Friday, June 23, 2023

#174 / Electoral Autocracies


Yesterday, The New York Times was full of stories about Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, who was welcomed at the White House
Among other things, The Times described Modi's monthly radio broadcasts, which are, apparently, as politically powerful and popular, in today's India, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "Fireside Chats" were said to have been during the depths of America's Great Depression. 
The image above also appeared as a full-page advertisement in The Times, yesterday, paid for by the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum. Prominently featured in the ad were the logos of some of the biggest U.S. corporations (Adobe, Carlyle, FedEx, Google, HCLTech, MasterCard, Merck, Meta, rubrik, Visa, and Xcoal Energy Resources). The organization's website, online, highlights prominent business leaders, and U.S. politicians like former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
Amidst all this celebratory coverage of the Modi visit, I don't want to omit mentioning The Times' Op-Ed column by Maya Jassanoff, who teaches history at Harvard University. Her views were a lot more "downbeat." Online, Jassanoff's column was titled, "Narendra Modi Is Not Who America Thinks He Is." In the hard-copy version of the newspaper, the headline focused on the nation, not its leader: "Modi's India Isn't What It Seems." 

If India isn't "what it seems," what is it?

According to Jassanoff - and her views are certainly congruent with what else I have read about politics in contemporary India - the nation has become, or is fast becoming, what Jassanoff calls an "electoral autocracy." Viktor Orb├ín's Hungry is another such nation. Just because you get to vote, in other words, doesn't mean that your nation is "democratic," or that "self-government" is alive and effective. Jassanoff's warning (amidst the celebrations surrounding the Modi visit) is pretty clear - and it's pretty important, too: 

It’s common to look to the history of European fascism for parallels with democratic breakdown in the United States in recent years, but India offers a troubling guide to how authoritarianism can sabotage a multiethnic democracy in the internet age.

Similarities abound: an out-of-touch elite, widening economic inequality, easily mobilized ethnic grievances, a changed information landscape. One especially sobering area to compare is the resilience — or lack thereof — of a once independent judiciary, which Mr. Modi has been angling to undercut.

Like the United States, India is an extraordinary, diverse, plural democracy with incredible talent and potential — and there is much, in principle, to unite these nations for the good. But as the president of one stumbling democracy joins hands with a prime minister bent on hobbling another, the project of global freedom seems one step closer to collapse (emphasis added).
Are we, here in the United States, also headed towards "electoral autocracy," as Jassanoff warns might be the case? Are we, possibly, moving "closer to collapse?" Let us pray that this is not where we're going!

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