Upcoming Challenges for Two of the Largest Democracies

by Pranab Bardhan

In the next couple of months two of the largest democracies in the world—India and Indonesia—will have their national elections. At a time when democracy is under considerable pressure everywhere, the electoral and general democratic outcome in these two countries containing in total more than one and a half billion people (more than one and a half times the population in democratic West plus Japan and Australia) will be closely observed.

Let’s start with India. Many Indians, while preening about their country being the largest democracy, are often in denial about how threadbare the quality of that democracy actually has been, particularly in recent years. Indian elections are vigorous (barring some occasional complaints about intimidations and irregularities) and largely competitive (the Indian electorate is usually more anti-incumbent than, say, the American). But other essential aspects of democracy—respect for basic civic and human rights and established procedures of accountability in day-to-day governance—are quite weak. (I don’t like the oxymoronic term ‘illiberal democracy’, used by many people—from Fareed Zakaria to Viktor Orban—as this ignores those essential aspects of democracy).

In India (as in Indonesia) democracy is often mis-identified with a kind of crude majoritarianism. The Hindu nationalists which currently rule India often trample on minority rights with shameless impunity. They have created an atmosphere of hateful violence and intimidation against dissidents and minorities, where freedom of expression by artists, writers, scholars, journalists and others is routinely violated. Supposed “group rights” trump individual rights: individual freedom of expression has very little chance if some group claims to take offence. Courts sometimes take redemptive action, usually with great delay, but meanwhile the damage is done in intimidating large numbers of people.

Several universities are currently under assault (both by ruling party goons and politicians), and school textbooks in a few states are seriously distorting history. The appointment of a bigoted Hindu-militant monk as the Chief Minister of India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, was a bit like the Republican Party in the US appointing the Grand Wizard of Ku Klux Klan as, say, the Governor of Texas. (The state now tops in incidents of hate crimes in India, according to the latest report from Amnesty International). Encouraged by such leaders roving groups in North India are terrorizing people in the name of cow protection. These cow-worshippers are oblivious how their coercive interference with cattle trade and transport is wreaking havoc on the larger cattle and farm economy, with huge numbers of stray and aged cattle loose in the countryside.

Many voluntary groups (“NGO’s”) in the business of critical monitoring of the implementation of public policies are regularly harassed and frightened by hostile action from government agencies—one tool of harassment is the arbitrary application of the FCRA, Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (from which, by the way, all political parties are exempt). In India the political parties are neither public entities (“GO’s”) to which the Right to Information Act should apply, nor “NGO’s” to which the FCRA is to apply, and meanwhile they enjoy tax exemption.

In the Social Hostilities Index, brought out by the Pew Research Center for 198 countries, at the end of 2016 India was among the 8 worst (the index labeled “Very High”) countries (Indonesia was in the “High” group). In the World Press Freedom Index, brought out by Reporters without Borders, in 2017-18 India’s rank among 180 countries was 138 (Indonesia’s was 124, slightly better). In the Rule of Law Index brought out by the World Justice Project for 113 countries, in 2017-18 India’s rank was 62 (tied with Indonesia). In the Report of the Economist Intelligence Unit on the State of Democracy in the World for 2018, both India and Indonesia are in the category of ‘flawed’, not full, democracy; out of 167 countries India’s rank is 41, worse than Latvia, Taiwan or Botswana (Indonesia’s is even worse at 65)—the rank for both India and Indonesia having sharply declined compared to 2014. In general there is not much to be proud of in these indices for the world’s largest democracy.

Of course the Indian government and business economists show off India’s high growth rates (higher than those in other major developing countries, including Indonesia). The growth rate numbers (with some doubts occasionally arising from mismatch with figures about credit or investment or crude alternative measures of economic activity) and those about fiscal deficits (served with a bit of creative accounting) are primarily for the consumption of credit rating agencies and foreign investors. At election time the ruling party politicians are shrewd enough to realize that high growth rates (particularly when they have not created commensurate numbers of good jobs for the bulging population of youths) do not cut much ice with the restive electorate. So they go for widely publicized sops like loan waivers and income support for (the currently distressed) farmers and other handouts.

The current government has no doubt had some laudable economic achievements in providing some measure of financial inclusion, roads, housing, sanitation, gas for cooking fuel, etc. for the poor, and somewhat less cumbersome regulations, streamlining of value-added taxes (though clumsily implemented) and insolvency procedures for business. But actual progress in much of these has not matched the constant barrage of official hype, and the Indian economy, particularly in the vast informal sector, has barely recovered from the whimsical onslaught of demonetization in November 2016 thought up by an ignorant but arrogant leadership and carried out by a confused and unprepared banking bureaucracy.

The government refuses to have any dialogue with most labor organizations in the country (except its own party-affiliated one) on the issues of so-called labor reform. On most social indicators, involving education and health, India’s progress has been unimpressive even for its level of per capita income. In the Human Capital Index recently prepared by the World Bank, out of 157 countries India’s rank is 115, even worse than poorer neighbors like Bangladesh and Nepal (Indonesia’s rank is better, at 87). On balance it is not clear how helpful the record of economic performance will be for the ruling party in the elections. When claims about the economy (with Modi as “vikash-purush” or Mr. Development) do not work, the ruling party has an ominous history of invoking religious symbols (like promising to build a Hindu temple on the rubble of a destroyed mosque) and strategically stoking communal suspicion and polarization, or supercharged jingoism against a neighboring Muslim country, all of which often helping the immediate electoral prospects of a majoritarian party.

In any case the ruling party has four major advantages in the forthcoming elections: (a) an effective demagogue in the Prime Minister with considerable oratorical and campaign skills; (b) a ramshackle and disunited opposition at the national level with no defining positive narrative that can catch public imagination; (c) a cadre-based army of volunteers which does the all-important last-mile electioneering for the ruling party; and (d) a grossly lopsided advantage in funding for the increasingly expensive business of fighting elections– even of the legitimately raised large donations, the ruling party has mobilized an estimated 92% of them, not to speak of the large illegitimate or unaccounted donations. Yet, as political scientists and psephologists will tell you, much will depend on the intricate arithmetic of caste and regional group alliances expediently forged by opposing sides and their fluidity in a bewilderingly diverse and vast country like India. In this the political centralization of the ruling party is both an advantage (in keeping the organization disciplined and focused) and a disadvantage (in riding roughshod over regional leaders and factions). Similarly, its upper-caste ‘vote bank’ is an advantage arising from its solid loyalty, but a possible liability in stitching alliances with the more numerous backward castes.

Whichever party wins the real long-term challenge for the Indian democratic polity is to stem the rot of its institutional foundations. The institutional decay hollowing out the shell of democracy started a few decades back, but under some rulers it has accelerated—in this respect the worst have been the regimes of Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi. The executive overreach and abuse has dissipated the independence of police and bureaucracy (often used for short-run narrow partisan ends), with tax and investigative agencies blithely used for personal vendetta of leaders and for cynical stirring of, or keeping on slow boil, the anti-corruption investigations just for continual smearing of opposition politicians, not necessarily for their conclusive conviction, while cases against the ruling party politicians (or any new allies who are lured to their fold) are quietly dropped. Attempts to enfeeble the independence of regulatory bodies are quite common—even apex bodies like the Reserve Bank of India, the Supreme Court or the Election Commission have sometimes come under pressure– as are suppressions of unflattering data (and of statistical agencies that collect them). The centralization of all power in the Prime Minister’s Office, apart from making a mockery of the oft-repeated rhetoric of ‘cooperative federalism’ in the relation between the federal and state governments, has rendered the cabinet system of government of a parliamentary democracy largely ineffective. The legislature is used mainly for acclamation and hurried passing, without much discussion, of complex bills. The joint parliamentary committees that raise questions are starved of information and/or ignored.

Dissent is often branded as sedition and ‘anti-national’—even though it is arguable that judged by the frequent violations of the Constitution in letter and spirit and of the civic nationalism that is based on constitutional values it is the ruling party and its affiliate organizations that are in some sense deeply anti-national. The Prime Minister who is quite effusive on all manners of things in his one-way tweets and radio chats falls eerily silent when inconvenient truths or atrocities by his party affiliates hit the news. While never hesitating in stressing his own muscular brand of leadership, he is strangely afraid to meet the press or any searching questions from journalists and legislators. He is open only to the part of the media that is fawning and to adulatory crowds. The media on their part are often beholden to the government for plum advertisements and to crony capitalists who own some of them. The cloak of ‘national security’ is routinely used to hide away from the legitimate need for public information on even the simplest national defense issues. (National security is also the excuse for the on-going brutal suppression of human rights in Kashmir valley, the North-east and the jungles of central India—the areas of age-old local rebellions–as the rest of democratic India looks away).  That some of the authoritarian features mentioned above also partially characterize a few state governments run by opposition politicians does not absolve the central government in its enhanced complicity in a massive democratic-institutional erosion.

Such erosion, to a degree, has also characterized Indonesia in recent years, even though its leader, Jokowi, is quite different from Modi, coming as he does from a background of local civil-society movements and forces of decentralization that have been important in Indonesia since 1998. His election opponent Prabowo, an ex-general and an ex-son-in-law of Suharto, is ideologically more hostile to democracy, but in recent times Jokowi has shown some illiberal tendencies and impatience with legal procedures and law-enforcement institutions. He has tactically used corruption cases to tame political opponents and occasionally curbed freedom of association. Indonesia, unlike India, has, of course, a long legacy of suppression and violence under military and authoritarian rule.

Compared to India, Indonesia has better per capita income and poverty figures, though, as in India, job creation has been slow. Indonesia is better endowed in commodities and natural resources (of course, with the attendant predatory extraction of those natural resources by oligarchs). At times Jokowi has attempted reducing the popular fuel subsidies and invested a great deal in infrastructure and some welfare reforms (including a substantial expansion in the coverage of the conditional cash transfer program, PKH, and the introduction of the Village Fund grant, Dana Desa, which is used for purposes decided by villagers themselves). In securing universal public health care Indonesia has been more successful than India.

Jokowi has tried to work with a coalition of disparate elements in the fragmented elite. But in recent days, with the rise of radical Islam, he has compromised with some elements of the latter who complain that he is not pious enough (despite his now-avid Friday prayers); this is most evident in his choice of vice-presidential running mate in the elections, Ma’ruf Amin, a 75-year old conservative Islamic scholar who is the chairman of the Indonesian Ulama Council. In both India and Indonesia the main threat to pluralist democracy is identity-based majoritarian nationalism and leaders who in furthering that cause wreck institutions that are meant to protect minority rights and preserve accountability and checks on power. In this respect the fate of two of the largest democracies of the world remains somewhat precarious.

But, unfortunately, the corrosive effects of majoritarian ethnic nationalism may outlast any possible changes in elections or leaders. This is because they are partly rooted in deeper social changes in these transitional societies. As social and economic dislocations and uncertainties rattle such traditional societies in the development process, many individuals find solace in faith- or identity-based anchors and communities. Also, in stratified societies, as some hitherto subordinate groups rise in the economic ladder, they try to legitimize their upward mobility with ostentatious adoption of cultural and religious rituals and practices that are encouraged by the sectarian political parties.

In the face of these challenges advocates of liberal democratic institutions have to be active and imaginative in the difficult search of alternative social norms and anchors and forms of reconciling old values with new universal and inclusive human rights, beyond just forging opportunist alliances to win elections. But ultimately the survival of some minimum quality of democracy in both countries may depend less on firmly-held secular or liberal values, which are often quite shallow in the general population in spite of a long history of syncretic folk traditions, and more on the extreme social heterogeneity and divisions at all levels in both countries. The latter can, paradoxically, act as a kind of limited insurance against a long reign of intolerance or the predominance of any particular sect or creed. Social diversity can, at least up to a point, serve as a bulwark against the politics of exclusivity.