Democracy and the January 5 election

by Maha Mirza

Paul Bremer, the US-appointed interim governor of Iraq, in May 2003, just weeks after the bombing of Baghdad, explained exactly how democracy would take shape in post-Saddam Iraq. He declared: ‘Iraq is open for business’. Afterwards, democracy in Iraq arrived with ‘duty-free imported goods’, and a $39.5 billion dollar contract with Hulliburton Co.

Free market and democracy?
09The 1970s era of decolonisation and democratisation defined as the ‘third wave of democratisation’ by Samuel Huntington came under serious scrutiny in the 1990s due to the post-Soviet age of heavy corporatisation of public services. The breakdown of Keynesian economic regimes ultimately led to an epoch of high growth, low services, and a hyper casino economy. Left parties weakened, ideological differences between political parties disappeared, trade unions squashed, free health care vanished, and public housings and old men’s pension funds strangled. Tight instructions fed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank squeezed up the liberty of the parliaments from Poland to India, Mozambique to Thailand. The decline of working classes in the Anglo-Saxon region in the 1970s–1980s era, combined with the rise of a toxic casino economy in the 1990s had produced a political class that no longer pursues the agenda of the masses. Policy-making no longer prioritised health and housing of the citizens. Electoral representatives in the third world turned into the contractors of the IMF at the best, and pimps of local mafia at the worst.
By the 1990s, it was clear that regardless of ‘left’ or ‘right’ party ideology of the government, state policy was favouring the agenda of big business. Even in the once ‘Nehruvian’ India, both the Bhartiya Janata Party and the Congress party were equally keen for signing in nuclear deals. In the United States, both the democrats and the republicans got fattened by Monsanto pay cheques. In the United Kingdom, both the Labour Party and the Tories attempted to disconnect the party base from the manual labours. The rise of big business backing in electoral politics, and the policy manipulation of suited-booted ‘experts’, the elite, company agents, and technocrats had gradually hollowed out every institutions of democracy, along with the very mechanism of checks and balances. According to Indian journalist P Sainath, the 20th century has seen three extra ordinary phenomenon — the rise and growth of democracy, the rise and growth of corporate power, and the rise and growth of corporate power to tie and strangle the rise and growth of democracy.
What has been striking in the post-Soviet political economy is the contention that there is no external challenge left either to free market or to liberal democracy, that there is no internal tension between free market and liberal democracy, and that the two are compatible and complementary. So powerful and pervasive has been its propagation that the last two decades have witnessed a near universal acceptance of such hoax. As a result, free market and democracy got unproblematically tied together as a pretty package.

Election and democracy
Needless to say, in pursuit of that end, the institutions of democracy in our era have become nothing other than ideological shells. Oddly, the very understanding of democracy has been reduced to the technicality of elections, and elections have become fabulous institutional arrangements which ensure no intervention in the policy making. Exclusive media attention to election malpractices as the key features of democracy turned political priorities away from long-term and meaningful issues concerning gas, water, roads, hospitals and free trade agreements. Citizens of the country can hardly intervene into price increase of electricity. Workers can hardly take part in their wage boards. Farmers have no clue when Bt brinjal enters the market. The election periods are deliberately disconnected from the possibility of consistent political input of the masses. Just to wind up, this is the single biggest lacuna in our two decades-old democracy: the failure to move from an election-only democracy to a participatory democracy.
German philosopher Joseph Schumpeter (a neoliberal by today’s standards) had defined democracy as ‘a mere institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions… by making the people itself decide issues through the election of individuals’. Afterwards, American political philosopher Michael Sandel referred to such ‘narrowed’ version of democracy as a mere ‘procedural republic’. Indian academician Kohli pushed it further by stating, ‘in which common people are only needed at the time of elections, and then it is best that they all go home, forget politics, and let the “parliamentarian elites” quietly run a money making show.’ This only serves to highlight the fact that in a ‘procedural republic’, every crook can govern.
It is nothing new that mere election cannot guarantee the dignity and quality of a democratic political process. Ballot boxes cannot stop MPs from having hush-hush deals with business groups. Polling agents cannot stop transport owners, bridge contractors, and Yaba dealers from occupying the parliament (after all, 58 per cent of our elected representatives are all businessmen). It is well fleshed out that elected representatives in this country have long formed a narrow oligarchy seated on the apex of the parliament. We vote, we elect, and then we shut up. Nobody knows what a big casino the elected fellows are running during the inter election periods.
But this time it is a peculiar moment of our history of democracy. Of course, it is nothing new that we have been prematurely celebrating a ‘democratic system’ which is just utterly flawed. However, with the January 5 election (which violated every conceivable electoral ethics and which was more of a soap opera then of an election), we have entered an era which is not only utterly flawed, but terribly perverted. Rarely has the nation witnessed the kind of perversion, in the name of democracy, as it is prevalent today.
This is indeed a khas moment for the idea of Schumpeterian procedural democracy. After the January 5 malfunctioned election, it has become vital to declare that elections after all are not so bad. Elections after all bring legitimacy to the process. Elections after all showcase the ‘equality’ of voters at least once in five years. Elections after all help kicking out the latest fascist. If we are slipping from liberalism to fascism, and if radical democracy or socialism is nowhere on the political horizon, what is there left for hopeless public to do other than reclaiming the very last skins of democracy? At this time, let us just say, the battle for real democracy (with my right to public services and legal entitlements) can wait a bit. For right now, just give the hell back my right to vote.
Maha Mirza is a researcher and activist. She is a graduate in economics and international political economy.

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