In search of our Democracy

Akhum Longkumer

When Phizo, in his plebiscite speech of 1951, said that, “We are a democratic people” and that “Democracy is the very spirit in our country”, he was voicing both a personal observation of Naga polity as it stood in his day, and an ideal that a people must always aspire towards. We are therefore on a constant journey where this ‘idea’ of democracy will appear within our grasp at times, and slip through our fingers at others. Democracy can ebb and flow, as our own recent history has shown us. Thus, if the threat of regression always exists, it can be agreed upon that democracy must be guarded vigilantly against it. We want Democracy, but how is this to be accomplished?


Sadly, no indubitable answer to this question is readily available. Democracy is an ‘essentially contested concept’, where each looking upon it swears that it appears quite apart from a fellow onlooker’s description of it, resulting in the often raucous deliberations on how best to achieve it. Nowadays, even authoritarian regimes claim to be democratic. This does not forestall ‘an’ answer however, and we can be assured that we can pry out at least a contingent ‘answer’.


In broad-brush manner, it can be said that there have been two, often conflicting, replies as to how democracy may be ‘rescued’ from its two perennial nemeses. The threats being, either ‘democratic crisis’ i.e. the ironic problem of ‘too much democracy’ and populism, or ‘democratic deficit’ i.e. a gap between the public policy enacted by our representatives and public opinion, and also the inaccessibility to, or inability of, the common person of participation in democratic processes and outcomes; in other words, ‘too less’ of democracy. These are closely related to the questions of who gets to rule and how, and minority versus majority group rights.


When democracy is defined as the rule by majority, minorities stand to lose out, especially in the absence of consensus. This is what Alexis de Tocqueville called ‘the tyranny of the majority’. Individual and minority rights could be stifled in the name of the ‘greater good’. Furthermore, it was feared, we are told, that it would mean the rule of the poor, and ‘ignorant opinion’, over the educated, and ‘knowledgeable’ (Plato was of this persuasion: that knowledge ruled over opinion, echoes of which last to this day). Ignorant of the intricacies of statecraft and governance, they would lead the state to collapse. In similar vein, James Madison, while framing the constitution of the United States, opined that if bestowed with voting power, the poor, who formed the majority, would surely use it to redistribute the wealth and property of the minority elite in a manner more favourable to themselves. He considered such an outcome to be undemocratic because then the state would have failed to protect minority interests.


Modern democracies have resolved this dilemma in a variety of ways. Democracy therefore had to be tempered, and rightly so, with legally guaranteed individual and minority rights in order to protect itself from devolving into ‘mobocracy’. To Madison, the solution lay in the system of representative democracy, whereby ‘democracy’ as understood as suffrage, would be limited, perforce, to the more ‘reasonable’, propertied, class (who also just happened to be exclusively wealthy, white males). Nowadays, representative democracy has come to mean democracy as widely practised in the world, where an electorate votes into power individuals who should ideally possess, to use an anachronistic term, what Aristotle called ‘arete’ or the ‘excellence’ expected of a ruler. Ideas like individualism, liberalism, rule of law and classical republicanism grew roots in this milieu, which after a cross-pollination with the growing world-wide capitalist economic ideology, led to the dominant political ideology observed today of liberal democracy.


Under the banner of liberal democracy, humanity has achieved much: a host of civil liberties, an increase in equality of opportunity, a burgeoning middle class, and a consolidation of democracy as against authoritarian or totalitarian regimes. However, Quentin Skinner, the prominent Cambridge historian of political ideas writes “it has been an axiom of liberal theories about the relationship between government and the governed that the only way to maximise freedom must be to minimize the extent to which public demands can legitimately be made on our private lives.” This has arguably led to the ‘bourgeois’ condition of depoliticisation, and takes the form of general insensitivity amongst the ‘silent majority’, and complicity of a ‘silent minority’ towards: issues of good governance, environmental sustainability, the need to hold their elected representatives accountable, equality of outcome, and the effects of structural oppression. He goes on to to point out the irony of how the very development of liberal democracy has effected an atrophying of the ideal that “government of the people should be conducted by the people”. The point was directed at western democracies but globalisation and our post-colonial legacy mean that the same observation applies to us.


The world over, a resurgence of demagogues and populism can be seen. Plato warned that in a democracy, those specialising at winning elections and nothing else will eventually dominate democratic politics. Coupled with the modern phenomenon that ‘consent’ of the populace is no longer required if consent can be manufactured though media and propaganda, as Chomsky says, various countries increasingly face democratic deficits inimical to the public interest as a result of this hegemony. This is both immoral and inefficient as it means the private benefit of an elite, at the shared cost of the public. Far from ‘too much’ democracy, it is the threat of ‘too less’ democracy that looms over us. There is a need to hearken back to the idea espoused by civic republicanism that freedoms have concomitant duties; a shift from being mere consumers to active participants in the act or ‘performance’ of democracy, i.e. a shift from Representative Democracy as it exists today, to Participatory Democracy.


This however requires both enabling agency and empowering structure. A Critical Literacy programme, currently supported in countries such as Canada, Australia and South Africa, is crucial for creating an empowering structure, stressing on developing both the skills of critical thinking and critical ‘analysis’. Critical Literacy goes beyond the ability to read books, to the ability to interpret all texts, and detect, question and rectify biases found when reading between the lines. ‘Texts’ here mean anything that bears a message. In fact, Helene Cixous, the feminist philosopher, claims that the entire world can be seen as a text. The end goal here is to create free identities, be they individual or shared, thus promoting a vibrant democracy. Being amongst the fortunate ‘kaketshir’*, we must pay heed to this and read the world attentively.


However, without the need to create false dichotomies, we must also address the question of agency, for Action is always preceded by Will, and Will can be called forth by Morals and Ethics. Beyond being an apparatus for resolving conflict and sharing power, Democracy is also a moral and ethical code of conduct, a way of living. The Greeks called it ‘arete’, the trait of aristocratic virtue. The Romans had ‘virtus’, the virtue of manly virility. But, arguably, ‘arete’ prevented the Greeks from extending suffrage to all; while ‘virtus’ suited Roman imperialism very well. We would not be able to wear these well and we have our own codes of conduct anyway. The Aos, for example, have ‘sobaliba’, a compound word formed of ‘soba’, i.e. ‘to be born’ or ‘birth’, and ‘liba’, i.e. ‘to live’, ‘to exist’, ‘behaviour’ or ‘attitude’. It is a code of conduct that encompasses all things deemed necessary to live a good life, whether private or public. It required all to participate in community life, while also entailing a certain selflessness and mutualism, the placing of the needs of the community before oneself with the right to reap the benefits of harmony, goodwill and prosperity.


Our world has grown much in the past two hundred odd years and we face numerous ‘wicked problems’ that cannot be solved by following ‘scientific’ algorithmic approaches. No rule-book is equipped with solutions for every possible contingency. Instead they require re-imagination, asking the right questions, and a discursive, inclusive approach in order to find solutions. The answer then, to the problem posed at the outset, is that the means to an end can also be the end in itself. I am of the conviction that Democracy is a way of life, and so is Sobaliba. The search, striving for, and performance of Democracy is Democracy itself.


This article was originally published in the 10th edition of Lichazen (2016-2017) which ran under the theme ‘Re-imagining Democracy’. Lichazen is the annual magazine of the Delhi Ao Students’ Union.


*‘Kaketshir’ means student/literate. The author regrets the unavoidable use of Ao words in the article given the original intended audience. This should in no way be read as exclusionary in intent.