A way forward for India.
Can potentially dangerous outcomes of democracy be cited as a reason to prove the inefficacy of Democracy?
I will answer this from the perspective of a heavily westernised polity from the classical east - India.
Thanks to our erstwhile British masters, we had a rudimentary parliamentary system of governance backed by a strong civil service and policing infrastructure till our independence in 1947.
After that, we decided to retain the parliamentary system by democratising it and humanising various organs of the state. Though we are not there yet totally, we do have a functional democratic state. We are yet to fix some feudal elements and class/oligarchical interests that plague our system, but I am hopeful that we will do well in time.
Now that the background is clear, let’s answer your question!
Governance is not about the institutions that provide it. The ‘soul’ of these institutions and hence democracy, lies in what we can call the ‘wisdom of the society’. Wisdom, that arose from the tragedies across the millennia when we tried every other form of government.
It is this ‘collective wisdom’ of the society that gives an edge to democratic societies. We have multiplicity of opinions and they compete with each other to generate a narrative that could consolidate the approval of a considerable amount of people.
We believe that these opinions are in consonance with the incredibly complex human condition. This is the dogma of democracy. While this cannot be conclusively proven, this has an impeccable track record vis a vis other forms of governments that we have tried already. (Credit - Winston Churchill ;) )
Democracy isn’t about elections. Elections are almost always flawed. No matter which method we adopt, elections always fail to reflect the multiplicity of human condition. If we put elections as the cornerstone of democracy, we are bound to fail.
More than the quantity of decisions made, democracy bets on the quality of these decisions. This is exactly how humanity progressed through its bets in Arts and Science.
To let everyone express, to choose the best from these.
Authoritarian regimes, lack this luxury. They fail to factor in the diversity of opinions that a vibrant society can generate. This is the fundamental weakness of an authoritarian rule - they fail to address the diversity of humanity and this ultimately bring about their downfall.
I am not saying that democracy is absolutely necessary for the survival of an empire. History shows otherwise. But over a considerable period of time, it’s simply not possible to sustain the level of innovation in a closed system. I don’t see much incentive for people to innovate when their hands are tied.
Terrible things happen when this ‘wisdom of the collective’ is sabotaged for the interests of a few. Mind you, this ‘wisdom of the collective’ is not a collectivist concept - it includes the opinion and wisdom of every individual involved weighted to her expertise. Things like Trump or Brexit points to the downfall of this system of expression rather than at the failure of Democracy.
Democracy, in itself is just another form of governance. There are a bazillion ways to implement a democracy. But if this sharing of information and wisdom is throttled, there is no point in expecting that system to yield the best results.
When it is okay to spew propaganda and pander to the masses unchecked; when there isn’t restrain in selling blatant lies; when there are concerted efforts aplenty to silence dissent - we are driven away from knowing what humanity actually need.
Democracy is about that spirit of a toddler trying to walk again after falling again and again. It is the humanity of a scientist trying a thousand drug combinations before stumbling upon the right concoction. It is about exploration, it is about inquiry and open expression. It is alright to make mistakes, as long as we are always in look out for better solutions. If this spirit is lost, democracy is lost.
It is in human nature to covet resources. When he needs something, he extend his hands to take it. When two people does the same, we have a conflict. The entire purpose of state system or religion - and whatever aggregations that humanity has ever made - is to make those four hands work together rather than fight with each other. Democracy helps us in reducing conflicts.
The idea of educating every human being out there is a bit Utopian. But I would argue that it is a noble pursuit. In a personal scale, I don’t really want to wait until every person out there is educated. Just that the ones who can actually contribute intellectually to the governance of a society should be given a chance to do so.
Such chances are denied when the system reels under the grip of an elite or oligarchy. Or when patronage networks based on religion/caste dictates power equations and appointments. Democracy is all about every person knowing how the resources of the society is being distributed. I don’t propose a method for redistribution. Just enough public information on distribution and how business is done in the society. There should be free movement towards and out of the ‘ruling elite’.
Over the time, talent in the society will find a way to govern itself. This, is the basis of democracy. If this is scuttled, no point in sporting a label of “Democracy”.
Looking from this vantage point, we might see why Democracies of today are panting, if not dead yet. From here, we should see the path forward. It is in aligning ourselves with civic nationalism, empower debate and promote informed decision making. We cannot fight disinformation campaigns via fruitless lamentation. We would need to give more information. More information, coupled with wisdom will hit the mark. We have to have faith in the innate ability of a population to choose the right path amidst chaos.
Populists love chaos, for it misleads people. But as conventional wisdom goes, nobody could be mislead forever. Even through repeated lies, truth will make its appearance and no society could be deprived of its right share of “seekers”. All in all, Truth finds its way - what we ought to do is create pathways for it to move around and circulate - this is the power of Truth that Gandhi and others talked about. This is the Satyagraha of our times.
It is easy to scoff at the doctrine of nonviolence. But that nonviolence is an epistemological necessity for progress is what Gandhi taught us through his life’s work. He might have been a fallible individual, but his true legacy is in understanding this vital link and communicating it to us. Truth and nonviolence are nothing but two sides of the same coin. And this coin has value because it is supported by the social contract of free expression.
To suppress dissent is to exercise violence. Suppression of dissent is a dishonest activity. It mars truth and the price is paid by the entire society. This explains how violence and dishonesty is inseparable. Even to the most “just” causes, violence is untenable. This is because you cannot sustain violence without certain amount of dishonesty. Look at the history of innumerable wars fought and you’ll realise this instantly. What soldiers are made to do isn’t what their nations actually are. It could never be. This duplicity, this doublespeak, inherent to foreign policy is what Gandhi deconstructed. In his exposition of the doctrine of nonviolence, he makes clear why Truth is at the centre of his ideas.
This should be the way forward for our republic. Free expression is the necessary precondition for Truth to prevail. All the extreme hatred around us is a product of dishonesty. From rewriting history to stereotyping certain segment of our population - none of these acts could be performed without dishonesty. This shameless prostration in front of dishonesty leads to tension and violence in society. But most importantly, these actions of dishonesty is violence in itself. This is where Gandhi’s prescription becomes more and more important - to worship Truth and to exercise Truth as a means to liberation. Not just from external enemies, but from the internal demons as well.
Truth helps us mediate our internal conflicts. To a chauvinist, he might take pride in his glorious past and an imagined cornucopia once all the internal enemies are put down. But his internal contradictions can never bring him peace. This is because of the elements of dishonesty above which he has created his esteemed fatherland. Despite the pretensions of religion and spirituality, he will never attain peace. He may very well get the promised fatherland, but he will never know what it is to have an authentic existence, from which flows the bliss of being human. This is the crux of Satyagraha and free expression that forms the foundation of our republic.
This is the way that I propose to you. To not lose hope easily. To keep educating and spreading the message of love, truth and peace. We may occasionally resort to realpolitik, but we shan’t stray from the idea of Truth. If life is about resolving internal contradictions, Truth offers the best way forward.
I should reuse the much hackneyed phrase here. Ideas are indeed bulletproof. From the many Gandhis that are killed will arise the thousands of ideas that will take us forward. These ideas, flowers in this beautiful garden of life, will find their meaning in a world where Truth is celebrated and respected. In this garden of life, we live with minimal contradictions - a life fruitful in inquiry, scientific temper, reflection, mutual respect and love. A place where differences fade into a celebration of collective joy and harmony. This world may never come, but there is no harm in wishing for it - and in working towards it.
I find solace in the good old Karl Marx way of hoping for resolution of these contradictions. But to me, the revolution doesn’t flow through the barrel of a gun (as some marxists/leninists believed). It flows through the celebration of Truth. Though I won’t make the one mistake of Gandhi - I will contribute to the institutions that will bring out Truth ultimately. That is the best defence against all forms of violence that comes out of dishonesty. This is the need of our times. I don’t mind being called an idealist - but I know one thing. The arc of moral universe may be long, but it definitely bend towards justice - justice is where Truth is.
Bigotry is ephemeral, Truth is permanent. This Radcliffe-line may one day fade. But Truth will live on. And those of us who are committed to it will find peace. This is the way forward. Minor setbacks help us grow and see more clearly. Our democratic republic was confident enough to proclaim Satyameva Jayate! (Truth ever triumphs). This was no chance decision. If we know why Truth is so central to our civilisation (The argumentative Indian) and the young republic, we’ll know that these are not empty words.
I hope I have spoken enough. Cheers!