Monday, March 16, 2015

Improbable democracy, yes, but still a democracy. A neighbour, in the same boat, looks at India

It is rather odd that India is barely conscious of one of its neighbours, the Philippines. Countries around it -- Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, even Hongkong and Taiwan -- are familiar to us. With the Philippines, contact points are virtually nil. Delegations do not travel from one country to another, trade and economic relations are minimal. It is the only country in Southeast Asia without a noticeable Indian population. The real surprise is that the ubiquitous Indian tourist hasn't discovered the Philippines, one of the most beautiful parts of Asia, culturally vibrant, lifestyles and cuisines changing from island to island and the whole archipelago dotted with plantations, haciendas, resorts and hideaways. Above all, Filipinos are the friendliest people in Asia -- in the professions, in the service sector, at the personal level. And they are friendly in English.

There are also some similarities between India and the Philippines. The poor in the Philippines are as wretched as the poor in India. There are slums in Manila that can compete with slums in Mumbai. Corruption in public life is as endemic in the Philippines as in India. Politics flourishes as a negative force in both countries; Filipinos as well as Indians see politicians as an exploiter class. Skilled Filipinos are very skilled, like their Indian counterparts, and both shine best when they go abroad. The media is as free and loud in the Philippines as it is in India, and both countries are diminished by it.

Similarities of this kind recently inspired a Filipino political writer to measure his own country with the yardstick an American political science professor used to measure Indian democracy. Yale's Prof. Robert Dal started with the thesis that India remained a democracy though it lacked many of the conditions required for democracy to thrive. He argued that one billion Indians were divided along more lines than people in any other country. If this extreme factionalism of society made political power so difficult to consolidate in the national interest, it also ensured that no power holder could ignore others and rule arbitrarily. (See how, despite its majority, the BJP is unable to get many important bills passed in Parliament).

Arbitrary rule by a majority party is not possible in his country either, says Juan Gatbonton, the most respected political commentator in the Philippines. Bewildering variety marks his archipelagic nation where Baguio in the north and Mindanao in the south are culturally as disparate as Kanpur and Thirunelveli. In these scattered islands, geography combined with history and culture to make the sense of nationality difficult to instil. Gatbonton reminds us that pre-colonial chiefdoms in the islands were primitive local oligarchies, with the bulk of the population being debt-serfs and household slaves. Spanish and then American colonial policy preserved these small-scale autocracies, leaving no scope for a strong central leadership to emerge.

Unlike in Latin America, the military could not come in because, as Gatbonton puts it, "India's officer corps is thoroughly professional, while that of the Philippines is as divided as the civilian leadership". In the "two improbable democracies" politicians tried to impose autocracies, Ferdinand Marcos in 1972-86 and Indira Gandhi in 1975-77. Both failed. Thus, in India and in the Philippines, "democracy is propped up principally by the balance of power among politicians and bureaucrats, elite families, clans, factions and oligarchic businesses. Much of state policy results from deal-making among these power brokers".

As Gatbonton points out, "Japan, Korea and China -- being ethnically and culturally homogenous -- can take their nationhood for granted". We don't have that advantage and so we need a wiser and more understanding leadership than Japan, Korea and China need. Upanishadic India had the wisdom to absorb differences and diversities and turn them into sources of strength. Alone among ancient civilisations, it envisaged progress through the pursuit of "that knowledge by which we hear the unhearable, by which we perceive the unperceivable, by which we know the unknowable". Our ancestors who listened to those teachings achieved great heights. But eventually the philosophers were replaced by plunderers, constantly deal-making and deal-breaking. We have lost our moorings. Politicians come in different shapes and colours, but all of them pursue their individual ambitions or their narrow, idiosyncratic ideas, with no thought for the larger good of the country. That would explain Gatbonton's conclusion: "Much is expected from tough-minded, nationalistic Prime Minister Narendra Modi; but I for one feel that even he will find the going hard in any effort to break his country's democracy of stalemate".