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Many cultures, many democracies

V. Kumaraswamy | Updated on November 15, 2017


Contrary to expectations and distorted perceptions (in retrospect) created by the media, I found Myanmar the most cheerful and happy of the 20-odd countries I have visited in recent years. People are friendly, affable and relaxed. They are high on human values, there are no street skirmishes or raucous arguments, and they're contented, despite their stifling internal political climate.

There isn't a question mark on their faces, as in most of the Western world — as if unsure if their job will be secure when they reach office. Nor is there a fear being robbed, raped, or shot dead for petty demands, as on the streets of Delhi, the capital of the world's largest democracy.

The Lonely Planet travel guide says this about Myanmar: “It is likely the only time a local will be running with your money or belongings is returning it to you if you've dropped it.” On women travellers, it observes: “Women travelling alone are more likely to be helped than harassed …”

Again somewhat unexpectedly, the countries I would place closest are Vietnam, Oman and Syria — none a pure democracy, according to the Western definition. Sure, happiness is not the abiding goal of democracy (or indeed, of any political decision-making system). Likewise, we cannot completely isolate rulers from the happiness of the ruled in these ‘non-democracies', since the quality of governance has a definite bearing.

Vast differences

Nations and people differ vastly in their assertiveness, argumentativeness, team skills, patriotism, loyalty, individualism, culture and many other aspects that have a bearing on the effectiveness of political systems.

Indians by nature are loyal to immediate chieftains, but turn highly argumentative in remote groups and allow little progress towards a consensus before, or compliance after the decision.

We see it in our cricket and other sports teams, and in many political issues facing us. Highly individualistic Western societies put forward their arguments strongly, but there is cohesion after the decision.

Short-termism in democracy

Several successful Asian countries have achieved political harmony and economic progress through methods which are perhaps outside the strict definitional boundaries of democracy. Singapore has had strict rules and ruthless (but impartial) implementation worthy of a military regime, and has had achieved great success. Malaysia under Mahathir Mohammad can hardly be termed a model democracy. Thailand has had several problems with its democracy which commands far less respect and loyalty than its king. Japan, which is highly successful economically, is in endless battle with its democracy. In India, we have ample proof that the more durable method of political cohesion and consensus is loyalty to the ruling families (witness Congress and several regional outfits).

The legitimacy of democracy itself is sometimes questionable, such as in India (where voting is optional), given the average voting levels of 55 per cent, including induced and bogus voting.

Representative democracy, unlike the Greek direct version from which it has evolved, has drifted far from its essential moorings. It is now largely a power of attorney for unknown actions.

Only a subset of issues citizens is known to the citizens at the time of elections; many are not even known, but we definitively assign our rights to the ruling elite.

Feudals, monarchs and dictators are often accused of placing themselves above law.

There is a widespread feeling that Indian lawmakers have clothed themselves with too much protection, not strictly justifiable on public purpose.

If the ruling political party tables such a protective legislation, will not the opposition be tempted to go along? Democrats are not strictly above feudalistic urges.

The privilege of periodically voting out the corrupt, oppressive or non-performing, may be a plus. But it induces a short-term outlook on political issues, and the uncertainty can lead to mindless corruption.

The current (in India) drawbacks like political indecision, the largest parties being held to ransom and inaction by a few individuals and excessive urge for political corruption can be laid at the door of our democratic system. And it seems impossible to rectify it.

Happiness matters

On balance, democracy's case as a preferred political system appears rather feeble. It may be better to keep the end — happiness and harmony — in mind than excessively focus on the means, namely, democracy.

Recently in Syria, I asked the politically savvy tourist guide on what kind of democracy they would prefer: the two or three parties as in the US or the UK or the raucous multi-party as in India.

Pat came the reply: ‘Sir, are we not capable of designing our own system based on our aspirations, local conditions, culture and leadership. Do we necessarily have to copy either of you?'

When most in the Western world want designer-ware for their jewellery and haircuts, to hope a single strain of democracy will best serve every society, and thrust it forcefully down on unsuspecting societies, is hypocritical — and yes, undemocratic.

(The author works as CFO of a paper company.)

Published on May 11, 2012

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