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It is hard to imagine today, but there was a time not so long ago in Hong Kong when the biggest political story in town was unsanctioned home improvement.
In early 2012, a bureaucrat who aspired to be the city’s chief executive was caught hiding a fancy basement under his swimming pool, complete with an entertainment suite, a jacuzzi and a wine cellar. A media frenzy erupted. Eagle-eyed reporters kept vigil outside his home, their cameras mounted on cranes watching his home 24/7, and political analysts wrote reams on how this “scandal” would impact the chief executive election.
To an outsider, the sanitised politics of this city those days could seem as unexciting as a bureaucrat’s basement. Especially, if he were a journalist from the world’s largest, and decidedly raucous, democracy, where the extent of commotion and corruption in politics dwarfed anything that Hong Kong could muster.
But even by India’s usual standards, politics back home was at the time plumbing new depths. Public discontent against the then ruling Congress-party-led coalition government was building up. Allegations of serial scams in government projects were straining Indians’ already tenuous trust in the country’s political class. While Hong Kong’s news channels were relaying staid images of drawn curtains at a bureaucrat’s home, television cameras in India caught two ministers watching porn in a state Assembly.
The good times of Hong Kong’s comparatively unstimulating politics weren’t destined to last. Not just uninterested residents but the whole world would soon have to sit up and take notice as the democracy movement in the city gathered steam. The annual democracy marches, which mark the city’s return to Chinese sovereignty from British rule, had begun to get bigger every passing year. Pro-democracy politicians, groups, student leaders and intellectuals were making increasingly emphatic demands for universal suffrage.
The rise in the pitch for democracy in Hong Kong strangely happened to coincide with rising anger at democratically elected governments in many countries. By 2013, the fervour of democracy generated by the Arab spring protests of 2010 had begun to wane, replaced by anti-government demonstrations sweeping democratic Brazil, Turkey, Thailand and Egypt.
As Joshua Kurlantzick observed at the time in his book Democracy in Retreat: The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government, the disappointment with democracy stemmed from its failure to generate prosperity in many newly democratised societies, which were, instead, witnessing more corruption and disorder. This explained why many coups, from Thailand to Egypt, enjoyed the backing of the middle class.
While democracy was the holy grail in Hong Kong, self-introspection about the intrinsic goodness of democracy was becoming commonplace elsewhere. Long-held, axiomatic associations between representative democracy and good governance were being questioned.
Hong Kong’s own quality of life and clinical efficiency raised many of these questions. Why, for example, were democracy trackers such as Freedom House and Economic Intelligence Unit consistently showing democracy-less Hong Kong scoring higher in measures of civil liberties, rule of law, personal autonomy and freedom of expression than most democracies in Asia? Why were World Bank surveys reporting public trust in unelected politicians in mainland China and Hong Kong far exceeded that in elected officials of India and many other democracies?
Why was Hong Kong head and shoulders above almost everybody else in Asia in the World Bank’s governance indicators such as accountability, political stability, absence of violence, government effectiveness, regulatory quality, rule of law and control of corruption? Why was Hong Kong consistently notching up a higher rank than all democracies in Asia in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index?
These questions were as intellectual as they were personal. If democracy makes the rulers more accountable to the people, why was my adopted city ruled so well without it and my home town, so badly with it? Hong Kong and Calcutta, the city I come from, both used to be the centres of British power, glory and commerce in Asia. From there, how did Calcutta come to symbolise poverty while its colonial twin emerged as the poster boy of wealth and prosperity?
Some of the answers lay in Hong Kong’s unique democratic development. Holding elections, which we usually tend to take as the main marker of democracy, merely meets the requirement of “formal”, or “procedural”, democracy. It is the first step of democratisation. The second, and more difficult, one is to transform a “procedural” democracy into one that is “substantive” with redistributive social policies, civil liberties and democratic institutions such as an independent judiciary and a free press that make elections truly “free and fair” and government accountable.
It was increasingly evident that many of the democracies seen to be failing around the world were unable to offer much beyond the procedure of elections. Poorly formed or captured governing institutions neuter the self-correcting virtue of democratic accountability that elections are supposed to ensure. So, elections come and go, without any perceptible improvement in governance standards or lives of most voters.
As Francis Fukuyama puts it, in a Journal of Democracy paper, “The term ‘accountability’ has come to be associated almost exclusively with procedural accountability. It is clear that many procedurally accountable democratic regimes are in effect unaccountable in terms of actual governance.”
Thanks to its unique set of legacies, Hong Kong became a rare example of substantive accountability even without a procedural or formal democracy. It managed to achieve the second stage without going through the first, while many democracies around the world struggled to transition from the first to the second. It did not have elections but many democracies would kill for Hong Kong’s freedoms, rights and institutions. Oddly, it had everything that we understand by ‘democracy’ even without elections.
While the struggle for formal democratic status snowballed in 2014 in Hong Kong in the form of the “umbrella movement”, India was undergoing its own revolution of sorts. Narendra Modi rose to national power by tapping on a mountain of resentments against corruption and slow economic progress, and promising redemption for the vast majority of the people who felt six decades of independence had got them nowhere.
An unapologetic Hindu nationalist who as chief minister presided over a 2002 pogrom of Muslims in his Gujarat state, Modi underwent a remarkable image makeover as an economic reformer and able administrator. His campaign, focused on development, led to – unrealistic – expectations at home and abroad that he was ready to put his divisive politics behind him and provide India the steady governance it needed to regain its economic vitality.
Those hopes have receded further with every passing year. Long before Covid-19 hit, the economy started tanking. In 2016 Modi suddenly withdrew high-denomination banknotes from circulation, breaking the back of a cash-driven economy. It never recovered. Within two years, the country’s unemployment rate had risen to a 45-year-high of 6.1%. Labour participation rates plunged and for the first time in decades, the size of the male workforce began to shrink and poverty rates increase. India’s female labour participation rate is now among the lowest in the world.
Protests, here and there
None of this mattered when elections came again. In 2019, when a fresh bout of anti-government protests gripped Hong Kong, Modi returned to power with a resounding majority. A terror attack in Kashmir and India’s retaliatory action against Pakistan whipped up a war hysteria that drowned out any debate on standard measures of governance that elections are supposed to call to account. The BJP successfully established that India faced grave threats, and only Modi’s muscular leadership could protect the country. The opposition, ineffectual and rudderless, were swept away.
Riding back to power on a wave of Hindu nationalism, Modi doubled down on his core competence – the majoritarian politics of Hindu identity. With the stroke of a pen, he revoked the autonomy of the country’s only Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir, which, like Hong Kong, used to enjoy special privileges defining its relationship to the republic holding its sovereignty. Modi scrapped its statehood status and dismembered it into two federally administered units. Rather than consulting its elected representatives on the move, he threw them all into jail.
Internet, telephone services, cable television and even postal services were shut down, the region was locked down and more soldiers sent in to maintain order and quell dissent in what was already one of the most militarised zones in the world.
Next, Modi enacted a citizenship law that discriminates against Muslim refugees, linking citizenship with religion for the first time in constitutionally secular India. The prospect of it being used alongside a proposed citizen verification process that had already disenfranchised 1.9 million people in just one state, raised the spectre of stripping millions of Muslims nationwide of citizenship. Peaceful mass protests erupted across India.
For much of the time that sì doi gak ming (“revolution of our times”) was ringing in the air in Hong Kong, inquilab zindabad (“long live the revolution”) echoed in the streets of India in demand of a rollback of the citizenship law and verification drive.
The protests ebbed away as Covid-19 hit India. To break the remaining pockets of resistance, Modi’s government launched a disinformation campaign that portrayed the movement as a conspiracy by Islamist and other extremist forces hostile to India. His party’s thugs and a partisan police force were let loose, leading to communal riots in Delhi. Key leaders of the movement were arrested on trumped up charges of terrorism and sedition.
Decoupling and democracy
In Hong Kong, the protests went on long after they had died down in India as Modi announced the world’s toughest Covid-19 lockdown. For much of 2019 and 2020, Hong Kong remained the media story worldwide, till Beijing brought in a much-feared national security law that, like in India, allows arrests under loosely defined sedition and terror charges.
The effect the protests would have on Hong Kong’s unique status as an island of free capital and information flows within China, was of universal interest. Especially as the face-off between Beijing and Hong Kong’s youth leaders foregrounded a larger geopolitical contest between the old and the rising superpowers.
The US president Donald Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods and retaliatory measures by Beijing had locked the two sides into a trade war. Trump ratcheted up the hostilities by openly siding with Hong Kong’s protesters. His confrontational stance against China gave him a strong following in Hong Kong. Posters bearing his pictures and American flags became fixtures at protest rallies.
Trump’s aggressive actions reflected a wider shift in American foreign policy thinking. The old American assumption that China’s increasing prosperity as a result of its incorporation in the global trading system would eventually move it towards Western-style liberalism was by now wholly gone.
It had been replaced by a new consensus that China’s model of governance was here to stay. Rather than weakened by open markets, it would only derive more and more strength from them to eventually lead China to challenge the US-led world order. A decoupling between the world’s two biggest economies and military powers had begun in earnest. Hong Kong was caught in the crossfire.
Coming into power, Joe Biden lent this looming contest with China even greater immediacy and coherence. The world was at an “inflection point” between democracy and autocracy and those who believed in democracy must prepare for a “long-term strategic competition with China”, he declared in a foreign policy speech.
“This is a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies,” Biden said at his first press conference as president. “We’ve got to prove democracy works.”
In Asia, his administration breathed life into an informal alliance of four maritime democracies in the Asia-Pacific region comprising the United States, Australia, Japan and India – called the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or “Quad” – that had been dead in the water for a decade. Biden got its leaders to meet at a summit for the first time, virtually, soon after he took over. The supposedly “Asian Nato” is to act as a bulwark against a rising and assertive China.
Biden’s invocation of China has similarly re-energised the original Nato, the military alliance of 28 European and two North American countries, which appeared to be lapsing into an existential funk since the fall of the Soviet Union. After Biden’s first summit with Nato leaders, the grouping designated China as presenting “systemic challenges to the rules-based international order”.
“America is back”, as Biden likes to say.
The “good guys” and the “bad guys” have again been clearly delineated and lined up for a fresh battle. After a period of seeming isolationism under Trump, Biden has managed to supercharge America’s flagging leadership status by framing America’s primary challenge in international politics in terms of a Manichean struggle between democracy and autocracy, and cleverly twinning the goal of rescuing democracy with that of containing China.
All very well for Biden and the US and its battle to maintain its global dominance in the face of a rising China, but what does it do for democracy really?
What have external influences got to do with the rise of the autocrats in India, Brazil, Turkey and Hungary? How will containing China, if it is even possible, cure the malaise that afflicts democracy today?
Modern democides take place when the foundations of democracy are wrecked and its institutions captured from within while retaining the facade of democracy. They occur when democracies degenerate to the point where their own people cease to believe in the legitimacy of their political system. A sizeable chunk of voters in the US today, for example, do not believe Biden actually won the election, and that it was stolen from Trump.
Biden is right, democracy is in grave danger. But blaming China and Russia for it is disingenuous. It only distracts from the focus and the meditation that the democratic world needs to heal itself. Papering over all of the distortions that erode democracy from within and packaging them as a simplistic geopolitical contest is a grievous disservice to the cause of democracy. The “world’s oldest democracy” can do better.
After four years of Trump, any honest introspection would show that the problems lie within. Disconnected politicians, power grabs by financial and political elites, rising inequality and the powerlessness of the voters got it here, not hostile external forces.
Convenient foreign scapegoats won’t help address the roots of the crisis in the democratic world. They go much deeper. In a recent opinion piece in Le Monde, economist Thomas Piketty tears into a “dated hyper-capitalist model” that has left Western states severely incapacitated. The Chinese government, he points out, holds 30% of all assets in China, including 50% of the companies. This corresponds to a mixed economy structure found in the West during its period of prosperity in 1950-1980.
As the Chinese state holds much greater assets than debt, Piketty argues, it has the means for ambitious policy at home and abroad. Western states don’t, as they have poorly managed their accounts and now hold more debts than assets, after selling the latter with impunity. “Neoliberalism, by handing over power to the richest and weakening public power,” he concludes, “has in reality only strengthened the Chinese model.”
The effect of unchecked neoliberalism is painfully evident in India, where the state has over the decades turned its back on its most fundamental responsibilities. Its economy has grown by leaps and bounds but the gains haven’t been shared all round. The top 0.1% of earners have captured more growth in income than the bottom 50% combined. Rather than creating equalising life opportunities to reduce inequality through substantial investments in health, education, environment and infrastructure, the state has allowed basic citizen rights to be mediated through the market. That has only resulted in entrenching and reproducing the country’s historical inequities.
A system of self-government premised on the notion of equal vote is rendered farcical in a grotesquely unequal society. An education system in which the rich corner the best education, and a health-care system that treats the bodies of the poor as disposable, are signs of a phantom democracy. It may look and act like a democracy, going through the motions of elections, but the soul has left the body.
What remains, in the absence of effective state intervention to improve the social life of citizens, is untold indignity. In his Memorial Day speech this May, Biden again warned of the perils facing democracy worldwide. “The struggle for democracy is taking place around the world – democracy and autocracy,” he stressed. “The struggle for decency, dignity, just simple decency.”
This twinning of democracy with dignity, this he got right.
Dignity is a necessary condition of democracy. In fact, Josiah Ober of Stanford University argues that after liberty and equality, dignity is democracy’s third core value. This is because self-governance requires not only that citizens be free, but also that they be willing and able to act as free citizens. They can’t, if they are deprived of the basic material goods necessary for them to live in dignity and allow them to make meaningful private and public choices.
Indignity also breeds powerlessness and adds to the psychological sense of a lack of personal control and uncertainty. Numerous studies in the field of social sciences have established how people tend to take refuge in group identity to reduce self-uncertainty, and how they seek to make up for their individual powerlessness with the power of the group and its leader.
The more chronic and pervasive the indignity and the sense of uncertainty, the stronger the identification with identity-based social groups. And, the greater the preference for “strong” and authoritarian group leaders who are seen as capable of protecting group members by acting against other groups competing for scarce resources, and establishing “order”. Politics becomes more polarized and violent. Authoritarianism becomes a cherished leadership quality.
As India has grown to be one of the most unequal countries in the world since the economic liberalisation in the 1990s, so has the preference for a “strong” leader who will fix all of India’s problems. There’s much to fix, with the richest 1% owning more than four times the total wealth held by the bottom 70% of the population.
A food delivery start-up has made a stellar IPO debut valuing it at more than US$1 billion, yet India ranks a lowly 94 among 107 countries in the Global Hunger Index, in the same league as Ethiopia and North Korea. A third of the country’s children are stunted, a fifth are wasted and half are anaemic.
India has emerged as one of the favoured destinations for medical tourism in the region. Its plush corporate hospitals play host to the upper classes at home and neighbouring countries while most of its own population is denied decent health care. The Lancet ranks India 145 out of 195 countries in terms of health-care access and quality – behind Yemen, Sudan and North Korea.
Unsurprisingly, multiple surveys find Indians to be among the most ardent supporters of strongman rule. What do you expect?
Demagogues, here and there
India is hardly unique in these mutually reinforcing spirals of economic and group insecurities that lead to the preference for demagogues. For someone who is cleaning up after Trump, Biden should know.
The economic roots of the resurgence of Hindu and White supremacism aren’t all that different after all. Like Modi, Trump was as much the cause of a democratic decline as he was the product of it. Only, unlike Modi, Trump was less fortunate with the American governing institutions, which proved to be relatively more resistant to capture.
In Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy, Suzanne Mettler and Robert Lieberman point out that past periods of crises in American democracy – such as the divisions over slavery in the 1850s and 1860s, the desire for strongman rule during the Great Depression in the 1930s and the unrest and constitutional crisis at the time of the Watergate scandal in the 1970s – were caused by one or more of four specific factors. These were: political polarisation, conflict over who belongs in the political community, high economic inequality, and excessive executive power. Mettler and Lieberman argue that democracy tends to flourish at times when these conditions are absent, and decay when they are present.
For the first time in its history, they say, the US faced all four threats at the same time in Trump’s ascent and rule. “It is this unprecedented confluence – more than the rise to power of any particular leader – that lies behind the contemporary crisis of American democracy.”
One could pretty much say the same about today’s crisis of democracy in India, which Sweden’s V-Dem Institute now classifies as an “electoral autocracy”.
Having ascended to national power on the hope of delivering better lives amid extraordinarily high and rising economic inequality, and consolidating power by fanning religious polarisation, Modi has centralised executive power to an extent rarely seen in India.
Thanks to his overwhelming numerical superiority in the legislature, his party can ride roughshod over the opposition, railroad any law it wants and choose not to discuss any issue that it deems uncomfortable, however important.
Governing and oversight institutions have been mostly brought to heel. Modi himself tightly controls both the party and the government. Regulatory bodies, including the country’s Election Commission, have been bridled. The media, tamed. The judiciary, forced to take the path of least resistance.
The full force of the state machinery is unleashed on anybody who poses the faintest threat to the government or its Hindu-first world view. Jails are stuffed with political prisoners on bogus charges. Freedom of expression and association are fast becoming a privilege rather than a right.
The constitutional status of secularism is turning into a mere formality. Daily hate crimes and speeches silencing and humiliating Muslim voices, obsolescing Muslim representation, obliterating Muslim history, invisibilising Muslim cultural presence, and villainising Muslims through laws and disinformation are only a few of the innumerable ways the project of establishing Hindu dominance is being incrementally operationalised.
The continuing political success of the ruling party in the “world’s biggest democracy” today hinges on its ability to peddle fear about the country’s minorities, while the opposition is too afraid to defend minority rights lest it offends the majority.
In a democracy, the interests of the majority are naturally protected through elections. The true test of a democracy’s mettle – the depth of its commitment to equal rights and freedom for all – is how it treats its minorities and protects its diversity. Modi’s India is failing that test every day.
Why India matters
That is terrible news for anybody who wants democracy to succeed and considers it the fairest form of government. Whataboutisms of how China treats its minorities are not helpful. For, if democracy has to establish itself as a morally superior political system, India needs to do better than China.
That’s also terrible news for anybody who wants India to succeed. Easily the most diverse nation in the world, democracy is India’s default setting. No other political system can accommodate so many different cultures and peoples and give them all a convergent stake in it. Democracy and India need each other to succeed for their respective survival.
Writing for The Atlantic, author Jonah Blank makes the point that the fact that a political system works for rich, small and homogenous Iceland means little. Democracy’s real proof of concept can be found only in a nation that is big, low-income and diverse enough to test the democratic virtues of compromise and peaceful coexistence. “That is India,” he writes. “If democracy can make it there, it can make it anywhere.”
If it isn’t making it in India, it has nothing to do with China or Russia.
India once exemplified audacity of hope, when in the depths of its impoverishment and a raging civil war at the time of its independence in 1947, it set out to achieve the goal of a multicultural democracy. Unlike most postcolonial countries, it did not become a dictatorship and persisted with regular elections and change of power.
But as its social life has coarsened from decades of neglect, so has its politics. As its social substructure has weakened, so have the democratic institutions that draw their legitimacy from it.
One of democracy’s greatest advantages over other forms of government is its built-in auto-correct setting. Misrule can be punished and reversed through elections. Arbitrary power, in theory, is restrained by the fear of adverse public opinion.
But, is it really, if democratic institutions are feeble and prone to capture?
What if government agencies are used to checkmate political opponents? What if the information is held back or gamed to suit the government?
What if the public is denied the free flow of information it needs to make an objective assessment of the government’s performance? What if major media houses are either owned by the government’s cronies or turned into mouthpieces for the rulers through intimidation and inducements in the form of party and government advertisements or business favours? How does democratic accountability work in the absence of freedom of the press? Not very well, as we can see from the rise of despotism in India.
Elections themselves, rather than checking despotism, can become an enabler of it if they become deeply corrupted by dark money and political violence. Electoral victories in India, for example, have become increasingly correlated with criminality and wealth. In theory, anybody can contest. In practice, you stand a far better chance if you have pots of money and a private army.
In theory, you have to win the trust of the majority. In practice, because of the first-past-the-post system of determining winners and the fragmentation of the electorate, you are a winner if you can secure the support of 25% of the vote with money, muscle and us-versus-them politics.
In theory, you need to win a majority of seats in the House to form a government. In practice, you can simply make up for the deficit by buying legislators like cattle.
None of this bodes well for India, or for the future of democracy. If “we’ve got to prove democracy works”, as Biden says, India, its biggest and most important test case, is doing the opposite. And, shallow slogans pitching democracy against successful autocracies won’t help. Democracy has many problems, “long-term strategic competition with China” isn’t one of them. Its biggest struggle is with itself – with its weak social foundations, with its debilitating governing institutions, with the resultant despair that makes it want an autocrat.
Look no further than Tunisia. The lone success story of the Arab spring, Tunisia’s transition to a democracy was held out as hope for those who dreamt of an autocrat-free Middle East. After 10 years and as many governments by a self-serving political class, chronically high unemployment, economic stagnation, and violent crackdowns on dissent and free speech, mounting disillusionment found a lightning rod in surging Covid-19 cases and sluggish vaccination.
Sensing the public mood, the president sacked the cabinet, suspended parliament and took the reins into his own hands. A new autocrat rose, and the people didn’t complain. There were reports of jubilation on the streets, the same streets that a decade ago cheered the fall of an autocrat when the Arab spring was born. This time they were relieved to have been taken over by an autocrat, again.
That is the real threat democracy faces: to come to be seen as a political system unable to deliver a decent life for its people, yet wanton in the exercise of the coercive power of the state. To self-destruct to the point that it begins to resemble a poor man’s autocracy. What could be sadder than India morphing into a China minus the prosperity and the highways? If democracy needs to be saved from that fate, let’s talk honestly about why it is failing and how to contain its decay. Containing China is a different discussion.
Debasish Roy Chowdhury is a journalist based in Hong Kong and a co-author of To Kill A Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism.
Reprinted with permission from the South China Morning Post, where a version of this piece first appeared.