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THE LONG VIEW
- To make democracy work, Iraq needs time and a common enemy

While thinking about the prospects of democracy in Iraq, a place in our neighbourhood, Indians should look to their own history. If prescriptions and precedents are to be found, the chances are that our past is a better guide to Iraqi democracy in particular and third world democracy in general than the parochial commentary produced by the press and the political establishments of the West.

From an Indian point of view, there is an intellectual opportunity in the ideological role-reversals produced by the occupation of Iraq. The Right, traditionally committed to hard-headed realpolitik of the sort Kissinger favoured, has, with Bush and the neo-cons in the van, committed itself to the spread of democracy. The liberal left, appalled by Bush's domestic agenda, terrified by the spectre of a permanent Republican majority kept in place by corporate and Christian interest groups and demoralized by Bush's re-election, has begun to draw upon the cynical pessimism of the old Right to justify its opposition to the occupation of Iraq and the electoral process sponsored by the Americans.

A representative example of the cornered bleakness of the Left is the Guardian article recently written by the English Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, on the stated American goal of installing democracy in Iraq. Instead of paraphrasing Hobsbawm's argument, I quote the relevant paragraphs below:

'The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are but one part of a supposedly universal effort to create world order by 'spreading democracy'. This idea is not merely quixotic ' it is dangerous. The rhetoric implies that democracy is applicable in a standardised (western) form, that it can succeed everywhere, that it can remedy today's transnational dilemmas, and that it can bring peace, rather than sow disorder. It cannot.'

Further into the article, he gives us his reasons, complete with historical examples:

'The conditions for effective democratic government are rare: an existing state enjoying legitimacy, consent and the ability to mediate conflicts between domestic groups. Without such consensus, there is no single sovereign people and therefore no legitimacy for arithmetical majorities. When this consensus is absent, democracy has been suspended (as is the case in Northern Ireland), the state has split (as in Czechoslovakia), or society has descended into permanent civil war (as in Sri Lanka). 'Spreading democracy' aggravated ethnic conflict and produced the disintegration of states in multinational and multicommunal regions after both 1918 and 1989.'

The argument is Eurocentric, circular and selectively illustrated. This is particularly odd coming from Hobsbawm, a historian best known for his expansive histories of the world. Hobsbawm's historical imagination is haunted by the destruction of three cosmopolitan but authoritarian multi-national states: the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. He sees democracy as the proximate cause for their destruction. But these states were dissolved by the encouragement extended to competing nationalisms within them, not by democracy or its sponsors. A few weeks before this article appeared, Hobsbawm had been in India, delivering lectures, and it's curious that while pronouncing on the unsuitability of democracy in its Western forms for other parts of the world, he doesn't mention the case of India.

Curious because republican India is the most heterogenous country in the world. It is multicommunal, arguably multinational, and home to the largest collection of linguistic regions seen in any one country. It is, beyond question, a successful democracy, and its democratic forms are directly borrowed from Britain with a few American additions, like a written Constitution and a Supreme Court. Republican democracy in India did not emerge from a pre-existing consensus: its birth was attended by sectarian violence and civil war. The new state had to earn its legitimacy and its right to mediate conflicts between domestic ethnicities. Legitimacy and consensus didn't come wrapped in a starter kit: they were created by a pluralist national movement.

The other successful non-Western democracy based on Western models that Hobsbawm doesn't mention is South Africa. Divided by race, tribal identity and language, South Africa managed to replace an institutionally racist state with an institutionally pluralist one. It managed this peacefully, thanks to the ideological inclusiveness of the African National Congress. Far from being the solvent of the multi-ethnic state, democracy has been the glue that has held India and South Africa together.

The reason Hobsbawm doesn't mention either country is because he is a European. In Europe, multi-cultural states have always been associated with authoritarianism because it is an article of faith in that continent that each distinct culture is a nation in the making, a nation that has been given, by the democratic principle of self-determination, the sacred right to its own state. So closely is self-determination twinned with democracy in the European mind that Hobsbawm doesn't distinguish between them: for him the cosmopolitan multi-national states that he admired for one reason or the other were destroyed by the false promise of democracy.

Indians, on the other hand, know that self-determination is, nearly always, a euphemism for separatism, a legitimizing term for yet another ugly nationalism that defines its homeland by defining other people out of it. We know, through our experience and our history, that democratic states in our part of the world succeed only by learning how to deal with difference. Countries like Pakistan, founded on European nationalism's ideal of homogeneity, that don't learn this lesson, never establish stable democracies.

Iraq's political future won't be shaped by European prescriptions for the proper contexts for democracy. The pessimism of the Left does it no credit. Nor do we have to believe interventionist liberals and neo-conservatives when they claim that Iraq was conquered and occupied by America and its Anglophone allies to make the world safe for democracy. No one outside the West believes that Bush and Blair are committed in a systematic way to the promotion of democracy. We've watched Bush's first administration sponsor an unsuccessful coup against the democratically elected president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez. We've watched Blair stand by while Israel bludgeoned Palestinians into quiescence.

Nor should we believe that the Coalition of the willing is committed to the territorial integrity of Iraq. Indians know that imperial powers are happy to use partition as a last resort. The Coalition cannot be seen to sponsor the division of Iraq because it is responsible for its unity as an occupying power. But should the business of electoral democracy and constitution-writing not deliver the Iraqi government the Coalition wants, its embedded editorialists will begin to write about the arbitrary, colonial borders of Iraq. Having fought the good fight to keep Iraq united, the Coalition will 'yield' to the force of sectarian feeling in Iraq and 'acquiesce' in its division for the greater good of the gallant Kurds, the cornered Sunnis and the long-suffering Shias. Already born-again neo-cons like Christopher Hitchens have made it clear that their support for the Iraqi occupation is wholly bound up with their commitment to Kurdish nationalism.

Iraqi democracy depends upon the willingness of Iraqis to form a pluralist, umbrella party like the Indian National Congress or its cousin, the African National Congress. If they find a Nehru or Mandela within their ranks that'll be a bonus. For that to happen, Iraqis need time and a common enemy, so they can dissolve the politics of identity in the vague consolations of anti-colonialism. It worked for us. The Americans seem keen to keep their army in Iraq. In the long run that might be the best thing they can do for the future of modern democracy in that ancient land.

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