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Global conversations on democracy: The search for democratisation

Dominant institutionalisation of power in the state apparatus is today largely negotiated by three Ms -- Market, Military and Media -- controlled by the politico-bureaucratic-economic elites of a country, writes John Samuel The ideals and idea of democracy are being subverted by a new nexus of corporate interests: an entrenched nexus of interests and power configurations between the political, economic, bureaucratic and media elites that has captured the electoral process and apparatus of the state in the name of democracy 

Ironies of democracy

Subversion has become the hallmark of postmodern politics, where everyone only has ‘user value’. While dominant mainstream politics at the national and international level may use the language of democracy to claim moral and political legitimacy, the powerful political-economic elites are engaged in undermining the substantive moral and political content of the democratic process: a linguistic exercise of using the language of ‘freedom’ to undermine the rights and dignity of citizens, people and communities of a country.

Dominant institutionalisation of power in the state apparatus is largely negotiated by three Ms -- Market, Military and Media -- controlled by the politico-bureaucratic-economic elites of a country. The ideals and idea of democracy are being subverted by a new nexus of corporate interests: an entrenched nexus of interests and power configurations between the political, economic, bureaucratic and media elites that has captured the electoral process and apparatus of the state in the name of democracy. The financing of elections, political parties and their leaders by corporate monopolies (in return for access to natural resources, tax evasion and profits) has undermined the political and moral content of even so-called ‘mature’ democratic systems across the world, in the global North as well as the South.

The present predicament is well captured by John Gaventa: “Around the world, the forms and meaning of democratic participation are under contestation. In Iraq, Fallujah is bombed in the name of making the country ready for democracy; in Indonesia, Ukraine and United States, voters and observers are gripped in debates and protest against electoral democracy; in Cancun and other global venues, streets are occupied by those demanding more democracy in global processes; in small villages and neighbourhoods, grassroots groups are claiming their place in local democratic spaces. Democracy is at once the language of military power, neo-liberal market forces, political parties, donor agencies and NGOs. What is going on?” He further elaborates: “The way to deal with a crisis of democracy or democratic deficit is to extend democracy itself -- that is to go beyond our traditional understanding of representative democracy, through creating and supporting more participatory spaces of citizens’ engagement, which in turn are built on the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.”

Internalised orders of power

The subversion, misuse and abuse of power have systemic and socio-historical manifestations in various contexts. This has to do with the way power is institutionalised and internalised in a given society with a particular cultural and political history. For example, the political elites of South Asia demonstrate the embedded feudalism and cumulative hierarchies(through the caste system) internalised within the collective memory of society. The one common defining political aspect of South Asia is that the power elites in most South Asian countries (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Afghanistan) operate through family networks and caste/identity networks to acquire and maintain power. Such an internalised ‘order of power’ tends to undermine the process and content of the democratic process.

Though political parties play a cardinal role in the democratic process of a country, the irony is that political parties themselves show the least internal democracy or accountability. In most cases, political parties are reduced to institutionalised forms of ‘interest’ networks to capture and control state power. In many countries in Africa, the use and abuse of power can also be linked to internalisation of power in the form of tribal hierarchies and identities. In China or East Asia there may be a different historical and cultural context to the internalised order of power. In Europe and North America, such internalised orders of power have links with Protestant or Catholic values at the deep structure of the mainstream political process.
Historical memories of colonial and post-colonial discourse, military contestation and hegemonic knowledge formations play an important role in shaping collective perceptions about the ‘form’ and ‘meaning’ of democracy in Europe and North America. And so the process of democratisation -- as a political and moral process -- and operationalisation of democratic systems as a form of government and governance are in constant negotiation with the ‘internalised order of power’ within a particular socio-historical and cultural context.

Multiple disjunctures

There is a disjuncture between the academic discourse on democracy/democratisation, party-driven political processes and the grassroots process of politics that operate through informal or semi-formal networks of identities, interests and power. The disjuncture between knowledge and practice of politics and democracy at multiple levels creates an exclusivearena of discursive politics. This disconnect creates problems translating and transmitting ideas and practices beyond each sphere. The problem of ‘language’ and ‘communication’ in creating and perpetuating the ‘disjunctures of democracy’ is philosophical, political and technological.

Ideals of democracy and democratisation

Democracy works when citizens and the most marginalised are able to ask questions, seek accountability from the state and participate in the process of governance. Democracy becomes meaningful when people can shape the state, and the state in turn is capable of creating enabling social, political, economic and legal conditions wherein people can exercise their rights and realise freedom from fear and want.

It is not merely elections or universal adult franchise that defines the process of democracy. While the constitutional framework and human rights guarantees may form the grammar of democracy, it is always people and the ethical quality of the political process that make democracy work. Democracy involves dignity, diversity, dissent, development, participation, and accountability. Unless the very last person is able to celebrate this sense of dignity, exercise democratic dissent and be involved in the process of governance and development, democracy remains empty rhetoric. It dies where discrimination begins and the politics of exclusion takes root.

Democratisation is a political as well as ethical process based on human dignity and the empowerment of people wherein people participate, irrespective of gender, race, identity or age, in decisions and institutions that affect their lives. Democratisation involves the devolution of power in all institutional arenas. This means also democratisation of information, knowledge, economic resources and technology. Thus the ethics and practice of democratisation is relevant in all institutional settings, from the family to the state and global institutions.

Democratisation as a political and ethical value depends on equality of all human beings, their right to participate in the social and political process, their right to development, and their right to live with dignity.

While democratisation is an ethical and political value, democracy is a political system of government. Substantive democratic governance requires both the process of democratisation and the effectiveness of democracy as a political system, based on the Constitution, rule of law, and accountable institutions.

Plurality of discourse and locations

The most visible and dominant discourse on democracy is derived from the Athenian legacy (where women and slaves were excluded from the process) of western liberal democratic theory, and the ideas that emerged during the Enlightenment. There is a need to reconstruct a pluralistic history of the process of democratisation in other cultures as well as ethical traditions such as Buddhism and Islam.

Amartya Sen, in his book The Argumentative Indian, discussed the various trajectories and histories of public argument and ethical governance (particularly during the reign of Ashoka and, later, Emperor Akbar). Some of the most inspiring experiments in grassroots democratisation and the claiming of democracy at the national level emerged during struggles against colonialism and apartheid. In mainstream discussions on governance, democracy and the rule of law hardly any mention is made of the freedom struggles of people in Asia, Africa or Latin America, or mass political movements for democracy led by Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.

The process of democratisation is also a function of culture and history at a given point in time. However, these histories and experiences are often ignored or marginalised by academic institutions and proponents of the Euro-American model of liberal democracy. The political economy of knowledge-production, dissemination and marketing is still controlled by privileged institutions and think-tanks in the global North. Hence most of us are taught a privileged history and model of western liberal democracy. Even the so-called ‘southern’ discourse is shaped by academic and civil society elites who derive their academic credentials from the dominant academic paradigms and universities of the North. Often therefore, the ‘critique’ of northern discourses of political theory itself is a corollary discourse of the dominant political economy of knowledge. This is partly a problem of the ‘language’ through which this is ‘taught’ and ‘expressed’, and partly the political economy of funding of institutional locations through which knowledge is negotiated and generated.

Democratic governance

Substantive democratic governance demands radicalising democracy through a deepening and widening of the process of democratisation of state and institutions of governance. Social movements and civil society organisations, which act as a counterbalance and counterweight to the dominant powers of state and non-state actors, play an important role in deepening the democratic process and expanding spaces wherein the poor and excluded are able to participate and challenge the governance process. Power relationships are inherent in the process of governance at various levels.

The process of democratisation has both grassroots and global dimensions. It necessarily involves the empowerment of women, minorities and people disenfranchised for historical or structural reasons. Democratisation at the global level requires the free flow of information, knowledge and coordinated action and a shared sense of global solidarity based on the values of justice, equality and human rights. Such a sense of solidarity can be built in the public sphere through ‘communicative action’. Habermas explains the conditions for reaching a common understanding: “I speak of communicative action when the action orientations of the participating actors are not coordinated via egocentric calculations of success, but through acts of understanding. Participants are not primarily oriented towards their own success in communicative action: they pursue their individual goal under the condition that they can coordinate their action plans on the basis of shared definitions of the situation.” Such a shared sense of communicative action implies argumentative rationality, where participants in a discourse are open to being persuaded by the better argument and relations of power and hierarchy recede into the background. The goal of such communicative action is to reach a reasoned consensus. A sense of solidarity, a sense of identifying with fellow human beings through the common bond of humanness and dignity can make the process of democratisation deliberate, creative and participatory.

In spite of rapid economic growth, India is still home to entrenched poverty and social and economic inequality. When there are islands of prosperity in a sea of poverty and inequality, the participation of everyone as equal citizens is all the more challenging. We may have to go miles before realising Gandhi’s dream of Gram Swaraj, where: “Every village has to become a self-sufficient republic. This requires brave, corporate and intelligent work... I have not pictured a poverty-stricken India containing ignorant millions. I have pictured an India continually progressing along the lines best suited to her genius. I do not, however, picture it as a third class or even first class copy of the dying civilisation of the West. If my dream is fulfilled every one of the seven lakh villages becomes a well-living republic in which there is no illiteracy, in which no one is idle for want of work, in which everyone is usefully occupied and has nourishing food and well-ventilated dwellings, and sufficient khadi for covering the body, and in which all villagers observe the laws of hygiene and sanitation.”

Party politics and democracy

The quality and stability of a democratic process depend on the quality and strength of the institutional framework and socio-political process that sustain the body politics of a country. While a good constitutional framework and electoral process are important indicators of any democratic system, elections are not in themselves a guarantee for the success of a democracy.

Political parties are a crucial factor in a viable democratic system. There appears to be a direct connection between the health of the political party system and the vitality and long-term viability of a democracy. A vibrant political party system may be likened to the blood vessels of the body politic of a country. 

Political parties are socio-political institutions in the public sphere that help citizens interface and negotiate with the state. They are also primary legitimising agents of the government and governing systems of the state. On the one hand they play a crucial role in representing citizens, people and societal interests. On the other, political parties also serve as the network mechanism for state institutions and major forces of power operating in a given context. There are therefore important political, social, cultural and class dimensions to the political party system. The deeper political parties are rooted in the real issues, needs and aspirations of people, the greater the chances of the party thriving.

In the absence of a multi-party system -– a grassroots presence, committed cadre of leaders and wide network within society -- the democratic process can be subverted and the political process appropriated by a minority of vested interests. Though such vested interests may use a political party for convenience, even create one to serve the purpose of sustaining power, they tend to annihilate and subvert all other political party processes. This is one of the single biggest challenges to sustaining a vibrant democratic system of governance.

The social function and legitimising role of political parties is under unprecedented strain today. In most countries, political parties have rather less institutional history and social roots. Many emerged as a corollary to state power and an instrument for sustaining this power. In many countries, particularly decolonised countries, nation-states and political parties are the consequences rather than the cause of decolonisation.

One of the major distinctions between mature democracies and vulnerable democracies is the state of political parties in the respective countries. In many ways, the strength, limitations and contradictions of the political party system are reflected in the process of governance and character of the state.

An educated and economically sustainable middle class plays a crucial role in the making and unmaking of political parties. In many countries, the absence of a vibrant middle class and presence of a very small minority of political elite undermine the democratic process. Political parties, as institutions, need funds and this requires an active economy with people or organisations with enough money to fund parties, either because of interest or because of issues. In most countries, the lack of a middle class and vibrant economy makes political parties unviable institutions.

All over the world, political parties are in crisis. They have been reduced to mere electoral mechanisms or networks to capture state power. They are less and less social institutions or legitimising agents of the political process; they have increasingly turned into ‘interest networks’ promoted by larger economic forces and various shades of identity politics. In most so-called democracies, elections and politics are shaped and mediated by media empires, and funded by big corporate power. This increasing dependence on the media and corporate funds undermines the very character and autonomy of the political party system. As a result, the new political-corporate elites are in the business of subverting the politics and policy framework of the state to maximise profits for a few dominant economic forces in a given economy. 

Many political parties are controlled by a ‘power clique’ and ‘fund managers’, blessed by the media and sustained by corporate funding. The validity of the US presidential candidate depends of how much money the party is able to raise from corporate sources and their ratings in surveys conducted by media empires. As a result, elections are reduced to media stunts, with ‘brand’ slogans and empty policy rhetoric devoid of any in-depth political process or social mediation. 

When media mediation replaces social mediation, the values of democracy are undermined. Political parties are filled with career politicians with the single-point agenda of carving a slice of state power and the privileges and paraphernalia that come with it. There are less and less poets, philosophers, visionaries, scholars, social activists, or policy experts within political parties. With many social activists, writers and intellectuals choosing to work within civil society, political parties are in the grip of an acute shortage of creative and ethical leadership.

Subversion of political parties and democratic values 

While most countries in Western Europe and North America have a fairly long history and institutional basis for political parties, this is not the case with many other countries. India seems to be the exception with its vibrant political party system that evolved over a hundred years, particularly in the context of the freedom struggle, from the second half the 19th century. While South Africa and parts of Latin America have emerging political party systems, in most parts of the world political parties are fragile, ephemeral, or farces of the ruling elite.

One of the reasons for unstable democratic processes in most parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America is the character and nature of the fragile political party system. The system is the result of multiple factors that shaped the history, society and politics of countries after the Second World War. Many countries that freed themselves from the yoke of their West European oppressors failed to develop their own polity or political processes rooted in the context, history and society of that country. 

The very process of decolonising sowed seeds of conflict based on ethnicity, religion and identity. Unlike in India, there weren’t many mass struggles or wider political mobilisations for freedom from colonial powers in the rest of the world. The struggle against colonialisation and imperialism was, in many ways, the start of the process of democratisation and the political process. It was the process of decolonising that ensured the emergence of faulty and fragile democratic systems more often initiated by an educated elite minority in conjunction with the erstwhile colonial power. 

There was hardly any social, cultural and political process of nation-state-formation in earlier colonies that were treated as territories for the extraction of material, agricultural and mineral resources by their colonial masters. As a result, the notion of a modern nation-state was often superimposed on territories and areas where power primarily operated through traditional structures and systems like tribalism and feudalism. In most cases, a liberal–democratic system was superimposed either on feudalism, tribalism and theocratic formations. In the absence of social transformation, democracy was often a veneer to sustain feudal and tribal power networks; most political parties reflected the feudal and tribal characteristics of dominant social forces in that country.

In most decolonised countries, the process of governance was led by a minority of western-educated elites nurtured by the erstwhile rulers and their institutions and heavily dependent on an aid system that offered money and legitimacy. The leaders of many of these former colonies derived their primary legitimacy from the position they held and support they got from their erstwhile colonial masters and allies. This meant very little investment in developing and nurturing a vibrant political party system, as this would have become a thorn in the flesh of the powers-that-be. So, most leaders in erstwhile colonies looked on political parties as a necessary evil to maintain a veneer of socio-political legitimacy for their countries. 

The nation-state and nationality process in Africa, Asia and other countries was negotiated by colonial powers in the first half of the 20th century. Decolonisation also involved sowing seeds of conflict in many erstwhile colonies, making them dependent on the imperial powers for ideas, aid, weapons and legitimacy. A fragmented polity, perpetual conflict, and dependent economic system were a sure recipe for poverty, oppression and subversion. The results are there for all see. Even today the arbitrators of so-called democracy in the South are the institutions and leaders of the North.

Another important reason for the fragile political party system in the global South has been the impact of the Cold War. In many ways, the United States and its allies can be said to have killed off the democratic process by eliminating a whole generation of dynamic, committed leaders in left-leaning opposition and communist parties, in the name of sustaining and promoting democracy. During the height of the Cold War, western and eastern blocks fought for the soul of many countries by funding political parties and political leaders as well as weakening opposition leaders and parties through a well-planned process of annihilation and co-option. 

This process of intervention by external forces undermined the institutional framework and political party system in most countries of the global South. In fact, the Cold War politics of aid, subversive education and ideological dependency weakened the very foundation of the political party process. As a result, many countries of the South depended on the policy framework of either the Soviet Union or the West to shape governance and the economy. This dependency of ideas, knowledge and legitimacy had far-reaching implications in terms of weakening the polity, policy process and political system of countries. 

This is where India is very different from most other decolonised countries. In the Indian context, a long freedom struggle and the role of the Indian National Congress and other political processes helped bring about a deep socialisation of political parties. The vibrant spectrum of political parties based on identity, ideology and a shared freedom struggle paved the way for decolonisation and social reforms rather than the other way round. In the case of India, the Gandhian political praxis and social ethics -- distinct from an imported knowledge policy framework from Europe -- influenced almost all political parties in the country. Other bold experiments and theorisation by scholar-activists like Ambedkar, Nehru and a range of social reformers helped inject an Indian ethos and civilisation content in the political party process across India. A multi-party system with a strong and diverse ideological and identity base helped sustain, stabilise and strengthen a unique brand of Indian democracy. In fact, apart from the Congress Party, the left parties and parties on the right too contributed to make India a viable multi-party democracy. The fact that most Indian politicians still wear khadi and prefer Indian dress (as distinct from many other countries in South-East Asia, Africa and elsewhere) can be seen as a reflection of the ‘Congress system’ and Gandhian legacy.

In other South Asian countries, the absence of a vibrant multi-party system weakened governance as well as democracy. During the Cold War, most left political forces in South Asia were subverted or eradicated by a nexus of the ruling elite and western political and economic forces. The eradication of left political forces in Pakistan and Bangladesh played a huge role in weakening the foundation of the democratic process in both countries. Deep-rooted feudal values (family-based politics is an indication) and identity politics based on caste, religion, ethnicity and sub-nationalities shaped the character and hierarchy of political party systems in many countries of South Asia, including India, perhaps implying that secular values, a cosmopolitan political ethos and democratic values are only skin deep in almost all political party systems in India and the rest of South Asia.

(Draft notes on challenges to democratisation presented at Global Conversations on Democracy, in New Delhi. These are the author’s personal views and do not reflect the position of any of the organisations with which he is associated)

Infochange News & Features, March 2015