Democracy and demagoguery have the same root: demos or Greek for ‘people’. So why is it that we value the first but decry the second?
The highly educated ‘citizens of the world’ from privileged backgrounds who became leaders of the newly decolonized countries of the 1950s and 60s, were nonetheless loved and re-elected by their people and became quintessential democrats, articulating the hopes and aspirations of the common woman and man. These leaders gave us the Non-aligned Movement and the OAU and strengthened the various institutions under the United Nations. Within their countries, they did their best to undo the ravages of centuries of colonial rule by institution-building, redistributive justice, and vast welfare and poverty alleviation programmes. They also endeavoured to bring their countries into the modern era by developing a scientific temper through modern and universal education. By providing greater inclusion and equity in society and a more people-friendly and responsive administration, these pioneering democrats left us with the templates of good governance.
This path of international cooperation led inevitably to a globalized and interconnected world in the last years of the previous century, and societies today have become irrevocably changed by the resulting technology and the concentration of capital in fewer and fewer hands. It was only to be expected that this new era of growing inequity and inequality and the corporatization of national policy would throw up its own leaders – and this has indeed come to pass from the Americas, through Europe, to Asia.
Despite the liberalization and privatization of national economies, we have seen the demise of the liberal, the democrat, and the rise of the demagogue – a preacher and practitioner of principles contrary to democratic ideals: exclusion instead of inclusion, inequality instead of equity, narrow nationalism, centralized decision-making, polarization of society at large, and a deep discontent not addressed but allowed to simmer, so that it can erupt at the ‘right’ moment. We are living in an era of poor governance and can do little to change this state of affairs.
This slide from democracy to demagoguery is as visible in the US today as in India. Does it mean that we subvert democracy to dislodge the demagogues, who remain immensely popular with large sections of their electorate, nonetheless. Or go back to the rule of an elite? That is the eternal dilemma facing all liberals today.
It is essential to understand how the mind of a demagogue works, so that he can survive failure after failure and still feel secure:
- A demagogue (by definition) believes that he knows best so he will eschew advice, dismantle advisory bodies and institutions, tear up treaties, trade agreements and protocols, build walls and surround himself with those who entirely agree with him, stifling dissent and rewarding sycophancy. This deprives him of insights, knowledge and information which are necessary for making the right decisions.
- Secondly, demagogues tend to believe their own rhetoric. This makes them incapable of objectively analyzing the ground reality and learning from their mistakes, so no corrective action is ever taken.
Take the case of India – the PM, a demagogue par excellence, promised to galvanize the Indian economy by bringing in Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) on an unprecedented scale, for which he travelled to every corner of the world. And soon the absolute figures were proudly touted around to show that the promise had been fulfilled. However, when economists began to query the authenticity of these claims, it emerged that absolute FDI figures were meaningless as all such figures grow from year to year like the population and GDP of a country. It is when we examine the FDI to GDP ratio that we notice how poor India’s performance has really been on this front. A clear case of believing one’s rhetoric without closer examination.
The Indian Government has also given great publicity to the fact that India has climbed in the ‘Ease of doing business’ rankings because of the government’s efforts to cut red tape. Therefore, the following assessment by its own agency (NCAER) is all the more damning:
Yet again, the demagogue cannot believe that his actions have directly or indirectly contributed to this state of affairs and instead of taking responsibility, will blame it upon his predecessors, the solar eclipse, the astral configuration, the Nehru family, whatever…
Let us look again at these constraints in the light of government’s actions/inaction:
Corruption: You cannot fight corruption on the one hand while institutionalizing it on the other by permitting unlimited, anonymous donations to political parties, where this money is brazenly used for buying votes in the villages and legislators in State Assemblies.
Clearances: You cannot expect the administration to act expeditiously or efficiently when all decision making is centralized in a few hands, and tools of greater transparency like the Right to Information Act are being diluted to total ineffectiveness.
Skilled Labour : You cannot launch instant solutions like Mission Skill India expecting it to produce a skilled workforce overnight, while grossly neglecting both universal primary and secondary education and vocational training, as these are long-term and resource-heavy commitments which do not fit into a 5-year electoral mindset.
Land acquisition : You cannot tinker with Land Laws. As the government’s fiasco in diluting the social impact analysis and consent elements of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 early in its tenure showed, land is an extremely emotive issue in rural India and can make or break a government. So, India’s land acquisition continues to be mired in endless red tape and litigation.
Policy issues : There is immense confusion about most tax and financial policies of the present government, and businesses need unambiguity and clarity. There is no clear cut tax policy and it gets chopped and changed in every annual budget.
Law and Order: This remains a great worry in an India where lynch mobs, communal riots, rapes and murders are the staple of daily news, and the government is increasingly perceived as being indifferent to the deteriorating situation.
A clear case of blatant and repeated failures of governance.
Does this mean that the next election will see a regime change? Unlikely. Please remember that the definition of a demagogue is: “… a leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power”. So how long does it take to reawaken old prejudices about religion, caste, class, race or immigration to get re-elected? Meanwhile the ‘liberal democrat’ can go back to airing his discontent in 280 characters on Twitter. Sad indeed.