Hail the strongman
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
THE WAY WE, in India, think about democracy has changed. We used to conflate liberal values with democracy as a system. Not anymore. Read the 2017 Pew Global Attitudes Survey, which shows that 55 per cent of Indians agree with the view that the country needed a strong leader who could make decisions without interference from Parliament or the courts. Or that 53 per cent of Indians think military rule would be good for the country and a majority supports rule by experts. You stop and ask, why is there such strong support for non-democratic forms of rule in the world’s most populous democracy? Then you move to the next question about direct democracy and find that a majority also strongly agrees (and 25 per cent somewhat agrees) that citizens should vote directly on major national issues to decide what becomes law. About 76 per cent of Indians think representative democracy is a very good system. Contrast this with the results in the UK and US where the support for representative democracy is high and for authoritarian rule is low. How do we understand the attitude of Indians towards democracy when direct and representative democracy and authoritarian rule receive over 50 per cent approval from those surveyed?
What is happening here? Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue in How Democracies Die that democracies die in a piecemeal fashion with the election of an authoritarian leader, the abuse of governmental power and the complete repression of opposition. This bears out David Runciman’s view in How Democracy Ends, that liberal democracy will be undermined from within, not through military coups. That winnowing has certainly occurred in India; its institutions have been hollowed out by decades of centralising power in the hands of the executive, by taking away the autonomy of the state’s officials and by using the security apparatus to fix dissenters in the political and civil society arenas.
But is democracy really dying in India or is something else going on? The seemingly contradictory responses to the Pew Survey tell us that Indians in fact are questioning why universal human rights should be part of a democratic political order. In India, as elsewhere, the people are weighing local and national security and prosperity against universal human rights (such as giving refuge to migrants and refugees) and opting for the former.
The reaction to the August 2019 radical step of the Modi Government in Kashmir demonstrates the divergence between liberal values and democracy as a system among Indians. In August 2019, the BJP-led Central Government scrapped Article 370 (which allowed the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir to create its own laws except in defence, foreign affairs and communications), reduced the state’s status to a Union Territory and bifurcated it into Union Territories (the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Bill). The opposition parties were not given a proper chance to mull over and debate the issue in Parliament; the new Bill was passed within two days. What’s more, the democratically elected Kashmiri leaders were placed under house arrest, about 35,000 troops were moved into the region and internet and mobile services were suspended for Kashmiris.
The response? Jubiliation from the rest of India, and from Jammu and Ladakh, and deep disquiet among Kashmir Valley residents. The cry about human rights violations and the way democratic processes had been mangled did not muster much support from the rest of India. This is not surprising. A Pew Survey in March 2019 shows that a majority of Indians (55 per cent) sees the situation in Kashmir as a very big problem, and a majority (58 per cent) believes that the Indian Government should use more military force to deal with Kashmir. What this tells us is that on the Kashmir issue, most Indians in other parts of India think that temporarily suspending civil liberties is a small price to pay for enhancing the long-term security of India by creating a firm northern border.
Is democracy really dying in India or is something else going on? The seemingly contradictory responses to the Pew Survey tell us that Indians in fact are questioning why universal human rights should be part of a democratic political order. In India, as elsewhere, the people are weighing local and national security and prosperity against universal human rights (such as giving refuge to migrants and refugees) and opting for the former
The view of democracy as being separate from liberal values and rights has an ancient lineage and is highlighted by political philospher Josiah Ober in Demopolis: Democracy Before Liberalism in Theory and Practice. Ober argues that basic democracy existed long before political thinkers constructed freedom as individual autonomy, before moral philosophy defined rights as natural or human (inherent and universal arising from nature or the moral law) rather than civic (shared among citizens and preserved by their collective activities), before distributive justice was predicated on moral assumptions about autonomy and rights and before religious pluralism was seen as requiring value neutrality in constitutional law. The values mentioned here are linked to liberalism. Ober argues that a secure and prosperous constitutional framework can be established without recourse to the ethical assumptions of contemporary liberal theory or republicanism. The mature Greek definition of a democracy was ‘collective self-governance by a socially diverse body of citizens, limited by constitutional laws that were also established by citizens’. This means that you can have a democracy for a people who don’t agree with the moral claims of liberalism on issues such as state neutrality towards religion. And that’s what basic democracy does: it provides a political solution without being embedded in particular values.
BASIC DEMOCRACY IS concerned with the question of why and how to create a non-autocratic government. Why ought a demos (people) hold public authority rather than a monarch or aristocrats? How can a demos competently exercise authority in a complex society? Basic democracy is a way of organising the relations of power and interests where citizens share a preference for non-tyranny, have a common interest in security and prosperity and practise civic dignity. Civic dignity means that you must recognise your fellow citizens as worthy of participating as citizens. These, for Ober, are conditions, not values but he notes that these conditions do preserve some elements that liberals defend as rights.
In Ober’s framework, the citizens in a basic democracy do not have to also share a common interest in questions of personal autonomy, inherent human rights or distributive justice which are the primary commitments of liberalism. The citizens can reject secularism and still be proponents of basic democracy. They can reject distributive justice and still call themselves basic democrats. But they cannot support tyranny—either by a strong leader or a majority. Non-tyranny means that no individual or faction monopolises political authority; there is no fixed hierarchy of political power.
The Pew Survey respondent in India could have actually interpreted the questions as: How can a demos (India’s citizens) competently exercise authority to achieve security and prosperity? The answers—through a strong leader, through direct democracy, through representative democracy or through the rule by experts—now don’t appear contradictory. A preference for a strong leader does not imply a preference for tyranny. A strong leader will be booted out if he or she becomes tyrannical, and that has happened in India when Indira Gandhi lost the national mandate in 1977 after her two-year Emergency rule. The support for military rule also makes sense if one realises that among the state’s institutions, the military enjoys the highest level of ‘effective trust’, followed by the courts. An Azim Premji-Lokniti 2018 survey shows that nearly 77 per cent of respondents showed the highest trust in the military, followed by 54 per cent in the Supreme Court and 48 per cent in the high courts.
But is the rest of India viewing Modi’s action in Kashmir from the viewpoint of basic democracy? It could be argued that Modi was acting as the representative of a majority of Indians who want a strong and secure state with defined and unequivocal borders. But doesn’t the support for Modi’s actions fail the ‘basic democracy’ test on the counts of non-tyranny and civic dignity? The response could be that most citizens want non-tyranny at a reasonable cost; so would the blackout imposed on Kashmiris by suspending internet and other communications and the mangling of their civil liberties count as reasonable costs or not? Are imprisonment of democratically elected representatives of Kashmiris and clamping down on demonstrations actions consistent with civic dignity, with not infantilising Kashmiri citizens? Would Kashmiris agree with these curbs temporarily in the interests of achieving economic prosperity and security? These are tough questions to which our answers will vary depending on our ideological inclinations and the extent to which we trust the Central Government to lift these curbs quickly and how soon the Government connects with Kashmiri citizens through neighbourhood meetings and other methods to gauge their aspirations.
Treating one another with civic dignity, part of basic democracy, is a difficult ask, not just in Kashmir, but also for the rest of India. Why? For three reasons: cognitive, technological and political.
Nobel-winning behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman points out in Thinking, Fast and Slow that we solve all problems with two types of thinking. System 1 thinking is emotional, intuitive, rapid and produces instant decisions. For instance, tiger, danger, run. Or 2+2=4. Such intuitive thinking is dominant in humans, says Kahneman. System 2 thinking is slow, deliberate, analytic and reasoned. It uses the less obvious elements to think through a problem. Political scientists Gerry Stoker, Colin Hay and Matthew Barr analysed how these two systems of thinking played out when focus groups were asked to reflect on democratic politics. In fast thinking, respondents’ emphasis was on being deceived by politicians; in slow thinking, it was on how democracy enabled a citizen (or citizens collectively) to challenge such deception. Civic dignity requires us to use System 2 thinking, particularly when we encounter those whose opinions, premises and preferences diverge from ours. To sift the evidence and the arguments we need our rational mind, our ability to think from the other person’s context. But there are hindrances to achieving this type of thinking.
That brings us to the second reason why it may be hard for us to treat one another with civic dignity: technology. In the 1960s, Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan said that the medium determines ‘objectivity’. The written word and by consequence the literate man was calm, cool and rational. She ordered things, categorised them and carefully analysed them, a reflection of the medium through which she received information. By contrast, electronic information—television and internet—is aural, and the electronic man is more emotional, aural and tactile. The internet, vocal and visual media tap our emotional mind, not the rational one. Twitter is a good example of instant reactions that come from the emotional space, from our System 1 thinking. Jamie Bartlett in The People Vs Tech: How the internet is killing democracy (and how we save it) argues that the internet is killing democracy by creating small tribes and promoting a friend-enemy binary in our communication with others. Users ignore social rules and norms because they don’t know or see with whom they are chatting. All this enhances System 1 thinking: we reach conclusions first and then look for evidence to back it.
This brings us to the third reason why achieving civic dignity is going to be hard for us: the global rise of populism. Jan-Werner Müller defines populism as a set of distinct claims with an inner logic: ‘Populism is a particular, moralistic imagination of politics, a way of perceiving the political world that sets a morally pure and fully unified [but ultimately fictional, says Werner] people against elites who are deemed corrupt or in some way morally inferior.’ A populist is anti-pluralist (he does not defer to other views), will emphasise a singular common good and a singularly correct policy (oversimplify policy challenges) and doesn’t really believe in representative democracy because he sees himself as representing ‘the People’. Yascha Mounk in The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It provides a compelling argument that the increased reliance on technocracy (decisionmaking by experts) along with oligarchy (rights of the few are privileged over the rights of the many) has reduced the influence of ordinary voters and has pushed them towards populists. Populists appeal to the emotional mind, to System 1 thinking. How can we practise treating others with civic dignity if our emotional mind is constantly teased, stoked and made active all the time?
The results of this engagement with social media and populist-speak are obvious around us in India where polarisation has coalesced around our differing visions of what India ought to embody. Should it be inclusive or exclusive? Should it treat minorities as citizens or as historical baggage to be subdued? Should we be Indians capable of having differing visions of the nation or should we be a Hindu nation? The recent ‘proving your citizenship’ exercise in Assam bodes ill for the future. A recent article by Harsh Mander highlights a frightening future for Bengali-origin people of Assam, particularly for those Muslims who don’t feature in the National Register of Citizens. Home Minister Amit Shah declared in Parliament that he would deport illegal immigrants but that Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Sikh immigrants from Bangladesh and Pakistan would be seen as ‘refugees’ returning to their ‘natural home’.
A Varieties of Democracy survey measuring democratic performance in India from 2004 to 2017 shows a decline in the deliberative component index, the process by which decisions are reached in a polity. Levitsky and Ziblatt point out that the erosion of norms is the greatest threat to contemporary democracy. It is wrong for liberals to treat populist-speak as crazy talk. By doing so, they are not treating those who agree with populists as citizens who have reasons for holding those particular opinions. If we believe in civic dignity, as Müller says, we have to engage in the basic democratic duty of reasoning. We cannot dismiss these concerns as mad because when we do so, we weaken pluralism and become as anti-pluralist as populist leaders. As Thucydides said, discussion is not a stumbling block in the way of action, it is an indispensible preliminary to any action at all.
Where do we go from here? We stand on unstable ice floes, floating at a critical juncture where speaking up requires courage and not speaking and self-censoring will tear the fabric of our India(s).If we Indians hold on to the three tenets of basic democracy—non-tyranny, security and material welfare, and practice of civic dignity—we may be able to keep our differing conceptions of India alive and well, and perhaps tyranny at bay.