An Open Letter to the Peoples of Middle East and North Africa
Dear Sisters and Brothers of the Middle East and North Africa,
I am a student of violent and nonviolent revolutions and have been witnessing your “Jasmine Revolutions” with great excitement as well as deep concern. Like millions of people around the world, I am so full of admiration for your valiant struggle against totalitarianism, nepotism, and corruption. The spontaneity of your revolutions, the principled practice of nonviolence, your civic courage even after decades of repression, and your demand for democracy and free and fair elections make us all look at you with awe and respect. We do condemn the violence and bloodshed of the ruling establishments and ask them to put down their guns and engage in an earnest dialogue with you.
As a citizen of the largest democracy (India) and a student of the longest democracy (United States), I, for one, feel obliged to share some of my thoughts and reflections about democracy and elections with you all for your serious consideration. My intention is not to throw cold water on your quest for democracy but to request you to take a hard look at the actual practice of democracy and elections in the United States and India and to find ways and means of overcoming those shortcomings.
 You are naturally sick and tired of 30 to 42 of years of autocratic rule by Mubaraks and Muammar Qaddafis, and emirs and kings with little transparency, accountability and popular participation. We understand that and support that. If you look at the political career of some of the US senators and congresspersons, you will see they have been in power longer than Mubaraks and Qaddafis. For example, Robert C. Byrd was clinging to power as a senator and a congressman for more than 57 years. Carl Hayden, John Dinge II, and Jamie Whitlen were all sticking to their chairs for more than 56, 55, and 53 years respectively. Senator Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii has been a senator for more than 47 years now. Some 94 people have been in power from 36 to 57 years in the United States. Similarly in India too, there are hundreds of Members of Parliament (in both the upper and the lower house) such as Basudeb Acharia, Manikrao Hodlya Gavit, and Somnath Chatterji who are called “longest serving” members. I wonder if they should be called that or the “longest clinging” members. There is a similar trend in the legislative assemblies of all the states in India too. For instance, M. Karunanidhi, the present Chief Minister (US equivalent of State Governor) of Tamil Nadu state has been a member of the state house for more than 40 years now.
 You rightly problematize the nepotism of your rulers and think that democracy could end all this. The dynasties of the Kennedys, the Bushs and the Clintons in the United States, and the Gandhi dynasty and quite a few smaller dynasties in India would prove that democracy and elections cannot curtail sycophancy, nepotism, and family succession. Just as the rulers of the Middle East and North African countries have handed over the mantle of power to their sons (Jordan, Syria) or wanted to pass the baton to their sons (Egypt, Libya etc.), our democratically elected leaders have also made their sons and daughters the rulers or their party chiefs. The list, especially in the case of India, would be too long.
 You seem to believe that democratic political system will prevent the rulers and their families from looting the public coffers. Consider the case of Illinois in the United States and its former Governors. In December 2008, while announcing federal corruption charges against Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, FBI Special Agent Robert Grant said that “if [Illinois] isn’t the most corrupt state in the United States, it is one hell of a competitor.” Blagojevich ended up in prison. Republican George Ryan is currently serving a 6 1/2-year term in federal prison for racketeering and fraud. Otto Kerner, a Democrat, was convicted in 1973 on 17 counts of bribery, conspiracy, perjury and other charges and sentenced to three years in the prison. In 1987 Dan Walker was convicted of bank fraud years after leaving office. Lennington Small, a Republican who served from 1921 to 1929, was indicted while in office for embezzlement. Most Indian politicians have no qualms about stealing public money and they are said to be the largest clientele of the Swiss banks. Rudolf Elmer, a Swiss bank executive, has said that “Switzerland is the most preferred tax haven for Indians” to stack up their illicit wealth (NDTV, January 19, 2011).
 You seem to believe that democracy and free and fair elections will do away with the poverty, misery, vulnerability and inequality that prevail in your societies and hold the rulers accountable for their omissions and comissions. It is obvious that your leaders, kings and emirs use the national resources for their and their families’ aggrandizement. Our democracies are not much different either. An article in opensecrets.org points out: “As Americans worry about their own finances, their elected representatives in Washington — with a collective net worth of $3.6 billion — are mostly in good shape to withstand a recession.” Before the meltdown rained on their parade, members of Congress, “saw their net worths soar 84 per cent from 2004 to 2006, on average.” The article points out that while US senators had “a median net worth of approximately $1.7 million in 2006,” only about “1 per cent of all American adults had a net worth greater than $1 million around the same time.” Reputed Indian journalist P. Sainath points out in his column in The Hindu newspaper (dated June 20, 2009) that the number of ‘crorepatis’ (millionnaires) in the present Indian parliament’s lower house (Lok Sabha) is up 98 per cent as compared to 2004. Then there were 154 of them but now there are 306 — almost double. In both the United States and India, money from big corporations and business houses helps politicians secure election victories and eventually “own” them.
 You seem to believe that doing away with dictatorships and bringing in democracy will usher in a new era of young leaders with visions, dreams and creative ideas. You seem to fantasize that these new leaders can stand for election, win power, implement their political programs and bring about social justice for your peoples. In the United States and in India, fighting elections costs money, a lot of money. P. Sainath points out the firm links between wealth and winning elections in India in his above-mentioned article. He posits: “If you are worth over Rs. 50 million, you are 75 times more likely to win an election to the Lok Sabha than if you are worth under Rs. 1 million. At least, in the case of the 2009 polls.” This is in a country that has 836 million people who scrape along with less than Rs. 20 (50 US cents) a day. Do you think the poor will ever have a chance of voicing their concerns in the policymaking circles?
Please understand that my point is not that democracy and elections do not work but you must take some bold steps to make them work and you must be extra vigilant in the process.
Representative democracy is certainly the best tool of governance that we have right now. But when the representatives stop representing the people and start working for big money and big forces, there should be provisions in the constitution to recall them and even to prosecute them. When an elected representative dies or gets killed while in office or resigns from the post, his/her party or the candidates’ constituents (in case of an independent) should nominate a new representative for the rest of the term. Public money and time and energies need not be squandered on a by-election and hustings. All public representatives should be required to declare their, their immediate and distant family members’ assets on a regular basis and to undertake not to engage in activities with conflicts of interest. Public representatives’ corruption should be made a ‘murder-like’ crime and severest punishment should be reserved for those wrong-doings. Such cases should be disposed off in special courts with swift and due processes of justice. The government should fund the election campaigns and anyone found using money power or muscle power to win votes and elections should be permanently disqualified from standing for elections for ever.
Democracy today means government of the rich people, by the rich people and for the rich people. Please lead us to make it government of all the people, by all the people and for all the people. I, for one, send my sincere good wishes to you all.
Yours in democracy,
S. P. Udayakumar
In Florida, USA
S.P. Udayakumar, Ph.D. – Tamil Nadu, India:
* South Asian Community Center for Education and Research (SACCER)
* TRANSCEND Network, South Asia Convener (TSA) (For Rethinking South Asia)
* People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE)
* National Alliance of Anti-nuclear Movements (NAAM) (For a Nuclear-Free India that has No Deals, No Mines, No Reactors, No Dumps, and No Bombs)
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 7 Mar 2011.
Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: An Open Letter to the Peoples of Middle East and North Africa, is included. Thank you.
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