Why does India, the world’s largest democracy, love the idea of dictatorship?

As per a recent survey, 55% of Indians support autocracy while 53% think military rule is good. Have Indians always nursed a secret fetish for the iron fist?

India introduced universal adult franchise to its citizens in 1950. The country had seen the departure of the British only three years before, mass famine stalked the land and less than one in five Indians were literate enough to sign their own names. Taking all this into account, the General Election of 1950 was one of the modern world’s miracles. To put it into context, the richest country on the planet, the United States of America, only gave its African American citizens full voting rights in 1965 – 15 years after India’s first election based on universal adult franchise. Vagaries common in the neighbourhood, such as army rule and blatantly rigged polls, did not find a place in India.

Yet, Indian democracy also has its flaws – quite a few of them, in fact. A recent survey by the Pew Research Centre, for example, revealed that most Indians might actually be tiring of their seven-decade old democracy. Of the Indians surveyed, 55% backed autocratic rule by a strong leader unfettered by legislatures or courts, 53% supported military rule and 65% found technocracy – a government run by unelected experts – to be a fine idea.

This might be an uncomfortable fact – but is it really a surprise? From significant support for Indira Gandhi’s Emergency to elections fought on giving the country a supposedly strong leader, Indians have always had an authoritarian bone or two in their body.

Pectoral politics

The 2014 Lok Sabha election saw the Bharatiya Janata Party leader Narendra Modi make a rather interesting pitch on why he should be elected prime minister: he had a chest that measured 56 inches. It is unknown if this is literally true, but making pectoral size an election issue was an unmistakable metaphor: Modi was saying he is a strong leader.

Even as a few Indians expressed concern for India’s democracy given Modi’s authoritarian tendencies, for most Indians this was not an issue. For other voters – as the Pew survey brings out – it was actually an appealing attribute , something that added to Modi’s allure.

While Modi might have made use of this to his benefit in 2014, this tendency to favour strong leaders is hardly new. It is barely remembered now, but quite a few middle class Indian cheered on Indira Gandhi when she suspended Indian democracy in 1975. The Emergency was supposed to free Indians from the lumbering juggernaut of democracy. The train were to run on time, black marketeers were to have been destroyed and inflation curbed.

Congress precedent

The 1977 election that saw Indira Gandhi crash to a defeat is supposed to have been a great reaffirmation of democracy. Yet, this triumphant narrative might border on being simplistic. Gandhi’s vote share in South India actually increased and she still got a larger proportion of the vote in 1977 than Modi did in 2014. Anger in the Hindi belt against Indira Gandhi, it seems, rested not only the suspension of democracy but draconian measures such as forced sterilisation and the departure of Dalit leader Jagjivan Ram.

While Indira Gandhi is – rightly – reviled for the Emergency, even her father, held up as the man who cemented Indian democracy wasn’t above a spot of autocracy himself. Jawaharlal Nehru, in fact, set the terrible precedent of dismissing state governments for blatantly partisan reasons using Article 356 of the Constitution. In 1959, Nehru placed Communist-ruled Kerala under Article 356 for the express purpose of helping the state unit of the Congress.

Rajiv Gandhi didn’t disappoint either. His government passed the anti-defection law in 1984, which took away the power to vote from individual legislatures concentrating power in unelected party high commands. This is a highly unusual move in a representative democracy where, ideally, legislators should vote as per their constituents’ needs not the whims of the party boss. Notably, Pew defines autocracy as a decision taken without “interference from Parliament or courts”. The anti-defection law, in effect, legally enshrines a lack of interference from Parliaments.

Martial law

As worrying as the support for autocracy is, even more so is the preference for military rule in the Pew survey. Again, this is more than backed up by events in present-day India which has seen a sharp rise in the use of militarism in politics. The Indian soldier is now frequently used as a rhetorical tool in political discussions. Declaring that “soldiers are dying on the borders” is device often used to shut down debate. This has meant the appearance of army men in the media. Television discussions often have the presence of one or more retired, moustachioed officers.

More alarming, even serving soldiers now play a media role. The Indian Army took the unprecedented step of staging a press conference with Major Leetul Gogoi, the officer who used a Kashmiri man as a human shield in April. Later, a news channel was even allowed to interview a member of the army team that carried out the 2016 surgical strike into Pakistan occupied Kashmir.

Technocratic nightmare

Interestingly, there is a strong correlation between countries that chose autocracy, military rule and technocracy. This is unsurprising. All three are driven by a disdain for the pushes and pulls of electoral democracy.

Yet, this is chimera. There are no shortcuts which leave out popular democracy. While experts are certainly important, too much reliance on them could also be disastrous as the 2008 financial crisis showed in the United States. Unsurprisingly, technocracy has wide support from the Indian middle class – 65% supported it in the Pew survey – given that an an engineer or economist is a more familiar figure than a low-caste politician from the mofussil.

Thus there is unusual support for a proposal in India to reduce democratic control of the police and hand over some power to a committee of experts. Another variant of this tendency to use expertise to override popular sovereignty is a Haryanan law that bars the illiterate from contesting panchayat polls – upheld by no less than the Supreme Court. For a country that prides itself on being a democracy in spite of poverty and illiteracy, this is a shameful abdication of its core values.

India’s democracy is hard fought and a remarkable exception in a largely autocratic neighbourhood marked by bureaucratic and army rule. But as recent developments and this survey show, there is little room for complacency.

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Virat Kohli and Ola come together to improve Delhi's air quality

The onus of curbing air-pollution is on citizens as well

A recent study by The Lancet Journal revealed that outdoor pollution was responsible for 6% of the total disease burden in India in 2016. As a thick smog hangs low over Delhi, leaving its residents gasping for air, the pressure is on the government to implement SOS measures to curb the issue as well as introduce long-term measures to improve the air quality of the state. Other major cities like Mumbai, Pune and Kolkata should also acknowledge the gravitas of the situation.

The urgency of the air-pollution crisis in the country’s capital is being reflected on social media as well. A recent tweet by Virat Kohli, Captain of the Indian Cricket Team, urged his fans to do their bit in helping the city fight pollution. Along with the tweet, Kohli shared a video in which he emphasized that curbing pollution is everyone’s responsibility. Apart from advocating collective effort, Virat Kohli’s tweet also urged people to use buses, metros and Ola share to help reduce the number of vehicles on the road.

In the spirit of sharing the responsibility, ride sharing app Ola responded with the following tweet.

To demonstrate its commitment to fight the problem of vehicular pollution and congestion, Ola is launching #ShareWednesdays : For every ​new user who switches to #OlaShare in Delhi, their ride will be free. The offer by Ola that encourages people to share resources serves as an example of mobility solutions that can reduce the damage done by vehicular pollution. This is the fourth leg of Ola’s year-long campaign, #FarakPadtaHai, to raise awareness for congestion and pollution issues and encourage the uptake of shared mobility.

In 2016, WHO disclosed 10 Indian cities that made it on the list of worlds’ most polluted. The situation necessitates us to draw from experiences and best practices around the world to keep a check on air-pollution. For instance, a system of congestion fees which drivers have to pay when entering central urban areas was introduced in Singapore, Oslo and London and has been effective in reducing vehicular-pollution. The concept of “high occupancy vehicle” or car-pool lane, implemented extensively across the US, functions on the principle of moving more people in fewer cars, thereby reducing congestion. The use of public transport to reduce air-pollution is another widely accepted solution resulting in fewer vehicles on the road. Many communities across the world are embracing a culture of sustainable transportation by investing in bike lanes and maintenance of public transport. Even large corporations are doing their bit to reduce vehicular pollution. For instance, as a participant of the Voluntary Traffic Demand Management project in Beijing, Lenovo encourages its employees to adopt green commuting like biking, carpooling or even working from home. 18 companies in Sao Paulo executed a pilot program aimed at reducing congestion by helping people explore options such as staggering their hours, telecommuting or carpooling. After the pilot, drive-alone rates dropped from 45-51% to 27-35%.

It’s the government’s responsibility to ensure that the growth of a country doesn’t compromise the natural environment that sustains it, however, a substantial amount of responsibility also lies on each citizen to lead an environment-friendly lifestyle. Simple lifestyle changes such as being cautious about usage of electricity, using public transport, or choosing locally sourced food can help reduce your carbon footprint, the collective impact of which is great for the environment.

Ola is committed to reducing the impact of vehicular pollution on the environment by enabling and encouraging shared rides and greener mobility. They have also created flat fare zones across Delhi-NCR on Ola Share to make more environment friendly shared rides also more pocket-friendly. To ensure a larger impact, the company also took up initiatives with City Traffic Police departments, colleges, corporate parks and metro rail stations.

Join the fight against air-pollution by using the hashtag #FarakPadtaHai and download Ola to share your next ride.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Ola and not by the Scroll editorial team.