Divided By Border, United By Authoritarianism.

Divided By Border, United By Authoritarianism.

In both India and Pakistan, the urban middle class is by and large supportive of authoritarian tendencies of their governments, writes Raza Habib Raja.

Judges are afraid in India, media is curbed, opposition members are afraid to speak up of an alternative discourse in parliament.

These words by the Prime Minister, Imran Khan are ironic in multiple ways and yet so true at the same time. Yes, in India, right now, there is absolutely no doubt that Judiciary is afraid, and media is curbed. The curb on the media is blatant and is exercised through the combination of state power and a huge abusive troll army who is ready to pounce on anyone coming up with a divergent opinion.

You just have to see the Twitter timelines of journalists like Rana Ayyub, Barkha Dutt and others to see the kind of vitriol they face for merely voicing their opinion. Opposition, already decimated in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, has lost its effectiveness and on the issue of revocation of the Article 370, there is visible split even within its own ranks.

The manner in which Article 370 was revoked reeked of thorough authoritarianism, as there was hardly any debate. What made the matter worse was that at the time of revocation, the state assembly had been in suspension, making the momentous step, completely without agreement of the Kashmiris. But the most shocking has been the reaction of the supposedly educated Indian middle classes. They have by and large cheered this decision despite its blatant illiberal and authoritarian character.

The fact that the decision was taken without even consulting those whose lives it would affect most, does not concern them. In fact, many of them regard this step as a departure from historical ‘weaknesses’ of Congress governments. The suffering of ordinary Kashmiris due to curfew and highhanded methods of the security forces, do not seem to matter either. Some are in denial with respect to the plight of Kashmiris, some are indulging in deflection, while some are brazenly relishing it.

Yes, PM Imran is spot on with respect to developments in India, yet he completely overlooks the irony that his own country, which has him at the leader (though his actual power is really debatable and in fact even doubtful) is experiencing the same. And in fact, in some aspects, even worse.

As I write these sentences, NAB is in full swing in imparting selective accountability and several opposition leaders are under custody — even without conviction. Any judge, perceived to be too ‘independent’ is either transferred or removed.

Media, which ironically got its freedom during military regime of Musharraf has completely been curbed and forced to toe the executive line. Even social media is under attack and anyone crossing a certain ‘red’ line can expect himself to be in problems. In India, social media dissent is countered by abusive trolls, whereas in Pakistan, it’s a combination of trolls and state power.

In Pakistan, just like India, large swathes of middle classes, agree and are in fact cheering the government crackdown on opposition and usurpation of civil liberties. It does not matter, that everyone has a right to fair trial and due process, they just want the opposition leaders, whom they perceive to be ‘corrupt’, hanged.

The word ‘corruption’ has become an obsession, and in their twisted heads, only opposition leaders are guilty of it. ‘Intellectuals’ like Hassan Nisar, openly advocate that human rights should be disregarded in order to implement ‘ruthless’ accountability. The fact that judiciary is being blatantly pressurised does not matter, nor does the complete subjugation of media.

When a country starts its descent to authoritarianism, media is often the first target. Both India and Pakistan have witnessed rapidly declining media freedom as evidenced by their dismal rankings in 2019.

According to Press Freedom Index 2019, India is ranked at 140th whereas Pakistan is ranked at 142nd position. I find it amazing that the PM, during his recent US trip, had the audacity to claim that media was free in Pakistan.

While Pakistan and India rank similar in media freedom, in other indices, Pakistan is faring much poorly than India, though latter is also showing an alarming trend. For example, in Freedom Index Pakistan is ranked at 140th while India at 110th position. (In the said index countries are ranked from most free to least free in ascending order).

In Minorities Rights Index, Pakistan is ranked 9th, and although India is ranked 54th, it has registered the highest rise in rankings in recent times, showing that the trend is alarming. The report notes, “In the lead-up to the 2019 general elections, social media played a central role in advancing chauvinist Hindu nationalism in a climate of paranoia and intolerance towards minorities and perceived outsiders.

While WhatsApp rumours had already led to deadly mob violence by extremist Hindu groups, members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), supporters and bots ratcheted up the production of inflammatory, anti-Muslim messaging on- and offline.”About Pakistan, the same report has made the following observation:

“Insecurity continues unabated in Pakistan, where religious minorities, politicians and security forces continue to be targeted by Islamist militants. The Pakistani Taliban and ISIS affiliates failed to derail parliamentary elections in July but killed hundreds of civilians, including 149 in Mastung, Balochistan — the country’s second deadliest attack by extremists to date.

In response, security personnel continue to perpetrate a range of abuses, including against civilians. Owing to suppression of traditional journalism by government authorities and militants alike, social media plays a significant role in reporting on such issues.”

Both Pakistan and India, are descending into authoritarianism with shades of fascism. The difference is that in India’s case the descent is from a quasi-liberal democracy towards militant majoritarianism underpinned by the Hindutva ideology. India has taken an electoral route, mainly because, over years electoral democracy has become extremely institutionalised and therefore is the “the only game in town”.

In India, over time, the Hindu political identity has become increasingly activated, and despite being a majority, many Hindus feel that they are ‘discriminated’ and have to bear the ‘brunt’ of secularism. What India is experiencing is populism with shades of fascism.

Democracy will continue in India, but its liberal character will continue to fade away eventually transforming it into a populist fascist state.

In case of Pakistan, the route to fascism is different. Since democracy is not institutionalised, so the route is through ‘establishment’ institutions. Whereas Indian descent is from quasi liberal democracy to majoritarianism, Pakistan is experiencing democratic backsliding from a weak electoral democracy to a de-facto establishment regime (with a democratic façade) but with populist fascist character.

This is quite different from Musharraf regime, which though autocratic was relatively more liberal when it came to personal freedom and right of dissent. This regime has a democratic pretense but is thoroughly undemocratic in nature and yet paradoxically is also popular, at least in the large segments of urban middle classes.

Despite these differences in models and routes, the striking commonality is the support of the urban middle classes. In both countries, the same segment is by and large supportive of these tendencies.

In countries like India and Pakistan, urban middle class has a monopoly over education and therefore better access to high paying jobs in both government and private sector. This is the class most represented in media, corporate sector and also various establishment institutions, like civil services, judiciary and military. The same class, due to its education, has also been successfully tutored in state-cultivated nationalism.

All the above, make it a distinct class, in terms of economic interests and political ideologies. A large segment of this class prefers, ‘decisive’ action over deliberation and consensus, ‘merit’ over affirmative action and prefers order over chaos and any sort of instability.

They are extremely conscious of their country’s standing in the international arena and want it to be associated with ‘strength’. The above attributes make this segment naturally inclined towards authoritarianism. Many hailing from the middle class don’t like liberal democracy as it is a compromise on many ideals which they cherish. Their ideal model of development is that of Singapore where an autocratic and stable government was able to achieve rapid economic growth.

However, despite its success, the middle class does not have the numbers, to win in a democratic election. In Pakistan, since democracy has not been institutionalised, their route to political power is through support of establishment institutions and their ‘democratic’ proxies like Imran Khan. Of course, this route, entails derailing of democratic norms, usurpation of civil liberties etc. but it simply does not matter to large portion of this class. In fact, they are supportive of such steps.

In India, since electoral democracy has been institutionalized, therefore route to power is through the Hindutva ideology which negates their numerical disadvantage by aligning all classes of the Hindu faith into one solid vote bank. Just like their Pakistani counterparts, their natural dislike for liberal democracy means, that they also hail authoritarian steps by the BJP government and are willing to overlook, and to some extent even support, the communal venom which the BJP has injected in the Indian polity.

The descent of both India and Pakistan continues.

The author is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in political science at Maxwell School, Syracuse University. His research interests are the political economy of development, civil-military relations, and political Islam.