By T.J.S. George
Two days from today, India will change. That change will affect the country’s fundamentals. If the BJP wins a majority, the ongoing attempts to recast the soul of India will be triumphantly accelerated, altering the original DNA that was configured by the nation’s founding fathers. If a non-BJP coalition gets control, our messy democracy will go into an initial devil’s dance, but the freedoms we value will be reinvigorated; citizens will be able to think and speak and write without fear. Either way, the change will be historic.
It is strange that democracy can offer such contrasting scenarios. That anomaly must have been one reason for Winston Churchill’s remark that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried.” A generation after Churchill, even backhanded compliments seem out of place. The ground has been shifting unnoticed by the general public, but recorded by vigilant scholars. Two books with remarkably similar titles paint a picture of democracy that should make us sad.
How Democracy Ends by David Runciman, who teaches politics at Cambridge University and How Democracies Die, co-authored by two Harvard Professors, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, came out last year. The first study is British in its approach, the second American oriented. Both tell us that democracy as we understand it, is “ending” or “dying.” (Is there a difference?). In other words, all the hullabaloo we make about elections may be so much sound and fury signifying nothing.
In the old days, democracy was disabled by military chiefs taking over government or political bosses staging a coup d’etat. Runciman rejects that kind of “alarmism” in today’s world. Rather, he argues, forces come up and undermine democracy from within, usually invisibly. In the old days, public opinion could be mobilised over issues such as nuclear disarmament. But not any longer. Digital revolution contributes its bit, too. Twitter has lend legitimacy to populism of the irresponsible type. New media that spreads populism is loyal only to its profit motive. Moral: Down with morals, up with money.
What does this mean in practical terms? Runciman puts it bluntly. “Elections will still have lots of sound and fury,” he says. However, because of technology and the structures of modern life, the system that emerges “may not be either democratic or authoritarian, but rather a kind of ‘half-life’ democracy.” A possible tactic, he elaborates, is strategic election manipulation. That is, unseen powers will avoid outright tampering of elections, but will use just enough manipulation to get the results they want. Does this sound like a report on Indian elections 2019?
The Harvard Professors move along similar lines of analysis and argument as they watch the dying of democracies. They show how democracy can be subverted even if those who do it are elected leaders and they are using majority decisions of Parliament; it happened in Hungary, Turkey, Poland, Sri Lanka, Philippines. (Lucky for us that they hadn’t heard about our Finance Minister pushing through some self-serving laws as “money bills” when they were not money bills. But then, he is not an elected leader, so why not?)
The Harvard pair’s list of things that should not happen but are happening is familiar: Politicians treat rivals as enemies; free press is intimidated; institutional buffers of democracy are weakened; government leaders say and do things that are unprecedented; right-wing extremists score electoral victories, some even gain power through elections; in America, a man with no experience of public office and with clear authoritarian tendencies gets elected as President. The rise of a new kind of regressive leadership and a new kind of electorate that sings hurrahs for them is a theme examined in this book.
However, the professors share the American notion that socialism and Stalinist communism are synonyms indicating the end of the world. They picture Salvador Allende as an autocrat under whom Chile saw an “erosion of democratic norms” which finally led to the “military seizing power” and ruling the country for 17 years. How easily they skip facts such as Allende’s attempt to introduce socialism in Chile, Nixon’s America going berserk over “communism’s” attempt to conquer South America, Henry Kissinger arranging a coup that killed Allende and Chile going under the dictatorship of one of the cruellest autocrats of the 20th century, Augusto Pinochet. Well, the danger of socialism was avoided, wasn’t it?
It’s only appropriate to let John Adams, America’s founding father, have the last say: “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself.”
Two days from today? So be it.