Across Asia, populism & democracy is on test

Modi’s ministers poured scorn over the Congress manifesto, without rendering their account of the promises made five years ago.

Many Western liberal democracies have been swept up by an anti-globalisation and xenophobic mood, leading to the rise of rabble-rousing populists, reaching a zenith with US President Donald Trump’s election in 2016. In Asia, the contagion is much older, beginning with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in power as Prime Minister since 2003 and after 2014 as President. He has emasculated the media, incarcerated journalists, undermined the secular moorings created by modern Turkey’s founder Turkey Kamal Ataturk and caged the military, the traditional custodians of those values.

Mr Erdogan was humiliated in last week’s city elections, where his party lost control over the capital Ankara and, more significantly, Istanbul, as the mayor of which he rose to power after 1993. The fate of three other major Asian leaders -— in Israel, India and Indonesia — is on test as their nations go to the polls on April 9, 11 and 17, respectively. Prime Ministers Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Narendra Modi of India are both in the Erdogan mould, although even in Indonesia democratic competition has been narrowed considerably. Their fate will show whether the tide of populist and majoritarian politics has begun receding in Asia, or the Turkish example is an aberration.

Benjamin Netanyahu has ruled for the past decade. The Economist describes him in a cover story as an embodiment of the “politics of muscular nationalism, chauvinism and the resentment of elites long before such populism became a global force”. Mr Netanyahu faces an election on Tuesday, April 9, two days before India’s seven-phase Lok Sabha polls get under way on April 11. The chemistry between him and Narendra Modi transcends the normal relationship between two friendly heads of government. Unstated is the RSS and Hindu Right’s infatuation with the theocratic structure of Israel, and its ability to deter its Arab and Muslim neighbours. The proposed tweaks to India’s nationality law to allow non-Muslims of Indian origin in South Asia to have a right of return to their homeland is akin to the right all Jews have to return to and reside in Israel. Excluding Muslims or non-Indians ignores the secular moorings of the Indian Constitution, on which any asylum policy should have rested. Mr Netanyahu’s politics also bears similarity to the electoral strategy of the BJP under Mr Modi. Like Mr Modi on Pakistan, with a policy of zero-tolerance of terror shutting the door on dialogue with Pakistan, Mr Netanyahu pays lip service to peace with Palestinians while exacerbating differences between Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. The Economist dubs it “anti-solutionism”, which equally well describes the Modi approach to the Jammu and Kashmir imbroglio and India-Pakistan relations. Mr Netanyahu’s critics fault him for creating a successful economy marred by inequality, a shakier democracy and low productivity. The same can be said about India under Mr Modi.

Mr Modi’s ministers poured scorn over the Congress manifesto, without rendering their account of the promises made five years ago. Likewise, Mr Netanyahu’s party Likud hasn’t even bothered to produce an economic charter, claiming its record speaks for itself. Instead, both he and Mr Modi raise the spectre of external danger. Mr Netanyahu’s bugbear is Iran and for Mr Modi the fixation is on Pakistan, although China presents a graver threat. Both leaders pillory their opponents, blame the media and resurrect known and unknown enemies allegedly thwarting their aim to make their nations great. The Economist’s concluding remark chillingly applies to India -- that today “Israeli politics feels tired and uninspired, an unhealthy democracy where nothing is debated other than who should lead”.

Both leaders are geo-strategically in the US-Saudi-Emirati corner. Donald Trump did the unthinkable by endorsing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, belonging to Syria and annexed in the 1973 war. Clearly, the aim was to burnish Mr Netanyahu’s credentials on the eve of elections. The UAE decided to confer its highest civilian award on Mr Modi and would perhaps have him inaugurate the Hindu temple at Abu Dhabi in the middle India’s elections. Both actions raise questions about propriety and interference in the electoral processes of India and Israel by foreign players. It seems that internationally, as the saying goes, birds of a feather flock together.

India’s elections have a strange peculiarity this time. Some big states like Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal have seven-phase polling, corresponding to the seven phases of the overall polls. It seems tailormade for the BJP with two key campaigners — Mr Modi and his alter ego, party chief Amit Shah. The Opposition, by comparison, has multiple national and regional leaders, with the Congress and BJP pitted against each other only in half a dozen states. The Opposition is trying to keep the focus on bread and butter issues confronting the common man. The BJP’s attempt is to drive the narrative towards national security, thereby baiting Opposition to either comment and be dubbed “anti-national” or ignore and be seen as weak-kneed.

David Axelrod, political-messaging savant and critical to President Barack Obama’s electoral success, in his book Believer notes that “…voters rarely opt for a replica of what they have, even when the outgoing leader is popular”. People, he adds, “want successors whose strengths address the perceived weaknesses in the departing leader”. So, after a decade of quiescent and almost invisible Manmohan Singh, India opted for in-your-face Modi-the-dragon-slayer. But India does not have a presidential system, although strong Prime Ministers tend to appear presidential. The change from a highly autocratic and centralised system of governance comes not by a single knight confronting the emperor-like national leader, but by people reverting to their regional identities and individual or ethnic or caste hurts and aspirations. India may be in the process of this regression, as perhaps also Israel.

In 1910, US President Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt gave his rousing New Nationalism speech, decrying excesses of the Gilded Age of crony capitalism. He sought and later delivered fairness and broad opportunity to the American people, including creating regulatory mechanisms to control markets and competition. Mr Modi has not been the honest chowkidar of the Teddy Roosevelt kind, as the rich garnered the bulk of wealth. The corruption charges, endorsed by prosecutors, against Mr Netanyahu indicate that warped norms of honesty are not sustainable. Thus, some key Asian nations are at inflexion points to decide whether rabble-rousing leaders with ability to incite and divide and thus win elections need to be despatched. People may want their democracies back with non-charismatic but healing and uniting leaders.

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