Sunday, July 20, 2008

Day 34: Ambedkar's Warning and How Democracy Can Work

I am still reading India after Gandhi, despite the fact that I need to concentrate on the university coursework urgently. I have missed a deadline, but possibly I can excuse myself citing the extraordinary work that I had to do over last couple of weeks. I am intending to focus full time on that, but can't - as this book is telling me fascinating stories and providing me answers.

For example, as I read about Indian Republic's formative years, I can figure out why democracy worked in India while it failed in many Asian and African countries. I remember a friend and a fellow blogger arguing, in the backdrop of the political troubles in Bangladesh, that democracy will not work in Bangladesh as the people are not yet ready for it, and the country needs a period of enlightened dictatorship for a period of time. It did not sound right, and I did say so - but given the recent history of Bangladesh, such rationale was hard to refute.

I can draw two lessons from reading about the formative years of Indian republic. One, to establish a democracy in a nation like ours, which would have gone through many years of repression and unjust rule, one needs to start with forgetting the past and focusing on the future. The Indian constituent assembly included many people who had opposed Congress for many years, and they were included in Nehru's first cabinet too. Exceptional men, like Dr. Ambedkar or Shyamaprasad Mookherjee, the founder of Jana Sangh - who collaborated with the British rulers - were included and their views carried as much weight as that of anyone else. This is possibly the first step in democracy - an intent to find the common ground - which would not have happened in many new democratic experiments. No wonder that an essential ingredient of the democratic process in South Africa was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, led by Bishop Tutu, which sought to bury the past - and that was quite a past with one of the most Brutal regimes in History! In the context of Bangladesh, this is possibly where things need to start - the country went through the most horrific abuses under their Pakistani rulers and their collaborators, and a lot of politics in Bangladesh is still about the past rather than being about the future.

Two, there was extraordinary leadership of Nehru. I am not talking about his charisma, because to do so will strengthen the superman theory of democracy, which contends that only an exceptionally charismatic leader can make this happen [Which leads to the theory that a country needs benevolent dictatorship for a period]. I am referring to his faith in democratic principles. His faith in the wisdom of a common man. This is exceptional because he always talked about universal adult suffrage, which was both a logistical nightmare and an absurd exercise in political education, for 84% of the electorate was illiterate. Nehru could have got away with limiting the franchise - to men of property and education, perhaps. I noted that Chester Bowles, the American Ambassador to India, was convinced that this is an exercise in madness, only to be convinced about the power of democracy by the remarkable sight of India voting in 1952! This is exceptional, as Nehru is often denigrated as elitist, and someone who was far more comfortable with his English than his Hindi - Macaulay's Child, in RSS terms. But this man pushed through his extraordinary vision, which was not without its share of critics and not without its moments of doubts, and eventually created the biggest modern democracy in the world. And, this shows a curious trend - of wisdom of the crowd - as in India, and in Bangladesh, whenever people got a vote, they showed their political wisdom in abundance, without being fooled by cheap populist tricks or being intimidated by the government of the day. The Indian experiment established a model of how democracy can work, and how one needs to start with a position of faith in the wisdom of all citizens.
Finally, I also noted Dr. Ambedkar's three warnings to Indian republic in the closing sessions of the Constituent Assembly in 1949, which remains valid today and relevant for many other countries going through the experiment.
First, he said we needed to know the methods of popular protest in a democratic country. He warned not only against armed rebellion, but the Gandhian methods of Satyagraha and Civil Disobedience, which he said had its relevance against an autocratic regime but has no place in a democratic society. This is important, as much of modern India's politics today revolve around 'Bandh', general strike, and these are used indiscriminately. This is harmful to the nations image outside, harms its productivity and competitiveness and creates an idle political culture, where people protest by not working and staying home. This is very relevant for societies like Bangladesh too, where I remember experiencing 48 to 72 hour general strikes all too often.
Second, he reminded Indians not to submit to charismatic authority. "He quoted John Stuart Mill, who cautioned citizens not 'to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions'. How very prescient - not just for India, where by 1974, a State Chief Minister famously pronounced 'Indira is India' and dictatorship came by 1975 - but for many other countries.
One example is Bangladesh, where Sheikh Mujib used his charisma to subvert democratic institutions soon after the liberation. A more modern parallel is Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, who made unparalleled contribution in fighting the oppressors and liberating the country, but became a prisoner of his own greatness and ended up becoming a despot, denying his country the same freedoms he helped to bring.
The third warning from Dr. Ambedkar was not to restrict ourselves to mere political freedom, but to advance the same spirit of freedom in social and economic spheres. As with his other two warnings, we did not follow his advice here too - and we have created a great imbalance in mixing a free and democratic political culture with great economic inequality and social injustice. This led to subversion of responsible democratic politicking all too often. But, instead of getting started on the urgent task of social and economic reform and equality, many observers, educated and well-meaning, blamed the 'inherent weaknesses' of democracy.
Reading this book, I know this view is wrong. All this talk about weakness of democracy emanates from seeing the system in its western context, and a somewhat embedded belief in the superior intellect and education of a western citizen. Democracy as a modern political system has started from the west, undeniably. However, the Indian model establishes how a poor, divided, uneducated country can practise democracy - by reconciling with the past, by putting faith in its citizens. Combined with secular and non-parochial political ideals, the system sustained itself despite many challenges.
Unfortunately, this model is largely forgotten, even in India, where doubters come by all too often. The modern experiments with democracy - in Iraq and in Afghanistan - also misses the point, as they try to establish democracy in the context of the tribal structure and does not attempt a reconciliation. Of course, the job in India is still half-done, and economic and social justice need to be achieved to strengthen the democratic culture. But it was useful being reminded of the founding principles, indeed.

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