The Dance of Democracies
Shiv Visvanathan is a social scientist.
His holiness, the Dalai Lama, once claimed in an interview that the way George Bush behaved brought out the Muslim in him. I want to say that the way the people of Tunisia behaved has brought out the Arab in me. Their dance of democracies had broken not just the power of dictatorship but the power of stereotypes which the West had imposed upon them. The wonder of democracy is not just that people return to it but that they return to it in surprising ways. The eruption of democracies has caught the governments of the world by surprise.
Look at the way states and governments respond. People march in the streets and die protesting and idiot spokesmen say they are viewing it with concern. We in India are so stupid in our stereotypes that our antiseptic commentators even pose the illiterate question “Does democracy in Egypt threaten the global order?” Thank god it does because today the global order is an iniquitous one. At one level, we have the government of USA that dreads any explosion of democracy as a threat, an epidemic. One of the paradoxes of the 20th and the 21st Century will always remain the paradox of America, of a great democratic nation that sustained the most tyrannical democracies outside it.
Yes democracy threatens the dictators. It also dissolves the stereotypes of the Arab world which the West created. Suddenly the Arab was not just the fundamentalist but hungry for democracy in a way one’s heart went out to these people. Let us face it. These movements threaten the global order. They threaten the tyrannies of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the puppet Arab regimes which will fall like skittles as democracy breathes again. It exposes the inanity of the Indian government which sees democracy in Nepal, Myanmar, Pakistan and Egypt as too alien and disturbing to sustain. Our foreign policy in its search for realism practises a dessicated ethics which would make a Nasser or Nehru wonder what they fought for.
Lest I be considered premature in my celebration, let me state what I am proud of as an Indian and an Egyptian. People born in the Fifties are honorary Egyptians who understood the dreams of Nasser and the Non-Aligned Movement. We were countries united by dreams, seduced by the same imagination. Memory binds us in a way no 25-year-old will understand. We were tied by the dreams of rationalism and freedom before the dreams went sour. The explosion of stereotypes allows for a recovery of memory.
The dance of democracy one witnesses breaks more than the textbook stereotypes imposed by the West. It breaks the assumption that leadership provides the magic of democracies. It challenges the idea that a people without a leader are only a crowd. One has to understand the power of acephalous groups, grasp the irony that we appreciate the intelligence of birds but not a group of protesting people. One had to understand the idiocy of the old question “Who is in charge here?” The answer is everyone and no one, everyone because while no one is in charge, everyone is responsible. Every man is there feet first to represent himself.
A people protesting can be tremendously responsible. They know they have to walk the way of peace even as the police shoot them down. They realise that protest is not something you delegate, that politics is not something you outsource. It is what you stand for literally. It is presence in the ultimate sense, where every man speaks for his ethical self and stands in solidarity with another million. History has reached such a moment that a people realise they can no longer wait. It is a plea to fast-forward democracy but with a determination to stand up as long as it takes.
There is a poignancy to the drama and the performance. The body language speaks. The body claims democracy as a space for itself. The body refuses to be cowed down by the tortures of a police state. The body acts in spontaneity and discipline. This is not a lynch mob. This is not a mindless crowd. This is history moving on thinking feet, choreographing every moment. This is democracy enacting the ballet of ‘We’ as in ‘We the people’. There is drama and everydayness to it. This is a people saying 30 years is too long and too much and we want democracy everyday and today.
Let us push the idea of the performative act. The movement is not a mere act of protest. It wants other promissory notes. It wants rights. It wants free elections. It wants a full theatre of freedom which asks not just for the spontaneities of democracy but the institutions that guarantee that Mubarak will not return.
Look at the symbolism of the response. Watch Hillary Clinton behaving as if USA must grant permission to the possibility of democracies elsewhere. Look at Israel, shaky that democracy in Egypt might further lobotomise its already numbed democratic imagination. Democracy in Egypt does not threaten Israel and USA’s barbed wire prone security systems. It threatens the tyrannies of the Arab world itself and the artificiality of Saudi Arabia. But before we condemn them let us face the Indian regime’s is autistic reaction to the enactment of history, pretending it can see no democracy, hear no democracy, touch no democracy. We use the word ‘concern’ as a synonym for indifference.
The cautious might say that silence is a sign of maturity. But caution is a failure of the moral imagination. We let down democracy in Myanmar, treated electoral democracy in Nepal with contempt. A Gandhi or a Jayaprakash Narayan would have spoken out but our eyes are too focused on a United Nations Security Council seat where we will exchange ethics for table manners.
The sceptical might say wait, Mubarak might return. Historians might add that democracy in its moment of effervescence can never last. One realises that the dreams of democracy might curdle after the first fortnight. But who can forget the ferment of the moment, the dance of hope we see in the streets of the city. One is moved by the hospitality of people sustaining a people, bringing water and food to those keeping the long vigil. For once, let us forget the security analyst and the foreign policy expert. Their illiteracy is obvious. They predict history only in retrospect but freeze when they see it happen. This is a moment of grace. The million people walking protesting in Cairo walk for all of us. Democracy in Egypt adds to democracy everywhere. That is the beauty of the movement and that is the power of its politics. If it dies, something dies in each of us. If it lives, we can tell our grandchildren we were witness to a grand moment of humanity. That much we can be sure of.