John Keane | Democracy and Discontent
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Democracy and Discontent

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(Interview with John Keane published by the Times of India , the 12th of March 2005)

The case of democracy is a case of unfulfilled expectations. Timely elections have become a ritual, yet the system does not deliver on expectations.

This is true. We are always chasing “true” democracy. It’s always around the corner or just up the stairs! I do not see this as a flaw, nor is it specifically an Indian complaint. It is a universal aspect of democracy. It is because democracy was a new way of perceiving power that was premised on the fact that human beings can govern themselves. That they do not need gods or kings or despots to run the public affairs for them. Democracy is an utopia; the key is how the disappointments of democracy can be contained.

Lately historians have questioned the roots of democracy being in Greece.

New evidence suggests that democracy is not a Greek invention as was earlier believed. Archaeological and other evidence suggests that democracy began in Meso-potamia in what is modern-day Iraq in about 2500 B.C. They had regular assemblies where sometimes even commoners were a part of the gatherings. These forums had instances of some elected kings. These assemblies were called Puh-rums. This apart, the word democratia from which democracy is derived predates the Greek language.

How important is the Indian experiment with democracy in the context of its history?

The Indian experiment with democracy and its startling success in large part has been crucial in giving democracy a boost. You must bear in mind that democracy had disappeared from much of the world in the 1920s and 1930s, including from large parts of Europe. In this background for India to have chosen the democratic way was a huge boost to the political system.

But we have examples of countries like China who have lifted entire generations out of poverty without democracy. Would a landless peasant prefer vote or eat?

First, it remains to be seen which model of growth — the Chinese or Indian — outlasts the other. As Amartya Sen has pointed out in his work, the Indian experiment is the first one where growth is being attempted through democratic institutions. One should be mindful of the fact that may sober assessments of China — that the Chinese experiment is based on the killing of at least 30 million of their own people. This is a staggering price to pay for growth. There is now a consensus that murders, starvations and other destruction caused at least 30 million deaths since 1945 in China. While historic evidence is mixed in the contribution of democracy to economic growth, there is no conclusive evidence in favour of non-democratic regimes either.

Besides despotism, Islam also has an issue with democracy.

I do not accept that. All three — the Qur’an, the Hadith and historical evidence show that democracy has a play in Islam. While these traditions have an ambiguous record on non-violent power sharing, there have been many instances of democratic structures within Islamic politics. To take one example, Islam kept assemblies (shoura) alive for many centuries when they had died out in Europe. However, it is certainly true that contemporary Islam has had difficulty in finding democracy in its past.

At present the arch from Morocco to Mindanao in the Philippines has the highest concentration of despotic regimes. It has been the exception to the so-called third wave of democracy that swept the world in the 1990s.

The US administration seems to have a view that only secularisation and not Islam deliver democracy in this region?

I think that this view is Orientalist and simplistic. We have rays of hope in Turkey and Malaysia. There is constitutional government with power sharing. The role of Turkey and its treatment of the minorities will come into greater scrutiny as the plan to enter the European Union takes shape.

But was not similar hope shattered violently in Algeria?

Yes, in Algeria the neo-colonial intervention by the French went a long way in undermining democracy. For democracy to work in the Islamic arc two aspects need to be addressed. The first is the inability of the western powers to secure a new deal for the Palestinians. The other is the fact that most of the middle-eastern despotisms do not need to tax their citizens thanks to petro dollars and thus their grip over power rests on a firmer foundation. Bringing democracy to this region is likely to be a complicated process.

What form do you see the imperial democratic project in Iraq taking?

It is too early to tell. Here it is necessary to have an open mind and a sense of irony. One has to have some faith in the power of unintended consequences. It is easy to give motives to the US intervention such as oil and encirclement of China. The best possible outcome can be a good form of Pax Americana. This will need a re-emergence of civil society and protection of religious minorities.