Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party
The great practical benefit of democracy over other systems of government is that it avoids the bad king problem. It limits what the executive is allowed to do, constraining it by law, and through an adversarial political process. It provides elections and, sometimes, automatic instruments, such as term limits, to get rid of kings who have turned – or just turned out to be – bad.
Military insurrection by Bolingbrokes doen’t cut it against modern day Richard II’s. The great danger is the opposite: sloth born of checks and balances, divided authority, and risk aversion. This is what pushed the EU into its agonisingly slow vaccination programme.
Hence the plea for special powers to deal with emegencies, from the time-limited rule by decree, used by Indira Gandhi, to wide-ranging secondary legislation in India and elsewhere, or our own Defence of the Realm Act. A constitution, as the American Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, wrote, should not be “a suicide pact”.
But something tips over when the demand for emergency measures is transformed into a demand for emergency men. This is the core of Machiavelli’s Prince : a political system can only be saved by a new man who will tear down the old structures and build something new. If he builds anything new at all. Machiavelli thought Caesar consigned to Hell for destroying the Republic, and leaving Augustus to replace it with the Roman Empire.
This was Narendra Modi’s pitch. He would take India to the next level of prosperity just as he had done in Gujarat (whether this was a dog whistle against India’s Muslims, I leave it to the reader to judge). And he has cemented unusual control over the fracious country, with an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament) and control of 18 state governments (a majority of those where there are legislatures, in effect). He enjoyed a successful first wave of Covid, with India escaping relatively lightly.
As winter ended, he launched into aggressive political campaigning, most notably in West Bengal, home to 90 million people and the great city of Calcutta).His Bharatiya Janata Party held huge, crowded rallies, as cases began to surge. Infections have risen nationwide plunging hospitals into crisis as oxygen supplies run low, perhaps impelled by a British-style highly transmissible variant.
But India, though the world’s largest maker of vaccines, has not been able to get its vaccination programme up to speed, not least because of Modi’s decision to promote the domestic pharmaceutical sector by slowing down authorisation of foreign vaccines for the Indian market. The panicked government has resorted to forcing Twitter to take down content critical of its Covid response, giving Modi’s attacks on India’s democracy, which had passed largely unnoticed in much of the West, a much wider audience.
Though opinion polls for West Bengal’s state elections predict a close outcome, and voting takes place in a number of phases over several weeks, it is likely that the death toll will be laid at Modi’s door. Blaming it on the state government’s won’t wash when cases are rising everywhere, and when Modi has done so much to personalise his own leaderhip. It’s perhaps the oldest lesson in politics: if you take credit for all the success, don’t be surprised when people blame you for failures, even if deeper long-running problems contribute to them.
Modi isn’t the only elected autocrat having a bad second wave: Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Viktor Orbán in Hungary have also been overwhelmed (contrast the plight of both men, incidentally, with the political leaders of highly decentralised Belgium, which has also managed the pandemic terribly but whose will o’ the wisp government has managed to evade popular anger).
Yet unlike Orbán, whose international repuation cannot sink much further, and Bolsonaro, whose Brazil is comfortably the largest country in a stable region, India is geopolitically vulnerable. The mismanagement of the epidemic has damaged Modi’s international position, as well as his domestic standing.
Before the second wave, he could present his stewardship as a success. He might be trampling over some international norms, but he was building a stable, powerful, organised country that could be counted upon to play a major role standing up to China. His more muscular India cultivated excellent relationships with the Trump Administration, and counted on a continuity of American policy with Biden.
Now, as the UK, EU and the United States start despatching emergency aid to India, he finds himself as the beneficiary of Western charity. The interest in strategic alignment between India and the West has not changed, but the relative terms by which India is to negotiate that alignment have deteriorated as his aura of competence has evaporated.
This strikes at the core of Modi’s narrative of strength through competence because a supplicant India is precisely what he promised emancipation from, and the phenomenon most destructive of legitimacy is to have failed to uphold the essence of your political identity. If the divided opposition cannot yet seriously trouble him, his Covid disaster points Indians to the danger of government by emergency men, not emergency measures.