What Ails Democracy?
There is a well-grounded belief that irrespective of the state of socio-economic progress, democracy as a form of government has not been able to take firm root in many societies. Internationally reputed think tanks tell us that the number of illiberal democracies has registered an unfortunate increase in recent years. This is undoubtedly a frustrating development, as democracy worldwide continues to be the preferred mode of governance. At least that is what most liberal thinkers would have us believe.
Therefore, when people become apathetic or show signs of losing faith in the efficacy of democracy delivering the goods, it is definitely a cause for concern. Such a scenario must compel us to look into the reasons of the apparent failure of democracy, particularly in the so-called developing part of the world, especially our subcontinent.
One has to recollect the great saying of French thinker Montesquieu who, in the eighteenth century, said: "The tyranny of a prince in an oligarchy is not so dangerous to the public welfare as the apathy of a citizen in a democracy."
To begin with, it would appear that in the developing world, many politicians have a vested interest in illiteracy because their political survival depends to a large extent on the continuation of the forces of ignorance. To them, poverty is good business as they talk continually about it without having the will, expertise or imagination to eradicate it.
In the political discourses, we also often see a tendency to press home a partisan advantage to its bitter end which neither understands and respects the other side nor supports unity among all citizens. There is very little appreciation of the habits of consent and compromise which are attributes of mature political societies. Consequently, we do not see a lawful government by the majority, run under the principle of rule of law, and with the freedom of expression and dissent guaranteed. It is thus no wonder that in the absence of the spirit of moderation, society tends to degenerate into division while hatred replaces goodwill.
There is little concern for public good and also lack of interest in public welfare. The "carefulness" about personal property is matched only by the carelessness about public property. The decay of the institutions has also taken a heavy toll. There is an unfortunate lack of appreciation of the reality that in a young republic, leaders produce institutions and later the same institutions produce leaders. Consequently, institutions, particularly the educational ones that aim at generating excellence and producing "movers of people, mobilisers of opinion", have actually been downgraded and devalued. Many of us do not realise the contrast between what our educational institutions were like during the initial decades and what they have been reduced to in the last four decades.
It is, therefore, not surprising that the public leaders remain occupied in maintaining a system which is poisoned by collective bad faith and also by individual avarice. Values that are detrimental to the flowering of democracy abound in such an atmosphere.
The staying power of democracy varies from country to country. Any failure on the economic front cannot cause grave damage to a country if its political institutions acquire durability through age and tradition. There will be cause for worry if there are fragile institutions and a constitution which is looked upon by the politicians as so pliant that it can be bent to any whim or caprice of the ruling plan.
To halt the hobbling of democracy, the strength of the political institutions must be increased. The individual must not be completely subordinated to the state because dwarfing the individual will create a situation where nothing great can be accomplished. The tone of public life has to be high. There cannot be any democracy without meritocracy. For the good of the country, ignorance, incompetence and dishonesty must be considered as disqualifications for high public offices, and integrity and impartiality must be insisted upon in judicial appointments.
The leaders have to ensure the creation of an environment where every class of citizens puts their nation above their respective party and group—where the spirit of change from privilege to talent, and from the accident of birth to the accent on calibre, is brought about in all corporate and public affairs; where businessmen and professionals realise that money has to be earned rather than be got or won; where there is a collective effort to stop the society from disintegrating into factions and divisions; where there is a realisation that there is no substitute for knowledge and integrity in public life; where individuals are appointed to public offices because of what they are and not because they belong to a particular group or a region; and where there is a realisation that the government can achieve substantial gains by unleashing the energies of citizens.
Muhammad Nurul Huda is a former IGP of Bangladesh.