Be not Blinded by the Smell of Jasmine

Written by  //  February 2, 2011  //  National Politics  //  1 Comment

Guest post by Suchindran B.N.

Advocate, Madras High Court

The Jasmine revolution in Tunisia and the domino effect it has had in many countries of the Arab world is symbolic of two powerful forces: the power of the internet and that the power of knowledge. Set off by simple incidents of abuse of power by state authorities, the movement has created tidal waves all throughout the world and all in a matter of a few days. No longer can rulers keep the governed ignorant of the happenings in other parts of the world. The Internet is a game changer like few we have ever seen before. It is the most equalising and homogenising force the world has seen since the invention of the printing press. Its nature is such that dictators (or State power of any character or political subscription) cannot censor or control.

Popular uprisings of this kind are a warning to rulers everywhere (I deliberately don’t say dictators because it is a warning to democratic rulers also) that the impatience of youth will not allow you to amass riches without ensuring the general prosperity of the general citizenry.

And rulers like Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak have vastly underestimated the power and the influence of this force. From their reactions, it also seems that they have been caught unawares by the sheer speed with which the anger and protests spread through social networking sites and e-mails.

But anger is not conducive to nation building. While, it is heartening to see a million people gather in Tahrir square holding their rulers to account for more than 30 years of misgovernance, there is also much to fear and to plan for. Glasnost and Perestroika must go together.

Anger against the present form of government may not mean unity or agreement in the manner of change. History teaches us that revolutions that are not inclusive will not sustain. For this, leaders who can temper the mob fury and calm the storm, uniting the various sections of society are required.  Very often, spontaneous revolutions do not give the breathing space where future leaders can be groomed. Much thought and deliberation must go into fashioning a new order that is suited to the unique genius of the people. The need of the hour is for leaders who can dream ahead and holistically create independent institutions with a system of checks and balances – and, most importantly, leaders who will not be moved by the passions of the mob for quick solutions.  But at the same time they must be able to command the legitimacy and trust of the people.

That is why many revolutions of the past only led to new dictatorships,  sometimes more sinister than the rulers they displaced.  It is the story of the first half of the twentieth century illustrated where popular revolutions were merely replaced by more sinister communist regimes which adopted the methods and tools of the past rulers while compromising on their ideals. (Satirised, so brilliantly by George Orwell in Animal Farm). Popular anger is not conducive to nation building.

The constitution making processes of the United States of America, India and South Africa are example of countries which changed their constitutional orders after a long struggle. They are not perfect but relatively stable because the struggle threw up many leaders in a variety of fields. In the case of India, it allowed the creation of a nation state and a constitution which has survived its critics and its own fissiparous tendencies for more than 60 years.  In contrast, Pakistan did not succeed because the gestation period for the movement did not give enough time for the creation and the overpowering image of Jinnah did not allow a second rung of leadership to grow. The refusal of George Washington to run for a third term and Nelson Mandela are decisions of far-seeing leaders who are conscious of their importance in their nation’s life. Their death whilst in office would have created a void that their newly created constitutions might not have survived.

Similarly, most of the former colonies given independence after the second world war in the spirit of the policy of self determination ushered in by the by the newly formed United Nation lost their way. This was primarily attributed to the fact that their creation was more a reflection of the demise of colonialism than the creation of a new national spirit. Independence was thrust upon them without the necessary presence of leadership.

Power is an aphrodisiac like no other. Dictators, like old soldiers, do not give up easily. The lure and trapping of power, sustained over time, deludes them into thinking that it is theirs by divine right.  While the popular pressure for their removal must be maintained, it is important that this time is used to prepare the next generation of leadership and to select leaders who are ready, willing and capable of guiding the transitioning to a new order – hopefully more just and responsive than the last. If this is not done, then it will only be old wine in a new bottle, or should we say the same despotism with a new face!

So Celebrate the revolution not on the day of deliverance from the past or ‘independence’, but on the day that the people are able to put in place a responsible transitional government. For that the passions of the mob in Tahrir square and elsewhere might have to be tempered and channelled.

About the Author

Shiv is reading for a Doctorate in Jurisprudence at Oxford University. He read for a B.C.L at Oxford University in 2005-06. He read for his undergraduate law degree at Indian Law Society, Pune (1999-2004).

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One Comment on "Be not Blinded by the Smell of Jasmine"

  1. aandthirtyeights February 4, 2011 at 7:21 am ·

    Down with the nation state. Let’s all reorganise ourselves based on internet communities.

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