The fragility of our democratic institutions

The rise of Donald Trump and Arvind Kejriwal—two completely different individuals—highlights a growing discontent with politics in many democracies


US president-elect Donald Trump (left) and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal. Photographs by Getty Images/AFP and Raj K. Raj/Hindustan Times
US president-elect Donald Trump (left) and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal. Photographs by Getty Images/AFP and Raj K. Raj/Hindustan Times

Donald Trump has given the world a scare. A man who cared two hoots for established conventions of politics; who defeated the professional politicians in the Republican party; whose trump card was that he is an anti-establishment “un-politician”. His unexpectedly large following in the US has alarmed the world. In India, the other huge democracy, the Aam Aadmi Party, running on the plank of a new, people’s politics against the political establishment, made a clean sweep in the Delhi state election. Trump and Arvind Kejriwal are completely different persons who tapped into a rising discontent of citizens in many democracies: they are turned off by politics as usual.

The Economist reports 25% of Americans born since 1980 believe democracy is a bad form of government. In the Czech Republic there is concern with turnout in some elections falling as low as 15%. The fragility of democratic institutions was the core theme this year at “Forum 2000”, which was established by Václav Havel, (the playwright-philosopher, who led Czechoslovakia’s peaceful Velvet Revolution against Soviet rule), for thought leaders to reflect on the state of democracy in the world. Some underlying causes of the fragility of democracy highlighted were: professional politicians, the state of political parties, and the menace of money and social media.

Politics is the process of accumulating power and applying it to produce desired ends. Change in an established order cannot be brought about without power to overcome it. For nations and societies to progress there must be politics. Havel was often criticized for being too idealistic: a dreamer, not a politician. He said, “Politics must be more than just a technology of power. (It must) provide a genuine service for citizens, a service that follows the moral order that stands above us, that takes into account the long-term interests of the human race and not just what appeals to the public at any given moment.” In “apolitical politics”, that Havel advocated, the desired ends of the process are achievement of the goals of society. In “political politics”, politicians joust with each other to rule nations and organizations to achieve their personal ends, without much concern for the aspirations of citizens.

At Forum 2000 this year, there was a special session on the ideas of M.K. Gandhi and Havel. Gandhi was a politician par excellence, who harnessed the power of masses to overpower an empire. He used his political power to make improvements in the conditions of the masses. Today in India, professional politicians, like termites, seem to have penetrated and eroded almost every institution. There was a wistful yearning at Forum 2000 for “apolitical” political leaders in the mould of Gandhi and Havel.

Large political parties breed professional politicians. After India secured its independence in 1947, Gandhi had asked the leaders of the Congress party to retreat to Sevagram in Maharashtra and reflect on what should be the future role and form of the Congress party. Gandhi was assassinated. Nevertheless, the meeting was held in February 1948. Vinoba Bhave and Acharya Kripalani advocated a decentralized and service-oriented organization. They warned that centralized, hierarchical organizations will dissipate energies in internal matters and power politics, and the people will not be served. Too often, after organizations have earned their laurels, as the Congress party did in the freedom movement, they rest too long on them, till they begin to rust, and decay. Thus political parties lose their souls and become merely means for professional politicians to accumulate power for their own ends. The Aam Aadmi Party, whose promise was politics with a difference, sadly seems to many to have become just another political party.

Money corrupts democratic institutions. Candidates must communicate with voters. Electoral campaigns are becoming very expensive. If one candidate can spend a lot, others must spend even more for the fear of losing whatever they have invested in. Thus, financiers of candidates and political parties, and owners of mainstream media, have acquired great power in democracies.

With the Arab Spring, social media seemed to have provided the means for citizens, from outside the politician establishment, to overcome the power of autocracies. Barack Obama used social media to assist him against democracy’s Establishment (professional politicians, political parties, and the big money that supports them). However, disillusionment with social media ran through the discussions at Forum 2000.

The Arab Spring failed. Wael Ghonim, the Internet activist who helped spawn the Arab Spring in Egypt with his Facebook posts, says that the structure of social media promotes “mobocracy”, not democracy. He says that it brings together people “with common passions...irrespective of whether the information they share is the truth, rumour or lies”. “While once social media was seen as a liberating means to speak truth to power. Now the issue is how to speak truth to social media,” Ghonim says.

Technology cannot be a substitute for democratic institutions. Democratic institutions are built by leaders with a vision for an inclusive, just and democratic society. Reform of institutions is always a political process because power has to be accumulated and used against vested interests. For a rare breed of “apolitical politicians”, such as Havel and Gandhi were, politics is the means to create change in the established order that will benefit society. For professional politicians, politics is a competition to acquire power for their parties and themselves.

A health-check of India will ensure that the economy is growing, and that India is beginning to stand up in the world. Looking within, it will reveal that democratic institutions are in peril. India’s political parties and politicians are fixated on winning elections. Money is corrupting the media. Social media is running amok. Within weakening democracies, when citizens become disillusioned with politics as usual, demagogues can rise.

Arun Maira served in the erstwhile Planning Commission.

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