How much is too much democracy?

Mahatir Mohammed’s prescription for India, with respect may, paradoxically enough, turn out to be a remedy worse than the disease. Indeed, it may prove fatal for the health of our federal democracy.

Mahathir Mohammed, the respected former Prime Minister of Malaysia and now an elder Asian statesman diagnosed some of the ills that seemingly afflict democracy in India. He recently addressed a gathering of national leaders, leading citizens, intellectuals and media personalities in the capital at a Leadership Summit organized by a leading national daily. The deliberations at the summit were broadcast live throughout the country.

He has ascribed most of the current “problems” facing us to the reason that we have “too much democracy”. He added that we need a “strong” Central leadership to overcome the present difficulties and restore some “order” so that unhindered progress can take place. The overdose of democracy holds back India from emerging as one of the leading players on the world stage.

Mahathir’s diagnosis is negated by recent experience of the modern nation states the world over and the lessons of history. One does not have to delve deep into history to draw the appropriate lessons from it. The last century itself is replete with examples of nations that broke up and disintegrated because they limited the practice of democracy in order to enforce “discipline” and attempted to bring about rapid economic growth.

India is a federal republic with one of the most liberal forms of democracy. The Constitution was aptly described by Pt. Nehru, one of its main architects as a strong federation during normal times but with provision for converting it into a unitary structure in times of emergency. The Founding Fathers were visionaries with great foresight. They realized that for a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-lingual society, a federal structure was the only viable form of government.

A liberal democracy is the bedrock of federalism. The history of twentieth century world that we live in brings home this stark lesson to all of us. Nation upon nation, all federal republics that limited democracy in favour of “strong” central leadership broke apart and could not survive as unified states. Ethnic and linguistic minorities and regions seceded, often violently and at great human cost. Paradoxically, a “strong” central leadership invariably proved counter-productive.

The example of former Soviet Union is a well-known. Also falling in the category of failed states are former Republic of Yugoslavia, Indonesia and nearer home, former East and West Pakistan. All these were federal republics that experimented with variants of democracy. They convinced themselves that somehow too much democracy is not good for their people and it must be limited for people’s own sake. The leader knows best what is good for his “subjects”.

Thus, both the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia practised ‘socialist democracy’ or ‘democratic centralism’. Admittedly, the ideology was suffused with idealism, all in the name of “the people” and their beloved fatherland. Full guarantees were extended to all minorities and regions-but only on paper. Believe it or not, the Constitution of the former Soviet Union had conceded even the right of “secession” to the various ethnic regions.

Indonesia similarly experimented with “guided democracy”. The central leadership imposed their will on far-flung islands comprising several dozen major linguistic and tribal groups, with deadpan uniformity. They had virtually no voice, not to talk of role in governance. They were completely alienated from the central leadership. One cannot say with certainty if the final act in the Indonesian tragedy has played itself out. It may yet break up further.

Pakistan’s case is all too well known to merit detailed analysis. The Army Generals who overthrew a civilian government experimented with “basic democracy” as they felt that universal adult franchise was a luxury that Pakistan could ill-afford. Democracy was limited to selected individuals who were supposed to be literate in the 3Rs. The federal unit of East Pakistan was reduced to the status of a poor cousin. Like Indonesia, Pakistan’s tragedy may be still unfolding, looking to the situation in the federal unit of Baluchistan and other federal provinces.

A “strong” central leadership is the soul mate of limited democracy. And such leadership almost invariably passes on to the armed forces of the modern nation state. The generals and the air marshals assume charge in the name of “order and discipline”. They have an in-built disdain for the “bureaucratic state” and the “bumbling democracy”. They buy themselves a one-way ticket to power till such time as the state collapses under their heavy boots.

The aforesaid are but some of the few examples of large federal states that experimented with limited democracy and failed. The malady does not discriminate, and seems to afflict smaller states as well. It appears to be endemic to the region. Sri Lanka has just survived a brutal civil war and is barely intact. Afghanistan is a house divided against itself between the Pashtuns and the Uzbecks, held together for the time being against the common threat from Taliban.

Burma is apparently a paper entity and a geographical fiction as a nation. Some of the longest civil wars of the last century, largely forgotten by the outside world have spilled over to the present century. The state is fighting its own minorities who have, de facto, carved out for themselves their own sub states-the Kachins, the Karens and the Shans. Their respective territories are ‘no go’ zones save for the Burmese military in large numbers.

Among these disintegrated and disintegrating states one can witness the solitary splendour of a standing and functioning federation with a liberal democracy. There are no prizes for guessing the right name. And this has been possible as the basic democratic structure of the state has not been disturbed, whatever the provocation. Not that we have not been afflicted with our own set of centrifugal forces. But we have contained them through dialogue and discussion. A liberal democracy is the most resilient form of government.

Unity in Diversity is the lofty principle of the Indian society and a federal democracy is its actual form. A limited democracy and its counterpart of “strong” leadership is the antidote. The latter tries to impose a certain Uniformity in Diversity which has proved to be a recipe for disaster. This is the abiding lesson of the history of the last century.

Much is made of the fact that Indian democracy is much too “noisy” for orderly progress and a marketable brand. But the argument overlooks the fact that debate and discussion are the essence of good governance, as conflicting ideas and varying opinions get churned and what emerges is often the optimum solution. As someone rightly said, what may sound noise today is the music of democracy in the long run. Solzhenitsyn was right-the only alternative to debate and discussion is the Gulag.

Mahatir Mohammed’s prescription for India, with respect may, paradoxically enough, turn out to be a remedy worse than the disease. Indeed, it may prove fatal for the health of our federal democracy.

(The author is a retired IAS officer)