After its recent setback in Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh, the BJP will probably rely even more on what has been its trump card since 2014: Narendra Modi. The party is already arguing that it has at its helm a strong leader whose authority is undisputed, whereas the Congress-led Opposition neither has a strong leader, nor is cohesive enough to govern the country at a time when external threats, including China’s expansionism, are mounting.
Certainly, India’s governance has been affected in a not-so-distant past by unstable coalitions. Between 1989 and 1999, five prime ministers were not necessarily in a position to conduct consistent policy. But things changed with the making of formal coalitions, the NDA and then the UPA, which have resulted in a near bipartisan restructuring of the political system. Even before that, some of the governments which made the most significant reforms were not led by strongmen: Narasimha Rao started one of the most ambitious transformations of India despite the fact that he had no clear majority in Parliament.
In fact, between 1999 and 2014, the NDA and UPA governments have shown that coalitions were not synonymous with paralysis — evident from the India-US 123 agreement and laws such as RTI or NREGA — and that policies could be more effective when decided collegially. India is a federation where states have so much power that a consensus has often to be built for the state governments to be on board at the time of implementing any reform. A top-down approach based on vertical diktats is not sufficient. In this context, coalitions help because they imply decentralisation of power and inclusion of regional forces in the Union government.
Since Indira Gandhi, the concentration of power in the hands of a strong leader has resulted in two kinds of problems. First, the ruling party has tried to prevail over the states in such a manner that it has become counterproductive: Chief ministers who did not belong to the ruling party have been neglected and the chief ministers of the ruling party have often been selected because of the allegiance they paid to the strong leader. Second, solitary decisions are often not properly informed, compared to those resulting from deliberations, especially when the inputs of political advisors, experts and relevant institutions are factored in: Demonetisation is a case in point and in the past, some of Indira Gandhi’s measures were similarly flawed.
But the main risk lies elsewhere: Strongmen have hardly any respect for liberal democracy. The populists who are taking over power in the world today, in Hungary, Poland, the US, the Philippines, Brazil, indulge in “sultanism”, a notion that Max Weber introduced a century ago to describe situations when power “operates primarily on the basis of discretion” under the aegis of a strongman. Analysing the “sultans” of the 20th century, Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan have defined a regime in which “all individuals, groups and institutions are permanently subject to the unpredictable and despotic intervention of the sultan, and thus all pluralism is precarious”.
In India, the attempt at establishing the hegemony of one party — be it under Indira Gandhi in the 1970s, when it culminated in the Emergency, or under the new dispensation in the name of a “Congress-free India” — reflected such illiberal views. One of the differences between the 1970s and the present-day situation comes from the open support for authoritarianism that sections of public opinion are expressing. The 2017 Pew report revealed that in India 55 per cent of the respondents backed “a governing system in which a strong leader can make decisions without interference from parliament or the courts”, while 53 per cent supported military rule. Commenting upon this result, the Pew team added: “Support for autocratic rule is higher in India than in any other nation surveyed”, 38 per cent in total and India is “one of only four nations where half or more of the public supports governing by the military”. An even larger proportion — two-thirds — says “a good way to govern the country would be experts, not elected officials, making decisions according to what they think is best for the nation”. Interestingly, BJP supporters and urban dwellers are over represented in the three groups — of those who support personal rule, military governance and a technocratic regime.
The demand for a strong leader is related to an acute feeling of vulnerability. According to the Pew survey, while “crime takes the top spot on the list, with 84 per cent Indians seeing it as a very big problem”, “terrorism” follows immediately for 76 per cent of the interviewees (before corruption and unemployment). This is in tune with the idea that the ISIS appeared as the main threat to India to 66 per cent of the interviewees, ahead of every other threat. Strongmen cultivate insecurity and use the politics of fear across the globe.
The challenge facing the liberals today, therefore, is two-fold. First, they have to show that coalitions and collegiality are more effective than the strongman’s rule. In fact, to compete more effectively with a strongman in office, an Opposition leader would be well advised to refer to an alternative repertoire, of a team-player. Second, liberals have to demonstrate that democracy is still the best regime, not only because freedom is an important value, but also because democracy is more conducive to development. Those who do not value freedom but believe more in discipline, a China-like development pattern, may realise that India never experienced the kind of Chinese revolutionary moment that erased a lot of diversity. In the Indian context, authoritarian rule has usually been dysfunctional, it has resulted in separatism, violence and resistance. More importantly, democracy helps development because it implies more education for the largest numbers and less inequalities, giving the poor the means to move forward.
The main supporters of strongmen often come from the middle class, not from the poor. Most of the populist leaders have been elected by social groups fearing for their status — be they white supremacists protecting themselves from the “migrants” and the blacks in the US or upper caste Hindus worrying about the rise of OBCs and Dalits. This elite reaction or counter revolution sometimes takes place in the name of development, but it inhibits development by restricting its benefits to a minority. As a result, the urban-rural divide deepens and a key pillar of development, agriculture, is damaged largely because of the urban consumer bias of the rulers and their lack of interest in the peasants for decades. Populists are often instruments of elite groups: They mesmerise the people with words during their election campaigns and betray them once in power.