Gandhiji had warned the world saying even “the states that are today nominally democratic” are likely to “become frankly totalitarian”. His logic was that a regime in which “the weakest go to the wall” and “a few capitalist owners thrive” can’t be sustained except by violence, veiled, if not open. As we have entered the third decade of the 21st century, democracy isn’t in the pink of health even in the West. “Democracy in recession” is a familiar refrain.

Others maintain, globally, democracy is in ‘reverse gear.” A few years ago, Belgian cultural historian David Van Reybrouck explained “why elections are bad for democracy.” By reducing democracy to elections, Reybrouck argued, we have become “electoral fundamentalists.” No wonder interest in politics across the world has grown but faith in politics has dwindled. Politics was never a stern moral drama. With the world dominated by the “great man theory of politics” and ‘I alone can fix’ category of leaders, politics today has become a ribald vaudeville, full of scandal and pantomime.

They act like nimble showmen/women , playing acrobat, Rambo, entrepreneur, messiah, often all at the same time. Their best form of attack is political theatre. Populist leaders win big in elections but the victors continue to behave like victims. Majorities act like ill-treated minorities. The ‘great man theory’ rests on two pillars. First, great leaders are born. Second, great leaders can arise when the need for them is great. When great men are at the helm, governance becomes an affair of pomp and pageantry.

These leaders use their offices to indulge their own need for attention. That perhaps explains Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s thunderous response to a lone opposition voice in Parliament: “We are the people! Who are you?” US President Donald Trump boasts, “I am the chosen one.” Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro says, “I am actually the Constitution.” Trump and Bolsonaro hate Hugo Chavez but have taken a page from the former Venezuelan president, who said, “Chavez is no longer me! Chavez is a people!” It is understandable why a dictatorship needs great leaders to survive.

All it has is its leaders. But why should democracy need messiahs? Democracies need effective citizens and robust civil society. Democracy is a government without heroes. Emiliano Zapata, hero of the 1910 Mexican Revolution, said, “strong leaders make a weak people.” Non-democracies can have elections, parliaments, parties, courts, even rule of law, but only democracies have citizens.

Democracies led by autocrats want citizens to become only consumers of goods and subjects of the bureaucratic state. The Government wants to become the patron, and citizen the ward. Genuine leaders are guided by strong moral convictions. They are never preachy. Populist leaders may be clueless about economic policies and strategic affairs but are never lost for words. They know how to run the show.

Crises often provide opportunities for authoritarian leaders to seize greater power. There is a danger that the use of surveillance technology to track the pandemic could become a more permanent feature of our societies and could also lead to weakening of democracy. Having mastered the art of distortion and distraction, the new saviours are already turning even a dire moment like the Coronavirus to their political advantage.

American novelist Francis Scott Fitzgerald got it right when he wrote, “Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy.” In 1999, a Japanese journalist asked Prof Amartya Sen what he believed was the most important thing that happened in the 20th century. Prof Sen replied that democracy became a universal value. Today, we have “posttruth democracy.”

According to the World Economic Forum, from Sweden to New Zealand, Britain to the US, the percentage of people who say that it is “essential to live in a democracy has dropped from around 70% among those born in the 1930s to around 25% for those born in the 1980s”. The autocratic leaders have taken advantage of the situation. The democratic world is getting overcrowded with autocrats. In this age of ‘doomscrolling’, lexicologists are under tremendous pressure to coin an apt term to describe demo-autocrats. Dedemocratisation is the order globally.

Books like How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt and How Democracy Ends by David Runciman say a lot about the direction in which democracy is heading. What is, however, worrying is that we may be entering a phase where not many will perhaps shed tears for democracy’s loss. Levitsky and Ziblatt’s argument is indeed compelling. They maintain that democracies don’t necessarily “go out with a bang” and they can also “end with a whimper.”

In History in the Making, HJ Elliot makes a distinction between a chosen nation and a victim nation. A chosen nation thinks it has spiritual, biological, racial characteristics to dominate the world. A victim nation tends to attribute its misfortunes to others and ignores its own failings. India never pretended to belong to either category. Gandhi and Tagore gave India a vision to be a class of its own. Nationalism of Gandhi and Tagore were not based on a sense of persecution or a sense of cultural or civilisational superiority.

Gandhi said discrimination against so-called low castes was not a fault of colonizers but a product of traditional Indian practices. Tagore said Indians must glory in the illumination of lamps lit everywhere in the world. Today, RSS/BJP leaders have both a sense of victimhood and a delusion of grandeur. This is dangerous. Prime Minister Modi has often spoken of ‘1200 years of servitude’.

The world has also begun to notice how India has changed in the last few years. This country kept the banner of democracy aloft when most newly independent states fell perilously into the hands of the military or autocrats. That prompted Bernard Levin, columnist of The Times, London, to say, “if democracy in India falls, the end of democracy itself will be in sight.”

Today, India is on the verge of losing its status as a democracy. The VDem Annual Democracy Report of the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, has placed India among the top 10 ‘autocratising’ countries. The reasons for such devaluation include “severely shrinking space for the media, civil society and the opposition under Prime Minister Modi’s government”. India is now in the company of Brazil, Turkey, Hungary, Poland and Serbia. India’s attractiveness as a democracy is increasingly tarnished and now the economy is in the doldrums.

In recent years, the government’s major interventions have left much to be desired. As Milton Friedman said, “The government solution to a problem is usually as bad as the problem.” The government has often been seen trying to sprint while forgetting to walk. Now that the India story is tattered and fading, even the global rating agencies refuse to give positive spin to the India story.

Suddenly India is seen as a shooting comet, rather than a lasting star. India dreams big. Prime Minister says the 21st century belongs to India. We are now selfappointed viswaguru. Triumphalism is fast becoming our second nature. The migrants too had dreams which have been shattered the way the government has handled the issue. The government’s response to the migrants’ cri de coeur has been, “you are a dreamer and that is your misfortune.”

(The writer is Director, Institute of Social Sciences, Delhi)