The crisis of democracy

A factor contributing to this situation is the rigidity of the rules and of the ideas supporting them

In the recent years, democracy has revealed a ‘not so benign’ side. Of course, most of us believe that democracy is the best system of governance and the most inclusive in its character. It does not discriminate on religious, ethnic or regional grounds.

But certain events unfolding recently, have unraveled that unequivocal trust in democracy, particularly the way it is being practised and the results it has yielded.

Despite democratic institutions having been firmly established in America by now, Donald Trump is firmly in the saddle. There is strong expectation that he will win another tenure as US President -- to the horror of many. Many analysts and political commentators even from Pakistan envied and eulogised India for its persistence with democratic rule, which never faltered despite the country being beset with problems like caste, poverty, communalism, language and ethnicity, to mention only some of them. Now with Narendra Modi at the helm despite his blemished past and the not-so-enviable present, I am sure many of them are scratching their heads in sheer frustration and agony.

Of course, none of us will like to see a Hindu theocracy flourishing at the expense of minorities across our borders. But how have Modi and Amit Shah secured a thumping victory despite his dismal performance in his first tenure, is a question that continues to bother many. His comrade in the politics of exclusion, Benjamin Netanyahu, probably the longest serving Prime Minister of Israel, deserves particular mention here because he might have served as a role model for Modi with respect to ‘settling’ the issue of Kashmir.

By revoking Article 370, the BJP government is turning Kashmir into another Gaza. Also, Netanyahu considers Israel as a homeland for the Jews only; Modi thinks the same way about India and earnestly aspires to saffronize it.

As if these leaders and their antics in the name of democracy were not enough, United Kingdom, the mother of democracy and liberal values has to be content with Boris Johnson, who epitomises several villainies like bigotry and racism along with moral turpitude.

In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, despite his successes at the economic front, became a source of societal convulsion when protests broke out against him in 2013. Young protesters said that despite his democratic mandate, he showed authoritarian inclinations and was out of touch with the newly-emerging middle class. Such characters are emerging thick and fast at the political scene in Brazil, France, Italy and even East European Hungary where Viktor Orban is making waves because of his bellicose, ultra-rightwing policies. His phrase "illiberal democracy" is as good a name as any for the form of government that many political theorists will ask us to guard against.

‘Illiberal democracy’ underpinned by their desire to exclude, binds all these demagogues together and is the cornerstone of their populist political appeal. In Germany, neo-Nazi ideology is permeating fast. In the ancient Greece, it was this form of democracy that provoked Socrates to disparage it as demagoguery, from which the Greek intelligentsia feared the most.

What is more alarming about the current state of politics is its similarity to the political trends prevalent in Europe in the 1930s. Political history, despite my strong caveat to that notion, seems to be repeating itself. And this time it may not be confined to Europe only. Its influence is likely to encompass Asia, and both the American continents.

The leftist ideology, as well as politics of the left, (that also includes centre-left or liberal left) have faded away as an anachronism. With the leftist challenge having vanished almost completely, ultra-right-wing ideologues in major polities are in a walk-over situation. Importantly, the nexus between the popularly-elected Trump and Modi (demagogues) and the capitalist class comprising opulent families and business-houses, such as the Ambanis, the Bajaj family or in the case of Trump, New York Jets owner Robert Woody Johnson, Sheldon Adelson, etc, portends a spiral to crisis, the impact of which will be worldwide.

A nexus of such capitalists is bound to throw up a reaction of equal intensity; the only question is when that reaction will transpire. It seems that it is just a matter of time. The examples mentioned above may appear to be separate cases where problems are driven by specific policies, personalities, and historical context. But there is a common thread: the institutions.

According to Francis Fukuyama, institutions are ‘stable, valued, recurring patterns of behaviour" that persist beyond the tenure of individual leaders. They are, in essence, persistent rules that shape, limit, and channel human behaviour.’ Whenever polity fails to properly evolve institutions or the institutions become subservient to private interests, governance is bound to run into a crisis. That is quite evident in the two cases of USA and UK. It almost holds true in the case of India, too.

When private interests hold precedence over the democratic majorities, institutions need to reinvent themselves. This is not coming through. Consequently, democracy is in a deep crisis. A factor contributing to this situation is the rigidity of the rules and of the ideas supporting them.

When I recently shared these concerns with Prof. Tariq Rahman, he referred me to Aristotle’s criticism of democracy, which he saw as not wholly unjustified. That is what I will take up in my next column.


The crisis of democracy