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Democracy in decline

The only way to remedy democracy’s imperfections is to have more democracy, not less. Democracy building is never easy. Today people have better access to tools and hence more expectations. We are 21st century citizens but we have 19th century institutions underpinned by even older processes and ideas. Democracy needs constant institution building. Today, it needs a new institutional imagination

Ash Narain Roy | New Delhi |

The bedrock of a healthy democracy is eroding everywhere and there is a widespread sense of pessimism about its future. Sadly, democracy is being silently killed in the name of democracy. The Global North is no exception to this phenomenon.

Democracy is neither simply going through a bad patch nor is it merely in retreat. Democracy has never looked so vulnerable. It is on the precipice today. What went wrong? Margaret Thatcher shouted from the rooftop that “Ronald Reagan ended the Cold War without firing a shot.”

Though the abrupt end of communism was Russia’s grave domestic failure, the “Reagan victory school” took credit for it saying “we win and they lose.” But did democracy actually win? While academics and public intellectuals spoke of democracy’s universal values and its intrinsic and instrumental importance, democracy became a project for the winners of the Cold War. That project was for export to all kinds of places. Democracy promotion became a byword for regime change. In its zeal to export democracy, the West forgot that democracy grows differently on different soils.

During a visit to Fiji, military leaders told Ronald Rich, executive head of the United Nations Democracy Fund, that “democracy is a beautiful flower. But unfortunately it does not grow on Fijian soil.” While the winners of the Cold War talked of democracy, the economic paradise promised by unlimited, uninhibited and inescapable global free trade became illusory. The 2008 global financial crisis proved a slow motion train wreck. NR Narayana Murthy rightly said, “what we have seen is the result of greed, vanity and ego of super managers in large corporations. This is not about entrepreneurship. This is about the failure of government to be (a) good, decent regulator.”

Soon the tide of democratic expansion was stalled and democracy began to move in reverse gear. It coincided with the consolidation of authoritarian regimes led by China. The Chinese model became an attractive proposition. China’s growing assistance to poor, non-democratic countries cast a shadow over democracies’ poor record in offering assistance to neo-democracies. Soon while the democratic world took a back seat, China did all the heavy lifting. The advent of President Donald Trump conveyed an unmistakable message that democracy is not the only game in town. It shattered the myth that democracy in the US and Western Europe was too well entrenched to fail. Trump is a real threat to democracy. Demagoguery, intimidation and a cult of personality are the hallmarks of Trump’s presidency. He wraps himself in the flag though he has scant understanding of what fidelity to country and constitution means.

No one knows how much more damage he will cause to democracy before the political graveyard swallows him. But he is not the only one in the democratic world to undermine democracy. Many believe that with Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the helm, Britain has entered democracy’s twilight zone. As columnist George Manbiot says, British political system “has the outward appearance of democracy, but it is largely controlled by undemocratic forces.” Authoritarian demagoguery and narrow populism are making inroads in democratic countries like Brazil, India, Turkey, Hungary and elsewhere. The hollowing out of democracy has been caused by a grotesque celebration of greed, massive growth of inequality, culture of cruelty and a disdain for public virtues, all wrapped in an authoritarian populism. Abraham Lincoln perhaps saw it coming when he said in 1838, “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.” Dr Ambedkar had also warned, “if things go wrong under the new constitution, the reason will not be that we had a bad constitution. What we would love to say is that Man was vile.”

Ambedkar also saw the perils of hero-worship when he said, “in politics, Bhakti or hero worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.” In the 21st century, democracy is not wiped out any more by tanks overrunning parliament, it dies from within because good people are silent and weak people surrender. Democracy is experiencing a full-blown crisis. Mark Chou of Australian Catholic University sees three reasons why democracies fail.

First, when institutional, socio-economic and political problems are left unresolved, democracies begin to falter. In India, for instance, democracy has weakened over the years as there is no internal democracy that governs political parties. The reliance is on one leader, one family. It seems there is room for only one leader. The poor, Dalits, minorities remain marginalized. And now we are heading towards majoritarian politics.

Secondly, certain conditions and characteristics which are intrinsic to democracy make it prone to fail and self-destruct. Indian democracy has remained non-egalitarian. Our parties of all hues are bereft of ideology. Getting power by hook or by crook is the only ideology left. During the Congress rule, we had the phenomenon of ‘Aya Ram, Gaya Ram’. Today, a far more dangerous trend has emerged. BJP refuses to lose. Manipur, Goa, Arunachal Pradesh saw this spectacle. Thirdly, democracies fail when parties and leaders seek to overcome democracy’s inherent weaknesses through anti-democratic alternatives. Hindutva and Mandal politics and cheap populism have hollowed Indian democracy of its meaning. Democracy faces another paradox. The more democratic our societies have become, the more ineffective our democratic institutions have turned out to be.

A bane of modern democracy is the phenomenon of what John Keane of University of Sydney calls “unelected representatives”. At a time when Parliament is being used increasingly as a rubber stamp and other democratic institutions have suffered serious erosion, unelected representatives (bureaucrats, religious leaders, business tycoons and media empires) have begun to alter the political geography of democracies. Keane argues that serious doubts have begun to surface “about the legitimacy and viability of elected representatives as the central organizing principle of democracy.” Has democracy become a default option? In the post-Cold War years, the projected success of market economy made democracy appealing to the people who began to equate democracy with prosperity. But that is yesterday’s story. The same market, particularly “footloose capitalism” is now killing democracy.

Economic and financial globalization empowered some but disempowered many. Sadly democratic governments became hostage to the “privatization of gain and collectivization of pain”. Is technology, particularly social media, killing democracy? The experience suggests that social media manipulation is part of the game of politics, another chip to play for profit. Technology has always created great expectations. The printing press promised “liberty of the press”, the telegraph created visions of a world without war and the internet revolution claimed to usher in an ‘information revolution”. In reality, it became a path without a compass. Now there is a talk of digital democracy. What we have today, says John Keane, is “communicative abundance.” It has hypnotized and overwhelmed us while technology remains a “harsh mistress, it keeps her secrets”.

The crisis in democracy need not be a crisis of democracy. And the only way to remedy democracy’s imperfections is to have more democracy, not less. Democracy building is never easy. Today people have better access to tools and hence more expectations. We are 21st century citizens but we have 19th century institutions underpinned by even older processes and ideas. Democracy needs constant institution building. Today, it needs a new institutional imagination. As Carl Sagan says, “imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.”

(The writer is Director, Institute of Social Sciences, Delhi)