Making democracy safe for the world

A Prasanna Kumar

Prof. Ayyagari Prasanna Kumar

Prof. Ayyagari Prasanna Kumar

Almost a hundred years ago, on April 2, 1917 to be precise American President Woodrow Wilson sought the approval of the American Congress for declaration of war against Germany so that the world “be made safe for democracy.” Wilson’s appeal was acclaimed and approved because Germany’s cruel submarine warfare killed ‘many peaceful and innocent lives in one of the darkest periods of modern history’. Since then ‘making the world safe for democracy’ has remained one of the famous quotes in public discourse. Ironically enough the happenings, during the last three decades and more, in the name of freedom and democracy seem to have necessitated an alteration of the Wilsonian maxim into that ‘democracy be made safe for the world.’ Not only because of the fact that during the past three decades 24% of the world’s democracies have broken down and the world is experiencing ‘a slow degradation of political rights and legal procedures  through electoral fraud and the rise of authoritarian leaders’ but also due to the fact that democracy is providing space for demagogues and corrupt elements to exploit the vulnerable and disadvantaged sections of the  society. Authoritarianism, crony capitalism, dynastic rule and primordial loyalties have emaciated democracy to such an extent that rule of law and respect for basic human rights have been marginalized.   

‘Freedom itself is not free’ – is no longer a cliche but a threat looming ominously on the political horizon.  According to Freedom House that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom and human rights ‘the state of freedom is worsening significantly in every part of the world’.  Only 89 countries out of 195 are designated Free and they represent 40 percent of global population, 51 countries are deemed ‘Not Free’ and 55 Partly Free.  125 countries are described as electoral democracies.  Freedom of expression and civil society rights continue to decline.  Added to this is the growing restriction on freedom of movement – all in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948. 

Public concern over the future of democracy is growing as evidenced by the works of scholars and analysts expressing doubts and anxiety about the future of democracy. Democracy in Decline? edited by Larry Diamond and Marc Plattener states that ‘liberal democracy is in trouble’ and the democratic world is in ‘recession.’ In his review of the book in Foreign Affairs issue of May-June 2016 John Ikenberry writes about ‘the undertow of dashed expectations that seems to define the fate of modern democracy: political gridlock, economic stagnation, growing inequality fraying social contracts , reactionary nationalism and rising authoritarianism. They make ‘the stunning observation’ that the world is experiencing ‘ a slow degradation of political rights and legal procedures  through electoral fraud and the rise of authoritarian leaders.’  Marc Plattener in his article in the June issue of Democracy & Society identifies three reasons for doubts about democracy 1) the growing sense that advanced  democracies are in trouble in terms of their economic and political performance at home 2) the new self-confidence and seeming vitality of some authoritarian countries and 3) the shifting geopolitical balance between democracies and their rivals. In the May 2-15 issue of New York Andrew Sullivan writing under the title “Our democracy has never been so ripe for tyranny” refers to the ‘dystopian election’ campaign that has unfolded in the United States. He begins with a quote from Plato’s Republic that “tyranny is probably established out of no other regime than democracy.”  The vicious campaign in the run up to the US Presidential election has unleashed forces that threaten to deepen the fissures in American society. 

Democracy has been hijacked in both advanced and developing countries by demagogues who thrive on evocation of hatred and spread of intolerance. India’s decline as a democracy has been alarmingly steep. Institutions have decayed and professional autonomy has collapsed. The state is now perceived as the main source of all chronic afflictions such as violence, corruption and poverty. Still India’s stability as a  democracy is vital not only for Asia but for the entire world.  It is a testing time for the nation as threats continue to emanate from across the border to India’s security while anti-national forces pose a serious challenge to the unity and integrity of India. Can India come out of the present morass? Why not? Civil society should help politics in making the impossible possible.

– A Prasanna Kumar is the Director, Centre for Policy Studies;

Former Rector and Retd. Professor, Andhra University

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