The crisis of democratic governance

India and Australia exemplify what happens when leaders take voters for granted. By Ramesh Thakur.
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February 11, 2015
Modi-and-Abbott.jpg
Director of the Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University

Faced with electoral volatility and voter anger, is politics becoming the art of the impossible where tough decisions required for long-term economic health cannot be implemented because of the short-term pain they inflict? Some hold that once the majority realizes it can vote itself largesse from the public treasury, it will vote for the party promising the most benefits and the democracy will die from the ensuing loose fiscal policy. The proportion of people receiving more benefits from the state than the taxes they contribute rises, the net paying cohort shrinks, and the system collapses from the widening gap. Or as Margaret Thatcher warned in fighting this in the UK, the trouble with socialist policies is you eventually run out of other people’s money to distribute. Which is why we risk validating Churchill’s aphorism that “the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.”

But Churchill also said in the same breath that “the inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings.” The French economist Thomas Piketty has argued that because the rate of return on capital is greater than the rate of economic growth over the long term, the unequal distribution of wealth worsens over time and foments social and political instability.

The two contradictory grand theories notwithstanding, rumours of the death of democratic governance are much exaggerated. Good public policy continues to be the key to good electoral politics. Conversely, when politicians treat people with contempt, voters return the compliment and bad policy never makes good politics. The message from citizens is uncomplicated: level with us, don’t take us for granted, don’t spring nasty surprises or cynical lies, don’t frighten or talk down to us, govern transparently from the centre in the public interest and not secretively at the ideological extremes for vested interests or lobby groups, and, above all, spread the pain of adjustments fairly and explain it clearly and honestly.

The latest examples are provided by Australia and India.

Australia could soon have its fourth PM in two years. With no challenger and no clandestine destabilization campaign against Tony Abbott’s leadership, two-thirds of his backbench have voted no confidence in him but he survives owing to the solidarity of cabinet ministers and party whips. In an opinion poll, Abbott’s net satisfaction rating (the approval-disapproval margin) is minus 44. Two other cabinet ministers are preferred as leaders by staggering 64-25 and 59-27 margins respectively. Abbott may well be mortally wounded.

Having destroyed the Julia Gillard government on her broken promise on carbon tax and made the restoration of trust in government the central issue of the 2013 election, in language that left no wiggle room, Abbott promised no cuts to health, education and public broadcasting. Once in government, he broke these promises and infuriated voters by denying it even as they were hit by nasty surprises to the hip pocket. The first budget was broadly rejected for its broken promises and the perception of deep unfairness: the poor and worse off were to have services cut and taxes increased while the top end of town kept/got more breaks. Australians like their national health system, trust their public broadcaster the most, don’t back privatization of state assets, and don’t want to go down the American path in the education system.

The decision to award a knighthood to a prince may cost Abbott his political throne: irony does not come in more delicious flavours. The whimsical frolic cemented the belief that Abbott is not in tune with the people, his values and frames of reference are of the first half of the last century, he looks to London for loyalty, inspiration and devotion, and he is stubborn and tone deaf. It was widely derided as self-indulgent, superfluous, fawning and downright embarrassing. Anger can be mollified in time; mass public ridicule quickly drains all authority from a PM. He has become a political millstone around his party’s neck and MPs fearful of losing their seats are turning on him. As Churchill advised, always back the horse named self-interest, who never stops trying.

In India the voters massively rejected the Congress Party-led governing dogma of socialist policies that had proven to be the biggest poverty multiplication program in history. They voted decisively for a Modi-led BJP government on the attractive promises of growth, jobs, development and good governance. So far Modi has been brilliant in talking the talk but remarkably hesitant in walking the walk and totally silent on condemning the incendiary rhetoric of Hindu zealots in his party. The people elected him to govern for the nation, not to campaign endlessly in state elections.

The landslide victory of the Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party in Delhi despite the shambles of their last term is a powerful reminder to the BJP to talk less and deliver more. A year ago, the BJP won all seven of the Delhi seats in the central parliament. With final results in this week, of the 70 seats in the Delhi legislature, AAP won 67, the BJP in 3, and Congress in none.

Indian politics has long suffered from a surfeit of sycophants who pander to leaders’ vanity and flatter shamelessly, only to betray a defeated leader to the next victor. Modi gave a worrying sign of having succumbed to this syndrome when, during U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent visit, he appeared in public in a suit whose pin stripes consisted of the words “NARENDRA MODI” repeated in an endless loop. Instead of courting or tolerating such flattery, he should copy the ancient Roman custom to guard against ego inflation. Generals who achieved famous victories on the battlefield would be honoured with a triumphal march through Rome on their return to the imperial capital. But they would also have a slave positioned strategically behind them whose sole task was to whisper every so often the words “Memento mori” —“Remember you are mortal.”

Almost halfway into his three-year term, Abbott declares: “Good government starts today.” Pardon, PM? Nine months into his five-year term, Modi should have instituted the tough decisions so as to be able to show the results by the next election. He’s been too busy campaigning for his party in state elections. It’s not the system of government that’s flawed or people who are blind, so much as the lack of leaders who can integrate good policy, politics and messaging.