Who wants democracy anyway? And does anyone really care that they live in a democratic state?

A few weeks ago, I asked three friendly Filipino women on an elevator, what they thought of President Duterte. Beaming, they said he was the best thing to have happened to their country. They got off before I could ask about his threat to kill and dump all “drug pushers, hold-up men and do-nothings” into Manila Bay and “fatten all the fish there”. Their admiration reminded me of many Indians who, too, seem equally unperturbed by the current dispensation’s attacks on beef eaters, dissenters and its moral policing. This is much like Trump supporters’ blithe response to his claim that he “could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot someone and [not] lose voters”.

Growing up in the seventies in the world’s largest democracy, I too, like many millions of fellow Indians, decried its inefficiencies, cursed the corrupted political culture and yearned to get away. This might explain the hundreds of thousands of educated Indians who migrated to the Arab Gulf, where despite the tax-free salaries, clean streets and fast cars, as brown people and often non-Muslims they were treated as an inferior class of people without the basic rights they might have enjoyed back home.

As a teenager I remember asking many a contented émigré, “What about freedom of press, dissent and human rights? How can you leave a democratic society to live as a second-class citizen in a theocratic Monarchy?” The reactions were very sobering: “What democracy? Our politicians are corrupt and nothing ever gets done.” “What is the point of democracy when we have no jobs, power cuts and filthy streets?” “Enlightened monarchs like the Sheikhs of Dubai are far preferable to politicians obsessed with trying to get elected”. “What freedom?  Here I am really free – to make money and be happy”.   It was not only immigrants from Asian or African countries who made a beeline to the Arab Gulf – these city states were veritable Benneton advertisements where millions of Westerners, too, scrambled to make hay under an oppressive sun. The hierarchy in these countries placed the locals on top, other Arabs and Muslims under them, with the third rung made up of grateful Westerners who were happy to be placed above the Asians and Africans who were themselves segregated by economic class. It was the rare migrant who spoke of being humiliated by being treated as less than equal. Most just saw this ignominy as the price they had to pay for securing their family’s economic future.

Enthralled by ideas such as liberty, equality, and justice, I have long wondered if democracy was more of a utopian ‘ideal’ than any kind of pragmatic or sensible solution to governing nations. I know that I am, personally, terrified of ever having to live in countries like China, Saudi Arabia or Russia, let alone comfortable, uber-safe Singapore. But could it be that freedom, liberty, and equality are merely my own personal preferences? While people stuck in oppressive societies have often ‘yearned’ for freedom, it makes me wonder how important these celebrated ‘democratic’ freedoms and rights are to those who already live in a democracy. I am struck by the sacrilegious thought that, contrary to conventional wisdom, most people would happily trade their freedoms and rights away for physical and material wellbeing. Thankfully, almost as soon as I have that thought, I guiltily brush it aside. I then try and replace it with the idea that a free, humane, and healthy society could not only be deliberately ordered, but that most people, no matter where they are from, would, if given a chance, prefer to live in one. Sometimes it works.

I have spent much of my adult life tilting at my own personal windmills: tribalism, the cruelty of groups, various types of orthodoxies and the strange prejudice against reason and critical thinking. Having lived in both authoritarian and democratic societies, it became apparent to me that the only places that would tolerate and afford even minimal protection to those who were deemed to be outsiders were the democratic ones. Citizens also tend to be highly conscious of their rights and, having high expectations of their leaders, spend much time bemoaning the inefficiencies and corruption of the system and blaming those in ‘power’ – politicians, business leaders, lobbyists, media owners and the like – for the ills of their democratic society. Much of this criticism is wholly deserved. If anything, the elite in many countries has been exploitative, has dishonored the trust placed in them by citizens, and has failed as leaders.

The astonishing thing is that citizens have difficulty taking any responsibility for the state of their societies. It is almost as though once having voted (and only a few of those who can, bother to do so) they expect the leaders and the system to deliver outcomes that work for them. Few are willing to invest any personal time or energy to help things work better, let alone protect and strengthen their democracies.

However, leaders alone do not make the democracy. The strength and resilience of free and self-governing societies is ALSO dependent upon the quality of their citizenry and what they are able to bring to the civic space. To quote Mac Maharaj, Nelson Mandela’s prison mate in Robben Island, who sacrificed so much to bring freedom and democracy to his traumatized country, “democracy has not failed us, we the citizens have failed democracy”. If we, the citizens, were well-informed, vigilant and conscientious, our leaders would not be able to take us down with them when they fail, nor would we be so easily manipulated by wannabe autocrats lurking in the shadows.

All political order is a social contract between the rulers and the ruled. The rulers agree to provide security, order and economic opportunity in return for monopoly over the use of force, the authority to make laws, manage internal and external threats, and punish transgressors. Governments cannot be effective unless the ruled and the rulers adhere to the implicit and explicit norms and laws of the given society. Citizens can, importantly, hold the rulers accountable for their actions. This kind of accountability while empowering ordinary people, can also cramp the style of rulers. Most rulers, whether wise, stupid, well meaning or ill intentioned, tend to chafe at having to answer to anyone, least of all their own citizens.  Mechanisms of accountability also tend to slow down decision-making, and demand that rulers convince the ruled of their thinking, intentions, and actions.

Persuasion is time consuming. Hence through most of human history, rulers have found it useful to be authoritarian. Unilateral decision-making is both easier and quicker.  Sometimes, good ideas are scuttled by committees and sometimes the wise person’s counsel is disregarded by heightened emotions and group think. For their part, citizens are often asked to be content, if not happy, with what is done for them and on their behalf by their leaders.  All that is required of citizens is unwavering obedience, loyalty, and a heightened sense of duty.

What makes a good subject of a theocracy or a monarchy is very different from what is demanded of citizens in a democracy.  Rather than traditional values such as obedience, loyalty to group and duty they are required to think independently, follow their own conscience, and find ways to engage and negotiate with those outside their own group. None of this is intuitive and it is indeed hard work.

In fact, over the past seventy odd years this system of government has been sold to billions around the world as a panacea for poverty, human oppression, and the unimaginative boredom of state-controlled TV. Western politicians, media and activists conflated democracy and capitalism as they stirred up the masses in poor (and authoritarian) countries promising them freedom, rights, and the infinite blessings of airconditioned shopping malls.  What they neglected to say was that their own wealth was dependent upon a historically unique confluence of political, scientific, and economic conditions that could not be easily replicated. They also neglected to say to the millions yearning for freedom, designer jeans, and fast food that democracy is easier bequeathed than sustained. That if we wished to hold on to our republics (or our democracies), we would have to get up from our couches, turn off the TVs and internet and start doing some work. That being a citizen of a democracy means not delegating the hard work to our elected representatives but working side by side with them and, in the process, keeping them honest!

We were not told that Citizenship was hard work and needed to be earned.


5 thoughts on “Brown Man in Search of Democracy

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