Sign up to our newsletter Back to news
Democracy, diversity, development: Was 2016 dominated by their dark sides?
2016 was witness to dramatic political changes. Everything that seemed improbable, even unthinkable somehow found new ways of manifesting itself, and that too repeatedly.
The impregnable walls of the European Union (EU) were breached when its largest security provider, Britain, decided to break free from the European project. A celebrity of a reality TV show was able to capture the imagination of a frustrated American public and walked away with a near impossible victory in presidential elections.
Liberal actors and voices were constantly defeated in many arenas by populist movements. The new energy of right-wing forces in several geographies competed with the new fanaticism among Islamic radicals. The defeat of liberalism defined the mood and events of 2016.
More than any year in the recent past, 2016 signified a metamorphosis of the global order itself. 2017 therefore becomes a very significant year as it brings together two unknowns for all of us to grapple with.
First is the future of global economics and financial systems, which are yet to be adequately restructured following the crises of 2008. Second are the political questions raised by the happenings of the year gone by. Both of these will have to be addressed discretely and jointly, if gains of the post-war order are to be maintained and strengthened.
Three, words must receive significant attention this year as we respond to the economic and political challenges that lie ahead: democracy, diversity and development. All three are today under threat, and all three by themselves are a threat to global stability.
In sheer numbers, more countries have adopted democracy as their principal political system than ever before. But there is also little doubt that there has been petty and political capture of democratic systems within these countries.
Democracy as a social ethic is under threat. It is assuming shades of majoritarianism in some instances – becoming a tool for convenient choices by the majority section of society. Democracy has also become a means for political leaders to absolve themselves from taking hard decisions. The moral fibre of democracy is being undermined by its numerical logic.
It can be argued that democracy is becoming a weapon to weaken pluralism. The ability of multitudes to take part in democratic debates through mass media, social media and other emerging platforms has certainly included new stakeholders. Yet the principles of the ensuing debates are no longer decided by what is right or wrong, but on the basis of right and left; ideologies multiplied by numbers are determining outcomes.
Democracy has also been hijacked as a legitimising tool by undemocratic forces. Be it Islamist parties in Turkey and the Middle East, or fundamentalist groups in Asia, the US and Europe, all of them have used democratic means to fulfil undemocratic objectives. In many societies, the word “democracy” needs to be re-thought, re-imagined, re-served, and made compatible with pluralistic principles.
Diversity is at one level being threatened by majoritarianism – by brute force that seeks to reduce those who are different, and marginalise those who belong to minority communities. On the other hand, diversity itself is now being used as the basis to recruit and create small communities, sub-national identities and radical movements that are fuelled by the difference that defines diversity – with violent consequences.
An extreme fringe of the Muslim community in Europe, the Buddhists in Myanmar, and Shia-Sunni postures in the Middle East: all of these are using this difference to either inflict violence on the ‘other’ or to motivate violence against those seen as irreconcilable enemies.
Technology and diversity together have created a new dynamic. Assimilation of outsiders in new communities has today become improbable as, instead of communicating with their physical neighbours, people remain locked in with those miles away.
This creates a basis of new exclusions, divisions and differences between those who may otherwise be in physical proximity. It makes the evolution of assimilative cultures and societies more difficult. In fact, it threatens to undermine syncretic civilisations that have existed over millennia. Diversity is both under threat, and is a threat in itself.
Development today is being threatened by a reluctance of large and important players to remain invested in liberal trading systems; to commit to the ideals of globalisation; to promote cross-border flows of finance, technology and people; and to achieve a convergence of lifestyles across continents.
Democratic forces, and fissures of diverse interests, vantage points and identities, make convergence on development goals near impossible. Institutionalised greed and the lack of enlightened action, masking itself as capitalist principle, will challenge both the global objective of responding to climate change as well as achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
But development is also a threat. Large actors, with large pools of funds, have begun to steer the processes of development to their own advantage. They seek to make life choices for all: to define healthcare for each citizen on Earth, write trade narratives for each society, define what constitutes the well-being and happiness of this planet, and adjudicate the boundaries to right to life itself.
Development finance, aid, loans and know-how, under the garb of development partnerships, are seeking to create a landscape of economic growth, trade and transaction that will benefit a few.
The dark sides of democracy, diversity and development have defined global and local politics lately. Can 2017 be the year when the tide begins to turn and when a new light illuminates the essential and positive ethic associated with each of these three words?
This commentary was published in The Times of India.
13 January 2017