In 2019, at least three nations justifiably praised for their strong democratic records have also become dangerous democracies. India, Israel and the US are dissimilar in several respects, yet all have a common feature: each poses threats — internally to many who reside in them, and externally to their neighbours and other countries. Internal threats also weaken the institutions that give them their enduring democratic continuity.
Contradictions were powerfully evident in India’s election. On one hand, access to and secrecy of ballot was ensured for 600 million voters, results were generally accepted, a formidable logistical process was completed as scheduled. On the other, the winner is menacingly divisive. A landslide mandate has raised as many concerns as cheers. Excesses of the last term are now condoned by electoral success. Majoritarianism stifles pluralism. Big victory margins crush small yet worthy causes. Religious fascism has kidnapped a secular state — with votes.
In the US, the electoral college winner’s words and actions on immigrants, Muslims, people of colour, women, Democrats and the news media have deepened schisms and degraded public discourse in unprecedented ways. A head of state who has uttered over 10,000 documented falsehoods, lies and distortions in office enjoys the support of millions of voters. White nationalism has taken up residence in the White House.
In Israel, institutionalised anti-Palestinian discrimination recently received electoral re-endorsement. Creating different citizen categories with vast differences in privileges keeps apartheid alive and well. Occupied territories continue to be annexed to benefit thousands, while living conditions for millions worsen in Gaza. Successive elections reinforce policies of alienation and suppression.
Externally, there is a broad similarity in how these robust democracies can also be robustly belligerent. India’s asymmetrical size in South Asia drives its attempted hegemony. Except for Pakistan’s singular capacity to challenge its bellicosity, all other neighbours have at various times been browbeaten. Bhutan’s foreign relations are subject to India’s approval. Even larger Nepal, despite being predominantly Hindu, is nevertheless subject to periodic blockades of vital supplies. Though beholden to India for support in its birth, Bangladesh is often deprived of its fair share of river waters and subjected to other coercions.
There has always been an Indian role in Sri Lanka’s ethnic and political conflicts. Minuscule Maldives attracts close Indian attention. While Afghanistan does not share a border with India, it is a prime focus because it helps partly encircle Pakistan. Due only to India’s obduracy, Saarc has been unable to hold its scheduled annual summit in Pakistan since 2016. Off the record, leaders and senior officials of all these smaller states strongly resent their big neighbour’s big nose.
Asymmetry in South Asia carries over to West Asia, but with a reversal of numbers. With only about 9m people, democratic Israel intimidates over 420m mostly non-democratic Arabs in 22 states, some immediate neighbours. Uncle Sam’s unrelenting, unreasoned support to empower Israel is a major (but not the only) reason for this anomaly. Arab states’ failure to conduct internal reform, prevent intra-conflicts and external meddling lead to the ongoing tragedies in the region. Yet Israeli militarism, legitimised by regular elections — coupled with its unacknowledged nuclear weapons — is the pivotal factor in keeping the Middle East on the boil.
By a recent estimate, the US maintains as many as 800 military centres across the world. This unrivalled widespread deployment is claimed to ensure global stability — whereas such a presence often leads to disastrous interventions. Their spill-offs engender new conflicts, whose bloody consequences are borne by victim-states far from the US. But even small neighbours are deprived of much-needed aid as punishment for illegal migration. And Iran’s unproven threat to peace is used as a pretext to ratchet up tensions.
These dangerous democracies have two notable commonalities. They give short shrift to international opinion: India’s brutal repression in occupied Kashmir; Israel’s suffocation of Palestine; the US’ refusal to respect multilateral covenants — all defy UN resolutions and norms. And, curiously, their leaders face serious allegations of complicity in illegal acts. As Gujarat’s chief minister, Narendra Modi took no action to prevent the massacre of Muslims. Netanyahu nears imminent prosecution for corruption. Trump faces the prospect of impeachment on several counts.
Even as democracy remains the ideal, it has a disturbing capacity to produce nightmares. As perpetual works in progress, democratic systems require significant innovations in checks and balances to prevent destructive tendencies from acquiring electoral legitimacy.
Javed Jabbar is a former senator and federal minister.