India’s lesson for Lebanon

Beirut after the 2020 explosion

India and Pakistan could have been spared catastrophes by power-sharing systems they rejected. The Lebanese should hold on to the one they have.

I NORMALLY CAN’T stand Boris Johnson because of his demagoguery and conservative political creed. But last week Emmanuel Macron made me appreciate the British prime minister, for the first time.

The French president was in Beirut, on his second trip since last month’s massive explosion in the Lebanese capital. He warned politicians there that they had “the last chance for [their] political system,” which is based on sharing political power and interests among the country’s half a dozen religious-political factions.

The system had been introduced in Lebanon by imperial France after World War I when it created and colonized that Arab country. Macron, like many other critics of Lebanon’s consensus democracy, now says the power-sharing model has bred corruption and inertia among Lebanese officials, which somehow caused the devastating blast of a stockpile of ammonium nitrate at Beirut port.

On his first visit to the city soon after the August 4 explosion, the French president had given the Lebanese a tongue-lashing for their corruption and called for “a new political pact,” which would, he explained later, transform that country’s consensus democracy into some kind of a majoritarian one.

A democracy can be based on a consensus among groups or communities, or on the strength of a legislative majority. Under the consensus model, executive powers and legislative seats are shared by a country’s ethnic, religious or other communities, and government decisions are arrived at through dialogue among representatives of those communities. A majoritarian democracy, on the other hand, is a winner-take-all game in which a political party (or a coalition of parties), which wins a majority of seats in a parliamentary election, forms the government and enacts laws without input from minority parties of communities. 

On his second trip Macron warned his Lebanese hosts that if they failed to reform their political system, he would push the international community to stop aiding Lebanon financially and sanction those among them who had amassed wealth through corruption. 

I was born in India and spent part of my childhood there and then lived for years in Pakistan’s eastern province before migrating to the United States. I have been dismayed lately to see that tensions between India and Pakistan have spiked to new heights since the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wiped out the autonomy of the Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir state. The British had colonized the Indian subcontinent for nearly two centuries. After reading Macron’s comments on the Internet, I wondered how Indians and Pakistanis would feel if Boris Johnson were to descend on Islamabad and New Delhi and tell Modi and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan how to settle the Kashmir issue and warn of dire consequences if they failed to follow his diktat.

I am grateful that Johnson apparently has better sense than today’s occupant of the Elysée Palace in Paris, whose forebear Henri Gouard carved out and ruled Lebanon.  General Gouard had suffered two humiliating defeats at the hands of the Turks in World War I. Never mind, the French general tucked his tail between his legs and marched on Damascus, where he kicked the tomb of Salahuddin Ayyubi, the Kurdish victor over French and other European Crusaders, and thundered: “Wake up, Saladin! We are back. My presence here marks the final victory of the Cross over the Crescent!”  I am afraid Macron’s current posture in Lebanon and vision about its future will prove as delusional.

The Beirut blast – which killed 181 people, wounded 6,000 others and made 300,000 homeless – pained me much as I once fell in love with that city and cherish fond memories of my three visits there. But I am nettled, really, by the attacks, mostly by Westerners, on Lebanon’s consensus system, as I believe in my bones that such a power-sharing arrangement could have spared my native Indian subcontinent two horrifying tragedies. One was the 1947 partition of British India into the modern Indian and Pakistani states, during which Hindu, Muslim and Sikh rioters massacred 800,000 souls and uprooted 14 million others from their homes and lands. The other was the dismemberment of old Pakistan in 1971 during which hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis perished in a savage Pakistani military crackdown in what was then East Pakistan.

Lebanon’s French colonial rulers who succeeded Gouard had the insights to realize that any European political model would not work in the chimera of a “nation” they had jumbled together out of Muslim and Christian sects who had never lived together in a nation-state. In cooperation with native elites, they developed a structure to provide autonomy for the country’s different sectarian communities and allow them to share executive and legislative powers. Lebanon’s political and social leaders saw the wisdom of the arrangement had it incorporated in the 1943 charter of their country’s independence from French colonial rule. Lebanon has since customized the system in response to the exigencies of the times.

Under the system, as it operates today, the president of Lebanon is to be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, the speaker of the parliament a Shiite Muslim, and the deputy prime mister and deputy speaker Eastern Orthodox Christians. The sects are also allotted parliamentary seats roughly in proportion to their population ratios.

Indian confederation

Three years after the Lebanese independence, the British colonial power in the Indian subcontinent realized that the time had come for them to pull up their stakes in that country. And like the French in Lebanon, they realized that the two major religious communities there needed a power-sharing political structure to live relatively peaceably in an independent country.

Accordingly, in the summer of 1946 a British Cabinet delegation, led by then British Secretary of State for India, Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, worked out a confederal arrangement for an independent successor state to British India. Under it the country’s provinces would be grouped into Hindu-majority and Muslim-majority ones, and those provincial groups would enjoy wide autonomy in managing their administrative, economic and social affairs. That would leave the government in New Delhi with only four subjects: foreign affairs, defense, currency and communications. The plan was initially accepted by the Indian National Congress, led by Mohandas K. Gandhi, known as the Mahatma, the great soul; and the Muslim League, led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Both were Oxford-educated barristers.

Gandhi’s Congress was mostly a Hindu organization whose top leaders wanted the country to run as a secular majoritarian democracy like Britain in which people would be expected to vote without regard to their religious and ethnic affiliations, and a parliamentary majority would legislate for the country and govern it through a Cabinet at its will. Jinnah, a Shiite Muslim, was actually more secular than the Hindu Gandhi. But he believed, unlike the Mahatma, that religious consciousness would dominate the minds of everyday Indian voters.

And he feared that because Hindus made up three-quarters of the British Indian population, the overwhelmingly Hindu parliament of a united democratic India would suppress Muslim interests and discriminate against Muslims unless the Muslim minority’s basic political and religious interests were safeguarded by a constitution. He proposed a list of 14 Muslim demands to be incorporated in the future constitution of India. In American parlance those demands outlined an affirmative action plan for the Muslim minority.

The Congress turned down Jinnah’s 14-point Muslim safeguards. The Muslim leader then pushed for an alternative project to preserve Muslim rights: the creation of an independent Pakistan, consisting of British India’s Muslim-majority provinces. But after the British delegation proposed a plan offering wide autonomy for the provinces, including Muslim-majority ones, Jinnah embraced the new plan for a united, confederal India.

Despite the Congress’s initial acceptance of the Cabinet Mission Plan, Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi’s chief lieutenant, had reservations about it.  Anointed president of the Congress in the final year of British rule, Nehru knew, as did everyone else, that he was going to be prime minister of independent India. The last thing he wanted to do as prime minister was dabbling only with four subjects, leaving all the rest of governmental powers with groups of provinces.

On July 10, 1946, the new Congress president called a world press conference in New Delhi and went on a tangent tearing the British plan apart. An independent India would not “be bound” by any provisions of the Cabinet Mission Plan, Nehru declared, and its “sovereign parliament” would legislate and govern the country as it saw fit. Nehru found himself in alliance with his rival for the leadership of the Congress, Vallabhbhai Patel, a rabidly anti-Muslim Hindu politician.

Jinnah’s foresight

Jinnah was horrified. India was still under British rule. If the Congress president was now renouncing the plan that offered, among other things, autonomy to Muslim-majority provinces and thus the preservation of Muslim rights and interests, what would Muslims do if and when a “brute majority” of Hindus in the sovereign parliament of a united India actually enact laws and take action trampling Muslim rights? The Muslim leader withdrew his earlier acceptance of the Cabinet Mission Plan. He brushed aside clarifications by other Congress leaders that Nehru’s comments had been out of line with the policy of the movement because, again, who would keep a future Congress leadership or sovereign Hindu-majority parliament from scrapping the British plan? Jinnah reverted to his earlier demand for a partition of the subcontinent to create an independent Pakistan, which eventually became a reality.

I was raised by an anti-Pakistan Muslim father in northeastern India, and in my boyhood I loathed Jinnah. I came to appreciate the founder of Pakistan and his wisdom in pulling out of the Cabinet Mission Plan more than half a century later when India’s anti-Muslim Hindu nationalist groups began to rise and ultimately win successive elections through their political arm, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). BJP leader Modi was elected prime minister in 2014 and reelected to the post with an overwhelming parliamentary majority in 2019. His government has been adopting policies and getting laws passed curbing Muslim rights, allowing the lynching and widespread persecution of Muslims and stamping out the autonomy of the Muslim-majority Kashmiri state.

The Pakistan that Jinnah and the Muslim League created would fall apart 24 years later, this time because of a Pakistani ethnic community’s refusal to share powers with another. The Muslims of Bengal (along with those of the United Provinces) were in the vanguard of the Pakistan movement and in 1946 elected the only Muslim League provincial government in all of British India. But once Pakistan was created, its bureaucracy and military came under the domination of elites of Punjab province in West Pakistan. Those bureaucrats and military officers relentlessly refused to share political power with the Bengalee Muslim ethnic community, who made up more than 90 percent of the population of East Pakistan province and a majority of the entire Pakistani population.  To hold on to power, the Punjabis – Punjabi elites, that is – repeatedly disrupted Pakistan’s democratic process and staged one military and military-backed coup after another. They spurned Bengalee demands for “provincial autonomy,” which, ironically, was the salient feature of the British Cabinet Mission Plan, rejected by Nehru and Patel, paving the way for the partition of old India.

By 1970, when Pakistan had its first parliamentary elections, most Bengalees in East Pakistan had been fed up with Punjabi domination, especially the dictatorship of a West Pakistan-based Punjabi military junta, led by General Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan. East Pakistan voted near-unanimously for the Awami League party, which had called for a confederation between East and West Pakistan under a 6-point plan, similar to the one proposed for a united India by the British Cabinet mission and a bit looser than the Lebanese accord of 1943.

Pakistani’s military dictatorship spurned the Awami League’s power-sharing formula, triggering a full-blown Bengalee independence movement in East Pakistan. India, Pakistan’s archenemy, seized the golden opportunity to wreck Pakistan, invaded East Pakistan and midwifed the creation of independent Bangladesh on December 16, 1971.

Two weeks earlier, on December 2, I had arrived in Beirut on a stint from the Pakistan government. Among the people I met there was Ihsan Rabah, a Ph.D. candidate from the American University of Beirut, who told me that he wanted to learn about “the civil war in your country.”

Before flying in to Beirut, I had spent a few days in Baghdad, where officials of the ruling Baath Party griped about the Kurds hatching an often-bloody independence movement in northern Iraq under their redoubtable leader Mulla Mustafa Barzani. Fayyad Alwan, a Farsi professor at Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, blamed the Kurdish movement and Sunni-Shiite cleavage in Iraq on “Muslims [being] forced to live like the English and Russians” under the Baath Party’s secular socialist laws, which had uprooted them from “the brotherhood of Islam.

While India advanced its military juggernaut toward East Pakistan, I discussed with Rabah the bloody independence struggles in East Pakistan and the Kurdish provinces of northern Iraq. He told me that he gave the French “the credit for our consociational system,” which had allowed “our [sectarian] communities to share powers and responsibilities of government” and cultivate the values of their religious communities into which they had been “rooted for centuries.” The arrangement, he added, had “enabled us live more or less peaceably” and let Lebanon “flower as a democracy,” while the people of neighboring Arab states had to endure repressive measures of ruthless kings and dictators to keep their states from breaking up.

Did I think, my friend asked, that a “consociational system like ours” could have spared Iraq and Pakistan the ethnic bloodletting that I had talked about? I did not meet Rabah again, but after the breakup of Pakistan I would have answered his question affirmatively.

The “more or less peaceable” lives of the Lebanese were subsequently shattered by a brutal sectarian civil war. More than 150,000 of them perished and 1 million were displaced during the 1975-1990 conflicts. I spent much of my 1995 visit to Beirut bemoaning the demise of the prosperous, boisterous shining city on the Mediterranean shore. Aside from Cairo, Beirut is the Arab city I have been most excited to visit. My precious memories of the city include my leisurely strolls with friends from An Nahar newspaper, and others, along Hamra Street, the so-called Champs Elysees of the Arab world, which was a hangout of Arab intellectuals, artists, visitors like me, diplomats, millionaires and billionaires. Among my favorite spots on the street were The Strand and Movenpick restaurants, where I used to dine – alone, and with friends.

Enduring, too, is my memories of evening rendezvous with friends in my room in The Lord’s hotel on the Mediterranean. On one of those evenings, I opened the window. A silence descended in the room as a heavenly scene unfolded before our eyes: gently rolling sea waves sparkling gloriously in the crimson rays of the setting sun.

All that seemed to me now to have “gone with the wind.” The city once known as the “Paris of the Middle East” had become a ghost town. Dour-faced managers watched solitary customers at Hamra Street stores. Sparse passersby plodded unhurriedly on the streets once bustled with boisterous crowds. Nearly half of the 180,000 homes and flats destroyed during the civil war were still to be rebuilt. Beirut’s population of more than 1 million had dropped to 400,000.

But just as the Americans had done more than a century earlier, the Lebanese eventually pulled together after their disastrous civil war and moved on. The religious sects already had regrouped under their modestly reformed power-sharing accord, negotiated in Taef, Saudi Arabia, and approved by the Lebanese parliament on November 4, 1989.

Successful political systems often take centuries to evolve through vicious conflicts among their religious, ethnic and political communities. The British took seven turbulent and bloody centuries to do so.  In the meantime, the English and Scotts fought bloody wars; the military locked down Parliament and Parliament rose and sent the army back into the barracks; a prime minister committed regicide; and guided by bishops in the House of Lords, Parliament passed many laws denying basic rights to Catholics and nonconformists. 

Democracy in America allowed, and sometimes facilitated, slavery, segregation and the lynching of African Americans. Many people don’t know how vicious were American whites’ relations with blacks and other racial categories and how long American democracy turned a blind eye to it.

Conservative progressives’

In 1975 my would-be wife, a bleeding-heart progressive from New Hampshire, arrived in Frederick, Maryland, to enroll in a master’s degree program at the University of Maryland at Baltimore. Patricia Susan Gawdy, 22, was aghast at seeing the statue of former Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, a native of Frederick, standing majestically in a small park in front of the city’s courthouse. In 1857 Taney had written and delivered the notorious Supreme Court decision denying American slaves’ right to flee to freedom.

Pat asked a white couple passing by why people of Frederick were “still putting up with the statue of this monster”?

“Who is a monster, young lady?” the man asked indignantly.

Pat pointed her finger at Taney’s statue.

“How dare you, girl? He is one of the heroes of our town, don’t you know?”

“Where are you from?” asked the woman.

Before she could reply, another white man, who had lumbered toward them, pointed his right index finger to Pat, and roared: “Are you a Communist?”

On March 17, 2017, a crew of three men pulled down the Taney statue with a crane at that park and loaded it onto an old Chevy pickup truck to be discarded at an undisclosed location. In the wake of nationwide protests against Confederate symbols that had been smoldering across America since 2015, the people of Frederick, where I had made my debut as an American journalist, finally decided that they had had enough of Chief Justice Taney.

My wife of 41 years was terminally ill with cancer. She read out to me a snippet from her laptop screen about the departure of the Taney statue from Frederick.

“How do you feel about it, dear?” I asked.

“These are among my better moments in life,” she said. “I think, though, that many people in Frederick still think of him as their hero.”

“What makes you think Justice Taney was a monster?”

“It’s the Roaring Sixties during which I grew up, I guess. And the progressive ghetto in which we have lived all these years.”

After a pause she added: “We remain unreconstructed progressives, don’t we? Very conservative progressives.”

My much-loving and beloved wife’s insights into life and society, and her inexhaustible generosity, sustained me during the very best years of my life.

America’s long-troubled democracy is a functioning enterprise now.  Workable democracies don’t come as prefabs. They grow through trials and errors.

There are working democracies, majoritarian and power-sharing, in the West and the East. The majoritarian ones that come to mind include Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Bangladesh and Nepal, although the last two have their limitations. Among the stable consensus democracies are Sweden and the four other Nordic democracies, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Japan, and Malaysia.

Historical communities

Westerners steeped in their white-liberal political and cultural monochrome would accept any democracy as long as it has free elections and its people don’t discard it. The great German sociologist and philosopher Max Weber would find any democracy kosher as long as it is based on “popular belief in its legitimacy.” Ever since the French Revolution most Westerners, including Weber, have failed to realize the limits of such democracies in multi-religious, multi-ethnic societies outside the West.

Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and other non-Western faith groups cherish their traditional religious, ethnic, linguistic and territorial communities. Their lives and aspirations are, in many ways, fulfilled better by the heritage and cultures of those communities than their newer “imagined communities,” the term used by the Irish political scientist Benedict Anderson to describe modern nations. The moral values, lifestyles and we-they social boundaries of most peoples outside the West are shaped by their affinity with those historical communities.

Naturally, in the polling booths they usually vote for candidates who belong to and espouse communal causes and interests. Unfortunately, the values and cultures of those communities can become frigid, some quite malignant. The challenge of the coming era is going to be unfreezing those cultural rigidities and heal the malignancy of those values. Many among the non-Western elites who emerged during the late-colonial era shied away from healing the malignancy of some of those values, infecting the social and cultural norms and institutions of their societies. Instead, they got sucked up by the dominant institutions and outlook of colonizing European powers. They left the task of cultural and social reforms to religious fundamentalists, whose performance, often retrograde, is outside the scope of this article.

Beginning in the early decades of of the 20th century native leaders of European colonies plunged into struggles for their countries’ independence from European colonial rule. Many of them had a Western education. Most of these patriots fought valiantly and many suffered hardships during their struggles. They included Ahmed Sukarno of Indonesia, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk of Turkey, Riza Shah of Iran, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Mohammad Siad Barre of Somalia, Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia, and Gandhi and Jinnah of British India.

In India a British education and exposure to the Western civilization apparently clouded the political vision of Mahatma Gandhi, an otherwise searingly intelligent and insightful man. He – and Nehru – failed to realize that Hindus and Muslims of their native land could not be secularized the way Western Europeans had been to work out a civic majoritarian democracy of the Westminster variety. If they had, they would have anticipated Narendra Modi, who has been elected Indian prime minister twice under its majoritarian democracy by Hindu voters, in spite of – for many of them, because of – his anti-Muslin bigotry. The Modi government has faced no effective opposition from India’s overwhelmingly Hindu society as it has launched an anti-Muslim pogrom with alarming ferocity.

No form of government can function flawlessly in any society, but social science research has preponderantly established that in multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies the consensus model is much fairer and more successful over the long haul than the majoritarian model. Arend Lijphart, a renowned political scientist who has researched democratic categories extensively, calls consensus democracies “kinder and gentler” than majoritarian ones. He says the power-sharing system promotes dialogue between ethnic and religious groups and incentivizes mutually beneficial compromises.

Consensus democracies’ proportional voting systems lead to the formation of governing coalitions that take care of the interests of a cross-section of society. They also promote close relationships between the state and interest groups and bargaining between employers and employees. All these reduce the exploitation of workers by corporations, as it is occurring in America, where more than 90 percent of the national income is piling up in the coffers of the top 1 percent of the population.

Yes, negotiations and compromises, which sometimes encounter partners’ vetoes, slow the process of governing. And assured shares of power often make leaders of constituent groups corrupt and allow them to dish out largesse among their cronies. A lot of this is happening in Lebanon, as in other democracies.

But is a quick decision, without enough reflection on its consequences, always better than a slower one made with careful deliberation among the parties it would affect? Political scientists such as Aurel Croissant of Heidelberg University in Germany argue that “democracy must grant effectiveness over representativeness.”  They obviously have not carefully studied the case of  Muslims living under the effectively running Modi government in India, or that of Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka, a majoritarian democracy, where the Tamils have no agency through which to share with the Buddhist government in Colombo their torture, rape or extortion by members of the Buddhist majority.

And how valid is the argument, now being made by critics Lebanon’s consensus system, that doing away with that system would reduce political and financial corruption in government? It’s actually baseless propaganda made mostly by Europeans and Americans who think, apparently without a basis, that a majoritarian-type system would checkmate certain Lebanese factions they don’t like, especially Hezbollah, a nemesis of Israel and ally of Iran.

Studies have found that both majoritarian and consensus systems can be equally prone to corruption. Transparency International’s 2019 corruption index ranks Lebanon 137th among the 180 countries it surveyed. (The greater a country’s number on the corruption scale, the more corrupt it is assumed to be.) Here are the corruption levels in the public sectors of six of Lebanon’s neighboring majoritarian democracies, determined by Transparency. Three are more corrupt, and three less so. The three more corrupt are Bangladesh (146), Iraq (162) and Afghanistan (173). The three less corrupt are India (80), Sri Lanka (93) and Pakistan (120). So the notion that community-based power-sharing has necessarily made Lebanon more corrupt than majoritarian democracies does not hold water.

As we discussed, democratic journeys are long and arduous. But societies have to go through them to mature and stabilize. Britain and the United States endured long and scary roller coaster rides to do so. In what would have been a democratic Indian subcontinent the trip was botched up before it began. In old Pakistan it was interrupted after it had.

If and when Macron calls Michel Aoun to talk again about turning Lebanon into a majoritarian democracy, the Lebanese president should answer him with two words: Get lost.

  • Mustafa Malik is an international affairs commentator in Washington.

Mustafa Malik
Mustafa Malik, the host and editor of the blog Community, worked three decades as an American journalist and as a researcher for U.S. think tanks. He wrote continually for major U.S. and overseas newspapers and journals. He also conducted fieldwork in Western Europe and the Middle East on U.S. foreign policy options, "crisis of liberalism" and Islamic movements.

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