critical for a safer and fairer world.   

 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 over the preceding three centuries, which can substantially be attributed to "piratic" and "colonial" plunder, besides enterprise and innovation of sections of their elite.  But democracy as  a political system has appeared too fragile to push  comprehensive and harmonious advancement of people across divides. 

Democracy as a political-governance system, appears incapable of carrying out a major course correction. Ironically, despite all its flaws, democracy probably remains the only political system that still offers the biggest space for such initiatives at least lawfully. There is certainly a need for a much wider public discourse, with the highest levels of sincerity and integrity. It is difficult but not impossible to point out a clear direction in which democracy needs to evolve to build a framework of governance and societal order that fosters optimal cooperation and collaboration at one level and fairer competition on the other to push societies and civilisations towards optimal progress. However, we need to be prepared for stiff resistance to deeply thought out ideas and initiatives, howsoever sincere and honest these may be. 

Fairness and Justice As the Core of Democracy

Fairness or justice has always been, and shall remain, the most critical ingredients  of a robust, sustainable and progressive societal-political order. The man transitioned from band of hunters-gatherers to communities and societies in pursuit of these objectives only. Contemporary idea of democracy represents a more advanced and subsequent version of such initiatives to promise universal access to an optimally fair, just and secure social-political order. It incorporated available knowledge, experiences, traditions and values of the context, in which it emerged in different societies. It sought to foster collaboration and trust at one level and fairer competition on the other.

Neither the idea of fairness and justice nor the wider values of society can be static. Mankind and society have been gaining newer experiences and our ideas and values have been constantly evolving with time. This is what explains transition of democracy from its early stages when a minuscule property- owning class could achieve a semblance of, equality, justice, fairness and security for itself. It was much later that these ideas were refined and evolved to encompass entire population of the so- called democratic states. 

There are far too many evidences to suggest that early moorings of democracy may not be rooted in charity, altruism, empathy or even benevolence, even though these attributes were critical for fostering bonds among humans or building institutions like family, kinship groups, communities or society. These helped transition humans from band of beasts to amiable social creatures.  But some of these self-seeking, combative and aggressive attributes could never be eliminated entirely. In fact, these remain necessary for survival of individuals 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.  It was progress in this direction that helped build robust and yet vibrant societies. These two conflicting set of human attributes have shaped the entire course of human evolution. 

People have fought and exacted the right to vote or political participation and representation in certain contexts 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. Citizens were much smaller in number compared to slaves and landless workers and they had no great humanist vision behind this principle of political participation. In Rome, political participation and representation did help empower plebian class but eventually heroics of  leaders dismantled the Republic itself. But these societies, along with several others, had shown immense distrust towards arbitrary individual authority guided by whims and fancies. 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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