Speaking at Delhi's Old Fort, President Bush, during his recent visit, described freedom as the strongest human urge. He said the whole world should be freed from dictators. He added that America and India together could transform the world by striving to achieve this goal.
It is a laudable goal. Socialism or capitalism may come and go. They reflect economic arrangements of societies to suit contemporary needs. But democracy should be permanent. It signifies the method by which societies make their choice. People must choose in freedom and through consent.
So first one must identify the basic postulates of democracy. Societies may be governed by presidents or prime ministers, through many parties or one party or no party. They remain democratic if there is freedom of speech and association, if there is rule of law, and if decisions reflect the majority view.
President Bush's commitment to democracy has acquired the fervor of an evangelist. It is a recent development. In an exclusive interview to the Washington Times in January 2005, President Bush said: "If you want a glimpse of how I think about foreign policy read Natan Sharansky's book." People sat up and took notice. Who was Natan Sharansky? Anatoly Natan Sharansky was a Soviet dissident and served nine years as a political prisoner in Russia. In the mid-1980s he left the Soviet Union for Israel. He rose to become a minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora affairs.
Drawing from personal experience, Sharansky passionately argued for spreading democracy worldwide by not appeasing dictators and tyrants. He wrote a book, The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror. Bush read that book. He invited Sharansky to the White House shortly after his re-election. Western media reports described Sharansky as the "intellectual godfather" of Bush's advocacy of a "global democratic revolution."
After his meeting with President Bush, Sharansky disclosed what he had told the President: "In spite of all the polls warning you that talking about spreading democracy in the Middle East might be a losing issue -despite all the critics and the resistance you faced - you kept talking about the importance of free societies and free elections. You kept explaining that democracy is for everybody. You kept saying that only democracy will truly pave the way to peace and security. You, Mr. President, are a dissident among the leaders of the free world!"
In a sense Sharansky's compliment to President Bush was not misplaced. In the pursuit of his beliefs Bush has not hesitated to take unpopular decisions. And who can deny that freedom for mankind is the noblest pursuit? India should certainly endorse this goal. But it must do so only after introducing vitally important caveats.
On any objective assessment, America's efforts to spread democracy thus far have been disastrous. Before taking up this mission therefore it must be understood why. Sharansky has provided a simple litmus test for recognizing democracy. He divided the world into free societies and fear societies. If any citizen can speak his heart out in the city square without fear of punishment he lives in a free society. Otherwise, he lives in a fear society. This is a good test as far as it goes. It doesn't go far enough. If the preacher doesn't practice what he preaches, he is seen as a hypocrite. And if nevertheless he tries to impose his views, he is seen as a bully.
President Bush's efforts to spread democracy are like those of a butcher attempting bypass surgery. An authentic mission to spread democracy worldwide will have to be slow, patient and long. To accept democracy, peoples and governments would have to be convinced of its advantages. Those who preach democracy would have to lead by example. So of necessity the first step would entail leaders of the movement to look within their own societies and systems and introduce necessary reform to become credible role models. Today, neither America nor India qualifies to be a role model.
After 9/11 the quality of American democracy plummeted. It is a fallacious argument that to fight terrorism democratic norms must be ignored. Strong action does not imply circumventing law and procedure. This is what the Bush administration did in its first term. Many of its actions destroyed American values and even attracted threats of impeachment.
A few are worth recalling. The administration deliberately falsified intelligence inputs and lied to the nation for justifying its invasion of Iraq. During the war, it initiated systematic torture of prisoners which violated American law and human rights. The President authorized illegal wiretapping of private conversations of citizens without following due process. All these actions violated law and strictly speaking could justify the President's impeachment.
The President got away with his excesses because mainstream US media failed to fulfill its responsibility. It appeared to further a political agenda. It distorted facts. Thereby it did not serve the American nation but certain vested interests which exploited terrorism to further partisan ends. Just one example of media's failure should suffice. Over a year ago the New York Times learnt that the government had authorized illegal wiretapping. The President prevailed on the paper to withhold the report. The paper obliged. Recently it published the report. Why was it withheld? And if withheld, why was it later published? Both decisions appeared to be inspired by the newspaper's changing attitude to the President and had little to do with professional norms.
India's condition is no better. The failure of the system and the need to reform it is a recurring theme in these columns. India's saving grace is that it has a strong democratic culture. People can and do speak their minds. But this is offset by an alarming breakdown in the rule of law. Liberty therefore has degenerated into license. The rich and the powerful can and do get away with murder. Hopefully, the public will bestir itself before the system disintegrates.
These facts must be kept in mind if a serious effort to spread democracy across the world is undertaken. It is up to the American people to reform their system. As far as India is concerned, our priorities should be clear.
India must reinterpret the Constitution and amend it suitably to fulfill the aspirations of its founding fathers. It must make necessary amendments that help tone up its institutions including the bureaucracy, police and judiciary. After doing this, it must develop zero tolerance towards violation of law. That would contain both corruption and crime. It would also end much of the hate inspired by communalism which strictly speaking invariably involves violation of law.
After achieving this, then, and only then, might India aspire to spread democracy through example. Bold initiatives could be taken with neighbours. One example should suffice. After the recent Bush visit, a frustrated President Musharraf said that for its nuclear aspirations Pakistan had, apart from America, a second option in China. Our PM could offer him a better option: India. After negotiating safeguards why can't both nations share know-how and jointly provide a nuclear umbrella to all South Asia? SAARC members could even comprise a SAARC body authorized control over the use of nuclear weapons. Only such an arrangement would give South Asia the moral stature to hasten nuclear disarmament as well as reform of the UN.
Is this too utopian? Perhaps. But for a meaningful effort to spread democracy across the world, some such measures would be necessary. India can take the lead. Sometimes people say that in time India could be as great as America. They are wrong. In time India can be greater. It can be the greatest. In this information age the future does not belong to big bombs or big business. It belongs to nations that deliver justice. It belongs to nations displaying the requisite moral strength. Nobody can stop India except Indians themselves.