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Autocratic Rule on the Indian Subcontinent and prospects for the world

The global political calendar of 2024 will bring about elections in some countries, which will be of importance beyond national borders. The most serious ones are certainly presidential and Congress elections in the USA. Elections in Russia and Iran, two major sources or profiteers of wider conflicts, will however, remain globally meaningless. Of a different significance are elections to be held or already held in India and its neighbourhood.

The whole Indian Subcontinent deserves a closer look because of a general advancement of autocratic rule in this region to the detriment of democracy in the world. The year started with elections in Bangladesh, where the ruling party of Sheikh Hasina secured a fourth term and consolidated its grip on the country. It is developing into an autocratic one-party-rule. The neighbourhood  - India, China, Pakistan -  are satisfied, as it seems, with Bangladesh’s contribution to regional stability. Western powers, however, consider the elections as not free or fair. The trend towards more autocracy seems to be the accepted price for a solid economic growth.

Then followed elections in Pakistan. The outcome has confirmed the dominant role of the military, who determine who will be in government, regardless of who actually or presumably won the elections. One more autocracy confirmed in the region.

India, who sees itself as the world’s largest democracy, will be heading to the polls in April and May. Prime Minister Modi’s Hindu-nationalist party, the BJP, is set to carry it by a large majority and will, thus, secure Modi’s third term. Even if the actual outcome will be confirming the Prime Minister’s undisputed leadership, Indian democracy must, today, be judged as flawed. A growing autocratic system combines with an ethnic-nationalist ideology, which marginalises non-Hindu minorities more and more. Muslim Indians, some two hundred million, have become second class citizens. Election promises of deregulating India’s economy had partly been fulfilled during Modi’s first term in office and have caused sound economic growth. But the increasing political focus on promoting Hindu ideology will, in the long run, prove to be detrimental to growth. With the world’s largest population, India is also the world’s largest market. But this still lies in the future.

Strategically, India still enjoys the benefit of its democratic reputation and profits from some benevolence of its Western partners. But in foreign affairs, the government continues its policy of ambivalence. India remains independent-minded and unpredictable when taking sides in major global conflicts. This may express India’s dream of becoming a big power in a multipolar world on a par with genuine great powers such as China and the US. But for this, it needs to win the support of the Global South. It may help, for this purpose, to be autocratic, but Modi’s domestic anti-Muslim policies may prove to be a major impediment in search of the soul of the Global South. Currently, the latter has unequivocally sided with the Palestinians’ cause after the outbreak of the Gaza war, while India remains close to Israel. As long as India is not sharing the general pro-Palestinian positioning of the Global South, it is difficult to imagine how it will be able to become the voice, if not the leader, of the former “Third World”.

For sure, the predictable outcome of elections in India will considerably enhance Modi’s personal standing in his country and in the world, and will most probably strengthen domestically his autocratic rule. How far this will have an effect on India’s place in the world is uncertain. Modi could develop a strong attraction on foreign leaders inclined to build some sort of an informal alliance of autocratic countries, which would then promote dreams of a new world order. But at the same time, Modi knows that his best future, strategically and economically, lies in his ties with the defenders of the current liberal and rules-based world order, the so-called “Western” world.

Overall, the foreseeable outcome of the political calendar for 2024 is prone to more instability in the world, unless democratic election results in India and in the USA trigger a renewed sense of global responsibility by their leaders.

13th March 2024 / Philippe Welti


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