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Democratic wildfires

Despite the rise of elective democracy, the 21st century is turning out to be a century of citizens‘ engagement. The rights to be heard, to be seen, to be recognized and to be respected are at the core of citizens‘ movements across the world. The 21st century is witnessing fundamental global economic, political, social and cultural transformations challenging traditional notions of citizenship

ASH NARAIN ROY | New Delhi |

“How did you go bankrupt?”/ “Two days. Gradually, then suddenly.” What Ernest Hemingway said about financial bankruptcy is equally true of political bankruptcy. First gradually and then suddenly democracy appears fragile and vulnerable. Not long ago, Amartya Sen eulogized democracy as a universal value “on intrinsic, instrumental and constructive grounds” which gave rise to a sentiment, “with democracy you can do no wrong”. Today, with the rise of authoritarian states like China and Russia and proliferation of ‘elective dictatorships’ across the world, another sentiment is gaining ground, “with democracy you can do no right”.

Covid-19 has been largely viewed as a ‘dream interrupted.’ A strange thing about dreams is that we aren’t aware we are dreaming. We also can’t resume our interrupted dream. The pandemic has meant, no less, a democracy interrupted. Is democracy a silent victim of the pandemic? Parliament is being sidelined and the executive has become even more powerful. The pandemic has been a god-sent excuse for autocratic leaders to tweak the truth. It is a free pass to suspend, curb, dilute and simply ignore citizens’ demands, rights and expectations.

Under the cover of Covid-19, rules of the game are written, applied and changed only by the executive. Americans were lucky to get rid of Trump thanks to the firewall created by the founders of the American Constitution in the form of checks and balances. As American author Andrew Sullivan contends, “this separation of powers was designed precisely to create sturdy firewalls against democratic wildfires.”

Most countries currently ruled by populist leaders, where democracy has been left intact only in name, don’t count on a firewall against the tyranny of majority. As Plato had predicted, tyranny has sprung from democracy. We are witnessing the phenomenon of what Sean Illing calls “people’s tyrant.” Democracy retreats and tyranny takes over “when mob passion overwhelms political wisdom and populist leaders seize the masses.” What is worrying is that across the board, democracy has been hallowed out and is being replaced by timocracy, rule by money.

Democracy was already faltering before Covid-19 struck. The pandemic, says Israeli historian Yuval Noah Hariri, tends to “accelerate history”. There are no signs of it going away soon but we are already living in a very different world. As Hariri further says, the emergency control measures to tackle the virus “have the potential to become permanent and turn into a full-fledged state surveillance system,” Democracy is facing not merely a perestroika challenge; it faces an existential threat. It also needs a new imagination. Innovation is the calling card of the future. If it is not reinvented, democracy may sleepwalk into oblivion. The oldest democracy has survived the crisis. The largest democracy too faces an unprecedented crisis. Independent India kept the flame of democracy aloft in the region surrounded by autocracies. India’s impeccable democratic credentials prompted London Times columnist Bernard Levine to maintain during a memorial lecture in Delhi in the mid- 1990s that “if democracy in India fails, the end of democracy itself will be in sight.” Today, democracy in India is not in the pink of its health. On the contrary, we may not be far from becoming what historian Anne Applebaum calls “twilight of democracy.” With the growing polarization, craving for the golden past and leaders peddling fantasies and alternative facts, democracy may have entered its most critical phase.

In his 1936 book, It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis satirized with biting humour the potential for the US to fall to popular demagogues. Lewis imagined the President becoming a dictator to save the nation. Donald Trump pretended doing precisely the same. Today, none of the democratic states, India included, can say, ‘It Can’t Happen Here’.

Globally, democracy is facing a moment that Victor Hugo portrayed in ‘Le Miserables’: “Everything, everywhere happens at once. It was foreseen but is unprepared for; it springs up from pavements, falls from the clouds, looks in one place like an ordered campaign and in another like a spontaneous outburst.” Political democracy took two centuries to ripen. ‘Media democracy’ has taken only two decades to become a monster. It has flourished under ugly, thuggish populist regimes. Politics and society seem to exist in two different ecosystems. What we have is democracy without truth. Populists are quite allergic to truth and they depend on alternative reality and parallel universe. Untruth is spreading fast and we don’t have many tools. As historian Sophia Rosenfeld says in her novel, Democracy and Truth, a world of truth and falsehood are “circulating undifferentiated globally.”

Is it all doom and gloom? Marx in one of his letters said, “the hopeless conditions of the society in which I live fills me with hope.” The 21st century is a century of citizens. Today civil society and enlightened citizens groups surround and sustain us like the air we breathe. It goes unnoticed because of their very ubiquity. A multitude of actors now defines and shapes the current structure of power. Recent decades have witnessed a displacement of power and control upwards, downwards and outwards. With transnational institutions, local governments, civil society organisations and NGOs becoming new stakeholders, a new ‘geography of below’ is fast emerging.

Despite the rise of elective democracy, the 21st century is turning out to be a century of citizens’ engagement. The rights to be heard, to be seen, to be recognized and to be respected are at the core of citizens’ movements across the world. The 21st century is witnessing fundamental global economic, political, social and cultural transformations challenging traditional notions of citizenship.

The 21st century world is a networked world, for it is networks that add value and strength to the citizens’ movements. Turning connections into relationships is an essential part of engagement. Connectedness has played a vital role in successful local government networks and associations. What Manuel Castells, author of The Rise of the Network Society, calls “space of flows” is the greatest strength of the citizens’ movements. Stars will not continue to be better aligned with populists and autocrats.

Slowly, new forms of inclusive, multiracial, bottom-up civic power are emerging. Growing resistance among citizenries as also upheavals against elected autocracies are signs of citizens empowerment. Civil society is asserting its power to engage with issues of power, public policy and social justice. A strong civil society alone can provide an effective counterweight to the great concentrations of wealth and power that continue to exert influence on our economic, social, cultural, and political lives.

In Homer’s tale, Odysseus manages to bring his ship to safety by staying his course in the face of lurking monsters. Democracy today needs the help of a reliable compass, a good map and a sturdy boat. We need new political, economic and social ideas to match the demands of the 21st century. Defeating populism and empires of lies will require not just new movements but also new ideas. At its heart must be the belief that democracy is a better way to organise society than markets or empires of thuggish populism.

Has the world ceased imagining? It is time to ask difficult questions of ourselves. Yale University political scientist Helene Landemore asks provocatively what many would find viscerally alarming, “If government is for the people, why can’t the people do the governing?”