Former Indian diplomat AR Ghanashyam discusses democracy, authoritarianism in 21st Century

·4-min read
Former Indian diplomat AR Ghanashyam.
Former Indian diplomat AR Ghanashyam.

New Delhi [India], September 28 (ANI): The global debate on the decline of democracy and the emergence of authoritarian populist regimes has gained momentum over the last couple of years.

Former Indian diplomat AR Ghanashyam, in an article "Democracy, Authoritarianism and Governance in the 21st Century", has tried to explore the reasons behind the increasing shift from liberal to illiberal democracies and onwards to populist authoritarian leadership and to address the question of what the liberal world must do to retrieve the losing ground of liberal democracy.

As per Ghanashyam, in recent times, more countries have witnessed a decline in political rights and civil liberties than have seen gains. During the five years 2015- 19, 12 countries abandoned democracy while only seven migrated towards it - the worst performance of democracy witnessed globally this millennium.

The Freedom in the World 2021 report published by Freedom House based on data of 2020 reveals that 2020 is the 15th straight year of decline in global freedom.

During 2020, 78 of the 195 countries saw their freedom scores decline while only 28 made gains. The decline in 36 of the 78 countries was linked to the COVID-19 Pandemic. With 54 countries declared "Not Free", about 38 per cent of the global population is now "Not Free" - the highest percentage since the decline began 15 years ago.

Even during the current year backsliding of democracies is discernible. The first was the military taking over Myanmar, where a democratically elected political party was prevented from forming the government.

The second was the dismissal of Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and the suspension of Parliament by President Kais Saied in Tunisia in July 2021. Tunisia, the only country that had moved to democracy post the 2011 Arab Spring has now returned to its previous authoritarianism.

The most recent of course is the fleeing of former President Dr Mohammad Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan from the capital Kabul on August 15 and the takeover of the country by the Taliban on September 01.

Explaining modern populism, he said, "The populist leaders have generally been charismatic individuals mostly from the far ends of the political spectrum who claim to embody the will of the people and project themselves as the messiahs who would undo the evils of the past and present and create a bright new future."

Populists see the opposition political parties with disdain and denigrate their leaders as the villains responsible for all the past ills.

Moreover, by emphasising their own ownership of the will of the people populists have tended to subvert institutions of liberal democracy like the independent judiciary, free media, Constitutions and other statutes.

They argue that these institutions are run by a small group of an elite that serves its own interests at the expense of the interests of the larger community.

The rule of law and the need for discussion and deliberation with other political parties and the civil society to arrive at a consensus in policymaking which makes a democracy vibrant and purposeful either get ignored or are manipulated to follow the dictates of populists, he wrote in the article.

Populist leaders also tend to subdue and regiment the traditional print and electronic media to defend and support their own agenda. Ultimately this media becomes a propaganda machine for the Populists defeating the very purpose for which they were created in the first instance.

There is no single magic wand that can effectively prevent the transition from liberalism to illiberalism in global democracies and further towards Populist authoritarianism. Analysts and leaders both have proposed many suggestions, says Ghanashyam.

The serious among them include the core actors in a democracy are the voters. They need to assert themselves and participate in the process of sustaining and strengthening their democracies.

If they don't, the authoritarian leadership will be the new elite replacing the old - under whose watch the gap between the empowered rich and the marginalized poor widened enormously which is one of the prime reasons for the emergence of Populist authoritarianism, cautioned Ghanashyam.

A concerted effort is required to retrieve, stabilize and strengthen the institutions of democracy like the media and the judiciary to protect and promote the rule of law from the stranglehold of Populists, added Ghanashyam.

An urgent effort, and on a war footing, to democratize the internet and its various platforms that efficiently collect private data of citizens the world over, effectively mine that data to manipulate the behaviour of citizens in whichever geography to suit the needs of vested interests including populist leaders, advised Ghanashyam.

Ghanashyam is a retired Indian diplomat who has served as ambassador of India to Angola and High Commissioner of India to Nigeria.

(Disclaimer: The author of this article is former Indian Ambassador AR Ghanashyam.) (ANI)

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