Elections make for responsive and accountable governments, or so goes the truism. But can they also achieve the opposite – that is, encourage complacency, even callousness, among elected representatives?
Last month’s headlines from India and China present a disquieting contrast between elected and unelected governments for anyone committed to democratic politics. In Beijing, China’s new Communist Party general secretary, Xi Jinping, has begun a huge crackdown on corruption, official pomp and ceremony, and “empty talk” – substanceless speeches.
According to the estimable China watcher Melinda Liu: “If the changes take hold, they could have far-reaching implications both at home and abroad. Many Chinese seem heartened, even inspired, by Xi’s down-to-earth style.”
Many Indians, on the other hand, are incensed with their sequestered governing class. Confronted last month with public outrage over the horrific assault on a young woman in New Delhi, it alternated abysmally between paralysis and insensitivity. Having initially failed to respond, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh muttered some perfunctory expressions of governmental resolve in his characteristically faint tone; then, turning to his handlers while the television cameras were still rolling, he asked, “Theek hai?” Hindi for “Is that all right?”
India’s Home Minister, Sushil Kumar Shinde, said he was not obliged to meet student protesters braving the police’s water cannons and truncheons near the Indian parliament in New Delhi. After all, as he put it, “tomorrow Maoists will come here to demonstrate with weapons”.
In fact, the government responded to the spontaneous protesters as though they were militant insurgents from central India: it flooded Delhi’s streets with armed police and shut down roads and railways, revealing a formidable security apparatus that, many argued, could be put to better use ensuring the safety of citizens.
It wasn’t just the government that acted ham-handedly. Figures from all political parties seemed to vie with one another in their crass responses to an atrocious crime, and to the cultures of violence and cruelty it issued from. Not surprisingly, India these days brims with a free-floating rage against an obscenely venal and cossetted political class that zealously guards its privileges and perks.
Middle-class anger has periodically erupted in recent months, and it even appeared to solidify into mass political movements. First, Baba Ramdev, a yoga practitioner, enlisted tens of thousands to his anti-corruption crusade. He was followed by Anna Hazare, a quasi-Gandhian activist, who managed to attract a motley crowd of industrialists, film stars, students on Facebook and urban professionals.
More recently, one of Hazare’s former lieutenants, a former civil servant named Arvind Kejriwal, has run a name-and-shame campaign against some of India’s most powerful politicians and business executives.
Each of these events, including last month’s protests over the gang rape, has been widely greeted as the harbinger of a politically awakened and empowered middle class. The government, however, has calculated otherwise.
It unleashed the police on Ramdev, evicting him and his followers from their rally grounds in New Delhi. It was similarly ruthless with Hazare, counting successfully on the inability of the educated and the salaried to sustain protests or follow them up with a political programme.
The government will probably have little to fear from Kejriwal, whose new political party will struggle to get many votes outside pockets of the urban middle class. And, though startled by public anger over the gang rape, the government will no doubt try to defuse it with some hasty legislation and emollient words.
With elections due in 2014, the government is trying to secure its two main sources of support: big business men and the vast majority of poor Indians who vote.
Recent economic policies, which allow greater foreign investment in multibrand retail, have somewhat mollified the corporate class, inspiring its representatives in the news media to again hail the lame-duck prime minister as a reformer.
An ambitious plan of cash transfers to the poorest Indians – a definite vote-getter – was also recently inaugurated.
The government’s election strategy seems clear: it desperately wants to be seen as redistributing the spoils of economic growth through greater subsidies, even as it facilitates greater access for India’s networks of crony capitalism.
In some respects, the gambit resembles that of Thailand’s populist authoritarian Thaksin Shinawatra, who cannily used his support among the rural poor to cement his status as chief crony capitalist.
As events in Thailand showed, the intolerably squeezed urban middle class, the supposed avant garde of democracy, can do little except turn, unhelpfully, to even more authoritarian figures in the military and the old conservative elite.
In India, too, many among the relatively privileged – those, for instance, demanding public hangings and castrations of rapists – are contemptuous of democratic and legal processes and generally indifferent to the routine killings and rapes in Kashmir and the north-eastern states by security forces. With their narrow conception of civil rights, they are always vulnerable to self-proclaimed vendors of instant justice and efficiency.
In fact, middle-class support has helped the rise of authoritarian figures such as Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, who was re-elected last month despite accusations he was complicit in hundreds of deaths and rapes during an anti-Muslim pogrom in his state in 2002.
Modi now hopes that the growing appeal among middle-class Indians of his apparently successful technocracy will help him unseat Singh’s government in Delhi.
Modi may not succeed. Still, his ascension through a devastated moral landscape points to the radical shrinking of political choices in India.
This lamentable situation, where elected representatives act as yet another aggressively self-interested elite, is at least partly to be blamed on the fact that the formal and proceduralist features of democracy – elections – have superseded their substantive aspects: strong, accountable and fair-minded institutions and officials. Certainly, the importance of the latter is not lost on China’s unelected rulers.
Buffeted by a series of scandals, they know that strong measures against corruption are essential to maintaining the Communist regime’s legitimacy and ensuring its survival against a rising tide of discontent. Recent protests, such as the one at Southern Weekend newspaper in Guangdong, test the credibility of Xi and his commitment to reform.
India’s own entrenched political class derives its legitimacy from routine elections and well-timed sops to the poor majority. These chosen people don’t have much incentive to engage with middle-class protesters on the streets of Indian cities and don’t have to think hard before dispelling them with brute force.
Indeed, it is now the turn of metropolitan Indians, after political dissenters in Kashmir, the northeast, and central India, to feel the heavy hand of the state. The discontented urban middle class is a growing demographic. But it is deceptively overrepresented for now by India’s many, perennially hysterical television anchors.
Politically fragmented and unorganised, the urban middle class has little to look forward to in the short term.
Its electoral insignificance in the world’s largest democracy has been carefully quantified by the people to be chosen in 2014. As the prime minister might put it, “Theek to hai na – that’s all right, then!”
Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg columnist.