Whither or wither?

Democracy today has changed — shaped by changing geopolitics and technological advancements that have pushed it onto an unknown path

It was Sir Winston Churchill, who made the famous remark in the House of Commons in November 1947, that "…democracy is the worst form of government except for all other forms that have been tried from time to time". Not a rousing defence of democracy but a pragmatic and a realistic one, for sure. Many forms of governments have been tried in this world, all in the name of the people and all have pretensions to being a democracy. We have travelled into another century since, one that held promise for the prosperity of all mankind notwithstanding the pulls and pressures of international geopolitics. This politics was seen as coloured by the idealism of the communists, on the one side, and the dream world of the capitalists on the other, but it was generally believed that individual citizens reputedly breathed freer air in representative democracies than their brethren in the communist bloc.

Today, even sharpest of distinctions between government models across the world are beginning to appear hazy or blurred. It may be difficult to put a date on this decline in the personality of democracy, but ever since the terror attack on the twin towers in New York, governments around the world in the name of tightening internal security measures launched a series of control measures and a regimen that eroded all privacy protections that existed for a country's citizenship. Almost a decade later, these regimes have gotten worse by way of newer and constant watch forms that now a person cannot go to the loo without creating digital history. Ed Snowden in his essay on mass surveillance writes that 'nearly everything you do and nearly everyone you love is being monitored and recorded by a system whose reach is unlimited but whose safeguards is not'.

And all this has been done in the interest of protection of the land and its people. Hence, a wave of nationalistic fervour has been generated across countries through various means to strengthen beliefs of their race first and to hell with the 'other'. Even though it is not sufficient to convince the average citizen that such measures are really needed to allow the State into private spaces, many narratives have been let loose to create perceived enemies of religious variants. The usurpation of privacy rights has been an earnest initiative. Surely, the country's defence and security forces, supposedly alert and armed with intelligence, know who the enemies are and these could possibly not be the average citizen. So a narrative of 'us vs them' has been used, the leading argument being that the threat to world peace is from the clash of civilisations, and cultural diversity is, in fact, a threat to security. Many world states have adopted a populist and conscious sharpening of differences amongst their populations in order to control and keep the sentiments of the majority with the party in power. The democratic spirits are being exorcised at the altar of alleged strong leadership to keep imagined and real threats at bay.

The tech sway of the last decade of the 20th century and continuing at a frenetic pace in this century has added to the breaking down of the collegial system of governance. First, the charm and appeal of the knight saviour on a white horse have captivated the popular imagination across ages. Even a robber saint is a great attraction. Robin Hoods, since a long time, invoke the veneration of the poor who are always in the majority. The rich will be despised almost as an axiom in society but they too squeeze into the coalition of the do-gooders. So the weaver of dreams will be a great draw to the people even though people believe she cannot deliver all the promises. Oratorical skills and artfully managed communication skills will win the day for the owners in any given electoral contest. Truth and facts are too stark to impress the electorate. A lie woven anecdotally and told creatively enthrals the listener. This fascination becomes a quest for strong leadership. Even as an idiom, who can argue against a yearning for a strong leader by the voter. The only problem is that the democratic mode of governance gets mauled by the glorification of the strong leader.

The tech dimension irreversible as it is, notwithstanding its conveniences has made democracy a perfect patsy for manipulation and fabrication. Its reach is universal. The internet is the master manipulator of information and its myriad platforms called 'Social Media' have destroyed ethics and sanctity of facts and proliferated biased opinions and glaring misrepresentations. It's stupendous chaos on social media. To borrow Umberto Eco, the Italian thinker's phrase, "Social Media gives legions of idiots to speak when they once spoke at a bar after a glass of wine without harming the community…'. It would be too harsh to deny even idiots the right to speak and people can decide for themselves. But the internet is not a shortcut to erudition. All of us need to be reminded of this. Everyone can be an expert is really a pernicious idea.

The real harm is the ability of this tech superstructure to monitor and observe every twitch and nerve of all the people on a real-time basis. Once again, "Nearly everything you do and nearly everyone you love is being monitored by a system whose reach is unlimited and whose safeguards are not". Spy satellites, drone cameras, GPS systems have given the states the capability and capacity of mass surveillance across barriers and borders. The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Identity, two movies will show the ability of the establishment to pick and choose their targets at will from the comfort of the air-conditioned war rooms. And as there is nobody without a past, individual reputations can be easily destroyed through selective leaks till one's own family is ready to disown its members. The individual having become vulnerable, the supposed freedoms and rights have lost their intrinsic worth and value. Once that happens, justification of the state by the state for all the actions of its agents become supreme and supersede all guarantees of even a written constitution.

While appearances and facades are being constantly shored up by the rulers, democracy across the world has been disenfranchised. Sad for many, but the cheerleaders of the reimagined world have no lament to its withering away as a once-beloved aspiration of the world's suppressed. Every country is re-writing its past.

The writer is the Director of the India Habitat Centre. Views expressed are personal

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