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How many cheers for democracy?

The writer, a renowned astrophysicist, is professor emeritus at Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune University. He was Cambridge University’s Senior Wrangler in Maths in 1959.
Published : Mar 10, 2017, 2:40 am IST
Updated : Mar 10, 2017, 6:29 am IST

If war is to be avoided, the recourse is generally through the imposition of economic sanctions.

E.M. Forster (Photo:
 E.M. Forster (Photo:

One of my cherished memories of Cambridge belongs to King’s College where I was elected a fellow in 1963. The dinner following my election was the traditional one where fellows sit round the “high table”. As the new fellow I had the seat next to the provost (the head of the college). Across the table sat an old venerable gentleman who was introduced to me as E.M. Forster, an honorary fellow of the college. Of course I had heard his name as the author of A Passage to India. Having learnt that I was born in Kolhapur, Forster became very friendly since during his memorable stay in the state of Dewas nearly four decades ago, he had been familiar with the interactions and intrigues between the two states. And so at his suggestion the college allotted me the suite of rooms next door to him. It had a picturesque location with three large windows looking out to the famous chapel.

Although a shy personality, Forster opened out on rare occasions and we had discussions on topics ranging from world affairs to cosmology (the affair of the whole universe?). On one such occasion I asked him about his writings on democracy: why he gave two cheers for democracy. Why did he withhold the third cheer?

“We may still contrive to raise three cheers for democracy although at present she only deserves two,” wrote Forster in 1951, in the aftermath of the devastating Second World War. Of course, Forster was pained and angry at the way the human life and its rights were ignored at the rise of anti-Semitism and the lack of preventive response in time, which could have prevented massacre and devastation. The democracies in Europe and those across the Atlantic did not step in to take corrective action until it was too late.

It is often argued by the defenders of democracy that with all its shortcomings it is the best model we have to regulate and rule how large human groups should live and coexist. This may not be obvious, given the many mistakes that such large groups make collectively. Even when the right decisions are made one may get the feeling that they came late and thereby lost or reduced the benefits they were supposed to bring.

Indeed it is the case that a citizen of a democracy may enviously look across to a neighbour under an undemocratic rule enjoying with apparent swiftness the reforms in lifestyles that are coming too slowly in his or her democratic system. In such cases it is tempting to conclude that the neighbour’s undemocratic grass is that much more greener! Thus good roads, with fast imported cars running on them, gifts of the latest technology imported from abroad, etc., may suggest, apparently in the last analysis, that the neighbour’s undemocratic way is better. However, it turns out that the last analysis is still to come and it results in the undemocratic ruler of that country succumbing to internal revolt or running away to one of the so-called safe havens, leaving his country in a much more impoverished state than when he had assumed the ruler’s mantle.

The democracy that India enjoys is thus a priceless gift that the nation has given to itself, despite its many defects. Indeed if we look at the list of nations that were given freedom and self-governance by their colonial rulers mostly after the Second World War, we will see India standing tall amidst a large number of nations that have still not settled down. Thanks largely to the vision of Jawaharlal Nehru, the nation created a framework for science and technology that could cope with the “future shock” that lay ahead.

Forster was critical of the leading democracies in Europe in the 1930s for not protesting loudly enough when Nazi power was rising in Germany. In today’s world, what can they do? If war is to be avoided, the recourse is generally through the imposition of economic sanctions. By creating obstacles in the economic dealings of the nation concerned, the democracies can make it difficult, if not impossible, for it to function. These methods were tried and they did work in the cases of Rhodesia and South Africa, where the regimes were manifestly undemocratic and in each case a small minority enjoyed all the privileges at the expense of a downtrodden majority. Through economic sanctions like barring sale of petrol, the rest of the democracies can make life difficult.

However, sanctions do not work if they are not imposed unanimously. If a few nations oppose sanctions, they can provide the commodities that have been banned under the sanctions. Just as a pot, however strong, but with a hole in the bottom, cannot hold any liquid, so do the sanctions fail in case there are objectors to their imposition.

Another danger to sanctions arises if they are imposed for political reasons and not moral ones. Thus if a few powerful nations decide to “punish” a nation for not agreeing with them in important political matters, the sanctions imposed will lack moral force. Other nations, which do not agree with the reasons of imposing sanctions, will not participate in their operation.

Forster wrote: “Democracy has another merit. It allows criticism, and if there is not public criticism, there are bound to be hushed-up scandals. That is why I believe in the press, despite all its lies and vulgarity and why I believe in Parliament. Parliament is often sneered at because it is a talking shop. I believe in it because it is a talking shop. I believe in the private member who makes himself a nuisance… but he does expose abuses which would otherwise never have been mentioned, and very often an abuse gets put right just by being mentioned…” He further adds: “Whether Parliament is either a representative body or an efficient one is questionable but I value it because it criticises and talks, because its chatter gets widely reported…”

Tags: democracy, nazi, e m forster