Over the past few days, millions of people in Karnataka realized that they had wasted their time queuing up to cast their votes and posting pictures of their stained finger on Instagram. The legislators they had elected resigned to favour the very party they had been elected to subdue. In general political opinion, they had sold their souls. Familiar sights followed: Political parties herded their legislators into air-conditioned buses, transferred them to luxury hotels where they were sequestered so that they were not poached, and those who were already poached were not re-bought. I wonder what is more demeaning—to be a sell-out, or to be hidden away in a resort because your boss thinks you are a potential sell-out? The herding of legislators is an enduring and recurring mascot of Indian politics, and a part of the global reminders this month that the world’s most adored idea, democracy, is going to get a lot worse in the coming years.

In Britain, a bumbling, ignorant and an unremarkable man became prime minister. In the United States, there is already such a man in place who has demonstrated that almost all the theories that the elite American press had propagated on what makes an electable president are wrong. These men may not be as useless as intellectuals allege, but they are certainly not men who make democracy look like a great idea.

Yet, when we see the young in Hong Kong taking great risks to demand democracy from China, we are trained to accept that their fight is worth it all, that democracy is worth it all. Democracy has become one of those sacred things whose inherent morality is above question. But then I do wonder if Hong Kong’s activists are fighting merely for the emergence of daft, poachable men.

The flaws of democracy have always been known to its greatest champions. But all along we were told that the thing about the idea of democracy is that it will get better with time. The idea that democracy will evolve into something greater was not a result of a confusion about the nature of democracy, but about evolution. We are trained to think that evolution is a transformation into something better, because that is how humans imagine they appeared—as an improved ape. But evolution is merely change.

In the transmission of ideas and news, the pundits have fallen. People are free to receive information from comforting sources and to transmit news, feeling the glory of being celebrities to 15 followers. Technology is ensuring that democracy is increasingly representing human minds accurately, and we did not anticipate that it may not be a flattering phenomenon. The evangelists of democracy themselves lament that the problem with democracy today is that there is too much of it.

When Barack Obama’s campaign first used social media to influence American voters, it had the blessings of the elite media. He may have been a political outsider, but in many significant ways, like his academic degrees, he was an insider in the intellectual aristocracy that ran his nation. That is why his use of Facebook was celebrated. But when, eventually, Donald Trump used it to reach his constituency, Facebook itself was defamed as a villainous Russian platform.

Even as recently as 2016, there was a mainstream intellectual view that the natural progressive evolution of all democracies is towards direct democracy, when people will vote on a range of issues via referendums, without intermediaries. In 2011, activist Prashant Bhushan told me: “Our democracy is based on the technology that was available in the 1940s. Now that we have more powerful technologies, the scope of democracy, too, must expand." But then, Brexit made many intellectuals change their mind about the virtues of referendums. They now feel that the world has to be protected from people who don’t think like them.

Democracy, naturally, is not in a crisis for a large mass of people, especially those who feel they have been liberated from the old elite. The supporters of Trump, Brexit and Narendra Modi, and others who do not respect The New York Times or The Economist may believe that democracy has finally gotten better, and fairer. The perception of democracy might be subjective, at least for the moment, before the effects of the new class of leaders become clear, but there is no escaping the inherent flaw of electoral democracy, which is the “electoral" part.

It was this idea of competition that the early evangelists of democracy had thought will make democracy evolve into something more moral and effective. We tend to think highly of the corrective power of competition because the story is usually told by the victors. Our own ape story is told by us and not the apes whom we obliterated.

Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal and a venture capitalist, has argued that in business, competition is destructive because it forces companies that do not make differentiated products to squander away all their resources on the battle and in undercutting the rival. “Monopoly is the condition of every successful business," he writes in his book Zero To One.

Monopoly, in an electoral democracy, is a contradiction. Major political parties in India whose politicians are largely undifferentiated products, are in a state of perpetual corrosive war that has a profound effect on actual governance. In the future, elections will be even more expensive than they are today. But there will always be luxury resorts worthy of hosting men who are for sale.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

Close