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Democracy And Its Global Roots

By Amartya Sen

The New Republic
October, 2003

There is no mystery in the fact that the immediate prospects of
democracy in Iraq, to be ushered in by the American-led alliance, are
being viewed with increasing skepticism. The evident ambiguities in
the goals of the occupation and the lack of clarity about the process
of democratization make these doubts inescapable. But it would be a
serious mistake to translate these uncertainties about the immediate
prospects of a democratic Iraq into a larger case for skepticism
about the general possibility of--and indeed the need for--having
democracy in Iraq, or in any other country that is deprived of it.
Nor is there a general ground here for uneasiness about providing
global support for the struggle for democracy around the world, which
is the most profound challenge of our times. Democracy movements
across the globe (in South Africa and Argentina and Indonesia
yesterday, in Burma and Zimbabwe and elsewhere today) reflect
people's determination to fight for political participation and an
effective voice. Apprehensions about current events in Iraq have to
be seen in their specific context; there is a big world beyond.

It is important to consider, in the broader arena, two general
objections to the advocacy of democracy that have recently gained
much ground in international debates and which tend to color
discussions of foreign affairs, particularly in America and Europe.
There are, first, doubts about what democracy can achieve in poorer
countries. Is democracy not a barrier that obstructs the process of
development and deflects attention from the priorities of economic
and social change, such as providing adequate food, raising income
per head, and carrying out institutional reform? It is also argued
that democratic governance can be deeply illiberal and can inflict
suffering on those who do not belong to the ruling majority in a
democracy. Are vulnerable groups not better served by the protection
that authoritarian governance can provide?

The second line of attack concentrates on historical and cultural
doubts about advocating democracy for people who do not,
allegedly, "know" it. The endorsement of democracy as a general rule
for all people, whether by national or international bodies or by
human rights activists, is frequently castigated on the ground that
it involves an attempted imposition of Western values and Western
practices on non-Western societies. The argument goes much beyond
acknowledging that democracy is a predominantly Western practice in
the contemporary world, as it certainly is. It takes the form of
presuming that democracy is an idea of which the roots can be found
exclusively in some distinctively Western thought that has flourished
uniquely in Europe--and nowhere else--for a very long time.

These are legitimate and cogent questions, and they are,
understandably, being asked with some persistence. But are these
misgivings really well-founded? In arguing that they are not, it is
important to note that these lines of criticism are not altogether
unlinked. Indeed, the flaws in both lie primarily in the attempt to
see democracy in an unduly narrow and restricted way--in particular,
exclusively in terms of public balloting and not much more broadly,
in terms of what John Rawls called "the exercise of public reason."
This more capacious concept includes the opportunity for citizens to
participate in political discussions and so to be in a position to
influence public choice. In understanding where the two lines of
attack on democratization respectively go wrong, it is crucial to
appreciate that democracy has demands that transcend the ballot box.

Indeed, voting is only one way--though certainly a very important way-
-of making public discussions effective, when the opportunity to vote
is combined with the opportunity to speak, and to listen, without
fear. The force and the reach of elections depend critically on the
opportunity for open public discussion. Balloting alone can be
woefully inadequate, as is abundantly illustrated by the astounding
electoral victories of ruling tyrannies in authoritarian regimes,
from Stalin's Soviet Union to Saddam Hussein's Iraq. The problem in
these cases lies not just in the pressure that is brought to bear on
voters in the act of balloting itself, but in the way public
discussion of failures and transgressions is thwarted by censorship,
suppression of political opposition, and violations of basic civil
rights and political freedoms.

The need to take a broader view of democracy--going well beyond the
freedom of elections and ballots--has been extensively discussed not
only in contemporary political philosophy, but also in the new
disciplines of social choice theory and public choice theory,
influenced by economic reasoning as well as by political ideas. The
process of decision-making through discussion can enhance information
about a society and about individual priorities, and those priorities
may respond to public deliberation. As James Buchanan, the leading
public choice theorist, argues, "The definition of democracy
as 'government by discussion' implies that individual values can and
do change in the process of decision-making."

All this raises deep questions about the dominant focus on balloting
and elections in the literature on world affairs, and about the
adequacy of the view, well articulated by Samuel P. Huntington in The
Third Wave, that "elections, open, free and fair, are the essence of
democracy, the inescapable sine qua non." In the broader perspective
of public reasoning, democracy has to give a central place to
guaranteeing free public discussion and deliberative interactions in
political thought and practice--not just through elections nor just
for elections. What is required, as Rawls observed, is the
safeguarding of "diversity of doctrines--the fact of pluralism,"
which is central to "the public culture of modern democracies," and
which must be secured in a democracy by "basic rights and liberties."

The broader view of democracy in terms of public reasoning also
allows us to understand that the roots of democracy go much beyond
the narrowly confined chronicles of some designated practices that
are now seen as specifically "democratic institutions." This basic
recognition was clear enough to Tocqueville. In 1835, in Democracy in
America, he noted that the "great democratic revolution" then taking
place could be seen, from one point of view, as "a new thing," but it
could also be seen, from a broader perspective, as part of "the most
continuous, ancient, and permanent tendency known to history."
Although he confined his historical examples to Europe's past
(pointing to the powerful contribution toward democratization made by
the admission of common people to the ranks of clergy in "the state
of France seven hundred years ago"), Tocqueville's general argument
has immensely broader relevance.

The championing of pluralism, diversity, and basic liberties can be
found in the history of many societies. The long traditions of
encouraging and protecting public debates on political, social, and
cultural matters in, say, India, China, Japan, Korea, Iran, Turkey,
the Arab world, and many parts of Africa, demand much fuller
recognition in the history of democratic ideas. This global heritage
is ground enough to question the frequently reiterated view that
democracy is just a Western idea, and that democracy is therefore
just a form of Westernization. The recognition of this history has
direct relevance in contemporary politics in pointing to the global
legacy of protecting and promoting social deliberation and pluralist
interactions, which cannot be any less important today than they were
in the past when they were championed.

In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela describes
how impressed he was, as a young boy, by the democratic nature of the
proceedings of the local meetings that were held in the regent's
house in Mqhekezweni:

Everyone who wanted to speak did so. It was democracy in its purest
form. There may have been a hierarchy of importance among the
speakers, but everyone was heard, chief and subject, warrior and
medicine man, shopkeeper and farmer, landowner and laborer....The
foundation of self-government was that all men were free to voice
their opinions and equal in their value as citizens.

Meyer Fortes and Edward E. Evans-Pritchard, the great anthropologists
of Africa, argued in their classic book African Political Systems,
published more than sixty years ago, that "the structure of an
African state implies that kings and chiefs rule by consent." There
might have been some over-generalization in this, as critics argued
later; but there can be little doubt about the traditional role and
the continuing relevance of accountability and participation in
African political heritage. To overlook all this, and to regard the
fight for democracy in Africa only as an attempt to import from
abroad the "Western idea" of democracy, would be a profound
misunderstanding. Mandela's "long walk to freedom" began distinctly
at home.

Nowhere in the contemporary world is the need for more democratic
engagement stronger than in Africa. The continent has suffered
greatly from the domination of authoritarianism and military rule in
the late twentieth century, following the formal closure of the
British, French, Portuguese, and Belgian empires. Africa also had the
misfortune of being caught right in the middle of the Cold War, in
which each of the superpowers cultivated military rulers friendly to
itself and hostile to the enemy. No military usurper of civilian
authority ever lacked a superpower friend, linked with it in a
military alliance. A continent that seemed in the 1950s to be poised
to develop democratic politics in newly independent countries was
soon being run by an assortment of strongmen who were linked to one
side or the other in the militancy of the Cold War. They competed in
despotism with apartheid-based South Africa.

That picture is slowly changing now, with post-apartheid South Africa
playing a leading part. But, as Anthony Appiah has
argued, "ideological decolonization is bound to fail if it neglects
either endogenous 'tradition' or exogenous 'Western' ideas." Even as
specific democratic institutions developed in the West are welcomed
and put into practice, the task requires an adequate understanding of
the deep roots of democratic thought in Africa itself. Similar issues
arise, with varying intensity, in other parts of the non-Western
world as they struggle to introduce or consolidate democratic


The idea that democracy is an essentially Western notion is sometimes
linked to the practice of voting and elections in ancient Greece,
specifically in Athens from the fifth century B.C.E. In the evolution
of democratic ideas and practices it is certainly important to note
the remarkable role of Athenian direct democracy, starting from
Cleisthenes's pioneering move toward public balloting around 506
B.C.E. The term "democracy" derives from the Greek words for "people"
(demos) and "authority" (kratia). Although many people in Athens--
women and slaves in particular--were not citizens and did not have
the right to vote, the vast importance of the Athenian practice of
the sharing of political authority deserves unequivocal

But to what extent does this make democracy a basically Western
concept? There are two major difficulties in taking this view. The
first problem concerns the importance of public reasoning, which
takes us beyond the narrow perspective of public balloting. Athens
itself was extremely distinguished in encouraging public discussion,
as was ancient Greece in general. But the Greeks were not unique in
this respect, even among ancient civilizations, and there is an
extensive history of the cultivation of tolerance, pluralism, and
public deliberation in other societies as well.

The second difficulty concerns the partitioning of the world into
discrete civilizations with geographical correlates, in which ancient
Greece is seen as part and parcel of an identifiable "Western"
tradition. Not only is this a difficult thing to do given the diverse
history of different parts of Europe, but it is also hard to miss an
implicit element of racist thinking in such wholesale reduction of
Western civilization to Greek antiquity. In this perspective, no
great difficulty is perceived in seeing the descendants of, say,
Goths and Visigoths and other Europeans as the inheritors of the
Greek tradition ("they are all Europeans"), while there is great
reluctance to take note of the Greek intellectual links with ancient
Egyptians, Iranians, and Indians, despite the greater interest that
the ancient Greeks themselves showed--as recorded in contemporary
accounts--in talking to them (rather than in chatting with the
ancient Goths).

Such discussions often concerned issues that are directly or
indirectly relevant to democratic ideas. When Alexander asked a group
of Jain philosophers in India why they were paying so little
attention to the great conqueror, he got the following reply, which
directly questioned the legitimacy of inequality: "King Alexander,
every man can possess only so much of the earth's surface as this we
are standing on. You are but human like the rest of us, save that you
are always busy and up to no good, traveling so many miles from your
home, a nuisance to yourself and to others! ... You will soon be
dead, and then you will own just as much of the earth as will suffice
to bury you." Arrian reports that Alexander responded to this
egalitarian reproach with the same kind of admiration as he had shown
in his encounter with Diogenes, even though his actual conduct
remained unchanged ("the exact opposite of what he then professed to
admire"). Classifying the world of ideas in terms of shared racial
characteristics of proximate populations is hardly a wonderful basis
for categorizing the history of thought.

Nor does it take into account how intellectual influences travel or
how parallel developments take place in a world linked by ideas
rather than by race. There is nothing to indicate that the Greek
experience in democratic governance had much immediate impact in the
countries to the west of Greece and Rome--in, say, France or Germany
or Britain. By contrast, some of the contemporary cities in Asia--in
Iran, Bactria, and India--incorporated elements of democracy in
municipal governance, largely under Greek influence. For several
centuries after the time of Alexander, for example, the city of Susa
in southwest Iran had an elected council, a popular assembly, and
magistrates who were proposed by the council and elected by the
assembly. There is also considerable evidence of elements of
democratic governance at the local level in India and Bactria over
that period.

It must be noted, of course, that such overtures were almost entirely
confined to local governance, but it would nevertheless be a mistake
to dismiss these early experiences of participatory governance as
insignificant for the global history of democracy. The seriousness of
this neglect has to be assessed in light of the particular importance
of local politics in the history of democracy, including the city-
republics that would emerge more than a millennium later in Italy,
from the eleventh century onward. As Benjamin I. Schwartz pointed out
in his great book The World of Thought in Ancient China, "Even in the
history of the West, with its memories of Athenian 'democracy,' the
notion that democracy cannot be implemented in large territorial
states requiring highly centralized power remained accepted wisdom as
late as Montesquieu and Rousseau."

Indeed, these histories often play inspirational roles and prevent a
sense of distance from democratic ideas. When India became
independent in 1947, the political discussions that led to a fully
democratic constitution, making India the largest democracy in the
twentieth century, not only included references to Western
experiences in democracy but also recalled India's own traditions.
Jawaharlal Nehru put particular emphasis on the tolerance of
heterodoxy and pluralism in the political rules of Indian emperors
such as Ashoka and Akbar. The encouragement of public discussion by
those tolerant political orders was recollected and evocatively
linked to India's modern multi-party constitution.

There was also, as it happens, considerable discussion in the early
years of Indian independence of whether the organization of "the
ancient polity of India" could serve as the model for India's
constitution in the twentieth century, though that idea was actually
even less plausible than would have been any attempt to construct the
constitution of the United States in 1776 in line with Athenian
practices of the fifth century B.C.E. The chair of the committee that
drafted the Indian constitution, B.R. Ambedkar, went in some detail
into the history of local democratic governance in India to assess
whether it could fruitfully serve as a model for modern Indian
democracy. Ambedkar's conclusion was that it should definitely not be
given that role, particularly because localism generated "narrow-
mindedness and communalism" (speaking personally, Ambedkar even
asserted that "these village republics have been the ruination of
India"). Yet even as he firmly rejected the possibility that
democratic institutions from India's past could serve as appropriate
contemporary models, Ambedkar did not fail to note the general
relevance of the history of Indian public reasoning, and he
particularly emphasized the expression of heterodox views and the
historical criticism of the prevalence of inequality in India. There
is a direct parallel here with Nelson Mandela's powerful invocation
of Africa's own heritage of public reasoning in arguing for pluralist
democracies in contemporary Africa.


The established literature on the history of democracy is full of
well-known contrasts between Plato and Aristotle, Marsilius of Padua
and Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke, and so on. This is as it should
be; but the large intellectual heritages of China, Japan, East and
Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Iran, the Middle East, and
Africa have been almost entirely neglected in analyzing the reach of
the ideal of public reasoning. This has not favored an adequately
inclusive understanding of the nature and the power of democratic
ideas as they are linked to constructive public deliberation.

The ideal of public reasoning is closely linked with two particular
social practices that deserve specific attention: the tolerance of
different points of view (along with the acceptability of agreeing to
disagree) and the encouragement of public discussion (along with
endorsing the value of learning from others). Both tolerance and
openness of public discussion are often seen as specific--and perhaps
unique--features of Western tradition. How correct is this notion?
Certainly, tolerance has by and large been a significant feature of
modern Western politics (leaving out extreme aberrations like Nazi
Germany and the intolerant administration of British or French or
Portuguese empires in Asia and Africa). Still, there is hardly a
great historical divide here of the kind that could separate out
Western toleration from non-Western despotism. When the Jewish
philosopher Maimonides was forced to emigrate from an intolerant
Europe in the twelfth century, for example, he found a tolerant
refuge in the Arab world and was given an honored and influential
position in the court of Emperor Saladin in Cairo--the same Saladin
who fought hard for Islam in the Crusades.

Maimonides's experience was not exceptional. Even though the
contemporary world is full of examples of conflicts between Muslims
and Jews, Muslim rulers in the Arab world and in medieval Spain had a
long history of integrating Jews as secure members of the social
community whose liberties--and sometimes leadership roles--were
respected. As María Rosa Menocal notes in her recent book The
Ornament of the World, the fact that Cordoba in Muslim-ruled Spain in
the tenth century was "as serious a contender as Baghdad, perhaps
more so, for the title of most civilized place on earth" was due to
the joint influence of Caliph Abd al-Rahman III and his Jewish vizier
Hasdai ibn Shaprut. Indeed, there is considerable evidence, as
Menocal argues, that the position of Jews after the Muslim
conquest "was in every respect an improvement, as they went from
persecuted to protected minority."

Similarly, when in the 1590s the great Mughal emperor Akbar, with his
belief in pluralism and in the constructive role of public
discussions, was making his pronouncements in India on the need for
tolerance and was busy arranging dialogues between people of
different faiths (including Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Parsees,
Jains, Jews, and even atheists), the inquisitions were still taking
place in Europe with considerable vehemence. Giordano Bruno was
burned at the stake for heresy in the Campo dei Fiori in Rome in 1600
even as Akbar was speaking on tolerance in Agra.

We must not fall into the trap of arguing that there was in general
more tolerance in non-Western societies than in the West. For no such
generalization can be made. There were great examples of tolerance as
well as of intolerance on both sides of this allegedly profound
division of the world. What needs to be corrected is the
underresearched assertion of Western exceptionalism in the matter of
tolerance; but there is no need to replace it with an equally
arbitrary generalization of the opposite sort.

A similar point can be made about the tradition of public discussion.
Again, the Greek and Roman heritage on this is particularly important
for the history of public reasoning, but it was not unique in this
respect in the ancient world. The importance attached to public
deliberation by Buddhist intellectuals not only led to extensive
communications on religious and secular subjects in India and in East
and Southeast Asia, but also produced some of the earliest open
general meetings aimed specifically at settling disputes regarding
different points of view. These Buddhist "councils," the first of
which was held shortly after Gautama Buddha's death, were primarily
concerned with resolving differences in religious principles and
practices, but they dealt also with demands of social and civic
duties, and they helped to establish the practice of open discussion
on contentious issues.

The largest of these councils--the third--occurred, under the
patronage of Emperor Ashoka in the third century B.C.E., in
Pataliputra, then the capital of India, now called Patna (perhaps
best known today as a source of a fine long-grain rice). Public
discussion, without violence or even animosity, was particularly
important for Ashoka's general belief in social deliberation, as is
well reflected in the inscriptions that he placed on specially
mounted stone pillars across India--and some outside it. The edict at
Erragudi put the issue forcefully:

... the growth of essentials of Dharma [proper conduct] is possible
in many ways. But its root lies in restraint in regard to speech, so
that there should be no extolment of one's own sect or disparagement
of other sects on inappropriate occasions, and it should be moderate
even on appropriate occasions. On the contrary, other sects should be
duly honoured in every way on all occasions.... If a person acts
otherwise, he not only injures his own sect but also harms other
sects. Truly, if a person extols his own sect and disparages other
sects with a view to glorifying his own sect owing merely to his
attachment to it, he injures his own sect very severely by acting in
that way.

On the subject of public discussion and communication, it is also
important to note that nearly every attempt at early printing in
China, Korea, and Japan was undertaken by Buddhist technologists,
with an interest in expanding communication. The first printed book
in the world was a Chinese translation of an Indian Sanskrit
treatise, later known as the "Diamond Sutra," done by a half-Indian
and half-Turkish scholar called Kumarajeeva in the fifth century,
which was printed in China four and half centuries later, in 868 C.E.
The development of printing, largely driven by a commitment to
propagate Buddhist perspectives (including compassion and
benevolence), transformed the possibilities of public communication
in general. Initially sought as a medium for spreading the Buddhist
message, the innovation of printing was a momentous development in
public communication that greatly expanded the opportunity of social

The commitment of Buddhist scholars to expand communication in
secular as well as religious subjects has considerable relevance for
the global roots of democracy. Sometimes the communication took the
form of a rebellious disagreement. Indeed, in the seventh century Fu-
yi, a Confucian leader of an anti-Buddhist campaign, submitted the
following complaint about Buddhists to the Tang emperor (almost
paralleling the current official ire about the "indiscipline" of the
Falun Gong): "Buddhism infiltrated into China from Central Asia,
under a strange and barbarous form, and as such, it was then less
dangerous. But since the Han period the Indian texts began to be
translated into Chinese. Their publicity began to adversely affect
the faith of the Princes and filial piety began to degenerate. The
people began to shave their heads and refused to bow their heads to
the Princes and their ancestors." In other cases, the dialectics took
the form of learning from each other. In fact, in the extensive
scientific, mathematical, and literary exchanges between China and
India during the first millennium C.E., Buddhist scholars played a
major part.

In Japan in the early seventh century, the Buddhist Prince Shotoku,
who was regent to his mother Empress Suiko, not only sent missions to
China to bring back knowledge of art, architecture, astronomy,
literature, and religion (including Taoist and Confucian texts in
addition to Buddhist ones), but also introduced a relatively liberal
constitution or kempo, known as "the constitution of seventeen
articles," in 604 C.E. It insisted, much in the spirit of the Magna
Carta (signed in England six centuries later), that "decisions on
important matters should not be made by one person alone. They should
be discussed with many." It also advised: "Nor let us be resentful
when others differ from us. For all men have hearts, and each heart
has its own leanings. Their right is our wrong, and our right is
their wrong." Not surprisingly, many commentators have seen in this
seventh-century constitution what Nakamura Hajime has called
Japan's "first step of gradual development toward democracy."

There are, in fact, many manifestations of a firm commitment to
public communication and associative reasoning that can be found in
different places and times across the world. To take another
illustration, which is of particular importance to science and
culture, the great success of Arab civilization in the millennium
following the emergence of Islam provides a remarkable example of
indigenous creativity combined with openness to intellectual
influences from elsewhere--often from people with very different
religious beliefs and political systems. The Greek classics had a
profound influence on Arab thinking, and, over a more specialized
area, so did Indian mathematics. Even though no formal system of
democratic governance was involved in these achievements, the
excellence of what was achieved--the remarkable flourishing of Arab
philosophy, literature, mathematics, and science--is a tribute not
only to indigenous creativity but also to the glory of open public
reasoning, which influences knowledge and technology as well as

The idea behind such openness was well articulated by Imam Ali bin
abi Taleb in the early seventh century, in his pronouncement that "no
wealth can profit you more than the mind" and "no isolation can be
more desolate than conceit." These and other such proclamations are
quoted for their relevance to the contemporary world by the
excellent "Arab Human Development Report 2002" of the United Nations.
The thesis of European exceptionalism, by contrast, invites the
Arabs, like the rest of the non-Western world, to forget their own
heritage of public reasoning.


To ignore the centrality of public reasoning in the idea of democracy
not only distorts and diminishes the history of democratic ideas, it
also detracts attention from the interactive processes through which
a democracy functions and on which its success depends. The neglect
of the global roots of public reasoning, which is a big loss in
itself, goes with the undermining of an adequate understanding of the
place and the role of democracy in the contemporary world. Even with
the expansion of adult franchise and fair elections, free and
uncensored deliberation is important for people to be able to
determine what they must demand, what they should criticize, and how
they ought to vote.

Consider the much-discussed proposition that famines do not occur in
democracies, but only in imperial colonies (as used to happen in
British India), or in military dictatorships (as in Ethiopia, Sudan,
or Somalia, in recent decades), or in one-party states (as in the
Soviet Union in the 1930s, or China from 1958 to 1961, or Cambodia in
the 1970s, or North Korea in the immediate past). It is hard for a
government to withstand public criticism when a famine occurs. This
is due not merely to the fear of losing elections, but also to the
prospective consequences of public censure when newspapers and other
media are independent and uncensored and opposition parties are
allowed to pester those in office. The proportion of people affected
by famines is always rather small (hardly ever more than 10 percent
of the total population), so for a famine to become a political
nightmare for the government it is necessary to generate public
sympathy through the sharing of information and open public

Even though India was experiencing famines until its independence in
1947--the last one, the Bengal famine of 1943, killed between two and
three million people--these catastrophes stopped abruptly when a
multi-party democracy was established. China, by contrast, had the
largest famine in recorded history between 1958 and 1961, in which it
is estimated that between twenty-three and thirty million people
died, following the debacle of collectivization in the so-
called "Great Leap Forward." Still, the working of democracy, which
is almost effortlessly effective in preventing conspicuous disasters
such as famines, is often far less successful in politicizing the
nastiness of regular but non-extreme undernourishment and ill health.
India has had no problem in avoiding famines with timely
intervention, but it has been much harder to generate adequate public
interest in less immediate and less dramatic deprivations, such as
the quiet presence of endemic but non-extreme hunger across the
country and the low standard of basic health care.

While democracy is not without success in India, its achievements are
still far short of what public reasoning can do in a democratic
society if it addresses less conspicuous deprivations such as endemic
hunger. A similar criticism can also be made about the protection of
minority rights, which majority rule does not guarantee until and
unless public discussion gives these rights enough political
visibility and status to produce general public support. This
certainly did not happen in the state of Gujarat last year, when
politically engineered anti-Muslim riots led to unprecedented Hindu
sectarian militancy and an electoral victory for the Hindu-chauvinist
state government. How scrupulously secularism and minority rights
will be guarded in India will depend on the reach and the vigor of
public discussion on this subject. If democracy is construed not
merely in terms of public balloting, but also in the more general
form of public reasoning, then what is required is a strengthening of
democracy, not a weakening of it.

To point to the need for more probing and more vigorous public
reasoning even in countries that formally have democratic
institutions must not be seen as a counsel of despair. People can and
do respond to generally aired concerns and appeals to tolerance and
humanity, and this is part of the role of public reasoning. Indeed,
it is not easy to dismiss the possibility that to a limited extent
just such a response may be occurring in India in the wake of the
Gujarat riots and the victory of Hindu sectarianism in the Gujarat
elections in December 2002. The engineered success in Gujarat did not
help the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, in the state elections in
the rest of India that followed the Gujarat elections. The BJP lost
in all four state elections held in early 2003, but the defeat that
was particularly significant occurred in the state of Himachal
Pradesh, where the party had actually been in office but was routed
this time, winning only sixteen seats against the Congress Party's
forty. Moreover, a Muslim woman from the Congress Party won the
mayoral election in Ahmadabad, where some of the worst anti-Muslim
riots in Gujarat had occurred only a few months earlier. Much will
depend on the breadth and the energy of public reasoning in the
future--an issue that takes us back to the arguments presented by
exponents of public reasoning in India's past, including Ashoka and
Akbar, whose analyses remain thoroughly relevant today.

The complex role of public reasoning can also be seen in the
comparisons between China's and India's achievements in the field of
health care and longevity over recent decades. This happens to be a
subject that has interested Chinese and Indian public commentators
over millennia. While Faxian (Fa-Hien), a fifth-century Chinese
visitor who spent ten years in India, wrote admiringly in effusive
detail about the arrangements for public health care in Pataliputra,
a later visitor who came to India in the seventh century, Yi Jing (I-
Ching), argued in a more competitive vein that "in the healing arts
of acupuncture and cautery and the skill of feeling the pulse, China
has never been surpassed [by India]; the medicament for prolonging
life is only found in China." There was also considerable discussion
in India on chinachar--Chinese practice--in different fields when the
two countries were linked by Buddhism.

By the middle of the twentieth century, China and India had about the
same life expectancy at birth, around forty-five years or so. But
post-revolution China, with its public commitment to improve health
care and education (a commitment that was carried over from its days
of revolutionary struggle), brought a level of dedication in
radically enhancing health care that the more moderate Indian
administration could not at all match. By the time the economic
reforms were introduced in China in 1979, China had a lead of
thirteen years or more over India in longevity, with the Chinese life
expectancy at sixty-seven years, while India's was less than fifty-
four years. Still, even though the radical economic reforms
introduced in China in 1979 ushered in a period of extraordinary
economic growth, the government slackened on the public commitment to
health care, and in particular replaced automatic and free health
insurance by the need to buy private insurance at one's own cost
(except when provided by one's employer, which happens only in a
small minority of cases). This largely retrograde movement in the
coverage of health care met with little public resistance (as it
undoubtedly would have in a multi-party democracy), even though it
almost certainly had a role in slowing down the progress of Chinese
longevity. In India, by contrast, unsatisfactory health services have
come more and more under public scrutiny and general condemnation,
with some favorable changes being forced on the services offered.

Despite China's much faster rate of growth since the economic
reforms, the rate of expansion of life expectancy in India has been
about three times as fast, on the average, as that in China. China's
life expectancy, which is now just about seventy years, compares with
India's figure of sixty-three years, so that the lifeexpectancy gap
in favor of China has been nearly halved, to seven years, over the
last two decades. But note must be taken of the fact that it gets
increasingly harder to expand life expectancy further as the absolute
level rises, and it could be argued that perhaps China has now
reached a level at which further expansion would be exceptionally
difficult. Yet this explanation does not work, since China's life
expectancy of seventy years is still very far below the figures for
many countries in the world--indeed, even parts of India.

At the time of the economic reforms, when China had a life expectancy
of about sixty-seven years, the Indian state of Kerala had a similar
figure. By now, however, Kerala's life expectancy of seventy-four
years is considerably above China's seventy years. Going further, if
we look at specific points of vulnerability, the infant-mortality
rate in China has fallen very slowly since the economic reforms,
whereas it has continued to fall extremely sharply in Kerala. While
Kerala had roughly the same infant mortality rate as China--thirty-
seven per thousand--in 1979, Kerala's present rate, between thirteen
and fourteen per thousand, is considerably less than half of China's
thirty per thousand (where it has stagnated over the last decade). It
appears that Kerala, with its background of egalitarian politics, has
been able to benefit further from continued public reasoning
protected by a democratic system. The latter on its own would seem to
have helped India to narrow the gap with China quite sharply, despite
the failings of the Indian health services that are widely discussed
in the press. Indeed, the fact that so much is known--and in such
detail--about the inadequacies of Indian health care from criticisms
in the press is itself a contribution to improving the existing state
of affairs.

The informational role of democracy, working mainly through open
public discussion, can be pivotally important. It is the limitation
of this informational feature that has come most sharply to attention
in the context of the recent SARS epidemic. Although cases of SARS
first appeared in southern China in November 2002 and caused many
fatalities, information about the deadly new disease was kept under
wraps until this April. Indeed, it was only when that highly
infectious disease started spreading to Hong Kong and Beijing that
the news had to be released, and by then the epidemic had already
gone beyond the possibility of isolation and local elimination. The
lack of open public discussion evidently played a critical part in
the spread of the SARS epidemic in particular, but the general issue
has a much wider relevance.


The value of public reasoning applies to reasoning about democracy
itself. It is good that the practices of democracy have been sharply
scrutinized in the literature on world affairs, for there are
identifiable deficiencies in the performance of many countries that
have the standard democratic institutions. Not only is public
discussion of these deficiencies an effective means of trying to
remedy them, but this is exactly how democracy in the form of public
reasoning is meant to function. In this sense, the defects of
democracy demand more democracy, not less.

The alternative--trying to cure the defects of democratic practice
through authoritarianism and the suppression of public reasoning--
increases the vulnerability of a country to sporadic disasters
(including, in many cases, famine), and also to the whittling away of
previously secured gains through a lack of public vigilance (as seems
to have happened, to some extent, in Chinese health care). There is
also a genuine loss of political freedom and restrictions of civil
rights in even the best-performing authoritarian regimes, such as
Singapore or pre-democratic South Korea; and, furthermore, there is
no guarantee that the suppression of democracy would make, say, India
more like Singapore than like Sudan or Afghanistan, or more like
South Korea than like North Korea.

Seeing democracy in terms of public reasoning, as "government by
discussion," also helps us to identify the far-reaching historical
roots of democratic ideas across the world. The apparent Western
modesty that takes the form of a humble reluctance to
promote "Western ideas of democracy" in the non-Western world
includes an imperious appropriation of a global heritage as
exclusively the West's own. The self-doubt with regard to "pushing"
Western ideas on non-Western societies is combined with the absence
of doubt in viewing democracy as a quintessentially Western idea, an
immaculate Western conception.

This misappropriation results from gross neglect of the intellectual
history of non-Western societies, but also from the conceptual defect
in seeing democracy primarily in terms of balloting, rather than in
the broader perspective of public reasoning. A fuller understanding
of the demands of democracy and of the global history of democratic
ideas may contribute substantially to better political practice
today. It may also help to remove some of the artificial cultural fog
that obscures the appraisal of current affairs.