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Monday, August 19, 2013

Majoritarian Thinking

The World Bears Witness to its Destructive Outcomes

Sixty-eight years ago on August 6, American planes dropped “atom bombs” on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  This reprehensible act 0f the Harry S Truman administration is worth examining. Apart from the moral and humanitarian dissent against nuclear weapons, there also were strategic differences. Allen Dulles, who was CIA chief at the time, admitted in a candid television interview years later that he knew the Japanese wanted to surrender and had informed the administration. There were other influential voices, including one Gen Dwight D Eisenhower, ranged against the bombings.  President Truman and his advisers ignored them.

Truman’s motives were duplicitous: one, avenge Pearl Harbor and two, get a head start on the Soviet Union in the incipient arms race. Besides, the Democrats had been in office since 1933, having been elected for three successive terms under Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  So it was easy for Truman, who was sworn in after FDR’s death in April 1945, to ride roughshod over dissenting voices.

The allusion to this controversial decision is by way of drawing attention to a political phenomenon that is sweeping emergent democracies in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Russia, in Belarus; also in established democracies like Turkey and Hungary: that democracy is a winner-take-all system in which the majority can assert power without any concern for dissenters.

Majoritarian politics has prevailed in most Western democracies. Concepts like public order and national security have often triumphed over notions of privacy and human rights. We’ve seen the case of the US National Security Agency snooping on citizens; Swiss authorities confining asylum seekers to mountainside bunkers and restricting their movement.

Challenges to the majority principle first arose in the United States and the United Kingdom, where equal rights, racial discrimination and nuclear disarmament became central political issues, on which elections were won and lost. In both countries though, conservative leaders emerged to revive the Majoritarian agenda: in Britain, Margaret Thatcher and in the US, Ronald Reagan succeeded in restoring national security and free-market economics as the focus of public policy, steamrollering “bleeding heart liberals.”

In India, too, prevalent political winds are driving policy in the Majoritarian direction.  Hindu nationalists want to define India as a Hindu nation. On the other hand, India’s business barons want a Thatcher-Reagan style focus on business-friendly government policies.  Both support a Majoritarian order, in which policies are made without concern for alternative views.

Such hard-line thinking, notable for its deaf-blind approach to alternative streams of thought, can lead to serious breaches of national security. Witness the strife on the streets of Istanbul, Cairo and elsewhere. It happens also in the mature democracies of the West, though  a strong and effective security regime there simply overwhelms protest.   

Back in India, the current government seems to be aware of the ascent of Majoritarian forces. Given an inept security apparatus, it has allowed dissent full play. For that, it has been lambasted as being paralyzed, without vision, corrupt and inept. A lot of the criticism is noise; fact is, the ruling dispensation has been able to complete nearly two full terms and notch up some significant policy gains.

Negotiation and the art of compromise could help govern this diverse milieu of warring interests and rising aspirations. However, in India, as elsewhere in the world, intolerance is on the rise and people, bureaucrats and politicians articulate extreme positions on every subject from economic policy to foreign affairs, from urban governance to rural development.

One group of people feels the government’s policies in aid of the poor are profligate, pointing to “leakages.” Another group feels the government is not doing enough to help the poor; a third lot feel the government’s policies are a drag on the economy. This clash of perspectives has fueled public debate in India since Independence. Today, this is compounded by an immature opposition party that disrupts Parliament; a shrill media with opinionated and crusading journalists, obstructionist bureaucrats and a cynical citizenry.

The result is a pervasive sense of disaffection in which rational and mature opinions have been marginalized; in their place is a general disenchantment with politics and its practitioners. This sort of opting out has created space for champions of Majoritarian politics. They offer visions of decisive leadership with a sub textual rant against the “vermin,” religious, ethnic and ideological opponents.

Kemal Ataturk, the first president of Turkey, led the nationalist movement after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. He is credited with turning his Muslim majority country into a modern, secular democracy following the First World War. India had a parallel in Jawaharlal Nehru, who did something similar after the Second World War.  Ataturk’s Turkey and Nehru’s India are both under challenge today by advocates of Majoritarian politics.

An edited version of this article appeared in The Economic Times, August 17, 2013.