A world in chaos and a moment of truth

Informational autocracy is the latest danger that threatens democracies

Updated - November 20, 2020 12:14 am IST

Published - November 20, 2020 12:02 am IST

Change is the essence of time. We have been fed on stories on how men in authority take critical decisions after deep and deliberate introspection. Recent events, however, are testimony to the fact that this is no longer true in today’s world. This is possibly the 21st Century’s ‘moment of truth’.

America’s divide and beyond

The presumption that existence of acutely sharp divisions between liberals and conservatives, and competition between ideologues and hardcore practitioners alone are endangering democracy in today’s world would hardly be correct. The shenanigans currently taking place in the world’s oldest democracy, and efforts by the U.S. President, Donald Trump, to negate the verdict of the recently held presidential elections , partake of a new set of tactics, previously seen only in dictatorships. The extent to which Mr. Trump has been willing to go in his attempt to negate the election, and the fact that a very sizeable segment of the U.S. population seems to be backing him in this attempt, suggest that this is the ‘new reality’, which not only the U.S., but also the world, may have to reckon with in times to come.

Also read | Trump fires official who refuted poll fraud claim

The lack of shame-facedness on the part of the U.S. authorities even as they engage in this, while lecturing the world about the virtues of democracy , represent a new pole in the utilisation of fake news.

The spectre that confronts democracy today is a grave one. In the case of the U.S., one of the world’s oldest democracies, what we are witnessing is a deep divide , one that is equally true of many other democratic nations today, even if fingers are not being pointed at them. Bridging the divide between Mr. Trump’s entrenched supporters and the victorious camp of President-elect Joe Biden will, hence, be difficult. If the size of a vote bank is an index of an individual’s popularity in an election, it will be difficult to wish away the 70 million and odd votes that Mr. Trump has secured in this election — way higher than what he obtained in 2016. Clearly, his support comes from a segment that has serious grievances against policies favoured by so called ‘liberal segments’, and in turn, the neglect of their interests. This is true of many other democracies as well and must be viewed as a wake-up call.

What is evident is that issues of identity, or threats to identity, are becoming an important issue in elections across democracies. Democracies already confront such problems, but it will become still more evident as time passes. Manipulation of grievances by using psychometric techniques ( a laCambridge Analytica ), and the use of ‘deep fakes’ made possible through Artificial Intelligence, further enhances the threat to current notions of democracy.

Also read | Biden wins U.S. presidency, vows to unify a deeply divided nation

Europe’s problems

Meanwhile, much of the world is equally beset by other problems of no mean magnitude. Europe, grappling with a resurgent COVID-19 pandemic , will need for instance, to reckon with the reality that, notwithstanding any change in leadership in Washington, it is destined to recede further in terms of importance in global politics. An uncertain Brexit will further damage the prospects of both the United Kingdom and Europe. Russia, under Vladimir Putin, remains an enigma, for despite its military strength and strategic congruence with China, its future appears increasingly uncertain.

France displays even greater fragility than many other European nations. French values, for instance, appear to be undergoing major changes. All embracing secularism, with overweening emphasis on social cohesion, seems to be going out of the door in the face of new social and political challenges, much of it coming from the actions of a growing Muslim population in France. The recent wave of terrorist attacks, beginning with the beheading, recently, of a Paris schoolteacher by an Islamic State (IS) supporter, followed by IS violence in Nice , have been a major trigger, raising questions about long-held secular beliefs.

Recent terrorist attacks coming on top of other events in recent years do appear to have shattered France’s vaunted claim of being different from most other European and world powers. French President Emmanuel Macron and French leaders have been openly railing against radical Islam , causing Muslim world leaders and Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to accuse Mr. Macron of Islamophobia .

Terror is returning

Other issues exist which act as catalysts to this emerging situation. Terrorism is resurfacing, and with renewed vigour. The al-Qaeda is again becoming prominent. The IS, which many thought had been vanquished following the victories achieved in Syria and Iraq towards the end of 2018, has returned in full force. In recent weeks, it has carried out spectacular attacks in France — Paris and Nice — and in Austria (Vienna) , a reminder of the transnational character of the threat it poses to democratic countries. The newer IS recruits are in many ways an even great threat than their predecessors. They combine symbolism with spectacular violence. The intent is to shock the public at large, and produce a reaction across the entire Muslim world, reigniting the fading embers of a religio-cultural conflict.

Alongside this, is the growing concern across the globe about increasing efforts to manipulate information in order to perpetuate power. Dictatorships and authoritarian regimes were previously accused of resorting to such tactics, but these tactics are no longer confined to repressive regimes. Manipulation of information — and also events — to achieve certain desired ends, is becoming the stock-in-trade of many a democratic regime as well. Mr. Trump’s claims while still in office, that he is the winner in the just concluded U.S. presidential elections and that a fraud had been committed on the voting public by his opponent, have a great deal of resonance given his status and authority. Many democratic nations today resort to manipulating data to support or prop up the government’s version of events. Informational autocracy is, hence, the latest danger that threatens democracies.

Also read | Trump is not conceding. What’s next?

The issues in India

India’s democracy has its own problems, though of a dissimilar kind. In some regions, specially where mid-term elections are scheduled, as in West Bengal, the atmosphere today is highly polarised. Meantime, while the COVID-19 pandemic might have reduced the intensity of protests, the ghosts of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens have by no means been laid to rest. Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) is witnessing a kind of surface calm, but beneath this there are evident tensions. Aggravating this situation are Pakistan’s efforts to push in terrorists in ever larger numbers, leading to large scale casualties, specially among the Indian Army and security forces personnel. At the political level, in J&K, new equations are being forged for further confrontation, as evidenced by the setting up of the seven party People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration .

Also read | Amit Shah calls Gupkar Alliance an ‘unholy global gathbandhan’

India’s external environment remains uncertain. The downward spiral in its relations with China has not been arrested. A misplaced belief is being perpetuated that the display of military strength, vis-à-vis China in the Ladakh heights, has greatly increased our bargaining power. On the other hand, as is evident from the announcement made on November 15, that 15 Asia-Pacific nations, including China, had signed on to the world’s biggest trade bloc , the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) — from which India has been excluded — this seems hardly true. The RCEP, which covers almost a third of the world’s economy, is perceived as the springboard for future economic recovery across the region. Among the key signatories (along with China), are Japan and Australia, who are members of the Quad. Whatever be the reasons adduced by India for this, it does represent not only a cardinal failure of India’s bargaining strategy but, equally, a true reflection of the current economic and political power equations in Asia and the Asia-Pacific region.

Also read | Leaving RCEP was a short-sighted decision, says former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran

Confirming India’s isolation is the fact that even a weak Pakistan, currently wracked by internal problems, is pursuing a policy of provocation vis-à-vis India confident that the latter is in no position to impose its will — the latest provocation being the holding of Assembly elections in Gilgit-Baltistan . India is again being steadily marginalised in Afghanistan, where the control of the Taliban is increasing, with all other players in the Afghan imbroglio, acquiescing in this situation.

China’s goal

A contrast to the prevailing near disruption among the democracies of the world would be China. No disruptive leadership changes are likely here in the near future. If anything, Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to emerge stronger after the 20th Party Congress, in 2022, giving a further impetus to the transformation of China into a superpower by 2035. While new foreign policy initiatives may be few, major reform initiatives will be confined to the economy, the energy sector and new innovation systems.

M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Adviser and a former Governor of West Bengal

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