Acceptance for autocracy is growing in India | columns | Hindustan Times
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Acceptance for autocracy is growing in India

A new Pew study launched this week shows that commitment to democracy around the world is inconsistent. By international standards, a large proportion of Indians (27%) “very strongly” support having a “strong leader” who can bypass democratic checks and balances.

columns Updated: Oct 26, 2017 08:06 IST
Chinese President Xi Jinping bows before delivering his speech during the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in Beijing, October 18.  Democratic countries are refreshed and renewed by free elections. The Chinese system of state capitalism, supervised by an entrenched political elite, poses an alternate model.
Chinese President Xi Jinping bows before delivering his speech during the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in Beijing, October 18. Democratic countries are refreshed and renewed by free elections. The Chinese system of state capitalism, supervised by an entrenched political elite, poses an alternate model. (REUTERS)

When I was about eight years old, my twin brother and I – and many other geeks of our generation – played a sprawling, addictive computer game called Civilisation. The point of the game was to build your “civilisation” up from the Stone Age to the Space Age, marshalling resources, building cities, establishing trade networks, developing new technologies, and, of course, conquering your enemies with brute force.

Periodically, the game would offer you the option of switching forms of government. Why not try feudalism or monarchy or, later on, constitutional monarchy or republicanism, capitalism or communism? My brother and I tended to stick to more bludgeoning political systems. We enjoyed waging war (at least when it came to pixels, we were militarists). Having to be accountable to your citizens made expensive, unpopular wars untenable. So we opted for the predictable comforts and ease of authoritarian despotism. There was no fun in democracy and, moreover, it seemed far too obvious a choice.

I grew up in the West in the late 1980s and 1990s, a time shaded by the end of the Cold War and the real sense that there was something inevitable about the expansion of “liberal democracy,” that the American version of democracy would – and should – spread unhindered around the world.

If that computer game taught me anything, it was that political systems are contingent and impermanent. The recent history of the 21st century has shown us that the world hasn’t been flattened by globalisation, that it remains deeply wrinkled, and that there is no guarantee that liberal democracy will win the future.

This week saw the gathering of the National Congress of the Communist Party of China. The convention takes place twice a decade and is the defining pageant of the Chinese state, a demonstration of its size, discipline, and direction. International media tend to treat the congress as an inscrutable, choreographed event, more theatre than politics. But it is the main arena for that essential process of a state – the transition to new leadership.

Democratic countries (where less than half of all human beings live) are refreshed and renewed by free elections. The Chinese system of state capitalism, supervised by an entrenched political elite, poses an alternate model. As does the authoritarian cult of personality in Russia, the technocratic mercantilism of Singapore, and so forth. For many people living in democracies, authoritarian rule has its temptations. A new Pew study launched this week shows that commitment to democracy around the world is inconsistent.

The study, which investigated political attitudes in 38 ostensibly democratic countries, was particularly disturbing in its findings about India. Over half of Indians (55%) favour autocracy to democracy. 53% of Indians say that “military rule would be a good thing.” Though the sample size of the study was fairly small, other polls have produced similar results. A study of Indian university students last year also found that the same number (53%) were in favour of a period of military rule.

India is an outlier in the study in another way. The country scores high on the “Democracy Index” (a scorecard run by the Economist), in the same tier as the United States, Italy, France, and Japan. But unique among these strongly democratic countries, Indians are most sceptical of their current political system. The Pew study claims that 76% of Indians are either “less committed” or “not committed” to representative democracy.

At the same time, over 80% of Indians “trust the national government to do what is right for the country.” Together with the previous finding, that figure suggests an odd mix of fealty to the state and fatigue with the democratic process, the perfect ingredients for an authoritarian outcome. By international standards, a large proportion of Indians (27%) “very strongly” support having a “strong leader” who can bypass democratic checks and balances.

India isn’t on the verge of becoming a dictatorship. But these numbers should cause concern for a country that has uniquely among large post-colonial countries avoided military rule and (with the exception of the Emergency) maintained the institutions of representative democracy.

India’s young, restless populace cannot be blamed for their beliefs. They are entitled to feel exasperated with their elected representatives, the pace of change, and failures in governance. But political systems are not immutable. A slide towards greater autocracy is not impossible. Sadly, these numbers suggest the inklings of the one force that really makes authoritarian rule possible: public consent.

Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among the Stars: Stories.

The views expressed are personal