Globe Scan
by Chanakya Sen

Representation Rigmaroles

2004 is verily the year of elections. A horde of nations have elected or are in the course of electing representatives of some form or the other this year. Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Japan, Hong Kong SAR, South Korea, Taiwan, India, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Malawi, Uruguay, El Salvador, Panama, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Russia, Australia- the list of countries that got or are getting new Prime Ministers, Presidents and Parliaments in 2004 is elephantine. The election with the biggest implication for the world will, of course, be this November for the United States presidency. Afghanistan and Iraq, two battered and invaded lands, will also trundle the quick-fix democracy path through their own hustings later in the year.

The core objective of this gigantic exercise of universal adult franchises is to pick representatives that govern in the name of the people. So vibrant and acrimonious are the electoral contests that it is tempting to get stuck in the miasma of individual polls, their results, the rises and downfalls of politicians etc. What I propose to do here is a systemic analysis that skips the tedious details and looks at the overall phenomenon of representation and what it means for the global democratisation juggernaut. How far has representation as a concept served its expectant constituency, the voters? Reductionist democracy has often put every egg in the basket of elections, as if the mere act of choosing representatives is the panacea to all governance ills. What happens if the elected representatives are in effect non-representative in the laws and policies they enact?

The instruments of direct democracy- referendum, initiative, recall and plebiscite- are feasible correctives only when the country concerned is tiny Switzerland or Fiji. How are people in Russia or India, for instance, to cope with rogue representatives that get elected for 5 or 6-year terms and start extortion and oppression from day one in office? Waiting endlessly for their eventual fall is no remedy at all. An ever-widening chasm between the electors and their representatives is noticeable everywhere, and yet we see trumpeting the triumph of democracy merely because more and more elections are being held. Accountability is getting walloped for a six by valueless representatives in both developed and developing nations, with public cynicism hitting record proportions.

If a bureaucracy is broadly representative of the constituency it serves, then the theory of representation deems it more likely to take decisions that benefit the public. Democracy is ergo better than aristocracy or dictatorship since it is broadly representative. According to the theory of representative bureaucracy, individuals who make decisions in public administration exercise discretion that reflects their own personal values. Socialisation, upbringing and education are key determinants of personal values that representatives possess. But the sine qua non that governs personal values is cultural background based on identity. Democracies are on paper better than other forms of government for owing to the fact that people’s representatives are supposed to emerge from popular culture, i.e. from amongst the people themselves, not royal courts or professional armies.

An interesting case study of the representative bureaucracy theory is about women and public office. Women happen to be approximately 50% of the population in every society of the world. Yet, the number of elected female Senators, Parliamentarians, CEOs or bureaucrats is disproportionately low, be it an industrialised or a poor nation. Where women make it to the very top of the system, as Presidents or Prime Ministers, their personal convictions have rarely manifested in policies improving the status of the trampled fairer sex. The 20th century had 46 female heads of state/government. Some of the most prominent among them- Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, Eva Peron, Margaret Thatcher, Corazon Aquino, Benazir Bhutto, Mary Robinson, Megawati Sukarnoputri, Chandrika Bandaranaike and Khaleda Zia- have little to show up as genuine representatives who worked for women’s rights or for world peace.

Feminist critiques about the ‘gendered’ nature of states and international relations have accepted the empirical reality that female-headed governments pursue aggressive and chauvinistic foreign policies as much as (sometimes more than) male-headed bureaucracies. Mrs.Indira Gandhi was ironically called “the only man in her cabinet.” Internalisation of patriarchal concepts and perpetuation of militarism by female leaders goes against the representative bureaucracy theory’s premises. Is there any point at all in celebrating the election of yet another woman ruler as a sign of improving gender equality in any given country? Symbolism aside, would American women and the cause of global harmony benefit if Hilary Clinton runs for and wins the 2008 US presidential election?

Let us consider another ‘election’ that has global ramifications and prestige. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan will finish his second term in 2006. Already, the shadowboxing for his successor has started in diplomatic earnest. The ‘Asian Group’ lobby has announced determination to field an Asian candidate to fill Annan’s seat. An eerie unanimity has set in that it would be ‘Asia’s turn’ in 2006 at the UN and the race has now entered the intra-Asian jousting arena. Contenders being tipped in diplomatic circles include Anwarul Haq Chowdhury (Bangladesh), Tyronne Fernando (Sri Lanka) and Shashi Tharoor (India). Whoever makes it would be only the second Asian UN Secretary General after U Thant of Burma (1961-’71), a fact that is supposed to evoke pride in the heart of every Asian.

Apart from the problematic of defining an Asian identity with an Asian heart, the convoluted logic of representation from across the world which defines UN staffing quotas from top to bottom has no real justification. Africa sent two UN Secretary Generals to New York in the post-Cold War era- Boutros Ghali (Egypt) and Kofi Annan (Ghana) - at a time when civil wars and internal conflicts in the continent were proliferating. Yet, the failure of African Secretary Generals and Peacekeeping Operations heads to make little difference when Somalia, Rwanda, Congo, Angola, Sierra Leone and Sudan were ravaged is concrete proof that representation is not the be all and end all solution.

As a matter of fact, the only UN Secretary General who proactively worked for solving African and Asian conflicts was a European- Dag Hammarskjold (Sweden). From Africa to the Middle East to Southeast Asia, he is remembered to this day for moulding the UN into a robust and activist mode. The compassion and forthrightness which Hammarskjold made his hallmarks were certainly personal values but unrelated to the continent he was representing or his identity as a European. If someone from Antarctica were put in the saddle in the UN Secretariat by the P-5 nations, the prospect that she/he would bring the marginalized region’s problems into focus is anyone’s guess.

Several other planks celebrating representative bureaucracies exist. If a religious, linguistic, ethnic or racial minority community member attains high office, it is quickly hailed as a progression that will inaugurate liberal policies even though the historical proof for such a turnaround is scanty. Stalin was a Georgian by nationality. Instead of bringing his neglected region to the forefront of the USSR’s march forward, his bloodiest purges and show trials were reserved for Georgia. He always wanted to project the self-image of ‘more Russian than a native Russian.’ Majoritarianism is often promoted by those who would never figure in the tally of usual suspects. As Fareed Zakaria’s last book (The Future of Freedom) convincingly argues, liberty is often countermanded by those who are democratically elected. Most common people in the world are wary of banking on their so-called representatives. When would the democratisation junkies learn their lesson?    


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