When Democracies Go Bad

Such double standards have not won for Democracy the moral high ground so necessary for both good governance and security. Indeed, if anything, they have ceded that to the religious and other fundamentalists all over the world.

Dec. 26, 2014, 5:45 p.m. Published in Magazine Issue: Vol: 08 No. -13 December. 26- 2014 (Poush 11, 2071)

Juggling schedules between the Mekong-Ganga and Teesta-Tamor dialogues, I was able to squeeze in a weekend visit to Rabindranath Tagore’s famed Shantiniketan. Located just west of Palassey where Clive defeated Shiraj-ud-Daula and laid the foundation of the British Raj, it is home to two South Asian Nobel laureates: Rabindranath and Amartya Sen. Shantiniketan is also situated just north of Belur-Dakshineshwar, the spiritual home of Swami Vivekananda’s mission of Hindu renaissance. It thus becomes the perfect place to sit and reflect on the chasm between those noble efforts of the century past and the current dismal, one would almost say ‘nihilistic’ state of the societal mission in general globally and in South Asia that is Jambudwip in particular.

Globally, all is NOT well with the so-called democracies all over; and this should prod us, especially in Nepal as we experiment with it, to seriously rethink its conceptual foundations as well as its praxis. Unfortunately, CA-2 and the big parties therein are not doing that at all. Trying to create a Westminster-on-the-Bagmati and elsewhere has not worked. Nor will the Marxist utopian dream be realized here, given its track history in the lands of its birth, as well as the fraud perpetuated in its name in Nepal and Bengal. 1959’s Democracy-1 failed not only because of “Dalda Ghee” corruptions but also the failure to take traditional forces along. 1990’s Democracy-2 failed because the Pajero democrats failed to take the revolutionary forces along, forcing them instead out of the parliament and into the jungle. As seen with CA-1 and now CA-2, Democracy-3 of 2006 is failing to take both the traditional RPP-N and revolutionary Baidya-Chand forces along and is stuck in a limbo.

Where has the post-World War II definition of democracy gone wrong? And where has the attempt to graft it onto a South Asian body seen rejection and repeat failures all over the region? What is the model of governance that will allow our citizens to feel secure for themselves and the generation to follow, to pursue creatively their calling, and to feel proud of living in a society that is respected in the comity of nations? These are questions that giants like Vivekananda and Rabindranath wrestled with, but somewhere along the way, we who followed them stopped asking. Unfortunately, these questions will not go away and the generations that will follow us will have to ask even harder follow-ups if we do not start somewhere right now.

A bit of reflection points to a strain of genetic flaws in what were held to be the very standards of democracy. It was first of all seen as one where mass voting took place; but after about half a century of practice, it is clear that elections alone do not assure democracy. Elections have been hijacked, booths have been captured, votes have been bought, and the elected have rarely returned to serve their constituencies but have treated their anointment as a license to plunder state coffers. In West Bengal, with the collapse of the Marxists, the Left cadres deserted the party, first flocking to Mamta Bannerjee’s Trinamul and now to the BJP. In an effort to stem the tide, West Bengal’s ruling party resorted to police firing in Birbhum district where Shantiniketan was located. Tagore returned his knighthood title to the British after the Jalianwalla Bagh massacre. Would Amartya Sen or any other intellectual honoured by the state do something similar to protect the sanctity of the moral high ground? In Europe and America, where are the outraged protests when excessive, almost vengeful force and drone strikes have been used by governments thus killing thousands of innocents in places stretching from Afghanistan to Bahrain, Egypt, Libya and Western Sahara?

Another problem with democracy has been that it is supposed to be what the self-styled “international community” has said it is. And even if a country is a dictatorship, often very corrupt at that, it is considered to be a part of the “free world” if it is a friend of the powers that be, the West or India in our case. Examples abound from the Philippines to Latin America, and one need not necessarily have to read Chomsky to find out, even if he continues to be a beacon shining light into the dark recesses of “democracy”. In Nepal, Baburam Bhattarai winning more votes than there were voters in his Gorkha constituency is “democratic”: King Gyanendra holding the much delayed municipal elections in February 2006 was “autocratic” and parties were encouraged to boycott them. Muslim Brothers winning elections in Egypt or earlier in Algeria was not “democratic” but the military dictatorships that were encouraged to replace them are. Rulers in western Ukraine that practice apartheid against their eastern half are “democratic” and continue to represent the easterners who did not vote at all; but the overwhelming votes in favour of a different choice in Crimea is not “democratic”.

Such double standards have not won for Democracy the moral high ground so necessary for both good governance and security. Indeed, if anything, they have ceded that to the religious and other fundamentalists all over the world. Hamas or ISIS or the Taliban (including Hindu RSS or Tea Party fundamentalist Christian Talibans) are finding increasing supporters precisely because democracies backed by the “international community” have been anything but. This skepticism is enhanced when, on a different end of the autocratic scale, countries that are far from democratic by those Western standards or indeed are fairly autocratic one-party states such as Deng’s China, Mahathir’s Malaysia or Lee’s Singapore have done remarkably well in developing their countries and serving their citizens!

This contrast becomes starker today when we see our democratic “big brothers” in the West not doing well, economically or politically. Besides floating on “junk bond” mercantile economy instead of industrial production, there are disturbing signs that they are giving up creative persuasive power in favour of brute coercive ones. The CIA report of Dianne Feinstein only provides additional proof of what many knew all along, that Western democracies are trampling on their own values, spying on their own people, to protect short term corporate interests that bankroll their elections. India, during the stagnation of the Sonia-Man Mohan decade, not only saw internal corruption on a mind-boggling scale but also coercive adventurism in neighbourhood policy that has given rise to virulent anti-Delhi-ism at a scale never seen before, in Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The Indian political class led by Mr Modi is only now waking up to this fact; but it has yet to be seen if this new political class has the creativity and will to shake off the stranglehold of the insensitive Babudom and assert its will over them.

Mr Modi has come in like a meteor with rock star mass arousal. Will he fade as quickly as a meteor with things reverting back to past sluggishness or will there be significant shifts indicating a more dynamic future not only for India but for all of South Asia? Conclusive proof will come not from mesmerizing speeches but small indicative changes. In Shantiniketan where Mr Modi and Ms Swaraj are to come soon to hand out graduation certificates, there are no toilets for the public that visits the place by the thousands every day. When asked of the guards at the Rabindranath museum, we were told to go behind a tree. When asked where they themselves go, they said they use the bathrooms in the departments but the public is not allowed to use them. Amartya Sen has his own house there that he can use and Ms Swaraj will obviously be escorted to the vice chancellor’s private water closet if nature’s call becomes unbearable for her. But the discomfort of the ordinary women visitors to Shantiniketan (where they had come with reverence to learn of the birth of South Asian renaissance) was too painful to behold.

Will Mr Modi’s Swachha Bharat campaign establish public toilets before he even gets there? Or will the Brahminical disdain for the impure rule the roost and leave that for the toiling masses to cope with out of sight, out of mind? Vivekananda argued that South Asia (there was no ‘India’ of today then, only the British Raj from Burma to Afghanistan, a governance style that continues today in the successor states) needed a Vedantic mind in an Islamic body: one might add – and he certainly preached it – a Buddhist heart. Currently, Bengal, Bihar and UP that border Nepal and matter to her lack all three; and the lack of public toilets in Shantiniketan of all the places is indicative of the malaise where Indian democracy has been not for the masses but for a small elite. The world certainly is watching to judge Indian democracy more by these menial standards that provide solace and comfort to those at the bottom and less through high-sounding pronouncements from on high. Nepal’s CA-2 cannot live up to such high expectations but Nepali civil society would be wise to start a dispassionate reflection on democracy and Nepali history instead of simply aping the many-times failed Indian Westminster model.

Dipak Gyawali.JPG

Dipak Gyawali

Gyawali is Pragya (Academician) of the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) and former minister of water resources.

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