In the annals of the oldest and largest democracies in the world, 2014 and 2016 were consequential years. Both democracies faced elections through the performance of which the electorate reaffirmed the unity of the nation and the investment of power in the rulers by the ruled. With 814 million eligible voters in India in 2014, compared to 241 million voters in the US, India’s politicians were expected to have spent around $1 billion on their campaigns, which made the 2014 polls second only to the US presidential elections in terms of expense. For a democratic experience of this magnitude, it is centrally important to know what that vote means to the individuals who cast it and to the society that organises its political culture around it.
Odd yet even similarities
In the words of Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America: “Democracy increases individualism. It detaches individuals from their ancestors, companions, and children by allowing them all to make their own way and satisfy their own needs. They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone.” But in India, perhaps because the democratic ritual grew out of ancient Indian political philosophy and culture, preceding ‘democratic’ philosophy, individualism is not the core of that experience. Nonetheless, in the recent past the grammar of politics of the two democracies has demonstrated many parallels. What makes it more distinctively unique is the high gradation of the nature of equivalence offered in the run up to these elections.
India and the US gave their winning candidates an impressive mandate to, ironically, unite a country which is now also polarised due to the very same divisive electioneering tactics. US President Donald Trump, a charismatic real estate developer turned reality TV star, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, an RSS ideologue from a humble background and a checkered past, rose in an unprecedented fashion through the political firmament to lead their nations. Given the state of economic distress and governance deficit in the respective countries, Trump and Modi were able to direct mass anger and frustration against their political opponents who were projected to uphold the status-quo and who were alleged to be using their offices to perpetuate their own interests.
Their campaigns, premised on abrasive and vitriolic attacks, weren’t designed to announce policy proposals, issue solutions or even spread hope. Instead all they aroused were gigantic fears and anxieties. They deepened social and political fissures and left their people walled off from one another along the lines of religion, caste and race. The Trump and Modi campaigns were pegged on elusive, eye-catching slogans – ‘Make America Great Again’ and ‘Achhe Din’ – which lacked a relatively coherent, emotionally rousing description of “the people” and the “good times”, which they claimed to represent and usher in.
They claim to be avowed economic nationalists who promise to put their peoples interests “first” in fashioning trade policy and negotiations, realising little that trade was not just about economics, it was also about geopolitics. They breached every limit of reason and moderation by attempting to silence all voices of dissent in the names of fighting terror and anti-nationalism. They celebrate in the ceremony of public life and have an Orwellian reliance on tweets and social media. They enjoy close ties to the business world and cater to conservative constituencies. Both the victors broke from party orthodoxy and defied the skeptics and pundits who said they would never run and win. The motifs of their campaigns were situated on change and disruption. The majority of the electorate wanted radical, disruptive change so desperately that they simply didn’t care who was the change agent. Before running for prime minister, Modi was chief minister of Gujarat, which under his leadership witnessed terrible sectarian violence against Muslims. Similarly, Trump has been seen making strong statements against people of the same religion. With a new politics of fear emerging – elements of which include fearing the impact of globalisation on the living standards of the working class, fear of immigration, dilution of national identity and fear of terrorism – the future looks grim.
Above all, Trump and Modi both regard themselves as tough-talking reformers from outside the political establishment who are determined to alter a political status quo that their supporters view as wholly intolerable. Although, Trump and Modi passed muster, it is now for the durability and resilience of democracy that is under trial.
Is democracy in danger?
In these challenging times, headlines have begun to ask whether democracy is in peril. With the possible exception of the Emergency in India and the Civil War in the US, democracy has never been threatened. But the two countries, which until now prided themselves on the strong democratic values enshrined in their constitutions, seem to face a ‘crisis of governability’. Those who view democracy purely as a set of institutions – encompassing free and fair elections, legislative assemblies and constitutional governments arising out of these – tend to be sanguine about India and the US as the world’s largest and oldest democracies. But to those for whom democracy is a society peopled by truly equal citizens, who are politically engaged, tolerant of different opinions and ways of life, and have an equal voice in choosing their rulers and holding them accountable, both democracies today appear wanting.
Political scientists such as Colin Crouch are contemplating whether we are moving into a “post-democratic” era. Crouch is of the opinion that we are witnessing a transition into a post-democratic society, one that continues to have and use all the institutions of democracy, but in which they increasingly become a formal shell. Are we moving towards a democracy and political economy where institutions are gradually getting weaker?
Having spent years researching the reasons for the tragic collapse of democracy in 1930s Europe, Juan Linz, a Spanish political scientist, proposed a “litmus test,” a list of actions by politicians that can put democracy at risk. These warning signs include a refusal to unambiguously disavow violence, a readiness to curtail rivals’ civil liberties, and the denial of the legitimacy of an elected government. These variables raise enormous concern for the future of both the democracies, which seem to be, at present, in a soup. Demagoguery, the scourge of democracy, has reared its head. The key thing about demagogues is that they have been people who, by way of their very popularity, threaten the populace. They undermine the stability of a “by the people” form of government particularly by turning “the people” against each other. They represent a danger not just to electoral outcomes or political parties, but also to democracy itself.
Former US President Barack Obama during a campaign speech for Hilary Clinton in Cleveland urged voters to cast their ballot in huge number as he felt the progress he had made was on the ballot. Civility was on the ballot. Tolerance was on the ballot. Courtesy was on the ballot. Honesty was on the ballot. Equality was on the ballot. Kindness was on the ballot. And most importantly, democracy itself was on the ballot.
If democracy is an invitation to participate in argument and debate, to build coalitions and consensus, both India and the United States appear to be moving further away from this threshold.
Vandana Seth is a research scholar and was selected for the Legislative Fellow Program sponsored by the US state department. She was in the US during and after the US elections.