Democracy as Dharma

Two countries on either side of India pose interesting political questions.

The first is Egypt. As we well know, the popular narrative is as follows: there was a popular uprising against a military backed dictatorship. A new government that was elected happened to be socially ultra conservative and economically incompetent. Within a year the protestors were  back on the streets. The military took the opportunity to wrest power back and declared the popularly elected political party a terrorist organisation.

Then there is Thailand. The country offers a far more complex and complicated political landscape. The story as we know it runs thus: once there was a very rich person who got elected as Prime Minister by promising the poor he was on their side against the elites in the cities. Then he got thrown out of the country by the said elites for corruption. But in the subsequent elections, after some bloodshed, his sister got elected. After a while, the city elites wanted to throw her out as well and not have elections but simply take over power. Because they argued, the poor are too stupid to decide wisely. And that only they knew how to vote wisely. The solution proposed therefore was transfer of power without popular mandate. Or something close. Such as physically blockading candidates from filing nominations.

David Runciman’s book on the subject, The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present explains this somewhat. Runciman argues that Democracy’s only strength is its ability to handle crises that the system inflicts upon itself. While every other system is far far better in every other measure, they all do quite badly in terms of their ability to weather crises — self inflicted or otherwise. His example of local politics and short-termism binding John F Kennedy in his negotiations with Nikita Khrushchev actually playing a positive role in the Cuban missile crisis makes the point quite convincingly. In the context of Egypt and Thailand, it appears that the unwillingness of society to pay the cost of sustaining failures elsewhere is another fundamental threat to nascent democracies. They’d probably be served well to be reminded of Bhishma’s answer to Yudhistra’s question on what Dharma was/is in the Karna Parva: ‘that which sustains is Dharma’. 

The question one is then left with is: what do political opponents in a democracy do? What’s their philosophical onus? Is it to the system? Or their own raison d’etre in terms of their politics? A question that perhaps someone has already answered. Pointers?

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