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(First published on December 14th, 2019)

Democracy is on trial around the world. Literally. President Donald Trump faces a bruising impeachment process in the US which may hurt his image but leave him in the office to run for another term next year. Israel has announced a third general election within a single year as sparring parties in a hung parliament failed to give a single candidate the required majority. Benjamin Netanyahu, the incumbent Prime Minister, despite perseverance so far, faces a long, career-ending, corruption trial. The United Kingdom, the mother of parliaments, after three years of a parliamentary nervous breakdown, pulled an early Christmas miracle, solidifying the majority of the ruling Tories. But not before producing a nerve-shattering impasse over the Brexit deal which led to the departure of a prime minister, the Crown’s approval of the suspension of the parliament, reversal of the suspension by the Supreme Court and eventually fresh elections. Even now that the governing Conservatives have won a comfortable majority, the fact that the Scottish National Party (the bane of all Brexiteers) managed to muster an incredible number of seats promises further turbulence. So, the journey ahead is not without perils.

In Pakistan, parliament seems dead in waters. In a country where the very idea of democracy constantly remains on trial, the self-proclaimed custodians of its parliamentary form, the two major opposition parties, remain uniquely oblivious to the burden on their shoulders. Law-making remains a hostage to the personal wellbeing of the de facto or real leadership of these parties. This too at a time when the highest court of the country has entrusted the executive and the legislature with the difficult task of defining the contours of the army chief’s term in office within six months. In the first few months of the new parliament, the opposition paralysed the procedure demanding that the chairmanship of the prestigious Public Accounts Committee be given to the opposition leader, Shehbaz Sharif. It got its wish in the end. However, recently he vacated the said position and the opposition did not bat an eyelid. The matter of the appointment of new members to the vacant seats of the Election Commission of Pakistan also seems deadlocked and keeps ending up in court. Democracies are supposed to be messy and in these polarised times you can expect them to face more challenges.

But there is one country where an elected government does not seem to encounter any resistance from the entire system. In India, institution after institution seems to throw in the towel. First it was only the media. Then the election commission and the armed forces. Now parliament and the Supreme Court of India. For India’s Narendra Modi every day is Diwali, full of celebrations, fireworks, and patakhas. After the Supreme Court turned a blind eye to the massive human rights abuses in India-Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IOK) and rubber-stamped his wish to build a temple at the demolished Babri Mosque venue, his appetite for brinkmanship continued to increase. After rendering nearly 2 million Assamese stateless, Modi found out that not all of them were Muslim. Hence a new law providing a path to citizenship for all, but Muslim illegal immigrants was rushed to the parliament and assented by the President without much compunction. Now the same exercise which brought misery to nearly 2 million in Assam will be repeated throughout the country. For those who will be declared illegal, India is building massive compounds to serve as indefinite concentration camps which the Indian media insists on calling detention centres. Centres are usually small and detention only temporary. As LK Advani once remarked about the media: they were asked to bend, they chose to crawl. And this time it’s all institutions not just the media. And the world’s reaction has been the most inspiring. With no Churchill in sight you are bound to end up with Chamberlains. A purge most likely seems to be on the cards.

India’s slide into Nazi-like authoritarian fascism actually gives you a few clues about the test that democracy around the world encounters right now. Every nation has a little bit of darkness in its soul. This darkness is often underplayed. But that doesn’t mean it goes away. In the past few decades, the liberal order has made a pig’s breakfast of things. Two reports reveal how without any major challenge this order lost its way. The Washington Post’s exposé on the unwinnable Afghan War and the US Department of Justice Inspector General’s report reveal the scope of the problem. Naturally, the illiberal elements had to assert themselves. And while they have not accomplished many tangible things, the far-right particularly could not let this opportunity go. The result is the ongoing turbulence. Countless works have emerged since the Brexit shocker and the US presidential upset. But the attempts to locate the source of instability have primarily remained conjectural and subjective. You will say it is Russia, I will say it is India whose national security adviser has already given a lovely long speech on defensive offence, the doctrine of ripping apart nations by exploiting their fault-lines. But let us all agree that we do not have a definite answer.

These trying times can easily act as an endurance test for each nation. Crises can bring out the best or the worst in people. The outcome mainly depends on who you are. The silence with which India offered Modi a walkover is one extreme. The other extreme is the messy reality of the United States. I hope you remember the day Donald Trump won. Political analyst Van Jones, appearing on CNN, had so articulately reminded viewers how children in many minority homes would not sleep out of the fear of the unknown. The same night countless had taken to the streets to protest. I was in a watch party and I remember how a woman there broke down and bawled like a baby. Then what became of that insecurity? The US is still a thriving, defiant democracy and on balance; the minorities have not encountered any state oppression.

Perhaps these challenges are important to bring the best out of every nation. To quote Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?” Perhaps these ordeals are necessary. To prepare us for the dramatic transition scientific and technological innovations are ushering in. This trial by fire is not the end of civilisation. Just another purifying ritual. Let us hope we all make the right choices and show more courage than is on display in India right now.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 14th, 2019.

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