A New Low In Electoral Battles
Controversy over credibility of electoral results in democracies touched a new low in November 2020. Incumbent President of the most powerful democracy in the world has continued to dispute an electoral verdict that has gone against him. He and his associates have alleged large-scale voter fraud in the recent Presidential polls in the United States, denting the moral superiority of Western democracies who have prided in smooth and peaceful transfer of political power in their political systems. Such transitions have been messy in most, but not all, post-colonial democracies. Probably the issue at stake is not the formal procedures and provisions but the underlying social and political discords that are getting increasingly unmanageable even in the rich Western democracies. But the controversy in the United States, if not resolved smoothly, can bolster pretensions of superiority of the Chinese authoritarianism that Xi Jin Ping has been boasting for quite sometime.
Simultaneously, the politically significant state of Bihar in India witnessed opposition parties boycotting the swearing in ceremony of the re-elected Chief Minister for the fourth consecutive term. They too alleged poll irregularities, again without any tangible evidence. What has been really worrying is the quality of choices that the poll process offered in the state. An inefficient governance was challenged by a political formation that has been identified with criminality and rampant nepotism in the past. It was believed to have perfected a smart caste calculation to win elections without caring for plight of the people or efficient governance. Rather its top leaders were charged with abusing state powers to enrich their personal coffers and torment political opponents.
Divisive Impact of Polls and Their Inability To Reflect True Will of The People
Divisive impact of electoral processes, and their inability to decisively reflect popular will, has been universally acknowledged. United States witnessed an extremely narrow margin of poll victory for Jo Biden following a bitterly contested campaign. In a recent YouTube Video, associates of President Trump came out with elaborate stories of voter fraud perpetrated by external enemies of the country. Though President elect Biden has been measured and graceful in his public utterances but the both sides have demonstrated their deep-rooted distrust and mutual hostility. It had earlier seen President Trump reversing some of the major policy decisions of his predecessor -President Obama. These included not merely key domestic policies like healthcare but also withdrawal from a series of major global treaty obligations on issues varying from Paris climate peace to Iran and Trans-Pacific Partnership to quote a few. Hence, the current controversy over transition has the potential to exacerbate global anxiety amidst sustained ascendance of an authoritarian China. It could also undermine popular trust in the ability of most powerful democracy to effectively manage its own affairs.
Bihar too witnessed decline in the actual number of seats won by the sitting Chief Minister led political formation. Many consider it manifestation of popular disenchantment with governance records of the regime that lacked any serious innovation and energy. An overwhelming majority of the people have perennially endured poverty, malnutrition and joblessness, with appallingly poor state of public infrastructure and public services. Successive governments have done very little to change these conditions.
Recently, large swathes of people of the state, who had been working on subsistence wages in different parts of the country, to escape crushing poverty at home, were forced to return to the state walking back hundreds and even thousands of Kilometers during national lock down after losing their livelihood and shelter. This was the most demonstrative spectacle of bad governance that the state of Bihar has suffered over decades. A large percentage of local population continues to struggle for a decent livelihood, healthcare, education and access to clean drinking water and 24 hour electric supply. However, poll winners have been hailing the electoral verdict in the state as endorsement of their "outstanding" record on governance.
The present regime had replaced a government led by a mercurial leader with earthy wit and rustic humor, who had "conned" Bihar into an abyss of lawlessness and corruption. Even though he is cooling his heels in prison, following indictment in one of the multiple corruption charges that he faces, his progenies spearheaded the challenge on behalf of political opposition. They came quite close to upstaging the sitting Chief Minister but its very prospects had shuddered those who had experienced the tyranny of their jailed father.
Democracy in India, despite being sturdy and stable, especially compared to its fragile counterparts in most parts of Afro-Asia, has always had its own constraints. But the phenomenon like Bihar lends credence to charges of cartelization of political space, denying people legitimate choices for better governance. The alternative to a lackadaisical governance was a family-controlled political formation, with an ignominious legacy of "criminality" and "corruption."
Like the jailed supremo of this family controlled political party, who had ruled the state for fifteen years riding on the populist support of two dominant communities- Muslims and Yadavs, his sons too sought to exploit the same caste arithmetic. They probably succeeded in swaying some impartial voters too who craved for change. But their calculations were upset with the entry of a Hyderabad based rabid Islamist party in the fray, which swayed substantial Muslim votes. Many have alleged, since then, a clandestine pact between so-called Hindu nationalists and Islamists. While, reality may never be known in this respect, but such a phenomenon threatens both long-term social cohesion as well as governance capacity of the state.
Electoral experience in Bihar also questions the very ability of democracy to provide high quality governance. Poll outcomes in the state have continued to depend more on arithmetic of identities rather than issues of governance. This has been somewhat a near national phenomenon in India, except in 2014 and 2019 national elections, when people overwhelmingly voted for a change besides reasserting their Hindu nationalist identity, which was alleged to be openly denigrated by the then government with the bogey of “Hindu Terrorism”.
There are multiple parallels of identity driven political mobilization in both developing and the developed world. Sri Lanka, a small island neighbour of India, had experienced highly devastating consequences of identity-driven politics that had inflicted heavy material and human cost on its people. Probably all post-colonial democracies continue to face somewhat similar predicament. However, in recent years, even the most established democracies have struggled to escape the trap of identity driven fissures. President Trump had crafted his entire political strategy by exploiting identity-based anxieties of white voters. Europe has been experiencing its own share of parochial ultra-nationalism. Such sentiments may have subsided temporarily but not entirely eliminated from democratic political space.
Pitfalls of Invoking Identity For Political Mobilisation
Under these circumstances, there is genuine apprehension that elections would be increasingly reduced into war through ballots among competing identities, with governance and genuine plight of the people taking a back seat. This can result in general decline in the economic and security capacities of democracies, giving greater space to efficient authoritarian states. It can also encourage some of them to manipulate internal dynamics within democracies by exploiting such discords and openness of their institutions. Political mobilization in the name of identity, instead of governance, especially in the context of fragile criminal justice system, can breed unmanageable levels of conflict, impede governance and make the entire political structure vulnerable to subversion by authoritarian cliques.
Probably under-performance of a democratic India, compared to an opaque and authoritarian China, has its roots in political exploitation of identities. This has not only obstructed a concerted focus on governance but also created bigger space for subversion of institutions, including rule of law. When two or more identities are at war with each other, rationality and integrity lose their relevance. Otherwise, it is highly improbable for a merit based competitive society - the core premise of democracy- to lag behind a similarly sized authoritarian state, where a regime normally perpetuates itself through loyalty and coercion.
Opaque political funding, badly regulated political and electoral battles and dilution of some of the core democratic principles- like fairness and integrity in political and economic competition- have obstructed rise of high quality leaders in nearly all sectors in India. This is notwithstanding few notable exceptions that include current Prime Minister of the country. Even such outstanding leaders appear helpless in face of a larger culture of entitlement and political rent. They too struggle to make a difference beyond a point, especially compared to the potential that India continues to display. Persistence of some of the medieval era values like hero worship and loyalty to caste and religious identities, amidst a fragile and sluggish criminal justice system, has built a vicious cycle of bad governance. Despite few enclaves of excellence -that independent India has built- the impact of such distorted values on the larger ecosystem of the country has been quite negative. These have crippled optimal efficiency, integrity and potential of all institutions of state and society, resulting in abnormal asymmetry of power in favour of our similarly sized neighbour.
In Bihar, crushing poverty of masses and large-scale unemployment among youth failed to deter massive splurge of funds on poll campaign. There were over 50 political parties in the fray and large number of them were using private jets and choppers to facilitate their leaders reach multiple venues of public meetings. Nearly all of them had hired paid armies of campaign workers. Many experienced poll-watchers were alarmed at such extravagance at a time when ordinary people were indeed suffering. Marketisation of electoral processes and cartelization of political space, through sheer financial and organisational muscle, seemed to have commercialised the entire democratic poll process. These not only reflected lack of genuine empathy for the people but even credibility or caliber of candidates seemed irrelevant in larger desperation for political power. Overwhelming majority of people appeared hapless passive participants in the electoral battles, compelled to side with the one or the other warring side. They had no real choice to select their representatives through a free and fair process. Sadly, even in media, there has been virtually no public debate on detrimental consequences of identity driven electoral mobilisation on long-term governance and national security of the country.
Need To Overcome Strategic Myopia
Strategic myopia of the ruling establishments of India is not new. Many describe the phenomenon as outcome of decaying Indian values of pre-Mamluk era, which had nearly paralysed the security capacity of the Indian subcontinent, notwithstanding its phenomenal prosperity. Hence, a highly advanced but a decaying civilisation had easily succumbed to bands of hardy marauders, lacking any vision or exposure to governance, civility or societal harmony. Under their oppressive and discriminatory occupation, driven by instincts of individual and racial supremacy, Indian state and society touched its nadir to come under colonial occupation of a spice company. It was pitiful and ironical for a state and civilization that had produced, and practiced, the most advanced principles of governance, warfare and national security, as enshrined in the brilliant treatise on the subject produced way back in the 4th Century BC in the form of Kautilyan Arthashastra.
However, India, as a civilisation, has been losing its vigour and direction for a very long time, especially compared to its true potential. This is notwithstanding intermittent but recurrent phases of reforms and rejuvenation. There is merit in the argument that it was sheer strategic myopia or inability of India's ruling classes to synergise the subcontinent’s internal social and institutional capacities to contain domestic discords, which was critical for repelling and deterring external invasion from Mamluk-Mongol forces. These had nearly pulverised entire Indo-Asia region. But as a state and civilisation, India has avoided serious strategic lesson from the past, notwithstanding recent assertions of ancient glory of the Hindu India, which sounds quite anachronistic as the phrase Hindu is medieval in origin and used only by the Arabs to describe India.
Despite centuries of oppressive alien rule including colonial plunder, many of the original humanist-inclusive values and orientations of India and Indo-Asia could not be entirely wiped out. This is what explains sustenance of democracy in India even under most adverse circumstances. Somewhat similar, but not identical, is the plight of South East Asian nations that have guarded against hard-line medieval tribal practices in the name of Islam, while retaining these original Indo-Asian values and legacies. At the same time, it would be incorrect to blame external forces alone for degeneration of India as the decay had started with onset of hereditary privileges much before the external aggression.
Indispensability of Reform in Political Parties:
Today, democracy is at a more serious crossroads than ever in the post second world-war era. Its eventual fate would shape the quality of security and dignity accessible to people across all divides. But initiatives of Indian democracy to refine itself would impact the evolutionary course of representative governments from this point onwards to a large extent. India’s significance lays not merely in containing China or inspiring post-colonial democracies through excellence of its institutions. Rise of a heterogeneous gigantic democracy as a major global power shall infuse the requisite stability to the global order and major push towards transparency.
For any meaningful breakthrough in this direction, serious reforms in political parties would be critical. Parties must re-emerge as credible platforms of people, instead of privately controlled syndicates, sharing similar but not necessarily exact vision and views on governance. Such platforms must be capable of generating high-quality discourses on political-governance issues as well as throw up genuine leaders with integrity, vision and ability to inspire trust and confidence of people. It appears impossible given the prevailing dynamics, structures and processes of nearly all political parties as well as the very contours of electoral processes.
Serious and pragmatic innovations for stricter and impartial regulation of political competition to maintain their focus on governance, instead of identity divides, would be a necessity. Simultaneously, India will have to spearhead an agenda of internal reforms within political parties to curb number of tenures or nepotism, favoritism and backdoor influence through any means. Control of all political parties need to be wrested from self-seeking cliques and cartels profiteering at the cost of society and state. This is not a moral issue but a fundamental necessity for long-term security and stability of open societies and their people, including elite in these states.
Rejuvenation of Indian democracy with fusion of original humanist-inclusive values of ancient Indian subcontinent, through appropriate democratic governance structures and practices, is critical for plight of not merely 1.3 billion Indians but security and well-being of entire people in this region and beyond. Ascendance of an authoritarian China with an opaque power structure, amidst a general decline of democracy in the West and serious fragility of institutions and distortion of values in most parts of the developing world, threatens mankind's quest for universal access to security, dignity and rule of law. Democratic India, as a major and older civilization than China, with far more profound humanist values at its roots, has both the capacity and the potential to set an example to inspire popular confidence in humanist ideals and values. It needs a robust but not oppressive governance at home, resting on better synergy between state and society. An effective external strategic- security capacity requires a host of ingredients of state power but efficiency of governance institutions constitutes its bedrock. India will have to be innovative to address expanding asymmetry of power with China and neuter the threat of Islamic radicalism, terrorism subversion and organised crime from Pakistan. These objectives are unlikely to be addressed without serious reorientation and restructuring of internal institutions.
Progress in this direction is not going to be easy. But the world's largest democracy has enough resilience and potential to succeed. It needs both powerful ideas and equally determined initiatives by a decisive and powerful political leadership, that it currently has at the helm.