Friday, September 28, 2018
“Democracy” has travelled a long way from its medieval era ideals of minimal government interference and natural rights espoused by ‘social contract’ philosophers like Hobbes, Locke or Rousseau. Libertarian goals of freedom of speech, thought and expression as espoused by John Stuart Mill and others or the Bentham’s concept of ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’ or so many similar ideas on democracy and Justice explained philosophers like Tocqueville, Rawls, Schumpeter or Putnam etc cannot explain contemporary understanding of Democracy entirely. Even Abraham Lincoln's description of democracy as ‘government of the people, by the people and for the people’ appears inadequate to describe democracy in our times or at least the popular expectations from it. The idea of democracy has gradually evolved to a stage, at least in the model societies, where people expect their government, elected through a process of free and fair polls on the basis of universal adult suffrage, and supported by a large number of professionally managed autonomous institutions, to provide an optimally secure, egalitarian society with equitable access to economic opportunities and uniform access to ‘Rule of Law’. Democracies in different parts of the world are able to provide these to varying extents, depending upon the level of their evolution and maturity. At the same time, most democracies, both in developed and developing world, are struggling to address different forms of distortions and challenges, which threaten the very future of democracy as the most desirable form of government.
Individual initiatives, ideas and leaderships have played crucial role in evolution of Democracy to its current stage. However, it has not been a unilinear, consistent and well-defined process. Democracy has come to this form of elaborate structures of representative institutions through an exercise of continuous trial and refinement and yet we cannot say with certainty whether the existing structures and formats of Democracy, anywhere in the world, have reached their optimum capacity or these are adequate to meet popular aspirations. Further, contemporary representative democracy, despite all its common essential features, also has certain distinct traits in almost every region and every part of the world. These have been shaped by local contexts including socio-economic and cultural realities. Consequently, in certain societies or socio-cultural milieu, democracy has advanced to provide a higher level of governance as well as social harmony, whereas in many others, it is still struggling to take firm roots. Those from democratic societies shall always find representative government with free press, individual freedom and autonomous judiciary as the most credible form of Government. Its imperfections and flaws may appear only as aberrations requiring remedial measures. Hence, it is important to analyse understanding of democracy in contemporary context.
in our times has different meanings in different contexts or societies for
different people. In many parts of the developing world, it may just be a
process of election and some degree of media freedom with some semblance of
rule of law like mechanism, which need not be consistently and uniformly
upheld. Whereas in some of the advanced democracies, it may be a comprehensive
charter of obligations to ensure universal access to optimally good conditions
for life. Financial elite in most countries, may interpret democracy as freedom
to pursue their business and commercial interests with minimum interference, or
if possible all the support from state
apparatus both within and beyond the country. In certain cases, it may be
simply be opportunity to navigate their way to greater wealth by. For political
elite it seems all the opportunity to pursue
political power, or if possible, unbridled power without any institutional interference.
For media and civil society groups, it may mean anything depending upon their
orientation, from influence, name, clout or in certain societies even easy
wealth. Masses may different expectations. From economic security to
transparent public services. However, the lowest common denominator would be
all round security to live with dignity where state defends individuals from
both internal and external threats besides providing fair and reasonable
opportunities. Elections and public
accountability appear the best route to ensure such a system and hence these
are integral features of democracy which are now upheld through elaborate
structures of representative government.
post second world-war era, when most of the post-colonial countries were
adopting democracy, and in many of these places, democracy is still struggling
to take firm roots, some of the advanced
nations of the West were transitioning to a welfare centric model with highly transparent
and efficient public services, at least in most parts of the Western Europe, and
particularly Nordic countries, North America, Japan and New Zealand etc. Consequently,
all political systems - democracies or otherwise- have been under varying
degrees of pressure to replicate citizen-centric welfare model, with efficient
public services. It’s a different issue that most of them have been struggling to varying extents
of resource crunch or deficient institutions or pressure from alternative
forces who wield far direct or indirect clout and derive their strength or
power or influence from perpetuation of weak institutions. Nevertheless, most of
the democracies even in the developing world have made varying degrees of
attempts to move in the direction of welfare state model. However, their
success has been limited. For example, all larger stable democracies like India, Indonesia, South
Africa and Brazil etc have introduced different forms of social security or
financial assistance or unemployment subsidy or old age pension to their
vulnerable population in respective categories.
Nevertheless, these are not comparable with the quality of impact that
their counterpart schemes have made in advanced democracies. State support in
social and healthcare sectors has come under pressure even in the advanced
countries. A large majority of democracies in the developing world are
struggling to provide universal access to some of the basic necessities of life
like nutrition, healthcare, quality education, consistent and uniform access to
even rule of law or rights guaranteed on paper etc. At the same time, they are
also struggling to establish credibility of even their electoral processes and
democratic political order derives strength from its society, its wider social
values and of course quality of leaders.
Hence, the quality of democracy in any society is directly dependent
upon the extent to which the values like social harmony, individual liberty,
individual integrity, industriousness and enterprise are shared and respected
by people. Their incorporation in the structures and processes of governance
institutions also depends on quality of leaders. Brilliance and follies of
leaders also play a significant role.
Without stellar contributions from Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln,
Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and of course Martin Luther King, the United
States of America may not have been able to achieve what it has. Similarly,
without the rise of Mahatma Gandhi and unwavering commitment of founding
fathers of independent India, the shape of the world’s biggest democracy may
have been difficult to visualise. Leaders can sometimes persuade people. Hence,
it is always a combination of large number of factors that contribute to rise
or absence of democracy in certain societies. This also explains uneven and at
times inconsistent evolution of democracy, at times in the same region among
people of same socio-cultural and economic background.
We shall continue our discussion more regularly and I do request champions of democracy to put across their views and suggestions.
Thursday, September 27, 2018
Victory of opposition candidate Ibu Solih in the recent Presidential election in Maldives must be hailed as one of the remarkable events in the history of democracy in our times. We are passing through an era, when democracy has been receding in most parts of the world and watchdogs of Democracy like 'Freedom House' to 'V-Dem' have been expressing concern over decline in civil liberties and political freedom at a wider scale. Under these circumstances, electoral outcome in Maldives is a certainly a boost for democracy. Sadly, certain sections of our own media have hailed the electoral outcome as major boost for India, given pro-China inclinations of incumbent President Yameen. I feel that the world, and particularly we Indians, need to see the development more from the perspective of aspirations of Maldivian people. We need to salute the brave people of Maldives who have endured everything and yet asserted in no uncertain terms that they stood for democracy, freedom and individual liberty. It is no longer possible for any autocrat to take them back to regressive era by hoodwinking them in the name of Islam or whipping up national jingoism.
Building Democracy is a long and arduous process, which can lose direction at any stage. Maldives had transitioned to multi-party democracy almost a decade back in 2008. It was one of the rare cases where an incumbent President - Abdul Gayoom, who had virtually ruled the country for nearly three decades, agreed to hold multi-party polls and gracefully accepted peoples' verdict to exit from power. The incoming Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) too showed accommodation by refraining from any political revenge against the outgoing President, despite a previous history of acrimonious relationship between the two. However, institutions of democracy had not yet matured and President Nasheed was ousted in 2012 under the most unfortunate circumstances. Following weeks of protest by opposition parties, he had resigned and later alleged that he was made to resign virtually at gun point. Subsequent Maldivian Government pressed terror charges against him forcing him to jump bail and take refuge in the United Kingdom. He was not alone in doing so as many other opposition politicians either fled the country or were put behind bars.
President Yameen has certainly been guilty of pushing this beautiful nation of multiple islands on a course of disaster. He had seriously derailed the process of institution building towards a sustainable and robust democracy. He also vitiated the entire political ambience by virtually forcing all his serious political rivals in to exile or in prison. For this, he interfered with autonomy of judiciary, curtailed political and civil liberties of people. He even undermined professional integrity of civil service and police institutions, by routinely interfering in its processes, used entire might of state to intimidate actual or even potential dissenters. He undermined even integrity of parliament by frequently changing and virtually subverting its procedures to pre-empt any No-Confidence Motion or pushing through parliamentary approval for Free Trade treaty with China in November 2017 with barely 1/3rd members present and voting. It was extremely sad and sorry situation for democracy in the country.
He had started antagonising longstanding friends of people of Maldives to bolster his own political fortunes. Maldivians have been practising a liberal version of Islam with their language Divehi having Sanskritic origins. He sought to introduce more orthodox and somewhat Arabic version of stricter Islam. Worst was his efforts to walk into close embrace of China, ignoring even security sensitivities of India and violating even Indo-Maldivian Friendship Treaty. He was risking long years of relations of trust and goodwill with India that had been assiduously built by President Gayoom and continued by President Nasheed. We must complement the incumbent Indian Foreign Secretary Mr Vijay Gokhale who remained unfazed, even under the gravest provocations and the Indian Government continued to assure all concerned in Maldives of its neutrality in internal matters of the archipelago nation. It must have been little disappointing for certain sections of opposition MDP, who kept demanding an Indian intervention. Right thinking Maldivians would certainly realise now that unlike the extra regional powers, who may just use Maldives for their strategic and military goals, India has a long term and abiding stake in political stability and well being of people of Maldives.
President elect Ibu Solih has a difficult task at hand. Unless he demonstrates mature leadership qualities, the process of democracy building may lose direction once again. He has to rise over personal aspirations and political differences to build rule of law, which must be asserted in no uncertain terms. There is no space for condoning heinous crime but optimum degree of political reconciliation and accommodation can help the process of transition towards an endurable democracy. Maldives would need at least another decade or more to stabilise its democracy and build a governance structure that is more suited to its own requirements. Further, it is a small country with a somewhat egalitarian structure. It is more important for leaders in the Government to preserve and improve upon the quality of social solidarity and avoid temptation of royalty like trappings of power. In such a society, it is difficult to conceal things and hence individual credibility of leaders become important. At the same time, there is need to reduce coercive character of Maldivian police systems. There is negligible amount of crime among Maldivian people. Probably they can take a leaf or two out of the concept of community policing to reduce the very space for crime instead of being used by the incumbents in the government for political purposes. May be creation of strong inbuilt incentives and deterrents for any deviation from rule of law can help. Simultaneous measures to bolster both autonomy and integrity of judicial processes can help prevent recurrence of mistakes committed during President Yameen's era. Issues at stake would probably be building an amiable ambience of trust and goodwill between the ruling party and the opposition to avoid individual or political confrontation.
India and Maldives have shared a strong bond of history, culture and ethnicity. Successive Heads of the Government in Maldives have always been receptive to India's diplomatic and security concerns, barring a brief aberration by President Yameen, who too occasionally reiterated the same stance at least in words. During its early days of pro-democracy movement in Gayoom era, MDP leaders often used to visit Delhi and engaged members of both media and civil society groups. This was the time when Government of India was believed to avoiding any contact with them, given strong relationship with the then President Gayoom. During one of the interactions at India International Centre, the then leader of MDP- Mohammad Latheef - had made it categorical that even though the Government of India was avoiding them, while other non-democracies were willing to engage, MDP was avoiding the latter as they had nothing to offer a pro-democracy movement. He maintained that their group was fighting for democracy and their inspiration was Mahatma Gandhi. Hence, they would wait for Government of India to engage and listen to them, instead of having a truck with non-democracies in the region or beyond.
Political movements can have such liberty but not a state, which has to deal with every entity that can promote or help its interest. Maldives as a nation may have to deal with all concerned who can help its national goals but pragmatism would always require a closer engagement with India and accommodation of the latter's sensitivities and concerns. From the Indian side, the government has always adhered to the norms of political correctness, the problem area has been a few corporate ventures entering the archipelago nation by virtue of bi-lateral diplomatic goodwill. It would be imperative that only those capable of adhering to the highest possible global norms of professionalism get such access. There is no doubt that popular verdict in Maldives has opened up new avenues for both promotion of democratic good governance and stronger Indo-Maldivian bilateral ties. It is time that all concerned join together to build robust institutions that are autonomous and yet uphold principles of 'Rule of Law' and 'Democracy'. India has a moral responsibility to help in the process of building such institutions wherever needed without being partisan or intrusive in any manner. President elect Ibu Solih has a huge responsibility and heavy expectations to handle. Let us hope and wish that he emerges successful. Maldives can potentially emerge as a shining example of victory of democracy in our times.
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