Democracy

We have been asked about the Islamic system of government, whether it is close to democracy or not. Not only the manner of this recent question, but also that of such questions ever asked, carries the message in overtones that since democracy is the best form of government ever, Islam must pull itself up to this level of civilization, if it wants to stay in the court. Democracy, we are told, is the government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” It is the norm, the standard. It is the weighing scale. If Islamic government is close to it, it has a chance. Otherwise, Islam may retreat to mosques where it belongs.

Obviously, this calls for a comparison of the two systems: the Islamic Government by Shoura and democracy. But comparison is far from easy. For, there is no difficulty in stating what an Islamic government stands for, since there is only one kind of it. Any deviated one is not Islamic. But, no such statement can be made about democracy. There are so many kinds and varieties of it. Further, democratic government is one thing in theory and another in practice. And, what is in practice cannot be rejected as not in line with the theoretical because of the looseness in definition. Almost anything can go by the name. In contrast, an Islamic government is so precisely defined that no tricks can be played. Hence its unpopularity. This is an issue that we shall, Allah willing, deal with some other time. At the moment our hands are full with democracy.

We also hear that the Western type of democracy works very well. We are not sure what this statement means. Why should Western type of democracy be singled out? Any type of government will work well, if there is agreement among the people over it. For example, the Chinese type of government, whatever you call it, also works well. Why? Because, most Chinese have no serious objection to it. Similarly, the Egyptian form of government, whatever you call it, also works well. (The West loves to call it democratic because the ruling party in that country is always voted back to power with 99% percent votes)! So is the Russian form of government. It runs smoothly. Why then Western type of democracy is singled out for praise? It is certainly not the only form of government that works very well.

To repeat, any form of government over which there is a general consensus among the people that that’s what they want, or that’s what they will not oppose, will work very well: whether it is democracy, dictatorship, monarchy, military rule, or whatever. For example, Hitler’s dictatorship worked very well. Germany made tremendous material progress during his reign. It became a failure only when he lost the war. If he had won, he would have been remembered as “Hitler the Great”, just as “Alexander the Great.” What’s the difference between the two except that one lost and the other won, and except that Alexander failed on the economic front, but Hitler succeeded?!

It is also said that the Western type of democracy is the ideal form of government. It has helped several countries achieve tremendous material growth, notably in the Western Hemisphere, and more particularly in the United States. We may ask, what role democracy has played in the fast-pace material development of the Far Eastern countries? Indeed, Singapore has a strict autocratic regime. And what about China? Does democracy account for the great strides it has been making in the recent times threatening to become an economic giant? On the other hand, consider smaller European nations. Belgium has always been a democratic country. But why has it not become a superpower? And what about some of the South American countries? They are large (as against Belgium), with plenty of natural resources, full of immigrants from Europe (just as the USA), and have been democratic for a good number of decades. They are not even among the top 30 materially developed nations. We are sure to each question raised above there is a satisfactory answer. And those answers take us directly to the point we are driving at, viz. there were several factors that went into the making of the Western nations materially rich. (Pray to God to be around for a while. There are going to be some big changes).

Democracy then, is just one of the many factors that helped the West achieve its material progress. That seems to be admissible. Yet, on second thought, and with the experience of Singapore (a small nation) and China (a big nation) before us, the role of the democratic system turns dubious.

To be sure, there are several other reasons why a democratic form of government is better than others, especially than the autocratic regimes. We are not arguing over that. But that’s not the main point of thrust just now. We are merely clearing the minds about the relationship between material development, and the democratic form of government. Material development can be de-linked from democracy at little risk. It is certainly incorrect to say that it is the “best form of government” for material progress.

With the above in mind, we can now admit that Western type of democracy works well in the West. That is for a variety of reasons. Firstly because it was gradually developed to suit the people’s religion, culture, social and economic conditions, and, most importantly, their hopes, aspiration, desires and priorities in life. In time the people over there have accepted it as the most convenient form of government. It is not because it is the best form of government, or is satisfactory in every sense, or because it is the government of the people, by the people, for the people. It is, in fact, none of the three. The situation is analogous to the historians’ reference to West’s predecessor, the Holy Roman Empire, which, according to a historian was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire. The slogan “government of the people, by the people, for the people” is a cliché to fool the public.

How can a government be referred to as “of the people,” when, to take the American example, only 40% or less exercise their votes at any election? The votes get divided into say 22% for one party and 18% for another. Can a government formed by 22% of a nation be called “government of the people?” Again, it is always the ruling parties that bag majority of votes, and not the independents! Although, anyone who looks into the manifesto of the independent party, will be impressed by their vision. Why don’t they get elected? Whatever the reason, it can be concluded the government formed is largely the return of political men and their parties – election after election. Issues do not play the major role. So, a democratic government is in fact a government of a particular political party. It is certainly not a government of the people.

Again, the actions that the democratic governments take are by the consensus of those who sit in the senate or parliament. Common people are not consulted. Indeed, issues are not even settled through consensus even at the highest level. Many of the senate or parliament members follow the party line: they don’t know what the hullabaloo is about. Then there is the opposition party. It votes against. There are the independents. They vote against. Finally, there are the dissidents within the ruling party who understand the issue, somewhat. They vote against. So, to get a rule through, some votes are purchased outright. Against others, the party whip is used. Either they say yes, or look for the exit door. So, where is the consensus? And where is the government “by the people?”

As for the masses, at best they can protest if they don’t like a certain governmental plan. In a few cases they do protest. Triumphantly, if they agitate over some ten issues, they are able to get the government plans modified (not shelved) in say three of them. In seven other cases, the government is able to break their will to demonstrate. The wounded lambs limp back to work: in no mood to press their point again for next 10 years. In fact, the common people disagree with the government over almost every issue. But, how can they agitate over every issue? So they resign to whatever the “rulers” decide in the upper houses. How can then, such a government be called as “by the people?”

Finally, a ruling party, fresh in governmental seat, first works to establish itself in the government. Next, it works on making arrangements to come back a second time. Its third priority is to find ways to pay back to the people who helped them win the last election: the big businessmen, the industrialists and others of that class whose donations made it possible for it to win. Most of its time and energy is consumed by these endeavors. It is only in its final months that it starts doing something that is truly for the benefit of the masses since the activities of the last few months play a significant role in getting re-elected. If it commits the error of not doing anything during its last months also, true democracy comes alive and the party is not back in power. So, in truth, true democracy is “once in a five years” affair, though not every five years.

Again, the spending by the government has political advantages in sight. For example, some money might be budgeted for the town municipality. But it is mostly spent on posh areas to keep them neat and clean. This can be seen everywhere, in every country. The people are never consulted about how, when, how much and where the money collected from taxes or external aid should be spent. How then, such a government be referred to as “for the people?”

Also, when those in government wish to do something, they first prepare the people’s mind. Let us say they wish to strike at a legitimate people’s movement within the country (internal affairs). What the government does is to organize a few blasts or even murder. Then the organization’s offices are raided (usually within 2 hours of the terrorist attack) and the office bearers are arrested. Evidences are produced and the movement or organization is banned. Similarly, if a democratic government wishes to militarily strike at another country (external affairs), it creates the situation of war. It kicks up such hype (with the help of the controlled media) that the people feel assured that the country will be destroyed if it did not go to war. Then, after the war it taxes the people for war costs. If anybody protests, he is labeled unpatriotic. What’s the people’s role in all this drama, except that of sacrificial lambs?

Indeed, how can any government be called “of the people, by the people, for the people,” when the common man’s lot hardly changes over decades – unless there be other factors at work, such as, a few favorable economic factors? Otherwise, it is the rich who get richer. Common people, the great silent majority, keep working endlessly to keep their body and soul together. In the USA for example, the rich have been getting richer and the poor poorer since last forty years. The situation is the same in Britain, where, after a short absence, slums have begun to appear in the style of Dickens’ world, except that Australia does not accept today’s Micawbers.

The gap between the rich and poor has, in every democratic country, worsened at a consistent deteriorating rate. The poor of today, is poorer than the poor of the past when compared to the rich. In other words, the gap between the rich and the poor has been consistently increasing. To illustrate, today a poor person in India earns around Rs. 1000/= a month on an average. But the upper class men (but not women) earn around 30,000/= So the ratio is 1:30. But, fifty years ago, the ratio was 1:5. So, in truth, today’s democratic governments are “of the rich, by the rich, for the rich.” There might be a few politicians sitting in the parliament who came from modest families. Maybe the father of one of them was a rickshaw-puller. But as for his son, don’t be in a hurry to judge his economic situation. Wait until his party has finished the five-year term. Then you can trace him by following the municipality employees. He lives where they do the cleaning.

Let us cast a global look. The United States is getting richer and richer when compared to other Western democratic nations. On the other hand many non-Western democratic nations are getting worse and worse. Most South American countries are broke. The interest they pay to the World Bank or IMF (which are truly American organizations) is to the tune of $60 billion a year. Most M.E. countries are under debt to the World Bank, the IMF, or private American banks. The whole of Africa is facing an economic disaster. But America is getting richer and richer. Its economy now is twice as large as that of the rest of the world. Why is this? This is not because of democracy. This is because the economic system of the world supports the rich. In other words, economic growth favors the rich – individuals as well as nations. Democracy becomes a tool in their hands. The rich get the material wealth: houses, furniture, bank savings, shares etc., the poor get democracy. Good luck!