Democracy in retreat

June 07, 2020


The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

DEMOCRACY is clearly imperilled and what is being witnessed across the world is evidence of that whether it is the US, Brazil, the UK, India or even Pakistan where ‘economy first’ policies are supplanting commitments to the ‘people’ and their well-being.

The way law-enforcement personnel spearheaded by the police have dealt with mostly peaceful protesters across the US who are outraged by the murder of George Floyd, an African American, by a Minneapolis cop, must raise serious questions about democracy in that country.

Some of the images seen across the globe in real time thanks to social media tell stories of the law-enforcement officers’ brutal conduct reminiscent of the overreach witnessed in authoritarian states that the US, when expedient, has expressed grave outrage over.

And for every voice we hear expressing anger at this gross brutality, there is one or more justifying the action and calling protesters left-wing extremists, saboteurs, etc. As if deeply embedded racism and all its ugly manifestations should be an acceptable fact of life; as if anyone raising a voice against such abhorrent practices is an agent of anarchy and hell-bent on undermining the economy.

This lack of empathy was also evidenced just as the Covid-19 crisis was building up in the US when President Trump’s focus remained firmly on the economy and ‘saving jobs’ — a metaphor that is deviously used by those representing the interests of big business.

A political ideology not based on the rights of the people but on hate is triumphing wherever you look.

He underplayed the threat to disastrous consequences. The UK was no different. When the coronavirus was ravaging Italy and Spain, the prime minister was trivialising the looming health emergency by saying he had gone around shaking hands in a hospital room filled with Covid-19 patients.

His principal adviser known for being economical with the truth in the various campaigns he has run, such as the one for the Brexit vote or for Boris Johnson’s last election, was quoted by the Sunday Times as outlining the government’s strategy: “Herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad”.

Dominic Cummings later denied the remarks attributed to him that many thought were totally in character, but his threatened libel lawsuit against the Murdoch-owned Sunday newspaper is yet to materialise amid serious doubts that it ever would.

The horrendous scenario painted by Imperial College modellers, which talked of an extraordinarily high death toll if the UK did not opt for a lockdown, finally spooked the government into acting, even though it acted late and still had some very confused messaging, betraying where its heart lay.

During the lockdown that saw many thousand Britons fined by the police for violating the government orders regarding not leaving their homes, it later transpired that Cummings drove 400 kilometres to visit his mother.

When the story broke, he justified this by saying he and his wife both had symptoms of Covid-19, and he was concerned about the possible impact on their autistic son’s care needs. Then came the revelation that he’d driven a second time to a recreation spot around 50km from his parents’ home. He said he’d done that “to test his sight” whether he could see well enough for the return drive to London in order to ensure his family’s safety.

Such a violation when the country’s 66 million citizens were observing a lockdown for the greater good would have not gone unpunished even a year ago. The adviser would have had to resign such would have been the democratic pressure. Now not just the prime minister but a slew of cabinet members came out to bat for Cummings and, bizarrely so, half a dozen ministers pretty much Tweeted identical text messages of support.

President Bolsanaro is equally arrogant and feels he is not accountable to the Brazilian people. His year and a half in office presents a sharp contrast to the pro-people tenures (2003-2011) of Inácio Lula da Silva who transformed the lives of the poor in no certain terms but was jailed on spurious grounds as the country’s dreaded establishment struck back.

Even Da Silva’s successor Dilma Rousseff, who served over three years in prison during the military dictatorship in the early 1970s, had a decent record after she was elected to office in 2011 and continued till she faced a dubious impeachment in 2015-2016 and was ousted.

By contrast, Bolsanaro, who is a former military officer with some outlandish right-wing ideas, has displayed a total lack of empathy for the shirtless during his year and a half in office so far and refused to heed counsel on how to tackle the Covid-19 emergency as he stays committed to keeping the economy open.

His country’s statistics tell the devastation being visited on the poor, particularly the indigenous communities, by the pandemic. Even that has not forced him to budge from his initial position. In our part of the world, we have seen how the BJP is well on its way to establishing a dictatorship, treating dissidents with brutal contempt.

All other considerations are secondary as are concerns for the shirtless whose emotions have been whipped up into a Hindutva frenzy to an extent where have-nots are turning on have-nots because one set may belong to a minority religious community. A political ideology not based on the rights of the people but on hate is triumphing wherever you look.

Modi’s lockdown without warning, which left millions of the poorest stranded hundreds, even thousands of miles away from their villages was typical of this lack of democratic accountability. Modi apologists say he is elected. You will recall someone called Adolf Hitler was elected too.

With its opposition hounded/imprisoned, the media crushed and individual freedoms being curtailed every day, Pakistan is headed in a similar direction. That social media and some newspapers are debating whether public health and not the economy needs to be assigned top priority is tragic and points to a crying need for all to stand up and be counted before it is too late.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, June 7th, 2020