Do Indian voters really prefer rule by a strongman?

Readers may be horrified that a new survey of YouGov, Mint a and CPR suggests that 51% of Indians are disillusioned with democracy and would prefer rule by a strongman, General or technocrat. However, be careful in interpreting these finding.

Liberals might think the survey reflects the rise of Hindutva. Not so. The anti-democracy trend affects all of party affiliation. Indeed, 62% of Congress supporters wanted a strongman rather than elected leaders, exceeding the 58% of BJP supporters and 61% of others. This scotches the notion that the Congress represents democratic values, and the BJP represents authoritarianism. More BJP supporters than others favour representative democracy, by narrow margins.

Those favouring military rule included 52% of BJP supporters, 54% of Congress supporters and 56% of others. Here, too, BJP supporters were the least anti-democracy, by narrow margins.

Finally, when asked if technocratic experts should take over and rule, the idea was backed by 57% of BJP supporters, 61% of Congress supporters and 64% of others. 

This adds up to a shocking indictment of the political system in India. There is no clear divide of good versus bad guys, of strongly democratic parties as opposed to autocratic ones. All are much of a muchness.

Do not think India is alone. A Pew Research Center’s report by Richard Wike and others in April 2019 covered 27 of the world’s largest democracies, mostly rich ones but also bigger emerging countries like India, Indonesia and Mexico. This found that a median of 51% of those surveyed were dissatisfied with the functioning of democracy and only 45% were satisfied. As many as 64% said it was dangerous to walk around at night, 42% said most politicians were corrupt, 38% said little changed even when elections overthrew governments, and 61% said politicians did not care much for what people thought. So very much like India!

Does this mean that India — and indeed most of the world — is ripe for a strong movement to overthrow elected democracy? Not at all. Many autocrats across the world are in trouble too. They survive on the basis of sheer force, not public approval.

The Pew surveyors sought views of those surveyed on representative democracy (today’s system) and direct democracy (decisions are taken directly by voters). As many as 76% thought direct democracy was a good idea, and 75% approved of representative democracy.

This range of responses is puzzling and self-contradictory. Those surveyed said they were satisfied with the existing system, favoured representative or direct democracy, but also favoured rule by a strongman, general or technocrat. What a muddle! Clearly people in surveys do not think cogently before answering questions.

One can easily understand why citizens resent the functioning of democracy in India and other countries. We have so many glaring examples of injustice, tyranny, judicial and administrative callousness and unfairness, and the triumph of bigotry and hate. Many systems simply do not work as claimed, above all the police-judicial system.

Remember, many people welcomed Indira Gandhi’s Emergency in 1975. Many liked its positive aspects (the trains started running on time), one reason why Indira swept the four southern states in the next 1977 election. But the same autocracy that created punctual trains also led to forced sterilisation in North India, creating massive public outrage that ousted Indira from power. Her surveys had shown she would win comfortably.

Churchill once said democracy is the worst system except for all the others. Let none be surprised that so many surveys reveal public disgust with democracy. But do not conclude from such polls that voters will really opt for or enjoy other systems, regardless of what they tell pollsters.

This article was originally published in The Times of India on January 22, 2022.

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