Democracy Or the ruse of empire

From broad policy to day-to-day administration, the urge to micro-manage Nepal from abroad is rising.

It is ironic that the more this country sinks into the abyss of violence and anarchy, the more it emerges as an attractive destination for all manners of gun runners, conflict managers, crisis entrepreneurs and democracy missionaries out to make a quick buck or a fast name. As the internal crisis deepens in proportion to the external intervention, it becomes apparent that the ‘international concern’ is more about appropriating the occasion to reaffirm the geopolitical stakes and ideological superiority of the saviours than finding a just and early relief to the common Nepalis brought to their knees by violence and conflict. Take the example of Senator Patrick Leahy. He recently accused King Gyanendra of harbouring

“imperial ambitions” in the august halls of the US senate. Coming from a hyper-power whose military garrisons the globe, the senatorial outburst against a monarch who is unable even to exercise a semblance of control over his own realm was as breathtaking as it was ludicrous. The gaffes of a long-distance boutique radicalism aside, this is a recipe for disaster if this be the standard of evidence, reason and rancour operative in the world’s premier executive committee.

It is in this context that one attempts to make sense of the belligerent tirade launched against the King by Washington-London-Delhi axis. The latest admonitions have an eerie family resemblance to the dressing downs General MacArthur used to administer on Emperor Hirohito after Japan’s surrender or the chastisements British Resident officers inflicted on recalcitrant native rulers during the good old Raj days in the subcontinent. The basic tenets of diplomatic decorum and discretion have been cast to the wind as the Gora sahibs and their Desi baboos are out in the street trying to outdo the shrillest local radicals. Echoing the republican rant, democrat Leahy issued a fiery warning in the US senate that the days of monarchy were numbered. Although the good senator did not specify whether the curtain was falling just for the Hindu King or for all the oil-rich Arab monarchies as well, interesting times are certainly assured when Christian Empire cometh to strike down heathen kingdom.

The sense of deja vu is only belied by the fact that this is not a condition of unconditional surrender as in Japan, nor is Nepal a dominion of Her Britannic Majesty. Yet, the will to exercise sovereign diktat in every sphere and level of governance is unmistakable. From broad policy guidelines to the minutiae of day-to-day administration, the urge to micro-manage Nepal from abroad is rising.

But herein lies the paradox of West’s democracy promotion campaign in Nepal as elsewhere. While democracy requires the goodwill of all to take root and evolve the necessary values and institutions, the zeal to telescope the process and ram down the formula is often counterproductive, simply because it undermines the sense of dignity, agency and ownership that is vital in sustaining and consolidating any popular political system. Democracy without the independence to choose is a contradiction in terms that only generates alienation. The democracy project at present appears to suffer from its overemphasis in replicating the formal structures and forms of Western democracy without attention to its substantive purpose. Democracy is about maximising human freedom, well-being and security within a viable state. If this is the ultimate goal, the necessary institutional means and processes will be shaped by the evolving nature of local socio-economic ties, geopolitical opportunities and cultural orientations.

The conceptual inability to reconcile the universal relevance of democratic purpose with sustainable local means to achieve the idealised objectives has perhaps done more disservice to the democratic cause than is often realised. The fallacy of making the democratic function a derivative of its form is all too clear to see in dozens of countries with failed political systems. As America stepped on to the world stage as the emerging power after the First World War, President Woodrow Wilson declared that it was America’s mission to make the world safe for democracy. Far more modestly, anthropologist Ruth Benedict cautioned that it might be just as important to make the world safe for differences. A century later, her call for toleration and respect for difference has acquired new urgency as the world finds itself beset with self-righteous bigotry and extremism. Since the champions of democracy do not usually export the brand of democracy they themselves practice at home, the sceptics here should be excused for being a tad apprehensive about the version being contemplated for Nepal. The actual results of externally engineered regime changes in Congo against Lubumba, Chhogyal in Sikkim, Mossadegh in Iran, Saddam in Iraq, and Allende in Chile don’t exactly make for a democratic hallelujah either.

Dr Shah is associated with Anthropology Department, TU