With an electorate of 815 million, India can take pride in what a recent letter to the New York Times called “the greatest show on Earth, an ode to a diverse and democratic ethos”. Yet, Indian democracy is commonly blamed for having more form than substance, and analysts deplore the descending character of the election campaign perpetrated by all political parties. We need hardly be surprised: in the same way that India adapted all its imports — from the Central Asian Moghuls to Chinese food and the pizza — to the local taste, it evolved its version of democracy in its own chaotic image, and the prospect of a dignified and efficient government is a utopia that will never come about. But why do we even aspire to standards that are not indigenous? This may be a good time to reflect on what democracy in our days has come to mean.
Although there were, perhaps, some rudimentary systems of tribal and village government in Africa and Asia before the ancient Greeks, it was in the Greek city-state that questions of accountability, local administration, foreign affairs and war and peace were directly approved by citizens, which excluded women and slaves. After the American and French Revolutions, the popular will and establishment of institutions fostered the concept of universal participation — but in the United States, excluding black people — and the development of human rights, which led to the self-belief that democracy and human rights were ‘European’ and understood only by Western people. The West views itself as a uniquely norm-observing actor, and the United Nations democracy and human rights committees are totally dominated by American and European experts and NGOs. The Western developed nations initiated 80 per cent of the norms that established standards of international behaviour and thus a quasi-imperial prescription was propagated globally.
This expeditionary zeal in introducing democracy everywhere is not very different from the approach of colonial powers in the 19th and 20th centuries who sought to export the virtues of ‘civilization’ to backward people. ‘Our size fits all’ was legitimated by the spread of Western culture with its deep-rooted assumption that the expansion of democracy in whatever form was good for any society, and that this form of politics was valid for all time for all peoples in all places and all circumstances. The West had itself taken a hundred years to fix its economics, another hundred to fix its politics, and yet another hundred to fix its social systems, but non-Western countries are expected swiftly to follow suit. Western nation-building in non-Western cultures has little detail to offer other than the introduction of its version of democracy, with often disastrous results, as in Iraq. The selective application of democracy and human rights has become a tool that targets opponents and spares allies.
Free elections can lead to unsuitable leaders; so Hamas is not recognized in Gaza, nor the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Algeria; Mugabe in Zimbabwe is shunned, the overthrow of Ukraine’s Yanukovich is welcomed, and street-based opposition to legitimately elected governments from Thailand to Venezuela to Bangladesh is encouraged tacitly or overtly. Good governance can be defined in many ways and is considered valuable and desirable, but democracy is potentially destabilizing if identified with foreign-backed movements designed to overthrow governments. The original ‘colour revolutions’ in Georgia and Ukraine did not lead to democracy. A more democratic Turkey and Egypt became more Islamist. A more democratic China, which the West is pressing for, may be more nationalist and belligerent.
The Modernization Theory of Seymour Martin Lipset holds that all societies are heading towards modern democracy and the development of inclusive political institutions, but democracy, like civilization itself, can have its own national and ethnic characteristics, which may include communal autocracy, paternal autocracy, tribal, ethnic or religious autocracy, theocracy and other non-liberal doctrines. The most liberal countries and the most authoritarian ones both nowadays call themselves democracies, but there is no one to lay down universally applicable norms. The totalitarian Gulf sheikhdoms are among the strongest champions of the so-called democracy movements in the Arab world, which soon morph into militant Islamist extremism.
History, tradition and culture play their parts and, even in the West, all the democratic societies are not the same. With ambitious normative standards, accusations of hypocrisy obviously arise. Jürgen Habermas, Europe’s leading political philosopher, points out that “our own halfway liberal societies” were vulnerable on this score: “Today... we encounter this paradox in the concept of ‘militant democracy’... in violation of humanitarian international law [that] justifies this in the name of universal values. This reinforces the suspicion that the programme of human rights consists in its imperialist misuse.”
The connection between international security and democracy is tenuous. Power is so unequally distributed that the West has the freedom to conceptualize and apply its tenets to others. The Western advocacy of democracy is prescriptive, sometimes with sanctions and pressure, at other times with military action as well. Big powers tend to conflate their national security with international security, and using the argument of human rights and democracy, and the right of humanitarian intervention to protect people against their rulers can magnify insecurity and tensions. The US subjects all other countries to an annual human rights audit, provoking the Chinese in 2012 to issue a 9,000-word denunciation of human rights abuses in the US. In a brazen politicization of its human-rights agenda, the West protested against Russia’s limitation of gay rights through a political boycott of the Winter Olympic Games at Sochi.
The argument that such interventions prevent dictators committing atrocities on their populations may be correct up to a point, but the geopolitical calculations behind regime change are obvious, and it is naïve to believe that big powers are altruistic. Rich and democratic countries may not fight one another, but are, more often than not, quite ready to fight others. The case for democracy is strong and self- evident, but it is not made if overlaid with geopolitical calculations and aggressive political grandstanding without regard to the human cost.
Returning to the greatest democratic show on earth in India, warts and all, it has endured through the decades in spite of a large peasant class, illiteracy, personality cult, dynasties, blatant ethnic and sectarian appeals and mass poverty. India has been a democracy longer than many European nations, has a higher voting turn-out than the West, and gave the vote to women long before two European countries. Nevertheless the US and the EU deal even-handedly between India, which is a 67-year-old democracy, and Pakistan, where the unaccountable army pulls all the strings and indulges in cross-border terror.
It has been argued that democracy is a drag on development because it opens the way to dissent and opposition, environmental concerns and obstructing land use, but makes no effort to curb misuse by corrupt vested interests. Democracy is also alleged to have created an ambience where failures, bad governance, and weak institutions have thrived on inertia and fatalism, with India becoming unpredictable, unreliable and internationally uncompetitive. But the virtue of democracy is plural, not singular, and it is a culture as well as a set of institutions. If China can have socialism with Chinese characteristics, why can we not settle for an Indian democracy with Indian characteristics?
B.R. Ambedkar, whose birth anniversary is listed as a national holiday, was not entirely wrong in suggesting that democracy in India “is only a top dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic”, but he would have been happy today to note that India is fully democratic — after a fashion.