Thursday, January 03, 2008

Family affair

Royal pain
News from south Asian neighborhood

It was a big week for South Asian politics. Bhutto's assassination, the capitulation of the democratic Nepal Seven Party Alliance to demands of the Maoists to somehow guarantee they will get rid of the monarchy (when previously they had promised to hold a referendum for the public to decide), and the first ever election in the now-former kingdom of Bhutan all would seem to spell change. So why don't I smell change?

Amid all the mourning of Benazir Bhutto and descriptions of her as a champion of democracy, her apolitical 19-year-old son has been appointed her successor. There are also reports that Bhutto "willed" leadership of the Pakistan People's Party to her husband Zardari, as though it were a personal possession. Which, let's face it - I suppose, it actually was.

When is a democracy not a democracy? When its leaders are appointed by non-democratic methods, for one thing. When heredity is 9/10 of the law; and yes, the same formula applies to the Gandhi-Nehrus and Thackerays of India, and many others.

Of course, after the elections of 2000 and 2004 were hijacked by our very own Bush dynasty, Americans aren't much better off.

An article from the Indian Express
explains the south Asian grafting of dynastic family structure onto democracy.

Royalism has been democratised in South Asia. In turning our backs on monarchy, we reinvent ourselves as republicans. But this is often a fragile and tenuous republicanism, as the political parties in our democratic polities are mini-kingdoms each with its own royal family.

My own observations: south Asians value stability over change, progress or principles. The continuity of heredity, with all the social expectations of a dutiful son or daughter carrying on the family legacy, is the best way to ensure that.

And, south Asian understanding of family as the most fundamental paradigm overrides any consciously learned, abstract concepts. When all you have is a hammer, everything you see looks like a nail. Unlike most of the west, where the individual is the basic unit, south Asian society seems to be irreducible to any unit smaller than that of the Family.

Therefore, because the current Nepali king was at first given benefit of the doubt, but has proven to be a rotten apple, the whole family has to go. Forget the outrageous Prince Paras who was always out of the question; there is no room to consider the well-behaved daughter or a regency for the very young Prince Hridayendra, grandson of the current king Gyanendra. They are not and cannot be seen as individuals; that's the whole point.

While the Nepali monarchy will suffer an uphill battle to retain even ceremonial kingship at this point, the Bhutanese palace is conversely struggling to encourage its subjects in baby steps towards the electoral process. Evidently most of the political parties were formed at the behest of the King - why doesn't that sound right? - following strict guidelines concerning the nature of such parties. "The king says we have to form some parties, I guess we had better" doesn't sound like a good start on democracy to me.

That other Himalayan monarch, HH the Dalai Lama, is not fareing much better encouraging his people to adopt democracy. He's been pushing the democratic process for decades; the government in exile has now elected a Prime Minister and other officers. In preparation for his inevitable passing, HH continually tries to delegate political tasks to these and other figures, hoping to train Tibetans to look toward other sources than himself for answers.

Within what are ostensibly republics in South Asia, thus, we remain at heart subjects rather than citizens, people who need and love royals....

Old habits are hard to break.

7 comments:

John said...

Westerners tend to think that democracy is the panacea.
However, for democracy to work, one needs a population that is ready for democracy. To push democracy on a population not ready for it, may well spell a greater evil than having some capable oligarchy in power.
While incompetent oligarchies are approximatively on the same rank of evil as a democracy with an incompetent population (see Kenya), the solution is not necessarily the simple transplantation of a Western type system, but an evolution where the power is slowly shifted from "aristocracy" to professional competent administrative structures, with a certain degree of increasing democratic control.

But in the end, democracy may well be the cause of the demise of societies that have adopted it, as democracy combined with consumerism tends to produce a short sighted society focused on the individual, and dismissing the collective long term systemic interests of the whole.

Sirensongs said...

I'm not one of the westerners who thnks democracy is a panacea. in fact that's part of my point - democracy, like most western concepts, is based on the unit of the individual, not the aggregate and may not translate well if at all to Asian societies.

In such cases, democracy may well be the demise of countries that have adopted its form without any of its core values. Focus on the individual itself is not a problem; the problem is trying to apply this system to a case in which there are no "individuals."

John said...

You are talking about the failure of democracy because of tribal like allegiances.This is indeed one of the reason a population might not be ready for democracy, among others.
However the "individual" of the Western model of democracy is reduced to horizontal relations, and its "values" are reduced to horizontal ones, excluding community as one of the legitimate sources of societal values. The Western model of the individual is a reduced relativistic one, as it negates the holistic cybernetic relationship between the individual and the whole.
While applying a Western model of democracy to countries with a population that is not ready for it because of insufficient individualisation, or beacause of other reasons, makes that exercise risky, Western democracy itself, as a reductionistic individualistic system, has core structural flaws, and countries that are still rooted in communitarian traditional values should think twice before dismantling their vertical cultural component to the level of horizontal individualism, and consider a differently defined model of the individual, integrating the horizontal with the vertical dimensions of society.
They should try to think their own evolution of the relationship between the individuals and society.

Sirensongs: Indologist At Large said...

Churchill said it best (he said lots of things best): "Democracy - the worst of all political systems...unless you count the rest of them."

Democracy has ever been a grand experiment. As western democracy matures, its practitioners are indeed redefining what it means to be an individual. I think the ultra-isolation of the 70s-80s is waning and slowly being replaced with such an integrated model.

Definitely, many if not most of the problems with India today result from attempts to either dismantle or ignore their traditional value structure - and attempts to force it to co-exist with market values and the western concept of the 'individual.'

John said...

Churchill was sometimes right, sometimes wrong.
I am not convinced that the West is moving towards the integration of the individual and the collective principle. The diffuse sense of "something missing" leading to various forms of (sometimes misguided) social activism can only purvey an amount of potential energy, but cant't provide in itself a paradigm shift from a civilisation whose core common values are based on the agreement not to have real systemic common values.
Such lack of systemic verticality will in the long run lead to the implosion of the Western civilisation and of those who blindly followed it.
Societies that will have the wisdom to keep their more primitive, but vertically functional systemic common values and integrate them into their own process of simultaneous evolution of the relationship betweeen the collectivity and the individual, will eventually overrun the Western civilisation, which lacks vertical resources to even biologically survive.

Sirensongs said...

I never said Churchill was always right, I said he said most things very well. Dude, it's official - you need to get your own blog, or stop trolling mine with your negativity.

John said...

Sorry to have bothered you. No hard feelings.