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Subverting democracy without vote-rigging

Recent events in some prominent democratic nations have highlighted the internal threats that are hard to see and even harder to counter. A military dictator can be identified.

lead lead Lahore,Punjab,Pakistan. Polling officers with army soldiers,deployed to polling stations. July 26, 2018. Rana Sajid Hussain/ Press Association. All rights reserved.

Democracy is in the news in a Pakistan that has held controversial elections and an India that is gripped by hectic preparations for the elections next year. True democrats are wary of the role of Pakistan’s Army that has directly ruled the country for half the period during 70 years of the nation’s history. And they are also getting alarm signals from India, a well-established democracy.

India has become an area of their concern because of the outbreak of hyper-nationalism, mobocracy, sectarian hatred, religious violence, bigotry and suppression of dissent. These are not natural disasters but man-made election-linked events and hence critical for the health of democracy. Multi-disciplinary experts will be needed to study the voting behaviour in new India, the cultural war started by the Modi Government and religious conflict unleashed by the ruling party’s associates.

The polarisation of voters along sectarian lines and the use of religion for political mobilisation have been incorporated into electoral battle plans. Identity politics has come to play a more and more significant role in Indian elections.

Degrading the political culture

India’s democratically elected Government has created conditions in which democracy or the lack of it has become the topic of a dismal discourse. Writer and commentator Gopal Gandhi asks the question: “Is India being manipulated by the religious bigot, the political bully and the techno-commercial behemoth?” The answer is implied in the question.

India does not face any danger of a military coup. However, democracy can be subverted by degrading the political culture and manipulating the democratic process. Communication technologies facilitate the manufacture of consent and dissent. Fake news and vicious propaganda can be used to create mass upsurges.

This new subversive capability has made ballot-rigging unnecessary. Booth-capturing seems to be an outdated technique for ensuring favourable election outcomes. However, reports of the recent village council elections in the state of West Bengal suggest that it is still in use.

The Modi Government is being blamed for subjecting the country to an “undeclared Emergency”. Suppression of dissent by using informal actors has become a standard technique. Freedom of expression gets curtailed not by the police but by violent groups who feel empowered by the state. In political, judicial and intellectual circles, daily references crop up to self-censorship and mobocracy and to an “undeclared Emergency”.

Undeclared emergency

The reference is to the state of emergency imposed constitutionally by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975. That was the time when she became politically vulnerable and her opponents  caused country-wide chaos. A respected non-politician leading the protest called on the army and the police to revolt! The Emergency, involving the arrest of the opposition leaders and curtailment of civil liberties, brought the situation under control, but the dark period continued for 22 months. It ended only when Indira Gandhi announced fresh elections and her party got defeated.

Barring that blemish, India’s record has been outstanding. Democracy was always taken for granted. Not anymore. The words that sum up the present situation are “undeclared emergency”.

This government cannot declare an Emergency since that enabling law was repealed. So, it depends on informal actors to restrain dissidence and punish dissenters. Violent groups spreading sectarian hatred and killing defenceless people feel empowered by the state. Muslims are politically marginalised and demonised. Intellectuals get threatened openly by the ruling party functionaries. Journalists critical of the Prime Minister are abused on social media. Women journalists face threats.

 Most media moguls have turned their journals and TV channels into the Prime Minister’s PR outfits. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a noted academic, writes that “a shockingly large section of the private media is now the ideological vanguard of the state, its rhetorical stormtroopers in a politics of communalism, polarisation and distraction, anti-intellectualism, mendacity and hate”.

Economic growth?

The social democrats have always maintained that capitalism is essentially anti-democratic. In a rational world, capitalism and communalism would not go together. The establishment of the London Stock Exchange is known to have dampened the religious violence in Great Britain. Sectarian strife is not in the interests of business and industry.

Experts with tunnel vision urge others to ignore the sectarian strife and applaud the government for economic growth. Just like some economists want the people to put up with growing inequalities. Some may even argue that growing corruption is a manifestation of economic growth!  

In India an extraordinary nexus of capitalism and communalism has developed because of the inducements and threats given by the government. Promoting crony capitalism is one of the charges that the Prime Minister faces. Pratap Bhanu Mehta points out that private capital has been enlisted in a project of unprecedented alignment with state goals and policies. He can’t think of “any liberal democracy where so much private capital has been enlisted in not just supporting the government, but also its whole ideological agenda”.

Mass hysteria and adoration

Democracy finds a favourable climate in some countries and faces adverse social and cultural conditions in others. People’s behaviour impacts political culture. Those given to mass hysteria tend to overlook rational choices. India has characteristics that promote and sustain democracy, but one cultural factor is not conducive. Indians generally revere charismatic leaders and many prostrate before such men as they do before Gods. This tempts politicians to be populist and dictatorial. A strong leader thus finds his going easy.

This internal threat to democracy was understood by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. He saw the danger of mass adoration encouraging him to act undemocratically. As a great democrat, Nehru adopted a pen name to write about this danger and even directed criticism against himself. He never strayed from the democratic path and respected his critics and the cartoonists lampooning him.

A strong leader tinkers with social engineering. The people may think they change the government but at times it is the government that changes the people. Prime Minister Modi’s project to “transform” India is producing a new breed of people. Through a major social engineering project, the Prime Minister is trying to limit the influence of secularism and make his version of Hinduism respectable and more acceptable.

Many academics see it as a conspiracy to demolish the very “idea of India” against which a certain political force has been campaigning since the first national elections. Historian-politician Sugata Bose says “the next election is not about who will be the Prime Minister; it is about what kind of India we want.”

Some leaders the world over tried social engineering. Margaret Thatcher, the iron lady, made the people greedier, less compassionate and more self-centred. Tony Blair of Labour sold the slogan “Cool Britannia” to make Britain a cultural power house. (V S Naipaul criticised him for turning Britain into a nation of philistines!) Harold Wilson wanted his countrymen to be friendlier to technology.

Prime Minister Nehru tried to lessen the hold of orthodoxy and superstitions. In mass meetings, he talked about science and technology and of democracy. He called mega projects new temples of India! He was applauded. Today a leader calling a multi-purpose irrigation project a “temple” will hurt the religious feelings of a community and will be punished politically.

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi popularised computerisation in a bid to push India into the 21st century. Prime Minister Narsimha ushered in economic liberalisation that in turn led to social changes. Consumerism can be fuelled or kept under check through official policies. The introduction of the modern Suzuki car in an India that was still grinding out the old Morris parts led to more aggressive behaviour by its new young owners.

A charismatic leader can bring out the best in the people or encourage them to attack the “others”. The latter kind fuel divisiveness. A decent democratic leader checks ugly public behaviour by setting a noble example and preaching brotherhood. He provides a just and fair administration that acts promptly to avert sectarian violence. The leader’s statements send the right signals to the district administration. The day Indira Gandhi was defeated, several Dalit homes in a Gujarat district were burnt down, with the oppressors shouting: “We will show you, now that your mother has gone!”

Sectarian conflict

While an elected western leader set a world record in getting the minority people killed, some dictators have kept sectarian conflict under control by inculcating fear. Saddam Hussein ensured that in his Iraq, the Shias and Sunnis lived in harmony. When the communist German Democratic Republic collapsed, the African immigrants in East Berlin running shops on the footpaths were attacked.

In some democracies, sectarian conflict is used for political mobilisation. Inter-religious violence is perpetrated to win votes for the majority community. Subservient bureaucrats let the law-and-order machinery collapse in deference to the ruling party. Most of the people keep mum because of fear or due to indifference towards human suffering. Many are brainwashed to justify mob violence caused by identity politics or “hurt religious feelings”.

In the Indian context, commentator Monobina Gupta raises a critical question. “Why has this continuing bloodshed and mayhem not caused public outrage?” She then refers to “deeper psychological disorders within a society”.

She points out that the “every-day violence directed towards Muslims, Dalits or any and everybody who doesn’t fit the mob’s notion of ‘mainstream’ has not suddenly appeared. Rather, the Narendra Modi government has merely dipped into the reservoir of prejudice waiting to come to the surface and take on a life of its own. These clearly are not aberrant tendencies. What can be counted as an aberration perhaps is the audacious official legitimacy offered from the very top of the chain of political command”.

Reservoir of prejudice

This a frightful scenario. The poison once injected into society cannot be sucked out. The genie cannot be pushed back into the bottle. If polarisation becomes part of the electoral strategy, sectarian strife becomes an essential element of a grand victory plan.

 A clever and cynical politician knows how to tap the hidden reservoir of ill-feeling and prejudices. Only today’s America could have produced Trump. So, it becomes clear that the democratic process alone cannot ensure democracy. It can throw up as the leader a scoundrel, a bigot, a stooge of the sponsoring business house, a nincompoop, a shallow public entertainer or a wise public-spirited activist!

Democracy dies when even sponsored violence fails to outrage the public. Of course, newspaper articles are written and drawing room discussions take place. These do not threaten the regime that remains assured of public support. It can afford to ignore the voices of sanity and gets busy silencing these.

The post-independent India has rarely seen a spontaneous mass upsurge. The huge political rallies include hired participants transported free in buses provided to the parties by businessmen. Public outrage is generated if economic interests are hit and not due to humanitarian concerns or because of atrocities against an unprivileged section.

A street-smart politician conjures up a “mass upsurge” and “public outrage” with the help of money, and muscle power. He can manufacture moral panic and raise a disruptive force to serve his party’s political ends. All political parties are not all that ‘competent’ to do so. Hence a small scandal causes a political earthquake while a bigger scandal merely creates a ripple.

Even a mature electorate can be trapped in a situation created by an unholy coalition of a few capitalists, media moguls, serving or retired intelligence officers, hired political consultants, ad agencies, co-opted goons and social media. Such ventures can create an atmosphere hostile for the political enemy and favourable for the operator.

Volumes have been written on Facebook and WhatsApp targeting voters and an Indian political party deploying an army of trollers. Cyber warfare will figure prominently in the next Indian elections. The electorate will have to cope with massive information and misinformation campaigns.

Democratic dystopia

As this article is being written, a minor British political party is transmitting a social media message that some malicious force has hijacked its website and it may get the contact addresses of those subscribing to the newsletter!

The democratic dystopia will gradually feature in poems, plays and novels by Indian writers who along with intellectuals face an unprecedented threat to freedom of expression and to their personal safety. But cartoonists, music bands and stand-up comedians react promptly. One can hear on social media protest songs under the label Aisi, Taisi Democracy, roughly translated as Down with Democracy.

At some stage all this will lead to total popular disenchantment with democracy. The people’s indifference to voting reduces elections to a sham exercise. This is not a healthy development.

In the olden days, a party’s ideology and election manifesto mattered. All that has become more or less irrelevant. The voters hand victory to one political party but get ruled by a different coalition. Some critical editorials appear on horse-trading of the elected legislators ready to switch loyalties for power or money. The end of ideology has hit even the leftist parties in India. They also lose their cadres and leaders to the rival party that comes to power.

Bihar’s chief minister assumed office with the support of his electoral allies and ditched them later to continue in power in coalition with the party of the Indian Prime Minster whom he had condemned relentlessly during the election campaign!

Electable candidates are in great demand by all parties. They are imported and fielded by a party that ignores their past hostile campaign and the claims for the ticket by its own original members. Some candidates move to an electable party before the polls. Some switch over to the ruling party after elections and that is how a party defeated in the polls forms the government. That too may be called “stealing the elections”.

Democratic India is seething with anger and hatred. One does not need a sophisticated sensor to measure the hate index. Enough is revealed daily by the newspaper headlines. Incidents of lynching get reported quite regularly.

The ruling party functionaries respond with preposterous, heartless and violent statements. Those making inflammatory speeches go unpunished and unreprimanded by the police and the party. One said that had he been the home minister, he would have shot the intellectuals, seculars and liberals! Any one condemning such statements gets attacked by the army of trollers.

Government leaders resort to whataboutry and keep recalling the violent incidents of the past when Narendra Modi was not Prime Minister! It may be interesting to study the ongoing sectarian violence and the Gujarat killings of 2002 in the context of the partition riots, even though in terms of the scale of violence the past was a million times more horrendous. However, one may note Ayesha Jalal’s analysis of the partition riots. She says the killings then were carried out not by communities at large but only by bands of individuals. They had no public support but were able to hold the public hostage with the help of weapons they carried. Was it the same during the Ahmedabad riots and during the recent mob violence?

Politics starts out as a type of public service and as a forum for dialogue and the conciliation of conflicting interests. It becomes a playing-field for opportunists, careerists and those seeking quick money or protection from law. Logical arguments in parliamentary debates are replaced by senseless noise and chaotic confrontation.

Recent events in some prominent democratic nations have highlighted the internal threats that are hard to see and even harder to counter. A military dictator can be identified. But an elected leader can assume the mantle of a dictator or act like a stooge of the military that ensured his electoral success.

The spirit of democracy is demolished by populist leaders with authoritarian instincts making false promises and by the purveyors of fake news through social media. Those commanding the media, money, muscle power, mobs, intelligence and advertising resources are always ready to provide a helping hand for a bargain. And then there is the domestic dark deep state ever ready to run a “controlled democracy”.

The proverbial foreign hand can export a democratic “spring” in an unfriendly country. It now commands the remotely-controlled weapon of social media about which extensive reporting has been done in relation to the US presidential elections and the Brexit referendum.

Democracy appears besieged by multiple challenges. In many cases, the form survives but the spirit has vanished. The stench of democracy’s decay emanates from different parts of the world. Reports of the impending death of democracy are coming from America and some other countries. All of whom have held elections and are now ruled by a dictator. Like America – Turkey, Hungary and Russia have not set examples worthy of emulation.

About the author

L K Sharma has followed no profession other than journalism for more than four decades, covering criminals and prime ministers. Was the European Correspondent of The Times of India based in London for a decade. Reported for five years from Washington as the Foreign Editor of the Deccan Herald. Edited three volumes on innovations in India. He has completed a work of creative nonfiction on V. S. Naipaul  His two e-books The Twain and A Parliamentary Affair form part of The Englandia Quartet.


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