A lot has been said about democracy, mostly good but not without some serious caveats. Of the good, there is hardly any need for repetition but some of the caveats still deserve a mention, even if in passing. The most interesting of these is that democracy can be actuallydangerous for societies which have not imbibed a spirit of liberalism. As Fareed Zakaria implies in his book “Future of Freedom” a culture of liberalism would ultimately lead to democracy but democracy does not necessarily (in fact in most cases would not) lead to liberalism. In illiberal societies, defined broadly as societies which have not learnt to sublimate and harness the violence potential of the processes of contest for political power, democracy can actually trigger off conflicts. This sublimation process entails a culture of liberalism that has taught the population to learn to accommodate a number of paradoxical notions, such as respecting majority decisions but without ignoring minority voices, working for consensus but giving dissent a respectable space etc. When the presumption is democracy can and should precede this culture of liberalism, the result has total fiasco. Afghanistan, Iraq and in the 1990s, Eastern Europe after the disintegration of the Eastern Bloc of the then Cold War, are the proofs. Democracy is both a political model as well as a set of human values, and in this definition, the latter must not only predate but also have primacy over the former. Karl Popper put this most succinctly in “All Life is Problem Solving” when he said democracy is any system in which the people can change their leaders without the need for bloodshed.
Although much has been said of democracy by practically all sections of the people, from intellectuals to lumpens, there is one area which has not seen much articulation – democracy, arguably above all else, is also a finely tuned intuitive conflict resolution mechanism. This may sound like a hyperbole but it is not. The fact that practically all, if not all, nations which have absorbed and internalised democracy and its values, have ceased to see war as a method of settling dispute. As the UNDP annual Human Development Report, 2003 pointed out, after World War-II, no two democratic countries have ever gone to war with each other. It is also more and more unlikely that any two democratic countries would every again go to war. The case of Western Europe is an example. It is today inconceivable that any two of these prosperous countries, which together have today joined and formed the awesome supra-national political and economic institution called the European Union, would choose to settle any of their issues by war. And democracy, nobody will dispute is an ideology which is spreading, and by the sheer compulsion of its natural Catholicity, continue to spread till it becomes a universal, political practice and faith. Its aesthetics and symmetry are formidable if not irresistible.
This however will understandably have other little imagined consequences. The most dramatic of these is predictable. If wars become redundant, what exactly would happen to the military? Almost as a matter of necessary ritual to qualify to be a “nation state” practically every nation, with one or two exceptions like Poerto Rico, has one. Even the tiny Himalayan kingdom, Bhutan, wedged between two giant rising superpowers of India and China, with whom it can never ever think of fighting a war, has an Army. Nonetheless, in a perfectly democratic environment where wars have become history, the military’s role against the new paradigm of postmodern nationhood, would have to be sooner than later redefined. The options are, one, it would be reduced to a ceremonial and symbolic organ of nationhood. We also know symbols, when it is not pegged to reality, seldom carries enough steam to pull on for long. Two, there would be a gradual but inevitable convergence between the traditional role of the military (that of fighting foreign wars) and policing (that of maintaining internal security). Something like this is already happening in the notion of the UN Peace Keeping Force. It is also happening in the increasing deployment of the military in what are essentially internal security matters in India, in particular fighting insurrections in Kashmir, Northeast and now the Maoist heartlands. The third futuristic role of the military, as men like Terry Eagleton predicted, would be to fight global terrorism, as opposed to regional insurgencies and much more cynical too. India too is learning how true this is by actual experience. This new paradigm cannot just be wished away and hence the best approach would be to begin accepting and absorbing it without delay.