Sunday, March 25, 2007

The pitfalls of democracy, and the challenges facing modern governance

Democracies worldwide suffer from some endemic problems. Democracies thrive on majority support and as such only those issues get raised and stand a chance of being addressed, which affect the interests of a sizeable section of the population. What about those issues which cannot be traced to a sizeable constituency, but are important nonetheless – environmental issues for instance, or issues pertaining to wildlife conservation? Addressing such issues ostensibly has to be left to the mercies of the government which often shows up as remarkably ham handed in such situations. The recent bickering of governments over an issue as important for our survival as reducing carbon emissions is a case in point. Richard Bach had observed in a Bridge Across Forever that it was surprising how governments all over the world, even democratic ones, almost always managed to perpetrate so much evil and harm on their respective nation states. A quarter of a century later, nothing much has changed.

Even in issues such as education, or healthcare, or urban infrastructure which would be considered to be of general interest and where we can expect the government to provide useful solutions, an inexplicable ineptitude is on view, which can hardly be explained rationally, the only explanation being extreme cynicism on part of the government which leads its constituents to believe that good governance does not matter; what fetches votes is pandering to reactionary and obscurantist sections of society. Make no mistake about it, our democracy is in crisis and our democratic institutions are not equipped to deal with the crises that we face. These crises are becoming more familiar with each passing day, many of them having arisen because of decades of irresponsible and inept governance. And now these crises will not be wished away. They are looming large, staring us in the face, daring us to act decisively or get engulfed by them. Some such crises, when we think about them include, but are not limited to
  • Widening gap between the haves and the have-nots
  • Speedy environmental degradation and climate change which is evident to anyone who would care to look
  • Technological dangers (including but not limited to increasingly available weapons of mass destruction)
  • Terrorism, religious bigotry and extremism of all sorts
  • The rising threat of global epidemics, the mobility of people making it easier for diseases to spread far and wide
  • Unsustainable and destructive economic activities in the name of development
  • And the corruption of democracy, itself

Many of these crises are interdependent, not isolated from each other. They feed on each other, like a hundred brooks and streams, until they are able to gather critical mass, whence they will swallow us and our children, nay the whole of humanity. It won’t be unfair to say that we are standing at the brink of disaster, brought about by inept governance.

In spite of this, our democratic institutions continue to promote:

(a) the relentless concentration of power,
(b) the materialistic culture orchestrated by that power and
(c) an ad-hocism in taking important decisions, and then forcing those decisions down the throat of the public using brute force and employing the full might of the repressive state machinery.

To hark back to an Indian example, the massacre of Singur, carried out by the government of the proletariat is only the latest in a series of examples stretching back to independence, which illustrate the truth of the last point above. Governments often behave as if they are the ultimate repository of all land, natural wealth, resources, minerals, oceans and the environment. It is this illusory thinking that leads to forced land grabbing attempts, which are then justified in the name of “common good”. Come to think of it, there is an increasing attempt by the governments even in democratic setups to equate themselves with the nation state at large, so that any dissent against the government is portrayed as anti national and unpatriotic and is liable to be suppressed with brute force.

It is apparent that governance is too important to be left to professional politicians. Douglas Adams says on the issue “Anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job. “ Talking about India in particular, something is very rotten about the state of politics in the country, which looks for a cure worse than the disease afflicting society. Perhaps the darkest irony is that democracy, itself, has been transformed from the crown jewel of empowerment of the ordinary citizen, into one of the most effective and insidious tools used by the ruling elite to manipulate us, the citizenry, the electorate, The People. Democracy is no longer government of the people, by the people, for the people. Rather it has evolved to become a system whence the citizenry becomes irrelevant after casting votes at the polls, and this state of affairs continues till the next round of polls. One cannot question the decisions made by the government, one cannot protest against blatant misuse of power, and one cannot make ones views heard without risking life and limb in the process.

Still, growing millions of us -- each in our own way – are coming to the realization that something is fundamentally wrong with the direction our society is taking. Most of us, though, cannot quite give it the attention it seems to deserve, to sort it out and take effective action. It is so complex, and our daily lives take up so much of our energy and attention, that we are left with only a haunting wish that something could be done about it. This testifies to the awesome power of our culture to distract so many of us from the ultimate essentials of life, even the survival of our own children and the natural world upon which the children of all species depend and force us to direct our energies towards the mundane activities of daily life. Apparently the question whether Naturals Ice Cream would make a better dessert than Baskin Robbins deserves more thought than the possible melting of Gangotri glacier and the prospect of the whole of Northern India turning into a desert by 2030!

We need to change the character of our democracy, and we need to do it soon. If we are to meet the challenges of the 21st century, we need to make democracy not only more functional, but truly wise. In another era, this would have been an almost impossible task (and I say “almost” because human will is stronger than the toughest of challenges, and sheer willpower has been known to triumph against the greatest of odds, but chances would have been against it). However, the single greatest invention of the past several decades - the Internet, gives us the opportunity to collaborate and come together in hitherto unimagined ways. No, revolutions of the French revolution and Russian Revolution variety will not occur in the foreseeable future! Rather, we will have a quiet dissemination of information, and sharing of knowledge, which will make it possible for everyone to participate in a bloodless coup. Internet has made distances and time zones irrelevant, the genie has been let out of the bag.

Now is the time -- while the worst of the coming catastrophes are still over the horizon (though visible to the far sighted) -- to create a system of governance that is wise enough to survive and thrive in the Era of Consequences we are entering. We have the resources right now to do it, if we choose to channel them into activities that will serve us in this historic effort. Now, more than at any other point of time in history we have a surfeit of volunteers who have the time and the wherewithal to channel their efforts into driving the country and the world towards a better future.

There may be political space to work in, as well. As existing systems become bloated and more unmanageable, those involved with them, including their leaders, are increasingly searching for alternatives. Wherever that happens, evolutionary opportunities open up. Breakthroughs can happen when such opportunities are taken before the clamor for oversimplified, strong leadership overwhelms our yearning to direct our collective fate with our own collective common sense.

Increase in population and the complex nature of the modern nation state makes it next to impossible for any central governing mechanism to hold sway over an entire population. The future of democracy has to be participatory governance, wherein informal but powerful roles would have to be given to communities of citizens and governments will be more inclusive than exclusive. It is here that the collaborative and interactive nature of Internet and online communities would revolutionize governance. All is not yet lost, not while there are still people around who can be inspired by Rang De Basanti to hold protest marches over the letting off, of the murderers of Jessica Lall. These are interesting times, interesting not only in the opportunities they afford us, but interesting also because our continued survival depends on the actions we take in this period.

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