Saturday, March 14, 2009

Democratic Mindset

In our age, the only way to be politically correct is to be democratic. This is a post-70s affair - those days, still, some people had alternative ideologies in mind. Those alternate ideas are dead and gone, long discredited, and it seems that we have only one system which can make people happy, free and live longer.

So, we have this huge export industry of democracy, and democracy's warriors, which the American security establishment has lately become. The democracy's businessmen, the bond traders, the media barons and the Hollywood types, are feted everywhere. The consensus is deafening and dumbing. It is indeed awkward to ask now - whether democracy is the right system for every society.

It indeed should be. Collective wisdom is better than individual autocracy. In societies where democratic elections have been few and far between, the popular vote has demonstrated the extra-ordinary political savvy of the usually disinterested masses. Democracy has proved to be an excellently muddled system to keep any popular unrest from bursting over and disturbing status quo.

However, there are many societies which are not yet democratic. Economic progress, despite the mythology, can not be equated with democratic progress. And, it is also plain to see that some societies have done better with democracy than the others.

India and Pakistan are indeed a case in point. With so much shared history, India had an almost consistent democratic history, whereas Pakistan could hardly be ruled by democratic leaders. In fact, Pakistan has done very badly under the democratic system, which has stalled progress and created unrest, whereas all its years of relative well-being came under military autocracy.

So, therefore, it is an important question to answer - is democracy the right system for every society? Can it be imposed/ imported [like the Bush Administration wanting a democratic middle east]? Does that bode well for the human race?

I have read with interest Fareed Zakaria's The Future of Freedom. Zakaria argues that imposing a democratic system on a society does not guarantee freedom or progress. Rather, a society must go through its process of political evolution, necessarily arriving at constitutionalism and rule of law first before moving into democratic governance.

I think he has a point and the failure of democracy to take hold in different countries across the world certainly point to this. However, I do think some societies are ready for democracy than others, and certain conditions facilitate democratic transition more than others. In facilitating democratic transition, one is better off taking a nuanced approach than a broad brush. So far, this is not in evidence in our policy-making.

For example, consider this whole body of literature about the culture of honour. Sociologists and Historians have talked about how our past affect the way we think. Especially, how farming societies, especially rice farming cultures, pass on a more long term, patient mindset than the hunter-gatherer societies. Democracy, which is slow and deliberative, is possibly better fit to societies which has a rice farming culture, or which is dominated by the section of the society which has a rice farming culture.

What I am saying in effect is that India is democratic because the residents of the Gangetic plain dominate the country. However, Pakistan, dominated by wheat-farming punjabis and hunter-gatherer Westerners, was always ill at ease with such a nuanced system. This is just my hypothesis, but I would think a hunter-gatherer society like Afghanistan will find it quite challenging to adopt democracy, because they may lack the 'democratic mindset'.

However, I dont mean to be fatalistic and say that it is impossible to turn a society like Pakistan or Afghanistan and establish a democratic tradition. However, this will need a strategy. While the cultural roots can not be substituted, I think there are ways one can influence the political culture of the country. Fareed Zakaria's prescription of pushing for Constitutionalism and Rule of Law is indeed the starting point. But I can add two more things, which will help create a democratic mindset and facilitate a successful transition.

First is to see the relative position of women in society. I am stereotyping, but there is a huge body of literature how women think and act differently than men. It is just the way things are - women are far more nuanced than men by nature and historically more patient and accommodating. Allowing women to participate in the political life subdues the culture of honour, and brings back discussion as a method of resolving disputes. I think it is no accident that the societies which grant a better social position to women find it easier to make a democratic transition than those which do not.

Second, it is possible to correlate the patterns of media consumption to democratic mindset in a society. Usually, the broadcast media - one way and celebrity-centric - works against the democratic mindset. By broadcast media, one means both newspapers and TV, where the news is compiled and edited by a small bunch of technocrats. Contrast this with the digital culture of interactive media, all these citizen journalism, video blogging etc. They are hugely disruptive for the authoritarian culture - I found it amusing that someone actually recorded the whole conversation Bangladesh's Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, had with the army on the wake of the BDR mutiny and posted it on YouTube - and an essential element of creating democratic mindset.

So, here is Export of Democracy 101 - send money for setting up girls' schools, women's colleges and seed funds for women entrepreneurs; facilitate high bandwidth Internet connection for the country in question and provide grants for research to develop local script on the Internet. Sending of the troops will not make it to the list, unfortunately. Democracy is a choice only free men can make; it isn't something an occupier can hand down.

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