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Can democracy still deliver in a restless world?

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By Sreeram Chaulia

This year, the International Day of Democracy came and went on Saturday, September 15, with barely a whimper.
It was a sign of the times. The most enlightened form of government is endangered and losing appeal. Democracy’s moral and practical desirability are under question and scepticism about it is rising to unprecedented levels since the end of the Cold War.
The mood was exactly the opposite during the 1990s. Then, the belief that multi-party democracy and free markets had no credible rivals and that democratic capitalist regimes would be the “only game in town” was commonplace. Flush with the victory over the Soviet Union and the freeing up of former Communist bloc countries, liberal scholars like Francis Fukuyama hailed the “universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”.
But nearly 30 years since Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis, the teleological liberal vision of a relentless global march to the golden endpoint of democracy and capitalism is facing a dead end. As per Freedom House’s latest ranking, just 39 per cent of the world’s total population (88 out of 195 countries) live in fully “free” polities.
The year-on-year “consecutive decline in global freedom” since 2006, which Freedom House is lamenting, can be explained at both macro and micro levels. Among the big systemic shifts, disillusionment with capitalist globalisation and its iniquitous distribution of wealth, income and power is a major factor in loss of public faith in Western-style free market democracies.
The decade-long global economic crisis which wreaked havoc in advanced capitalist democracies from 2008, and the manner in which elected governments in these countries bailed out “fat cat” bankers while transferring the burden of austerity and welfare state cuts to the middle and working classes, left a bad taste in ordinary people’s mouths.
Extreme economic inequality and insecurity for the have-nots have compounded the anger against the unaccountable “democratic” order. The association of unjust globalisation with democracy is automatic because the theoretical and practical assumption of liberalism is that democracy is the necessary political counterpart of capitalism.
Joseph Schumpeter wrote in 1942 that “modern democracy rose along with capitalism, and in casual connection with it”. Robert Dahl reaffirmed at the turn of this century that democracy “cannot endure in a country with a predominantly non-market economy”. A profound crisis of free market capitalism, which has been channelled by angry rightist populists like US President Donald Trump, is hence central to the worsening image of democracy.
Another key factor causing backsliding, “frozen transitions” and reversals in democratisation is the relative decline of Western powers vis-a-vis non-Western ones. The triumphalism of liberals in the 1990s derived from supreme self-confidence about the unipolar world order lasting for long. American preponderance was the foundation for the liberal optimism about democracy.
By its existence as a rapidly growing and unchallenged hegemon, the United States was in that period an exemplar of a robust democracy that others wished to follow. With democracy promotion a controversial and integral part of American foreign policy, there were all the more reasons for the liberal juggernaut to be seen as an unstoppable phenomenon.
Fast forward to 2018. China is already the largest economy on the planet by one method of calculating national income. It is demonstrating an alternative pathway to power and prosperity via authoritarian state capitalism. American influence on the developing world, particularly in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, where the bulk of dictatorial regimes persist resiliently, is on the wane.
American retrenchment from global governance under the populist President Donald Trump, contrasted with the foreign policy alacrity and strategic acumen that undemocratic non-Western powers like China and Russia are demonstrating, add to perceptions that Western democracies are spent forces which cannot inspire or compel poor nations to democratise.
As to prominent emerging powers like Brazil, India, Indonesia and South Africa, they are democratic but lack the will and capacity to transform other developing countries into their mirror images. Canada, France and Germany remain committed to liberal democracy, but they cannot individually do the heavy lifting when the US under President Trump has withdrawn from the democratisation arena.
Apart from systemic factors like the passing of unipolarity and the souring of globalisation, there are local and region-specific trends hindering the expansion of democracy.
The Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 promised to usher in a possible “fourth wave” of democratisation following Samuel Huntington’s thesis of “three waves” since the 19th century. But barring Tunisia, the democratic revolts in the Middle East have been crushed by a combination of war and terrorist violence unleashed by authoritarian regimes within the region and their foreign backers.
Turkey, which was the one rare democracy among the Muslim-majority nations of that region, has regressed dramatically under the sultanistic despotism of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It is now a classic “elected dictatorship” that is a member of Nato but blatantly flouts the Western military alliance’s core tenet of liberal democratic governance.
In Africa, strongmen and one-party states are being buttressed by dubious elections while the African Union is struggling to enforce democracy as an inviolable norm. In Latin America, the degeneration of Leftist democracies into corruption-plagued dysfunctional regimes and outright dictatorships like Venezuela and Nicaragua is occurring amid regional organisations which are paralysed and unable to act in unison to preserve democracy.
In the sub-regions of Asia, military dictatorships, one-man rule and single-party autocracies are flourishing thanks to their mix of economic dynamism, repressive crackdowns on dissent and regional stasis in favour of the authoritarian status quo. Not even the European Union is succeeding in preventing rightist populists in Hungary, Poland and Italy from openly trampling upon liberal democratic values and institutions.
Today, the reaffirmation of national sovereignty, non-interference in internal affairs of states and antagonism toward supranational and multilateral organisations that we are observing is directly connected to the failure of globalisation and it is playing out to the detriment of democracy.
Given these headwinds, can democracy bounce back as a viable universal project? Winston Churchill had quipped that “democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried”. If illiberal anti-democratic populists enter the portals of power and exhaust themselves through misgovernment, they may also be rejected in electoral cycles to come. If a new balance is found between markets and society by better regulating transnational business conglomerates, democracies may win back their shrinking flock of adherents. And if leading developing nations like India, Indonesia, Brazil and South Africa turn into democratic “norm entrepreneurs”, the swagger of having democratic champion states may also return to motivate activists and human rights defenders in poor countries who feel abandoned and helpless against oppressive regimes.
Ultimately, democracy can be attained and sustained only when there is a demand for it and it is seen to be delivering the goods for the people in whose name it functions. Almost three decades after the Cold War, the case for democracy has to be revisited and it needs reinvention to become fit for purpose in a world that is polarised, dissatisfied and restless for change.

 

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Opinion

INDESCRIBABLE JOHN ELI

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By Shabbir Aariz

This indeed is proverbially a herculean task to describe or define John Elia in any particular frame. Whosoever while mentioning him, is either trapped in contradictions of one’s own opinion or is able to confine to a few verses of John Elia to judge him. But the more one tries to understand John, the more confused one is and I believe that you need another John Elia to explain him. He is a phenomenon, a thing like a live fish to hold in your hand or an elephant amongst blinds to be described. Wusatullah Khan, a noted broadcaster, holds that knowing John is as good as dating with a liberated lady. And it is quite obvious that a man who in him is a philosopher, a scholar, a biographer, a linguist with command over Urdu, Arabic, English, Persian, Sanskrit and Hebrew and needless to say that the Ismaili sect of the subcontinent could not find anyone other than John to translate Ismaili treatises from Hebrew, it becomes a tedious affair to be conclusive about John. Common perception though with an element of truth is that John is a progressive Marxist, an unconventional poet and always in denial of everything including himself while himself saying in three line verse,

“KISKO FUSAT K MUJSAY BAHAS KARAY…..

 

OOR SABIT KARAY K MERA WAJOOD….

ZINDZGI K LIYAY ZARORI HAY

(Anyone prepared to argue and prove that my existence is imperative for life). His poetry is admittedly very close to life and his verses in the words of a legendry poet, Majrooh Sultanpuri, are like a dialogue which no other poet has the distinction to be capable of. John has an extra-ordinary craft of connecting with his audience that has created an unprecedented fan following which no other contemporary poet can claim to have. So magical is his poetry and its rendition that it has created a cult of his admirers with such an obsession and longing for the life of melancholy lead by John Elia himself. It is no secret that he was never a happy man with defiance and protest against everything and anything around. Loudly a nonconformist when he says
“unjaman main mayri khamooshi…..

burdabari nahin hay wehshat hay”.

His style made him famous and popular. He appears to be disgusted even with creation when he says … “HASILE KUN HAY YEH JAHANE KHARAAB….

YAHI MUMKIN THA AYSI UJLAT MAIN”.

His admirers strangely wish to pass through the same pain and despair that is hallmark of John’s poetry besides satire and the disdain for the system which contributed to his sadness in life. He has so glorified and romanticized the pain and sadness that it leaves his audience in frenzied ecstasy.

John Elia was born in the year 1931 and died in 2002. He originally belonged to Amroha in the state of Uttar Pradesh, younger brother of Rayees Amrohi, a known journalist and writer. John migrated to Pakistan in the year 1957 and settled in Karachi where he is buried now. But Amroha never left his heart and mind. He never felt comfortable after leaving Amroha partly because his stay in Karachi brought him in conflict with the system too. Many other things have also contributed to his sadness in life. He was married to a well-known writer of Pakistan, Zahida Hina but in mid-80’s , the relation between the two became bumpy and ended up in divorce which left John devastated and for ten long years thereafter went in depression without writing a word.

As is true about many in the history of literature, John earned his name and fame more after his death than in his life time while he was not received well and felt a strange type of suffocation when he says,

“AAP APNAY SAY HUMSUKHAN REHNA…..

HUMNISHEEN SAANS PHOOL JATI HAY”.

Thanks to the electronic boom and You Tube that brought him to the lime light and enabled audience to reach him and his works. As if this was not enough that his first poetic collection only came to be published when he reached the age of 60. It is worthwhile mention that he has as many as seven poetic collections to his credit namely SHAYAD, YANI, LEKIN, GUMAAN, GOYA, FARMOD and RAMOOZ. Except one, all other are published posthumously. This is besides his scholarly works in prose which may require greater insight to go into.

John all his life remained honest, direct and straightforward in expressing his views on matters of public interest. He also never demonstrated any pretentions or reservations while expressing the truth of his personal life. He never made any secret of his fantasies, love affairs or drinking habits. Yet he was never at peace either with the times or with himself. John Elia, in my humble opinion lived ahead of times and even the desire of dying young without being bed ridden was not granted to him except that he strangely enough wanted to die of tuberculosis and which he did.

(The author, a senior lawyers, is a well known poet and writer. Feedback at: [email protected])

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Manto: Why I wanted to read a ‘lewd’ writer

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By Naveed Hussain

I first read Saadat Hasan Manto as a teenager and the spirit of what I’m writing now was etched on my memory in those years.

I was too young to understand the intricacies of his stories but I enjoyed what I read and craved for more. Back then, Manto wasn’t available in the small town of Haripur where I lived. A friend introduced me to a schoolteacher, a bibliophile who had a modest collection of Manto in his personal library.

 

“Why do you want to read Manto, he’s a ribald, lewd writer,” he quipped. “This is exactly why I want to read him,” I replied, almost impulsively. He smiled and agreed to lend me Manto’s books. Thus began my journey to explore Manto. The more I read, the deeper my love for him became.

Manto was a nonconformist, an unorthodox and ruthlessly bold writer. He didn’t believe in the so-called literary norms of ‘decency’ and ‘civility’ set by didactic writers of his time. For him, truth is truth. No matter how bitter and despicable the reality, Manto never dilutes the truth. Like a muckraker, he pokes his nose into the muck, rakes it, and then holds it up to the reader – in all its profound ugliness and twisted beauty. “If you don’t know your society, read my stories. If you find a defect, it’s the defect of your society, not my stories,” he says.

Manto wrote on socially taboo topics like sex, incest and prostitution, which earned him the wrath of contemporary traditionalists, conservatives and even progressives. For some of his ‘lewd’ and ‘obscene’ stories he had to face lawsuits – among them were great stories such as Thanda Gosht, Bu, Khol Do, Dhuan and Kali Shalwar.

But it is to miss the point to simply say that Manto wrote about sex. He wrote about the sexual debauchery of men and the sexual exploitation of women; about our patriarchal society where women are often treated as a ‘sex toy’, not a human being. Unlike many, I don’t compare Manto with DH Lawrence, because Manto is not lustful, even though he explicitly writes about the female anatomy. He’s more like Guy de Maupassant, who sees the throbbing heart, not the sensuous body, of the prostitute.

Manto blames the ‘diseased mind’ for reading ‘ribaldry’ into his stories. If a sex maniac derives morbid gratification from Venus De Milo, should we blame Alexandros of Antioch for chiselling such a ‘graphic’ sculpture? No, certainly not.

For contemporary literary pundits, Manto was also unacceptable because he wrote ‘indecent’ language. “They [the critics] criticise me when my characters verbally abuse one another – but why don’t they criticise their society instead where hundreds of thousands of profanities are hurled on the streets, every day,” he wonders.

I also love Manto because he was honest. He was an unflinchingly true writer who believed in calling a spade a spade. Sketch-writing was introduced as a genre in Urdu literature much earlier, but Manto created his own peculiar tell-all style. He didn’t write only the good qualities of his characters. “In my bathroom, everyone is naked. I don’t clothe them because it’s the tailor’s job,” he writes.

Manto’s sketches, which he initially wrote for the Lahore-based Daily Afaq newspaper, were later collected and published as Ganjay Farishtay. Manto wasn’t a hypocrite. He minced no words while writing about his dead friends. “I curse a thousand times a so-called civilised society where a man’s character is cleansed of all its ills and tagged as ‘May-God-Bless Him’,” Manto wrote in Ganjay Farishtay. Manto wrote sketches of filmstars Ashok Kumar, Shyam, Noor Jahan, literary figures such as Meera Ji, Agha Hashar and Ismat Chughtai and some politicians. “I have no camera that could have washed smallpox marks off the face of Agha Hashar or change obscenities uttered by him in his flowery style.”

Before embarking on his literary career, Manto had read Russian, French and English masters like Chekhov, Gorky, Victor Hugo, de Maupassant and Oscar Wilde and translated some of their works into Urdu. Surprisingly enough, despite his love for revolutionaries, Manto was not a Marxist ideologue. He was a humanist who was pained to see social injustices, economic disparities and exploitation of the underprivileged. He hated the obscurantist clergy and parasitic elites alike.

Although Manto had migrated to Pakistan after 1947, he couldn’t understand the rationale of partitioning a land along religious lines. His stories of bloodshed and cross-border migration, such as Teetwaal Ka Kutta and Toba Tek Singh, made him unpopular with ‘patriotic’ Pakistanis. To this day he remains a shadowy figure on the official literary lists of Pakistan: our school curricula, our national awards, our drawing room conversations.

Manto was acknowledged as a creative genius even by his detractors. And he knew this, which is perhaps why he wanted these words to mark his grave: “Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto and with him lie all the secrets and mysteries of the art of short story writing. Under tons of earth he lies, still wondering who among the two is the greater short story writer: he or God.”

Manto’s family feared his self-written epitaph would attract the unwanted attention of the ignorantly religious, so on his grave one finds a Ghalib couplet. He faced censorship all his life and even now has chunks of his stories taken out by the authorities. But as we mark his centenary year, I can say this with the instant certainty I felt as a young man in Haripur: the words and stories of Saadat Hasan Manto will outlive us all.

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Gauhar Raza: Giving Poetry the Power to Protest

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By Asheesh Mamgain

If things were different his poems would have been different, or maybe he would not have been a poet at all. But things are what they are. And that is why Gauhar Raza, the poet is writing, and it is why he writes his poetry of protest.

“Maybe I would have written about love, the beauty of nature and science. But as things stand my poetry is predominantly about resistance and protest,” said Raza, who is faithful to the tradition of resistance poetry to the extent that he has throttled, without much difficulty, the romantic and the scientist in him. “The need to write poetry always arose when something happened around me which affected me, to the core. I have never written and will never write poetry just for the sake of it.”

 

“The murder of Safdar Hashmi, the breaking up of the Soviet Union, the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the killing of an activist in Afghanistan, the death of Rohith Vemula are some of those things,” he said.

Raza’s second published collection of ghazals and nazms (71 in all) came out in November 2017 and is titled Khamoshi, or Silence.

Is there a lot of anger in his poems? Yes, there is definitely a lot of anger. But then there is also hope. That is where Raza becomes special.

“For me, a poem that merely complains or rants about the injustice, violence and persecution happening all around is not enough. A poet has to go beyond this; he has to give a vision. The vision of an alternative world, of a better world. Only then will his poetry be successful and meaningful. A poet has to show the consciousness he wants to bring into society.”

So how does he define good poetry? “Well, a good poem should be able to raise the level of the reader at least one notch higher, and also give him a fresh perspective about the aspect being dealt in the poem. Something new to dwell upon,” said Raza.

The influences that shaped his poetic thought came pretty early, at home and at the Aligarh Muslim University where he studied. Raza’s father, Wizarat Hussain, worked in the education department there and was a second-generation Leftist.

“The question about the existence of God came up very early in my life and soon I became an atheist for life,” said Raza. Literature was read with passion at home and by the time he was 15 he had read all the Urdu literature available at the AMU library as well as a solid portion of Russian literature.

“During my growing years, Leftist thought had a major presence in the university. On the other hand, the fundamental forces were also steadily getting stronger. I was smitten by the leftist idea. I was part of a literary study circle, we served tea at the secret meetings of leftist groups and listened to discussions at home between my father and other intellectuals such as Irfan Habib and Iqtidar Alam Khan.”

There was a lot of churning in his mind and soon he started pouring the remnants of all that into his poems. When it comes to poetry some of Raza’s major influences have been Ghalib, Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Sahir Ludhianvi. He is often seen reciting their work at length during his various lectures, with Sahir Ludhianvi’s long poem ‘Parchhaiyan’ or Shadows one of his favourites.

“Writing the kind of poetry I do is not easy. Each time a write a poem I must relive all the pain and emotion I went through when the particular incident happened that forced me to write. All those disturbing images come rushing back to me. It is a difficult thing to undergo.”

Nor is poetry Raza’s only means of reaching the people. He recently retired as chief scientist from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. He is also into documentary filmmaking, his documentaries on Bhagat Singh and the 2002 Gujarat genocide being very well known.

Where does poetry stand today, as a means of communication with the reader? According to Raza, “for one, social media has helped. It has helped poets reach a wider audience. Also, the tradition of musharias and kavi sammelans (poetry meets) is still very strong in India. So even if a poet is competing with the multimedia world, it is easy to reach one’s audience with one’s poetry, provided you have something pertinent to say.”

More broadly speaking, however, “I have to say that things have progressed in a disturbing direction. A poem I wrote 20 years ago, I could rededicate it to Rohith Vemula and then to Gauri Lankesh. This disturbing trend is seen all over the world. I believe that the fall of the USSR has been a major turning point in the way our World has evolved.”

A few lines from one of his poems brings out his concern and struggle.

Mein phool khilata hoon jab bhi,
Woh baad e khizan le aate hain,
Mein geet sunata hoon jab bhi,
Yeh aag se ji bahlate hain.

Whenever I make a flower blossom
They bring the autumn wind
Whenever I sing a song
They give the soul succour with flame.

But Raza is still hopeful. “There has been a resurgence of resistance poetry in Urdu in the recent past. The trend of religious poetry in Urdu has also reduced in recent times. The youth today has become more involved in this attempt to bring a positive change. I have seen young people reading protest poetry and reacting to it. Once again universities have become a place of resistance and struggle for change.”

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