Tag Archives | Democracy

Defending democratic politics

“When the throne sits upon mud, mud sits upon the throne.”

Matthew Flinders, the author of Defending Politics, at the Edinburgh International Book Festival:

If I’m completely honest, what I’m really thinking about is why so many people seem to have lost faith in political institutions, political processes and politicians. I’m not trying suggest that politics is perfect or that all politicians are angels, but the emergence, in the UK and most parts of the developed world, of huge numbers of ‘disaffected democrats’ worries me.

It worries me because I’ve spent time in places where basic democratic rights and freedoms do not exist, where politics is still based on brutality and intimidation; countries best described as fear societies rather than free societies. Seen from this perspective, democratic politics suddenly seems to matter far more – and deliver far more – than many ‘disaffected democrats’ are willing or able to acknowledge.

…Democratic politics is by no means perfect but let us not deny its benefits and achievements.

A far braver (and some might say more foolish) man than I might even dare to suggest that vast sections of the public have become democratically decadent. Decadent in the sense that their expectations of what politics should deliver have become to high; and their sense of their own personal responsibilities to contribute to society have become too low. I’m personally quite glad that Barack Obama turned out not to be superman after all. Too many people sidestep their own individual responsibilities as citizens by looking for a superhero to take control.[Guardian]

The same argument, made slightly differently by him, in an earlier blogpost.

Democracy generally succeeds in turning ‘fear societies’ into ‘free societies’. It provides a way of allowing our increasingly complex, fragmented and demanding societies to co-exist through compromise and co-operation rather than violence and intimidation (still the default approach to political rule in large parts of the world). To make such an argument is not to deny the existence of social challenges, or to suggest that all politicians are angels or that democratic politics in toto is perfect. It is to take inspiration from Bernard Crick’s In Defence of Politics (published exactly fifty years ago) and accept that democratic politics is inevitably messy, slow, and cumbersome due to the manner in which it works around squeezing simple decisions out of complex and frequently incompatible demands (Weber’s ‘slow boring through hard wood’). My message to all those ‘disaffected democrats’ who seem content to peddle ‘the politics of pessimism’ is simple. Democratic politics cannot ‘make all sad hearts glad’ (to use Crick’s words) but it remains a ‘quite beautiful and civilizing activity’.

Democracy is therefore not a distraction because it ensures that public pressure actually matters. Elections matter because they allow arguments to be made and pressures to be vented. Elections inevitably produce ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ but at least the losers live to fight another day. If there is, however, a problem within American democracy it rests on the fact that some sections of society have arguably become what I call ‘democratically decadent’. Decadent in the sense that they seem to have forgotten that membership of any democratic society involves both rights and responsibilities; it involves listening and talking; giving and taking. No political system or politician can satisfy a world of ever greater public expectations.[Link]

To extend it further,

Democratic politics is hard and its tiresome. It revolves around squeezing collective decisions out of a range of competing and irreconcilable demands. It grates and it grinds and is, to some extent, always destined to disappoint. And yet it remains a quite beautiful social activity.[Link]

This brings us to the importance of citizenship and responsibility in a democratic polity.

Democratic institutions are always reflections of a far deeper truth. This still-hidden truth lies in the society’s accumulating inventory of private agonies and collective discontents. No institutionalized pattern of democracy can ever rise above the severely limited ambitions, insights, and capacities of its citizens. In short, it is not for elections to cast light in dark places.

…No democratic society and polity can ever really be better than the qualitative total of its individual human underpinnings. In a crudely trenchant metaphor, Nietzsche reminds us that, “When the throne sits upon mud, mud sits upon the throne.”[Link]

When the throne sits upon mud, mud sits upon the throne. It is perhaps time for some self-reflection among discontented Indians too.

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Lessons from Mamata’s toon tactics

Let’s repeal bad laws. But let’s also prevent misuse of good laws.

The recent actions of West Bengal chief minister, Ms Mamata Banerjee in arresting a professor for circulating a cartoon mocking her on the internet have again brought the focus on the rules promulgated under the Information Technology Act. These rules are an assault on our freedom and privacy. Needless to add, they must be reversed.

West Bengal police has charged Professor Mohapatra under IPC offences relating to defamation and insulting the modesty of women as well as cyber crime offences. Although the professor has been granted bail by an Alipore court, here is what should worry us.

A senior police officer in Kolkata, where the case against Mr. Mahapatra was registered, said the professor is accused of having violated India’s Information Technology Act. He described the material shared by Mr. Mahapatra as an “offensive and non-featurable picture of our honorable chief minister.”[IRT]

This is clearly a case of a bad law being abused by the state government. But even if the state government were to harass the professor (or any other citizen for that matter), it doesn’t need bad laws for it. Even well-established good laws can be used — abused or misused — for this purpose by a malevolent government. In this case too, the major charges against the professor are under the Indian Penal Code. He was arrested on charges of eve-teasing (Section 509 of the IPC), defamation (Section 500 of the IPC), and humiliating a woman (Section 114 of the IPC), besides causing offence using a computer (Section 66 A (b) of the IT Act).

While the IT rules are bad and need to be annulled, there are genuine cases in this country where information technology tools are being used against the state. Take Kashmir for example. Social networking tools and websites are being used by anti-India forces (from both inside and outside the state of Jammu and Kashmir) to incite violence in the state. Jammu and Kashmir Police has already registered two cases under section 66 of  the Information Technology Act and section 13 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act against the miscreants: the first one  in 2010 and the second in 2011. Because it involves teenagers, in most cases the state police takes defaulters into custody, calls their parents and if necessary, counsels them and releases them right away. Barely have any cases been filed by the police against the offenders under the PSA .

Indian government is not alone in being confounded by this challenge of reacting to flow of information in radically networked societies. The British government has not been able to devise a coherent — and socially acceptable strategy — to prevent the occurrence of London riots of last year. The NSA in the US is building a huge data-centre to monitor, process and crack all communication. While the liberals want to safeguard free speech (and rightly so), the radicals (as in Kashmir) are always willing to abuse these provisions to unleash violence against the state. The challenge is huge and there are no easy answers. For any democratic government, the balance between privacy and security is not easy to strike. And with enhanced threat of terrorism and higher proliferation of social networks, this challenge has increased manifold now.

Notwithstanding that dilemma, the answer to the challenge is not promulgating bad laws. And the problem of bad laws in India runs deeper. Once you have been charged, whether you are pronounced guilty or not doesn’t matter — the process itself is the punishment in India. Indian police’s pathetic rate of conviction (40.7% in 2010) lends credence to the belief that our state is actually operating on that dictum. Bad laws make it easier for the state to charge you with an offence, and thus punish you by making you go through the ordeal of the process.

Having good laws on the statute will help but a malefic state can always misuse and abuse reasonably good laws. That is the real danger. Where are the institutional checks and balances to prevent the descent of a democratic republic into a majoritarian dictatorship? Our police is compromised, our courts are overburdened, and our political institutions effete. Take the example of the current case in West Bengal. The police has acted like an arm of the ruling party. If the professor were to approach the courts with a case against the government, it will take him years before his case is finally disposed by the court. Moreover, the courts have refused to take suo moto notice of the case. With the central government dependent on Trinamool’s support, the governor and the union government have failed to advice or warn the state government for its actions. The whole system seems to have collapsed in Bengal.

The bottom-line is simple. We must oppose bad laws and ensure that they get rescinded. But we must not stop there. We have to ensure that the state doesn’t misuse good laws. For that, we need to reform the police and the judiciary, and reinvigorate our political institutions. Only then can we hope to be safe in the long run.

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Eid-day levity: Democracy and Middle-India visit a counsellor

The relationship between Democracy and Middle-India needs a little counselling.

The scenario is all too familiar: A love affair that started out wildly romantic and adventurous grows bitter and dreary over the years. Communication breaks down. Disappointments replace dreams. And before you know it, the relationship can’t be salvaged. Is there a marriage counsellor in the house?

Counsellor: OK, let’s just start by listening to one another. No interrupting, no name-calling. We’ll start with you, Democracy. What would you like to say to Middle-India?

Democracy: When we first met 64 years ago, you treated me like a hero who swept you off your feet. Nothing could stop us; the whole world was ours to conquer. Now, you are out on the streets making a public show of your complaints rather than resolve it within the house.

Middle-India: What about me? You used to shower me with attention then. We were in it together. Now you always have gifts and freebies for the poor, the marginalised, the deprived and all others in the house but nothing for me.

Democracy: But they need it more. Wasn’t that what we decided when we started out? We will be inclusive in nature and take care of all those who are not well-off historically.

Middle-India: Ha, that’s gobbledygook. Why should this be at my cost? What’s in it for me? And don’t try to affix this figleaf of inclusive repeatedly before your name the way Ravishankar uses Sri Sri. You give these poor cousins gifts because you want their votes in elections. And some of them are not even poor any longer. Their parents and grand-parents were but you continue to provide the largesse to them.

Democracy: But it is the Parliament that I have provided which represents all of them, as it represents you. It is my job to look after them.

Middle-India: That broken toy called Parliament. Don’t you dare to even take its name. It stops more than it works. It may represent all of us but it comes to us only once in five years. How do I control it in between the festivals of elections? And even then my vote doesn’t matter because all these other fellows come and vote as a gang.

Democracy: Have you ever tried to control the toy? In the last election  festival, you went for a weekend get-away rather than cast your vote. You don’t engage with the Parliament at all and then you denounce it. It works that way because that is the way we agreed to do it 64 years ago. Look at the Middle East, look at our neighbours, everywhere they want me but here you are decrying me, moving away from me.

Middle-India: I don’t know all that. Answer me one question. What have you done for me? Why should I care for you and all your friends called the Republic, the Constitution, the Parliament and the Indian State?

Democracy: Come on. See what all your house has got has come because of the economic growth of the last 20 years. Aren’t we better off than we were 20 years ago?

Middle-India: Ha. It has nothing to do with you. Look at our neighbour called Communist China. They were poorer than us 30 years ago. And now they are the richest family in the place.

Democracy: Yes, I know you always had a crush on that chap called Benevolent Dictatorship. Even though you know that no such thing exists. As for Communist China, don’t you know how you would be treated if you argued like this or demonstrated the way you did here? Surely you haven’t forgotten the way he dealt with the kids who publicly asked for the Tienanmen pudding in 1989.

Middle-India: Yes, I know. I would never want to live in that house. I love you for all the freedom you give me but you are not what you were or promised to be when we started out 64 years ago.

Democracy: Thanks. I agree. I can do better. And I need you by my side to keep me honest and upright.

Middle-India: So why don’t we decide on a few things? I will not make a public spectacle of anything if you try and improve yourself. Discard your laziness, respond to us faster and fix that broken toy called parliament. Remove all those barriers that your friend called the Indian State has placed all over which hurt us. Reform.

Democracy: Yes, I shall. But you should also come out and vote every elections. You should also hold the elected representatives accountable. You should also communicate to them through media, NGOs, pressure groups and ensure that they respond. And send a strong message every single time. OK. Done?

Middle-India: Done.

Counsellor: It’s clear that both of you still need and want each other; you’ve just forgotten how to show it. This could be a very fulfilling relationship again. Communicate, communicate, communicate! You’re partners, not adversaries.

You’re gonna be great together, once you leave all the old baggage behind. In Ramlila Maidan.

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Losing sight of the problem

The drama in Pakistan doesn’t concern India.

The obsession of Pakistani media with the happenings in their country is understandable. But a matching excitement, hype and hoopla in the Indian media — print and TV — about the political machinations, US interference and role of the Pak army, is well beyond reason. Let us be clear that the end-result of this fracas in Pakistan, whichever way it goes, will make no difference to India at a strategic level. Whether it is Zardari, Sharif, Gilani or some technocrat as a civilian front for the army chief, he will wield little actual power when it comes to India (or Afghanistan or the US, for that matter). The foreign and security policies, along with the nukes, will continue to be the sole preserve of the Pakistan army.

Actually, the problem runs much deeper, with that nation and its society. Jason Burke explains it rather well in The Guardian.

Recent years have seen the consolidation of a new Pakistani identity between these two extremes. It is nationalist, conservative in religious and social terms and much more aggressive in asserting what are seen, rightly or wrongly, as local “Pakistani” interests. It is a mix of patriotic chauvinism and moderate Islamism that is currently heavily informed by a distorted view of the world sadly all too familiar across the entire Muslim world. This means that for many Pakistanis, the west is rapacious and hostile. Admiration for the British and desire for holidays in London have been replaced by a view of the UK as “America’s poodle” and dreams of Dubai or Malaysia. The 9/11 attacks are seen, even by senior army officers, as a put-up job by Mossad, the CIA or both. The Indians, the old enemy, are seen as running riot in Afghanistan where the Taliban are “freedom fighters”. AQ Khan, the nuclear scientist seen as a bomb-selling criminal by the West, is a hero. Democracy is seen as the best system, but only if democracy results in governments that take decisions that reflect the sentiments of most Pakistanis, not just those of the Anglophone, westernised elite among whom western policy-makers, politicians and journalists tend to chose their interlocutors.

This view of the world is most common among the new, urban middle classes in Pakistan, much larger after a decade of fast and uneven economic growth. It is this class that provides the bulk of the country’s military officers and bureaucrats. This in part explains the Pakistani security establishment’s dogged support for elements within the Taliban. The infamous ISI spy agency is largely staffed by soldiers and the army is a reflection of society. For the ISI, as for many Pakistanis, supporting certain insurgent factions in Afghanistan is seen as the rational choice. If this trend continues, it poses us problems rather different from those posed by a failed state. Instead, you have a nuclear armed nation with a large population that is increasingly vocal and which sees the world very differently from us.

So, while Mullah Omar can agree with Obama on holding negotiations, Pakistani Taliban will still continue to torch NATO supply depot in Peshawar. And forcibly convert popular singers into Tablighi preachers. Swat has been lost to the jehadis and beheadings by Taliban will continue in Bajaur, which is ostensibly under the control of the Pakistani security forces. Take away this political drama in Pakistan from the news and nothing else has changed there. That should put things in the right context.

In India, let us not lose focus of the real problem in this fit of voyeurism and schadenfreude. The real issue continues to be the Pakistani state, underpinned by a military-jehadi complex, thriving among an increasingly radicalised civil society. Long March or no Long March, let us not forget what has happened in Kashmir since 1989, Kandahar hijacking, the spate of terror attacks in Jaipur, Hyderabad, Delhi, Ahmedabad, Indian Parliament and other places, or the very recent Mumbai terror attacks on 26 November 2008. Rest is mere detail: extraneous and superfluous detail.

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