Vinoth Ramachandra

Lilliputian Democracy

Posted on: January 31, 2010

Imagine that you live on the lovely island of Lilliput. Like its namesake in Gulliver’s Travels, Lilliput is inhabited by a small people: mostly small in stature and mental outlook, small and insignificant in the world of nations. Your island, too, as in Gulliver’s Lilliput, is ruled by a self-styled emperor. But, since your Lilliput is also a constitutional democracy, this emperor is compelled to hold national elections to secure another term as head of state. This he does successfully, retaining power with a handsome majority. He invited a few international monitors to observe the polling process, wined and dined them sumptuously, and they all had a wonderful holiday on Lilliput at local taxpayers’ expense. They returned to their homes and wrote glowing reports of how peaceful everything had been and how democracy was flourishing on Lilliput.

But you who live there know this is all eyewash. The emperor had already shredded the Constitution of Lilliput in his first term as head of state. There are no more independent commissions in Lilliput. The Chief Justice and the Elections Commissioner are the emperor’s appointees.  Every law under the Lilliputian Election Act was violated by the emperor’s supporters in the run-up to the election: public funds were utilised for his advertising campaign, the state-controlled media were dominated by the emperor and rival candidates excluded, government officials and the police were employed as the emperor’s private employees, mobile phone service providers were compelled to transmit his campaign messages, and journalists who criticized  these abuses of power were intimidated and physically assaulted by goon squads.

On the day of the election itself, the emperor declares on TV that his main rival is legally disqualified from the race:  a lie that the Elections Commissioner is compelled to correct later. In parts of Lilliput known to be hostile to the emperor, public transport is withdrawn on election day and a series of explosions early in the morning deter some from trekking to polling stations. Two days after the emperor’s victory, the campaign office of his main rival are raided by army commandos, without any search warrant, computers and files are taken away and campaign workers arrested. The emperor alleges that they were plotting a coup, although computers and filing cabinets are poor substitutes for guns and rocket launchers. An opposition spokesman claims that the motive was to forestall the collection of evidence to prove that the election count was rigged. Another vicious crackdown on journalists and critics has begun….

Gulliver fell out of favour with his emperor, after having helped him win a war against his neighbour. He had to flee Lilliput for fear of execution. In your Lilliput, ironically, the same fate awaits the failed opponent of the emperor.

How do you feel? And what can you do? What would you like your friends and other governments to do? Whether or not the election was rigged is unclear, and may prove impossible to demonstrate. But the multiple violation of Constitutional safeguards and election laws are blatant. They are surely enough for this election to have been declared null and void. If it is not, the message that has gone out all over Lilliput is this: he who breaks the law, wins.

The failure of democracy in Lilliput is thus much more than that: it is the loss of respect for the rule of law, which is more fundamental than democracy. Indeed, democracy can only flourish in societies where at least two things are in place. Firstly, citizens must have access to information. Where the media are tightly controlled by the state, and other voices suppressed, citizens (especially the majority poor) are deprived of the right to be properly informed of what is happening in the nation and the choices before them. Illiteracy, ignorance, and willful misinformation undermine democracy.

But, secondly, and most importantly, democracy assumes that the majority of citizens cherish freedom: freedom of thought, of worship and of expression. Indeed, that the majority of citizens have a moral outlook, willing to resist tyranny even when it costs them. All dictators can only succeed because they have millions of “yes men” and “yes women” to do their bidding. Some of these are bureaucrats or highly-paid professionals (such as those who design websites and marketing campaigns). Schools and religious institutions, even universities, promote passive conformity rather than conversations about freedom, justice and truth.

Isn’t it an illusion to think that we can have a democratic society based purely on laws and “procedures”, without paying any attention to the moral formation of individual citizens? The kind of people we are -and become- shapes the kind of society we have (though it is also true that the kind of society we live in shapes what we become).  Honesty and integrity are the presupposition of public life, not their product.  The parties to an agreement must already have a sense of what is right, and a willingness to abide by it,  even when it is in their own interests not to do so. A contract is no contract at all if it is kept only when it is convenient to do so. Also, if elected representatives, and officials, cannot be trusted to be concerned with our interests, faith in democracy will wither.

This is a deep challenge to Western liberal democracies too. Versions of political liberalism that hold all morality to be purely a private matter, not to be taught through public education, are vulnerable not only to the charge of incoherence, but also to challenges from an increasing population of egoists who care for nobody’s well-being but their own.

6 Responses to "Lilliputian Democracy"

But Vinoth.. It is not so easy to lay your challenge to liberals as you have, can we really say without proof that keeping morality a private thing inevitably produces an egoist? Political liberals will surely dismiss your assertion without much thought.

And if we try to verify your statement by appeal to the news or commonly held views about our youth as being deficent in selflessness the inevitable reply as to the cause of this will be a host of reasons like poverty or repression. Is there a way to show your statement in action?

I never said anything about “inevitably producing….” or about youth. I think you are reading a bit too much into what I have written.

I read it as you were saying that taking away public eduaction of morality and reducing it to the private sphere produces egoists.

“Versions of political liberalism that hold all morality to be purely a private matter, not to be taught through public education, are vulnerable … to challenges from an increasing population of egoists who care for nobody’s well-being but their own.”

This does not say where from the increasing population of egoists arose. It rather underlines that certain version of political liberalism may be inadequate to face the challenges of increasing number of egoists.

Gulliver’s Lilliput is real in many places of the world. Even in our neighbourhood we can see it in Myanmar. Reading our Indian newspaper seems to convey that it’s there in Sri Lanka too. In the place I originally come from it’s rather the militant groups who put ‘gag order’ onto the public; government just seems to pull back and watch.

Much to be done

Indeed. *sets off for battle*

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January 2010
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