A ‘new’ democracy?

A lying politician or spokesperson making a speech in front of the media  

The ‘democracy’ that a major part of our world swears by comprises free and fair, multi-party, fixed-term elections based on universal adult franchise in its ideal state. A contestant party winning the majority of votes represents the will of the electorate and gets to form the government; others sit in the opposition until the next election. Simple.

Its simplicity also conceals some of its structural flaws. The ‘majority of votes’ actually boils down to the majority of seats in the legislature which, in 99% of the time, comes riding a minority of votes. Rarely is a government formed backed by a majority of votes won in a free and fair election. Rajiv Gandhi’s formidable, highest-ever majority in Lok Sabha in 1984 was still short of a majority of votes by about 2%. Narendra Modi in 2014 had the backing of 31% of the votes cast and in 2019, of just about 40%. In 2016, Donald Trump won the presidential race in the U.S. with a deficit of over 2.5 million popular votes vis-à-vis his chief competitor, Hillary Clinton. It is the same story everywhere.

What democracy brought

Besides the fact that this democracy is far from becoming universal even well into the 21st century, its own life history is just a tiny dot on the canvas of time: short of a hundred years. Universal adult franchise itself is yet to hit the 100-year mark in the most advanced nations. Even in the U.S., white women won the franchise a hundred years ago but their black sisters had to wait another few decades. The white women too won it in the teeth of opposition, including from thousands of women raising the slogan: A vote or a husband? The Swiss women got the vote less than a half century ago, nearly a quarter century after Indian women did.

Democracy did not come alone; its accoutrements included guaranteed individual rights and freedoms, free market economy, equality of all citizens, freedom of life and property, etc. — inviolable constituents of capitalism. Elections created space for change of governments even as they guaranteed security against challenge to the regime; the challenge could arise only outside of it, through ‘revolutions’, which in turn had much contracted the space even for a change of government and none for a change of regime. In the end, most ‘revolutions’ could not escape the dragnet of ‘democracy’, their existential as well as conceptual adversary.

One of democracy’s primary premises, free market, which ‘revolutions’ had sought to eradicate, is now under threat not from its adversary but from its own internal dynamics. The unprecedented concentration of wealth at the top 1% around the world knocks the bottom out of competition in the market, so integral to its freedom.

The principle and the form

This high concentration of wealth is in turn getting to impact the system’s political functioning by replicating the process. The hollowing out of this foundational principle of capitalism while retaining its form is also running parallel in the other freedoms, other constituents of ‘democracy’ by hollowing out the substance of even free and fair elections and individual freedoms while retaining the form. The notion of the free choice of the exercise of vote at the ballot box gets completely distorted with innumerable manipulations of that choice on all sides, all within the four walls of the constitutional provisions. These include distortions injected into the electoral process through control and misuse of the institutions responsible for carrying out the process; the creation of an atmosphere of delegitimisation of dissent or protest vis-à-vis the government by counter-posing the demands of unquestioning patriotism or nationalism to it; using the sentiment of patriotism to circumscribe the dispensation of fair justice; the control of the flow of information through the ‘independent’ media; setting up of professionally organised mechanisms for creating and propagating fake news; creating and promoting hatred between communities of people through patronising identity politics and using frenzy in lieu of reason as a mobiliser of votes; and not least, meting out the harshest treatment to the most prominent dissenting voices by lodging them in prison on fake charges, never mind that they would all be let off a decade later by the courts for want of evidence. The message to society would have been delivered.

A global scenario

True, much of what we see happening before our eyes has been witnessed by history; Adolf Hitler’s example, though extreme, comes closest to what we are watching helplessly. Yet, the example is a bad one, for Hitler needed to destroy the Constitution which had brought him to power; today, remarkably democratic and progressive constitutions around the world give rulers enough space for misuse for achieving those goals and yet making the misuse palatable to voters through media and mobilisation. It is interesting that voters haven’t tired of this misuse anywhere going by the ever-rising voting percentages at election time.

If this concentration of wealth and political power was the case with one country or society, it could easily be attributed to specific local conditions; but this looks like a more generalised, global scenario: in the U.S., China, Russia, India, Brazil, Hungary, Turkey and elsewhere. It is therefore futile to argue that this has flown from the personality or personal diktats of one or the other charismatic leader. Its global scale defies that inference.

Clearly then, we are witnessing the transformation of the regime of democracy, a systemic transformation from within, from one that had brought us the promise of liberté, egalité, fraternité political, social and economic, to its very opposite: the highest concentration of economic, political and therefore social powers ever in history. Yet ‘democracy’ remains its trademark. Nor does it have the appearance of a sudden, odd aberration with an expected short life, or a spontaneous occurrence in different regions. Its scale is too massive for that.

Is this a ‘new’ democracy in store for humanity?

Harbans Mukhia taught history at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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Printable version | Dec 3, 2021 5:05:46 AM |

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