The Financial Express


Democracy, the devil we did not know

| Updated: October 25, 2017 04:46:42

Democracy, the devil we did not know

All along we have considered authoritarian governments or dictatorships as the true devils, that too, in need of urgent replacement, to uphold the higher values of freedom (and all that goes with it). At the extreme was the value of 'perpetual peace' Immanuel Kant wrote about in 1795: countries practising constitutional democracy join hands, until all countries of the world can embrace each other. It was a noble goal. We dedicated monumental global organisations and arrangements to attaining it: from the League of Nations to the United Nations; and from the Hague Peace Conferences and the Universal Human Rights Declaration to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) campaigns.

Something must have terribly disrupted that thought trajectory. Democratically elected governments today have launched practices right out of the fascist handbook. Not only that, we see them join hands, much as was needed to attain 'perpetual peace' (remember the slogan, 'democracies do not fight each other'?), only this time the only visible and sturdy enough outcome is 'perpetual anarchy'. Aristotle had forewarned us that the perverted form of democracy becomes 'mobocracy', but who would expect Thomas Hobbes's anarchy unfolding, particularly when, in the 1990s, we stood so much closer to attaining 'perpetual peace'?

Democracy stooping as low as anarchy is a disturbing reality for which Donald J. Trump's presidential victory played a critical role. He was not the first democratically-elected leader to shift in a fascist direction: Narendra Modi unwittingly found himself headed that way, not as much by what his Bharatiya Janata Party is propagating and executing, but by aligning with the fanatical Rashtriya Swamasevak Sangh (RSS) and giving it free rein to invade the multicultural tapestry India worked so diligently to produce, and which became the most feasible pathway towards post-independence peace. How the RSS fascination for Israel corralling Palestinians culminated in Modi's ground-breaking Israeli visit exposed something else: mired as he is in a stinging corruption probe, Benjamin Netanyahu is also invoking Zionist groups to make Jerusalem the Israeli capital and seize Palestinian land. Readers can be forgiven for thinking Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's/Myanmar's Nobel Peace Prize-winner, who, as an elected leader in the country's first democratic election, seems bent on persecuting Rohingyas, to be ethnic-cleansing Netanyahu. Completing this picture by returning to Trump, with his WASP (white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant) and KKK (Ku Klux Klan) cohorts, democracy has been so shamelessly painted that dictators/totalitarians squashing democracy may look slightly better than democratically elected leaders distorting that form of government and ideology.

That two of those four above--mentioned countries happen to be pivotal democracies heightens the alarm bells: not only is India the world's largest functioning democracy, a model par excellence for other transitional countries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America to emulate, or at least be inspired by, but the United States is also a country born out of democratic determination, one of the first to do so, along with France, and one that has perhaps sacrificed more human lives to spread and protect democracy elsewhere than can be equalled in modern history, yet abandoning its precepts before our very eyes today. Democracy becomes too mortally wounded without these two icons to continue in practice and to preach.

What is worse is when Indian and US populism, threatening ethnic and racial minorities in a multicultural society as they are, team up with a democratic country waging an ethnic cleansing campaign on the merits of a democratic mandate, as Burma/Myanmar has been doing from October 2016 against the Rohingyas. It motivates other divided countries to similarly direct democratic election to sort out their own unsettled ethnic, racial, religious, or any other divisions.

Just as democracy loses its meaning, respect, and followers on the one hand, on the other, we will find democratically elected fascist-inclined leaders like Modi, Netanyahu, Suu Kyi, and Trump even legitimise dictators and despots. Much has already been said of Trump's fascination for Russia's Vladimir Putin, and his soft spot for Turkey's President Recep Erdogan, Philippines counterpart Rodrigo ('Rody') Duterte, and Egypt's General Abdel Fatteh al-Sisi. Equally damaging is his waltz with the Saudi King Salman, under whose watch the reforms being pursued have also been clamping down on women, immigrant workers, and, in short, groups that are meant to be either kept on a leash or eliminated in one way of another.

A fascist riot in Charlottesville, Hindutva, Palestinian ethnic-cleansing, Rohingya ethnic cleansing, and waging war against so-called narco-traffickers with high collateral civilian casualties may just become the harbingers of back-rolling peace, democracy, and human values for the very long-term. Shortly, after Charlottesville, Trump grandly killed DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), meant to give illegal migrant children (mostly Mexican) a honourable pathway to citizenship after all the 'dirty' work their parents did and which no US citizens will ever do (back-breaking farm work, janitorial counterparts, household cleaning, street sweeping and trash collecting, and so forth). If a 'nation of immigrants' turns so gung-ho on immigrants at this 21st Century juncture, it is not out of the picture to see the Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto sojourn to China, upon Xi Jinping's invitation, to attend the BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa grouping) summit with a view to joining when less than a quarter-century ago his country signed a landmark trade agreement with its two northern neighbours. What a cast the BRICS grouping would look like: corruption-charged President Michel Temer of Brazil; opportunist hawkish Vladimir Putin from Russia; blind-sighted Modi taking India in unprecedented directions, but also unravelling it like never before; China's all-powerful leader, Jinping; and corruption-cleared (only marginally) South African President Jacob Zuma. To the inherent seeds of 'perpetual anarchy' in this grouping, Peña Nieto can only add his own corruption-driven contributions and massive domestic discontent.

India's Hindutva may play hand-maiden to Myanmar's radical Buddhist leader Ashin Wirathu, at least if Modi's warm embrace of globally chastised Suu Kyi is any guide following their September 2017 get-together inside Myanmar: both Hindutva and radical Buddhists directly and primarily target Wahhabi groups, though ordinary Muslims have also been facing the backlash; and with Islamic terrorists ready to infiltrate Rakhine province in Myanmar to take up this challenge, the stage is set for some ugly exchanges and South Asia's stability plunging further southwards. India will not be able to escape culpability if its chosen embrace with Myanmar continues the way Modi indicated it would.

One should not ultimately overlook the military dividend behind this fascist upswing: military expenditures have spiralled in all these countries, some, like Egypt, India, the Philippines, and Saudi Arabia through huge US equipment sales, while the United States has also begun deploying troops to Afghanistan. Myanmar is no exception. Bangladesh Border Guards have reported the Myanmar resort to combat planes fighting the Rakhine Islamic insurgents, some inviting retaliation. Stirring up a complaint with Bangladesh is easy, meaning refugee inflows may not be all there is. That foreign investors have by and large declined open-door invitations from the Myanmar government should have alerted us to the deterioration; and though investors from China, Japan, South Korea now find Indians joining them to prop up the country and fill the missing Myanmar blanks, much more is at stake for the fascist trajectory than reaping the harvests of even constrained economic growth.

Like the domino-theory scare that was once envisioned in many parts of the world when communism was in full swing (1950s), the current fascist threat targeting democracy may be too discredited to continue shining and inspiring as it did throughout the 20th Century, but it is on a roll. If not by the back-door, then certainly through the front, it may become our 21st Century lifestyle catalyst.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

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