Their extreme factionalism makes political power hard to harness in the national interest
Two improbable democracies
Insights into India by the Yale political science professor emeritus Robert A. Dahl deserve our consideration, since they apply to our own “improbable democracy.”
Dahl seeks to explain why India continues to be a democracy, though it lacks many of the conditions Dahl himself regards as necessary for such a political system to thrive.
India’s horrendous poverty alone—despite its economy’s current surge—makes it a wonder how the country maintains its basic democratic institutions.
Yet India manages—just as the Philippines does. And the reason seems to be that if the extreme factionalism of society makes political power so difficult to consolidate in the national interest, it also means that no power holder can hope to easily overpower the others and rule arbitrarily.
Least common denominator
Dahl notes that the one billion Indians are “divided among themselves along more lines than any other country.” These divisions start from region, class and caste, and extend to language, race and religion. Within each category, there are infinite subdivisions.
In the Philippines, too, geography, culture and history have combined to make the sense of nationality hard to instil.
In both countries, political power is so divided that rule by consensus can strive only for the least common denominator of agreement among the factions.
In 2008, the Indian parliament (545 seats) had 24 party coalitions. Its 2009 elections were contested by more than 300 parties.
In our country, the physical setting meant the original settlements were scattered, their populations sparse, and political power fragmented.
Pre-colonial chiefdoms were primitive local oligarchies—with the bulk of their populations being debt-serfs or household slaves. Both custom and colonial policy preserved these small-scale autocracies. The Spaniards and Americans alike governed through the municipal principalia.
“In the absence of strong central authority,” says the historian Marshall McLennan, “many ordinary families preferred the security inherent in being the follower of a powerful leader to the insecurity of land they could not anyway defend on their own.”
Factional cohesion is strongest at local level; but it is inherently unstable because—as the anthropologist Laura Lee Junker notes—“Political allegiance is given only to the leader immediately above an individual with whom he has personal ties of reciprocity and loyalty.”
Out of the loop
In similarly fissiparous Latin America, a would-be strongman could bring the military into the picture. But India’s officer corps is thoroughly professional, while that of the Philippines is as divided as its civilian leadership.
In both Manila and Delhi, heads of government— Marcos in 1972-86 and Indira Gandhi in 1975-77—tried vainly to impose authoritarian rule. During this last quarter century, young Filipino officers have themselves attempted seven coups.
Indian—and Philippine—democracy is propped up principally by the balance of power among caciques, politicians and bureaucrats, elite families, clans, factions and oligarchic businesses. Much of State policy results from deal making among these powerbrokers.
Until now, neither Indians nor Filipinos can even agree on a national language. India’s Constitution recognizes 15 languages officially. But Indians speak at least 35 major languages and 22,000 distinct dialects. We have at least 80 major languages—each asserting an ethnic culture.
For Indians, the majority religion (80%) of Hinduism—the rest being mainly Muslim—should be a unifying influence. But it is prevented from being so by its caste system, which has for 1,500 years defined a Hindu’s social rank at birth.
Orthodox Hindus regard outcastes as so contemptible that mere physical contact with them is defiling.
Among Filipinos, institutional Catholicism is losing ground to charismatics and pentecostals, who regard their relationship with the Deity as an individual and direct connection, not needing the intermediation of priests.
Fully 45% of young Filipinos are “nominal Catholics who seldom or never take part in church activities.”
No economic miracle
At Independence, India’s evolutionary socialists invested in heavy industry rather than in agricultural modernization. Their long-time leader, Nehru, felt land reform would be difficult to accomplish fully in a fledgling democracy.
So they relegated it to federal India’s constituent states—thus preserving the influence of the feudal landlords and preventing inclusive growth.
The Philippines, unlike its East Asian neighbors, also proved impotent at reforming agrarian tenure. Consequently, the two countries harbor the world’s last Maoist guerrillas.
Classic dual economies
Their failure to institute inclusive growth has also made them classic examples of the colonial dual economy—which is characterized by a modern enclave alongside a stagnant traditional sector.
India and the Philippines lead in aspects of the new information technology. But they also have abnormally large proportions of Asia’s poorest peoples.
India may be a first-rank space power; but landless rural workers still make up a fourth of its people.
Metro Manila—which produces the bulk of our output and income—may generate “spread effects” in its satellite regions. But regions farther away it disadvantages, by sucking away their stores of capital and entrepreneurial people.
Nation building still on
Japan, Korea and China—being ethnically and culturally homogenous—can take their nationhood for granted.
But for India and the Philippines, the diffusion of national awareness and the incorporation into the national community of all sectors of the population still is work in progress.
The global dispersal of 10 million migrants and contract workers is sharpening the Filipino sense of nationality. But the pressure of competing social forces on the central government hampers its efforts to build a strong state and modernize its economy.
Separatist rebellions have forced the unitary Philippine state to grant substantial autonomy to its Muslim minority.
Because of our EDSA ’86 experience, we Filipinos tend to take for granted the irreversible nature of our country’s democratic progress.
But Foreign Policy Magazine and the ‘Fund for Peace’ regard our country as a potential ‘failed state.’ In their ‘Index of Failed States in 2014,’ they ranked the Philippines 59th—between Equatorial Guinea and Comoros—in a list of 178 states arranged by diminishing degrees of instability. India they ranked 81st— just above Indonesia.
They judged the instability of our security apparatus; the factionalization of our elite; unaddressed group grievances; and our lack of state legitimacy as potential reasons for our state’s democratic collapse.
Breaking the stalemate
In both countries, portions of government are still extremely vulnerable to regulatory capture. But no faction can accumulate power enough to change radically the country’s social course. The chief executive, lacking clear authority, can attend only to the urgent and the immediate.
In New Delhi, the Hindu BJP party’s landslide victory in the 2013 elections marks the first time Parliament has had an absolute majority in 25 years of “fragmented and often incoherent coalition governments.”
Much is expected of tough-minded, nationalistic Prime Minister Narendra Modi; but I for one feel that even he will find the going hard in any effort to break his country’s democracy of stalemate.