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Climate change: Democracy overrated?

Climate change: Democracy overrated?
The face of democracy has not always been pretty. It was, in fact, a democracy that led to the rise of the Nazis in 1930s Germany, and the more recent Muslim Brotherhood in parts of the Middle East.

The Athenians are said to have invented democracy in the 5th century Before Common Era (BCE), yet the greatest philosophers of Athens were unconvinced of its value. Socrates is supposed to have asked a rhetorical question: “[in a sea voyage] who would you ideally want deciding who was in charge of the vessel, just anyone, or people educated in the rules and demands of seafaring?” It is quite another matter that eventually, five hundred Athenians, by popular vote, put Socrates to death.

Climate change and, consequent extremes, may strike more indiscriminately than ancient Athenians. Human lives and well-being are at stake. Our senior citizens and our children, as well as the economically weaker sections of society, are the most likely to suffer. There are short- and long-term costs to both action and inaction. Risk-informed decisions are necessary. Surely, modern democracies can stand up to the challenge? What of India, with an ancient tradition of living in harmony in nature, currently boasting the largest democracy in the world? These days it is hard to say anything about the accomplishments of ancient India without getting into partisan politics. So, let us take the help of the French philosopher, Voltaire as we move from ancient Greece to ancient India: “I am convinced that everything has come down to us from the banks of the Ganga…”, he said, “… some 2500 years ago at the least Pythagoras went from Samos to the Ganga … he would certainly not have undertaken such a strange journey…” [unless the reputation of Indian science was well established in Greece by then].

Be that as it may, and irrespective of whether we agree with Voltaire, democracy was not completely unknown in ancient India. Gopala, who ruled Gaur (what is now regions of Bengal) in the 8th century CE, was democratically elected by chieftains. However, it took nearly a hundred years of what was called matsya nyaya (literally, fish justice, or where the only law was that of bigger fish devouring the smaller fish) to motivate this democratic election. Furthermore, rather than an elected transition of power, Gopala formed the Pala (the name ultimately derives from the Sanskrit pala or protector) dynasty which ruled for nearly four hundred years and in its heydays covered large parts of what is now India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Pakistan. Even prior to that, around the 3rd to 4th century BCE, the Licchavi kingdom in what is now Nepal was ruled by 7,707 raja (noblemen) who met each year to elect one of their own as the ruler along with a council of nine to assist the ruler. The Sakya kingdom, into which the Buddha was born, apparently had a similar system, which was based partly on democracy and partly on meritocracy.

Which brings us back to Socrates, who eschewed both absolute elitism and absolute majoritarian rule, to state: “only those who had thought about issues rationally and deeply should be let near a vote.” As noted by Alain de Botton: “We have forgotten this distinction between an intellectual democracy and a democracy by birthright. We have given the vote to all without connecting it to wisdom.” Clearly, this distinction seems to have been lost on the Founding Fathers of what is now claimed to be the greatest democracy in the world: The United States of America. Or, was it? The belief in American exceptionalism is often so deeply embedded in our (and that includes not just those of us in the US, but many across the world) psyche, that we see American-style democracy as an obvious virtue to be replicated everywhere. In fact, the truism has been repeated so many times, that the virtue appears self-evident. Yet, has an “exceptionalism” democracy always been successful? Indeed, how can we measure success in this context? Going one step further, how does even the current American democracy hold up to the Founding Fathers’ dreams?

They say a true measure of any system of governance is the treatment of minorities and the most vulnerable sections of the population. Certainly, democracy has produced demagogues, some as bad or worse than in absolute monarchies and oligarchies. According to Amartya Sen, who in 1998 won the economics prize named after Nobel, “no famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy” because democratic governments “have to win elections and face public criticism…”

Yet, the economically weakest sections in the world’s largest democracy, India, starve and have to put their children to bed hungry. An important measure of governance has to be how well the security, health and economic prosperity of the people are assured - now and in the future. The future generations are the weakest stakeholders, yet happen to be voiceless and among the most vulnerable.

This brings us to climate change and variability. Adapting to what is now within the bounds of predictive surprise, and reducing the possibility of the worst case climate change, is no longer a luxury but a necessity. However, from Europe and Australia to the Americas, are first world democracies living up to the climate challenge? What lessons should be learned by the so called third world countries, or even emerging economies such as the BRICS countries? What does India owe to her own citizens and to the world community in these challenging times, and how should she think of her prized democracy? No country perhaps has the distinction of producing so many billionaires with so many people below subsistence levels. Yet, democracy thrives and majority rules in the land of the Buddha (and by way of high praise, of Voltaire).

Let us get back to the American Founding Fathers. Alexander Hamilton made the case that the US Constitution ensures “the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications”. The Electoral College, he argued, while preserving “the sense of the people” would ensure that the President would be elected “by men most capable of analysing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice”. The original purpose of the Electoral College is now defunct since voting in that College is almost always exclusively along party lines.

The Founding Fathers, enlightened as they were, would never push their beloved country, let alone the Planet, toward peril. The cherished system of governance in modern democracies such as India and the United States has to measure up to their ideals by being both conservative and progressive. Our shared Planet and the environment must be conserved. Future generations must inherit and celebrate our progress. Let us hope current democracy has not made the dreams of their Founding Fathers as defunct as the idea of the Electoral College in the US.

(Prof. Auroop Ratan Ganguly is a researcher and a teacher at Northeastern University in Boston, USA. The opinions expressed in this article are strictly personal.)

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