The quagmire that the American faces in Iraq at the present conjuncture has an uncanny resemblance to what might be called the conundrum over representation that India experienced during the Thirties and Forties. Of course, at one level, the British and the American Empire differ on more dimensions than one could list; and India and Iraq would hardly seem comparable on any measure. But the difficulties of finding an adequate form of representation in Iraq are not entirely dissimilar, and an analytical reconstruction of this dilemma might illuminate both our history and Iraq’s conundrum.
The introduction of representative government introduces a larger question. How is this representation going to be organized' This question becomes more rather than less acute under conditions of universal suffrage. If there is a significant minority, with some legitimate vestment in its identity, it fears being swamped by simple numerical majority rules. It therefore seeks forms of representation that can protect its interests. But here arises a dilemma. If they are given representation in excess of their numbers or some special protections, there is a fear of a majority backlash. The majority fears the entrenchment and institutionalization of what it thinks are unfair concessions to the minority.
Now apply this logic to pre-Partition India. It is an under-appreciated fact that the Hindu-Muslim politics was born in the crucible of representative politics. Syed Ahmed Khan had sensed early on that the introduction, albeit gradual, of representative government might prove to be a threat to Muslims, because it would naturally advantage Hindus numerically. Thus began a complex debate over Muslim representation that was never quite solved. Various proposals were floated: separate electorates, the grouping of Muslim majority provinces and so on. But in retrospect, it is clear that no stable solution to this conundrum was forthcoming. Any “extra” concessions to safeguard minority interests would provoke a backlash from some section of the Hindus.
Why give Muslims representation in excess of their numbers' This was the crux of the Hindu Mahasabha’s and the Congress’s own right-wing critiques of various representative schemes. A different, more regionally-oriented solution was also proposed. This was premised on something like a mutual hostage theory. The interests of Muslims in Hindu-majority provinces would be safeguarded by the fact that there would be a Hindu minority in Muslim-majority provinces. But the question then arose: what about the Centre' If Muslims did not have something close to parity or some veto power at the Centre, would not the Centre be partial to Hindus' But if some such provisions were made for Muslims, some cried back, won’t that violate some principle of equality, giving Muslims special status in excess of numbers' Why should they get parity at the centre' And so the argument went back on forth.
Whatever one may think of the history of Hindu-Muslim relations, the almost sixty years of negotiations did not produce a single representative scheme that was internally stable and fair, that did not run the risk of leaning in one direction or the other. Meanwhile, the aspiration had been unleashed that the state that succeeds empire be representative. But whom shall it represent' “All Indians” would be an obvious answer. But that answer would not solve the problem: how would the identities that differentiate Indians be protected' Partition was a non-solution, but a non-solution to a problem that had proven insoluble. That it resulted in the context of an empire of long duration, and on the backs of nationalist movements as liberal and progressive as they come, does not augur well for similar problems elsewhere.
Come to Iraq. The Shia majority want numerical democracy because it favours them; too many veto powers to the Sunnis (and Kurds), and Sistani, the Shia leader, cries discrimination. Too little veto power to the Sunnis and their interests in a numerical arithmetic are not protected. This arithmetic may be made all the more precarious by the fact that Sunnis might be targets of resentment. It is true that the added fear is that Shias want a more orthodox regime, but even if that were not the case, the dilemma of minority representation would remain. In short, the dilemma is the same: special provisions to protect minorities and the majority uses a simple notion of one person one vote to cry discrimination; go for such a simple rule and the minority remains unprotected.
So the Americans also try the regional route: indirect elections through caucuses. Indeed, the idea of indirect elections was also discussed extensively in India during the Thirties. But then, who calls the shots at the Centre' Doesn’t the Centre need to be designed in a way that it remains impartial' But how do you do that without privileging the Sunnis or Kurds in excess of their numbers' So the argument continues. Will representative government turn into majoritarianism' On the other hand if there are special representative safeguards for minorities as minorities, will they not produce a political backlash'
There is a cautionary tale in all this. It has proved to be almost impossible to find a solution to the conundrum of representation in societies where groups think of themselves as permanent majorities or permanent minorities, and demand that representation protect the vestments of these identities. Consociational democracy and some form of power-sharing, was one possible solution, but its sorry history in places like Lebanon suggests that it is a fragile one. And the power-sharing arrangements through caucuses that the Americans are thinking of will continually run into the fatal problem: who is going to be the neutral enforcer'
Add to this the fact that the Kurds have no real reason to stay in Iraq, and too many groups have acquired a stake in the violence there, and you have a problem that is all but paralyzing. Either the Americans will have to be committed to long-duration presence in Iraq, a commitment that will be politically difficult to sustain, or they risk leaving a country in ruins.
It is perhaps a sobering thought to remember that very few authoritarian regimes or empires have made the transition to representative government, without these dilemmas over representation fomenting some kind of violence, often leading to partitions. Perhaps this is a dilemma that would have arisen in any post-Saddam transition in Iraq; it has little to do specifically with American presence. But the fact that the Bush administration seems to have been so obtusely unaware of this dilemma is yet another reminder of the quintessential fault of this administration: its penchant to try and make history without understanding any of it.
The issue of whether countries have democratic values is a misleading way of posing the question. The more appropriate question is: Can there be representative arrangements that allow all parties concerned to feel that those arrangements are, in some senses their own, and protect the vestments they have in their identities' Unfortunately, the only stable answer to this question turns out to be paradoxical. Representative institutions function best when there are no permanent identities to be protected; when the question of identity becomes detached from the question of citizenship.
There are many paths to this condition: sheer coercion, gradual evolution (as should be our strategy) or forced territorial consolidation that makes the question of representation irrelevant by completely fusing identity and citizenship. Unfortunately none of these solutions is amenable to imposition by an empire which is not sure about how long it can stay, or an empire which has become deeply illegitimate. The representation conundrum in India ended in tragedy. We will be more than grateful if the dilemma in Iraq ends in a farce.