Twenty-five years ago, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the western world’s leaders declared that liberal democracy had triumphed over communism. Little did they know a generation later the same people would be trying to destroy what they had so long defended.
After a year of intense turmoil and uncertainty across world, the unstoppable march of democracy seems to be crashing into the immovable opinions of angry voters. Like a train crash in slow motion, democratic norms are being ripped up across the western world. It’s important that Indians pay attention and learn from these mistakes.
A few weeks ago, an American political scientist claimed the state of North Carolina no longer qualified as a democracy according to his elections index. Why? Because local politicians in that state had become masters at restricting votes, abusing their power and carving up voting districts to hurt opponents.
North Carolina is a microcosm of a political trend that could be the future of the United States, and even Britain. In both countries an angry political divide is opening up between younger, more liberal-minded voters and an older, more conservative generation. This divide isn’t just cultural but economic too. Younger people face job insecurity and a much higher cost of living than their parents’ generation ever did. And yet, politicians pay little attention to them because the older generation, desperate to preserve their power, come out to vote in greater numbers.
In the US, this has even led the Republican Party to try every dirty tactic in the book: Restricting non-white people from voting, redrawing voting districts in their favour, accusing opponents of “massive voter fraud” (Trump) without evidence and so on.
Britain is in danger of going down the same path. Since 2010, the elected Conservative government has thrown millions of people off the electoral register by making registration harder and redrawing constituency boundaries in their favour.
Worse, independent civil servants and judges are now routinely attacked by politicians and the media for not toeing their line in favour of Brexit. Last year, one newspaper called three high court judges “enemies of the people” simply for ruling, correctly, that MPs had the ultimate power to trigger Brexit, not the government alone.
British MP David Lammy tweeted in anger: “Brexiteers assault parliamentary sovereignty, then judicial independence, now civil service impartiality. The tenets of our democracy.”
The US and Britain aren’t alone in this worrying tendency of throwing out long-established rules for political gain. France has been under an official “state of emergency” since the November 2015 terror attacks. But the move is more political than logistical; an attempt by the unpopular government to pretend it is doing everything to counter the Islamic State.
The effect of all this is potentially disastrous. Trust in government among Americans has fallen from 70%-plus in the 1960s to a historic low of under 20% now. In Britain, only 17% of the public feel politicians place their own interests over the nation’s needs . A survey found that politicians in Britain were trusted even less than bankers.
A democracy is only as good as the clear rules, impartial institutions and public trust it has. Without them it becomes a tinpot dictatorship behind a comforting facade. It’s not just running the economy or protecting citizens that matters — the public have to trust the system is trying to work for them even if it is imperfect.
And this is where the problem lies. Britain calls itself the “birthplace of parliamentary democracy”. America sees itself as a leader of the free world. But the truth is that angry and untrusting voters are always ripe for being seduced by dictators. No country is destined to forever march towards progress unless its people fight for those rights, day in and day out.
Indians are rightly proud of living in the world’s largest democracy. They should be pleased in having a strong Supreme Court, independent-minded judges and an electoral commission that, for all its faults, does its job. That is not enough.
Even now its political parties abuse and undermine Indian democracy. The Congress did so under Indira Gandhi and the Emergency. The BJP is now doing so now. The NDA government has attacked and shut down critics from NGOs, the BJP has frequently ignored the electoral commission during elections, and made grave charges against political opponents without evidence. The list is getting worryingly long.
The BJP dismisses this as agenda-driven of course. Some of the criticism may be, but it is the chipping away of democratic principles (the right to criticise, following fair rules) that should worry Indians. A few slides can soon lead to an avalanche.
No political party’s cause can justify undermining democracy. Unless Indians are careful of what is happening around them, soon they might wonder how they ended up in a country that looks very remote from Jawaharlal Nehru’s India.
Sunny Hundal is a writer and lecturer on digital journalism based in London
The views expressed are personal