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 Of democracy and politics
Of democracy and politics

“For this in not the liberty which we can hope, that no grievance ever should arise in the Commonwealth, that let no man in this world expect; but when complaints are freely heard, deeply considered, and speedily reformed, then is the utmost bound of civil liberty attained that wise men look for.”

                                                                       - Megasthenes

The post Cold-War years were in their initial phase characterized, almost with a touch of euphoria, as a period of democratic renewal. Extravagant claims were made for democracy.

Democracies do not make wars against one another; there are no famines in a democracy. There may well sound theoretical and even empirical grounds for such contentions. Democracy may not have an identical meaning or connotation for all, and may come in varying forms and shapes.

Some essential features, however, are constant. It means a political dispensation that is accountable, a certain degree of transparency in government, and the participation and support of peoples.

It means policy-formulation and decision-making through debate and discussion, and not rule by fiat. The element of consent is crucial; ideally there should be a consensual approach in respect of some basic issues.

Democracy is inextricably linked to politics, which is the obverse aspect of politicians. If the end of all political effort is the "well-being of the individual in a life of safety and freedom," then surely politics is a noble calling and vocation, deserving of the utmost respect from all.

It is thus a singular irony that politics -- and, at one remove, politicians also -- in general are viewed more with scepticism and a sense of distrust than respect. And this would apply not just in developing countries or present times either. Comments of some eminent personalities of different ages--who were not entirely removed from politics--would underscore this point.

W.E. Gladstone, in his time the Grand Old Man of British politics, once took his young granddaughter to Parliament. The House of Commons in those times opened with a prayer to which only members were admitted. Perhaps it still does.

The small girl asked her grandfather the reason for prayers. Gladstone replied that the Speaker looked at the members and prayed for the country. Gladstone's great rival -- and Queen Victoria's favorite -- Benjamin Disraeli was quite assured that in politics, nothing was contemptible; or in other words, anything goes.

Disraeli is credited with having coined the term "practical politics." Mark Twain was never known to be brimming with reverence for anything or anybody. In a brief satirical paragraph on Satan, Twain professed neither any special regard for him, nor prejudice against.

Twain did express respect for Satan's talents though, as the latter had "for untold centuries maintained the imposing position of spiritual head of four-fifths of the human race and the political head of the whole of it," and thus surely possessed "executive abilities of the loftiest order."

For Swift, it was a Machiavellian holy maxim of politics that "some men should be ruined for the good of others." According to Lord Chesterfield, politicians neither loved nor hated, and were directed not by sentiments but interests. RL Stevenson believed that politics was the only profession for which no preparation was thought necessary.

To Emerson, politics was a "deleterious profession." Jefferson found a likeness between politics and religion, to the extent that in both, "torches of martyrdom" were held up to the "reformers of error."

Writing in the 18th century, Cowper had no doubt that the "age of virtuous politics" had passed. Prior to the age of Cowper, the situation does not seem to have been particularly edifying though.

Sallust, a better historian than politician, lived before the Christian era and observed that in public life instead of "modesty, incorruptibility and honesty", it was "shamelessness, bribery and rapacity" that held sway.

Louis Howe, a close associate of Franklin Roosevelt, in an address to the Columbia School of Journalism, could not have been more blunt when he asserted that one could not adopt politics as a profession and remain honest.

And historian Henry Adams wrote in 1907 that politics, "as a practice, whatever its profession, has always been the systematic organization of hatreds." I should perhaps include a few comments that pertain to more recent times and closer to our region.

The penultimate Viceroy of British India, Field Marshal Lord Wavell, in his diary quotes RA Butler telling him that politics was a "dishonest business." Butler was perhaps the great prime minister that Britain never had.

Wavell himself felt that politics changed the ethical code of men who would regard "themselves normally as men of honesty and principle." To him the political art was "necessarily empirical and in a sense dishonest." To be sure, Wavell was not exactly enamoured of politicians in general, whether British or British Indian.

Four months into independence, Mahatma Gandhi lamented that politics had "become corrupt" and anybody getting into "politics gets contaminated." In 1970, General de Gaulle drily observed: "In order to become the master, the politician poses as the servant." And in this century and millennium, the majestic New York Times commented editorially that it was "risky to credit any breathing politician with an altruistic moment."

Democracy is a culture, mindset and a continual process, and certainly goes beyond any quinquennial or quadrennial event. Elections though constitute the touchstone of democracy. Pandit Nehru writing in prison during the Raj, described elections as extraordinary phenomena that had a curious way of upsetting tempers and ordinary standards.

He confessed that the more he saw of elections, "a wholly undemocratic distaste of them" grew within him. His comments related to the 1926 elections to the Legislative Assembly and Provincial Councils. In tone and tenor, Cicero of old conveyed a very similar message, when he deplored "our electioneering and scrambling for office." To him, the entire process was "a most wretched custom."

Every statement or quote on the nature of politics may not be taken literally. Allowance has to be made for hyperbole and lampoon. Some of the above comments may even have been made in a moment of bitterness, disappointment or despair.

Even so such assertions do suggest a certain trend in public perception, across the globe and over centuries. Democracy does not always afford the most efficient means of governance.

By its very nature and definition it has to cater to a variety of interests. It thus falters and vacillates all too often; difficult but much needed decisions tend to be deferred. Democracy cannot, as mentioned, be de-linked from politics.

The late president of Pakistan, Field Marshal Ayub Khan, at the time of making the transition from martial law to constitutional rule, had mulled over the advantages of party-less politics.

He did not persist when he found that his own supporters were not overly enthusiastic in this respect. The constraints and functioning of a democratic polity were summed up -- somewhat facetiously -- by Sydney Smith, a clergyman, writer and wit, who lived in the 18th and 19th centuries. Smith feared that no one could "affect great benefits for his country without some sacrifice of the minor virtues."

And yet democracy, as a concept, as an ideal and as a functional polity, has extraordinary resilience. It has endured for centuries, in large measure because there really is no other viable option of sustainable governance.

Democratic governments enjoy an acceptance and legitimacy, the like of which even a most effective authoritarian government cannot claim or enjoy. Democracy provides, unlike autocratic rule, for peaceful, orderly and constitutional transition of power. And perhaps most importantly, democracy is an ideal.

The ideal may not always be wholly realized or even approximated, but it invariably charts the right course for peoples and nations.

Bengalis, including, of course, the people of Bangladesh, are said to be individualistic, given to emotions, and highly sensitive and conscious politically. GK Gokhale, president of the Congress in 1905, the second youngest person to hold that office, once suggested that Bengalis were more nimble of mind than any other people in India.

Not everyone would concur in such lavish praise. Macaulay's notoriously intemperate observations in respect of the "people of the Lower Ganges" can still rankle. Some would even discern undertones of racism in his comments.

Lord Wavell's comments on Bengal and Bengalis, as recorded in his diary, are not laudatory either. All this may not be relevant today. What is undeniably true is the fact that good men and women, the world over, share the same dreams of lasting peace and happiness.

One may not expect miracles of any government of any country, although a people can have legitimate and realistic expectations. To be sure, different peoples and nations will vary in their expectations from their governments.

In government, politics and economics are intimately intertwined. Economic realities, expectations and opportunities, naturally enough, will not be the same in every country. In the purely political sphere, however, some basic standards and parameters are unexceptionable, and would apply to any civilized people and democratic system.

Three centuries or so before the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Milton wrote: "For this is not the liberty which we can hope, that no grievance ever should arise in the Commonwealth, that let no man in this world expect; but when complaints are freely heard, deeply considered, and speedily reformed, then is the utmost bound of civil liberty attained that wise men look for."

Most people of Bangladesh -- indeed one would think worldwide -- do not seek much more and surely do not deserve anything less. The caretaker government is in a true sense a constitutional interlude that separates two elected governments.

And yet it has shown in a matter of weeks what may be achieved if the will exists. Almost certainly this will serve to heighten public expectations of our governments in the future.



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