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STUDY IN CONTRASTS
- Democracy has to be redefined to suit the times

A contrasting situation exists with respect to democracy in the present world. While there is encroachment of politics in different spheres of life in some parts of the world, there is withdrawal from politics in other parts.

For those of us who live in West Bengal, the manner in which politics exists everywhere is a daily experience. In fact, it has been argued that the reason the Left Front could hold on to power for such a long time in spite of the state having declined economically during its rule is because politics had encroached upon different spheres of life. The economic and the social spheres had lost their autonomy. An increasing informalization of the economy, along with the strong political organization of the ruling party, had contributed to political stability. The situation does not seem to have improved in this respect. A different ruling party is achieving the same result even though it is less strongly organized.

Contrast this with the retreat of politics from the daily life of citizens in other parts of the world. It has been noted that in affluent societies, the insulation of the people from politics has gone far except for the periodic elections. People seem to be withdrawing from an active engagement with politics in Europe, North America and Japan. Owing to the disillusionment that arises mainly from dissatisfaction with the political leadership, there has been a tendency to find solace in the private world.

“Politics”, in its original sense in Western thought, is undermined as much by the intrusion of politics in different spheres of life as by its retreat. Politics tends to be associated with the unprincipled quest of politicians for power and personal gains. Originally, “polis” or “civitas” related principally to citizens. Governance of this community was of great importance to both Plato and Aristotle. In Politics, Aristotle begins with the following observation: “Every state is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good; for mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think good.” The present devaluation of politics, now that it has lost its positive meaning, is a significant challenge to democratic societies all over the world. The democratic promise, after all, is the promise of a good life, not for one or some but for people as a whole.

Indeed, the principle of equality that democracy upholds stands compromised more dramatically than before. Income inequalities are rising across and within nations. Think of the slogan, “We are the 99 per cent”, which according to Paul Krugman should be modified to read, “We are the 99.9 per cent”. Democratic societies do not appear to be doing any better with respect to income inequalities. A good example of the manner in which another principle of democracy is compromised is the international phone-hacking scandal involving the empire built by Rupert Murdoch. It shows how the tabloid press, with its intrusion and intimidation, compromises not only personal privacy but also the profession of journalism that is supposed to uphold the ideal of liberty in a democratic society.

At times, people’s disillusionment gets expressed in outbursts. Consider the reception that Silvio Berlusconi of Italy received after his resignation, complete with cheers and jeers and the joyous chorus of “Hallelujah” from Handel’s Messiah. Strong as these reactions are, not all reactions have been directed against individuals. Public issues have also attracted attention, as shown by the occupation of Wall Street. Protesters are agitating in the United States of America, a country that believes in bringing democracy to the world. They are protesting in India as well, a country that has emerged as the largest democracy in the world. India also has the distinction of scoring poorly on the corruption perceptions index. Emotional outbursts in response to Anna Hazare’s fasts showed how dissatisfied the people are with the present situation.

Yet another contrast needs to be noted. If people are protesting against abuses within democratic societies, they are also protesting in societies that do not have a democratic system. In Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi’s brave struggle for democracy shows the extent to which the human spirit can struggle for it. Arab uprisings hold out new promise for the Arab world, even though there are setbacks in the short run. These uprisings began with Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, setting himself on fire in December 2010. He became a symbol of “the uprising of dignity” in the Arab world. Protests in the Tahrir Square in Cairo have given rise to a new political question: “Are you ready for a Tahrir moment?”

This is the time for reflection. While democracy is challenged from within, it increasingly poses a challenge in regions where it is still denied. People are out on the streets for democracy, not against it. The task, in short, is neither to reject democracy nor to glorify it, glossing over its defects. We need to redefine democracy for our times. It is not enough to believe that democracy is the best form of government among the forms that have been tried. We need to reform democracy to obtain better what is good. In the absence of such reforms, the democratic ideal runs the risk of remaining just an ideal.

Critical issues need to be raised. The first issue is to understand the meaning of politics and free the term from negative connotations associated with power politics and factional fights. The other issue is that of representation. Since direct democracy is difficult with the involvement of large numbers of people, it is necessary to depend on indirect democracy, which involves representation. This requirement brings into focus its own perversions. Max Weber, the reputed German sociologist, has given an excellent description of the political machine or apparatus, the rule of the clique, and the role of the unprincipled political boss whom he defined as “a political capitalist entrepreneur”. The critical question here is: what happens if a politician or a group chooses to serve its interests or the interests of pay masters at the cost of common interests?

There are other issues that need to be raised. Against the boastful claim of Francis Fukuyama that history has ended, we need to reflect on how mercilessly the history of recent years has proved the shallowness of his claim. Leo Tolstoy had raised the question which Weber quoted in his lecture on politics: “What shall we do and how shall we live?” This is the time to return to this question, not with an immediate national election but with broader concerns in mind. This is the time to realize that nobody can give an assurance about a future that is uncertain as the survival of humanity itself is under threat due to our own irresponsible attitudes and actions.

Tolstoy’s question is a political question in the sense of Aristotle. We need to bring back into focus the concern for the common good. Indeed, we need to go beyond Aristotle and think not only of the city and of the nation but of humanity as a whole. Globalization has thrown up challenges, including economic and environmental, not to forget terrorism, which cannot be handled within the confines of a nation, much less that of a city.