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Wrecking the Royals

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The passing away of Queen Elizabeth II brought Royals or Monarchies under popular media attention which allows us to revisit their significance after ditching them for democracy! Did monarchy really die? Or did we trade it for something equally bad? Also, were all monarchs really bad and played no other role beyond mere politics?

The omnipresent Democracy is a relatively recent phenomenon, barely 200 years old. Democracy was a new political system forged as a result of the changing power dynamics post the Industrial Revolution. France and USA led this change as they set up the first modern democracies in the late 18th century.

Ideally, Democracy was meant to be a model of governance with a ‘collective leadership’ instead of a dictator, King, or select few. It was supposed to end the culture of a ‘one-man’ show, crony businessmen and loyalists, and instead encourage a culture of dissent and cynicism. Political leaders were supposed to be judged only on their actions and not optics or speeches. Democracy was supposed to allow room for all political ideologies and not just the domination of a few.

Let us take a world tour to see whether democracy lived up to its potential.

The Anglosphere (US, Canada, Australia, and the UK) has been reduced to 2 party states with no hope of a third party. The USA came close to a third party during the 1990s when Ross Perot formed the Reform Party and won 18% of the popular vote in the 1992 Presidential elections. The momentum carried forward for a few years but fizzled out.

European countries, who take democracy much more (way too much in my opinion) seriously, have struggled to take a single decision regarding all of their critical issues. Minority and Coalition governments in France and Germany have further exacerbated this indecision. EU’s linkage to America’s foreign policy and economic over-reliance on China paralyzes their decision-making further.

The EU’s obsession with a ‘collective leadership’ model has incapacitated their decision-making abilities. The UK opted out of the European Union by voting in favour of Brexit, less than 50 years after joining the EU. The recent victory of Euroskeptic Giorgia Meloni in Italy (labeled an extremist) further shows the extent of the crisis.

Now let us have a look at Asia. Unlike the West, democracy is more of an exception than the norm in Asia. China only has one party – the Communist party. South Korea suffered from military coups and became a stable democracy only 35 years back. In the Indian subcontinent, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan have struggled with regular military coups and political instability. Pakistan has, in 75 years of Independence, not had a single PM complete 5 years in office.

Only Japan and India stand out as democracies in Asia. Even these countries do not live up to the ideals of democracy. Japan has had the same ruling party – LDP – in power since 1955 barring a few years in the 1990s. Similarly, India also had single-party domination till 2014. Congress was the primary pole in Indian politics from India’s independence till 2014, except for ~10 years in between. The last decades (from 1989 to 2019) saw the BJP replace the Congress party as the primary pole of Indian politics.

The lofty ideals of democracy sound ridiculous given the political realities across countries. The 20th century proved Communism as a faulty and disastrous idea that killed millions of people. The Technological Revolution driven by the Internet and Artificial Intelligence will do the same to Democracy in the 21st century!

Hitler rising to power in a democracy should have set the alarm bells ringing anyway. Although, he abolished elections post his 1933 victory which means that Germany was not really a democracy post-1933. India too has been battling such extremist forces, just like the USA now claims to be, that want to overthrow India’s State using the democratic system itself.

All this begs one question, was democracy really a good idea?

All of the democracy’s lofty ideals have proved to be too idealistic, to the point of being irrelevant. These ideals have crippled politicians more than they have enabled them to do their job. Politicians need ‘yes-men’ in their party & government’s rank and file to get work done. They need to crush dissent as it’s more of a hindrance than an asset. Too many opinions lead to policy paralysis as evident in coalition governments across the world. People’s apathy to politics (seen from declining voter turnout with increasing prosperity) and the ground realities of winning increasingly expensive elections demand a secure line of funds. Thus, leaders need cronies or else many would have to rely on extortion or corruption, which many Indian regional parties have had to resort to.

All of this sounds immoral and unfair but this has been the common political practice since time immemorial.

The greatest empires as well as the greatest kings in history had yes men, cronies & loyalists, allowed negligible dissent or cynicism, and always focussed on consolidating power. Politics in the US, India, UK, Germany, Japan, or France cannot be imagined without the above characteristics but the leaders are forced to maintain a veneer of following democratic ideals.

The democratic ideals have proved to be in total contrast to the ruthless nature of politics. Countless wars have been fought for power, including the European territorial wars labeled as World Wars in the 20th century, and will happen again in the future.

European countries fought many bitter battles with each other as they competed to colonize different parts of the world during the 17th-19th century.

Democracies with all their tall claims of collective leadership are highly dependent on the leader. Policies and priorities might change with each leader or administration but the core interests remain the same and are handled by the country’s Deep State.

Countries in the Global South do not really have a deep state and thus, have suffered. Latin and Central America as well as Africa are good examples of countries suffering due to the absence of a Deep State. China suffered during its Communist Revolution but managed well as it remained a closed society and a Communist system ensured that its Deep State from the Manchu-led Qing dynasty continued. On the other hand, India’s 1000-year-long history of colonization prevented her from forming her own Deep State that would preserve India’s core interests. Under PM Modi, India is trying to carve out a Deep State more explicitly than what the Congress did with certain variations.

Economy and business are interlinked with politics, as explained by the great philosopher Kautilya (also known as Chakanya) in his Saptanga theory where he stresses the importance of kosha (treasury). It is vital that the state make indirect methods of expanding its influence while also consolidating its independence. This has been cleverly brushed down by Western intellectuals as a form of crony capitalism but fortunately, has come back into focus as the West starts decoupling with China.

In India, certain business houses reached the top under every political regime. Tata-Tagore via the Opium Trade under British rule, Birla-Bajaj under Congress, and now, Adani-Ambani under BJP. The biggest businesses in China are state companies. America facilitates its own businesses domestically as well as abroad, be it lobbying for Mastercard & Visa or Amazon & Walmart globally. British Petroleum in the Middle East, especially Iran before the Iranian Islamic Revolution, is another such example.

This, however, does not in any way disregard the business acumen, discipline, and hard work of the businessmen involved.

If one observed closely, democracies are overrated in terms of delivery. The Middle East prospered without a democracy while Africa struggles despite being a democracy. Korea industrialized and became a developing country with a mix of military rule and democracy. On the contrary, one can make an argument that upholding human rights and democratic values is actually detrimental to the development of poor and developing nations. Neither China nor Bangladesh would have been able to come out of extreme poverty had it not been for their sweatshops that are notorious for human rights violations and inhumane work conditions.

This means that democracy and prosperity are not interlinked and present obstacles for developing countries.

In hindsight, one can even argue that the destruction of the global order of monarchy gave way for the US to influence & control the political landscape of developing countries via its hegemony in media and setting the narrative globally. If America decides you’re bad then their ecosystem will make sure that everyone believes so. Social Media should have ideally provided a respite but in fact, allowed the USA to further strengthen its power as information dissemination becomes more centralized.

Now let us look at India more minutely. Indian society is the largest and the most unique in the world. Only China matches India in its scale. However, China is a homogenous society with one language and culture. India, on the other hand, has twice the diversity of Europe (language + caste) with an Anglo legal-political system meant only for a homogenous society. No wonder our legal system is jammed and struggling to resolve the mountain of pending cases.

This makes India a completely new terrain for democracy. Despite these constraints, India’s democracy has had an unblemished record till now. However, this experiment with democracy has led to India sustaining a lot of damage.

Among the many traditional societal institutions, the Royals (or Privy Purse) were an important one. India transitioned into a democracy in 1947 but retained the Royals as nominal heads like all European countries. This was done as leaders understood the role and value of Royals beyond politics. They knew that Royals meant much more to society and the institution of monarchy was not just political.

The decision of Indira Gandhi to destroy the institutions of Royals, or Privy Purse as it was called, led to total chaos. It marked the rise of caste politics in India. Indira Gandhi’s motive to abolish the privy purse was to crush the opposition gaining momentum against her. The other part of her plan was the nationalization of all banks and insurance companies, thus breaking the backbone for any opposition to take hold. But in the long run, it proved to be detrimental to Indian society as a whole.

It was said that the objective of abolishing the privy purse was to reduce the burden on government finances. It was a measly 400 crores in those days (1971) which is equivalent to a few thousand crores in today’s value. Governments spend much more than this on many trivial activities!

After India’s Independence, Royals were restricted to being nominal King/Queen but some did manage to succeed in politics. Rani Gayatri Devi was so popular that she would’ve gotten 90%+ votes without even campaigning. One of the BJP’s founding members was Rajmata of Gwalior, Vijaya Raje Scindhia. Wodeyar of the Mysore Kingdom did venture into politics but left it later. Hyderabad Nizam became irrelevant in a democracy where one man had only one vote. However, Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM has emerged as Nizam’s political successor.

Removing the Royals proved disastrous for India’s collective conscience as they played a major role in society.

Royals were the face of many communities. When they were empowered, it gave rise to a collective cultural/civilizational consciousness among the region’s people. Royals were the custodians of faith who shaped the ideals and customs of the people in that region.

Royals’ disenfranchisement gave a big boost to casteism and conversion. This could be observed in the regions of Northeast India and the Chhotanagpur plateau. The fall of the Nagavanshi dynasty of Chhotanagpur or the Jaintias gave a free hand to European missionaries to deconstruct the folklore of the tribals and appropriate their customs into a Christian form under the veneer of animist resurgence. Beef consumption rose in the hills of Manipur as the authority of the Royals decreased and the people became detached from them. Alongside the Christianisation of the hills, there have also been attempts to move Meiteis (the dominant group of Manipur) away from Hinduism citing fabricated tales of imposition.

Abolition of the privy purse destroyed local festivals, parampara (local traditions), and in some cases skills, art, and even kuldevi-kuldevta (ancestral deities). All of this has been replaced by a homogenous caricature with utter disregard for local customs. The Royal Families of many European countries still play a ceremonial and symbolic role in their society. The people look up to the royal family for guidance and custodians of their culture. The huge line to catch the last glimpse of Queen Elizabeth just reinforces this further.

Britain’s Royal Family’s website states that “ They act as a focus for national identity, unity, and pride, and give a sense of stability and continuity to its people.

Monarchs are especially important in multiethnic countries. Belgium, a tiny country with a population of 10 million (half the size of Delhi) cites monarchy as the uniting factor in the diverse (speak 3 different languages – Dutch, English, French and German, with each being hostile to the other. The shared loyalty to the Belgian monarch instead of to an ethnic identity keeps that nation together.

The Habsburg dynasty in Austria held together a large & prosperous country that quickly balkanized into almost a dozen states without it. Afghanistan has been thrown into a crisis ever since the erstwhile king of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah, widely respected by all Afghans, was overthrown. The country is now riddled with factionalism and rivalry between various warlords and tribal clans.

Without Royals, people were devoid of any collective consciousness thus, people organized around their other identity – caste or language or false theoretical (read: imaginary) ideas of nation/country.

Congress itself suffered greatly from this ill-thought-out decision of abolishing the privy purse. Each dominant caste moved away from the Congress went away to ally with the Muslim vote bank, if available, or other smaller caste groups to assume power. This model was repeated in each region or state by different regional parties to assume power. As a result, Congress lost power in each state one by one.

Caste politics form the main plank of all state parties with an additional touch of language or culture for some. Dominant caste groups control each party, be it TDP (Kammas), AIADMK (Thevar and Gounder), RLSP (Jat), BSP (Jatavs among Dalits), SP & RJD (Yadav among OBCs), JDU (Koeri-Kurmi among OBCs), JD(S) (Vokkaligas), NCP (Maratha), YSRCP (Reddy) & Ezhava and Nairs in Kerala. BJP also started off by attracting the dominant caste group but as the primary pole of Indian politics, it has managed to create a rainbow coalition of all castes – the formula of the previous dominant national party, Congress.

Political parties in the Indian subcontinent have been reduced to a family enterprise. Barring the BJP, no other party has managed to transition into the next generation outside the family. Shiv Sena tried a non-family transition with a coup by Eknath Shinde recently. But it will most likely cede space in the Mumbai region – home of its most prized jewel BMC – to the BJP after almost 40 years and become a declining force in the state as BJP grows further. CPI(M) was another candidate but it could never manage a transition, with the same old guard of the 70s ruling it till today. In Bengal and Tripura, once their leader passed away or lost, the party collapsed. Although, it has managed well in Kerela.

Other candidates for non-family political parties are BJD and JDU. Naveen Patnaik’s BJD in Odisha was built on top of his father – the legendary Biju Patnaik’s political legacy. Most likely, BJD will falter post-Naveen’s political sunset. On the other hand, Nitish Kumar’s JDU is a contender but will also not last. He has, very smartly, joined hands with the Lalu Yadav family’s political outfit – RJD – and JDU will eventually merge with the RJD post-Nitish’s political sunset.

Congress has been reduced to a dynasty with the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty ruling it since 1959 when Nehru appointed his daughter as Congress National President. Their transition into a dynasty contributed majorly to BJP’s rise as their alternative and the primary political pole in the country’s politics.

Dynastic politics is not unique to India as parties across the globe are not really democratic.

In the USA, George HW Bush became President and later his son George Bush became USA’s President. Former President Bill Clinton’s wife Hillary Clinton became a senior Minister under Obama and later unsuccessfully contested against Donald Trump in 2016. Michelle Obama, the wife of Barack Obama, might be looking at a political future too. She was the star speaker at the National Democratic Convention in 2020 just like her husband was at the 2004 National Democratic Convention before he made his bid to become the president in 2008.

The USA is not immune to dynastic politics

If politics had to reduce to a family i.e, essentially a monarchy, what was the need to abolish them in the first place? What did this experiment achieve?

The Greek philosopher Plato argued against the very concept of democracy itself. He viewed the system as problematic and its nature to be chaotic. He predicted that it would eventually give away to demagoguery, and people without the necessary knowledge and wisdom to make the right decisions were doomed to make foolish occurrences that benefit them in the short term without any thought about its long-term consequences.

He has been proven correct as the masses are predisposed to idolize leaders, which were earlier monarchs and royals. Today, only charisma and optics matter not policies. Canadian PM Justin Trudeau – son of former PM Pierre Trudeau – and Barack Obama are liked not for their policies but for their attractive looks and charisma respectively.

Monarchs were used to being idolized and not insecure about their position. They used the inherent stability of the political system to take tough decisions, even though hurtful in the short term but needed for long-term well-being. Leaders in a democracy have been reduced to behaving like celebrities, who cannot take tough decisions as that will hurt their likability.

Political leaders have to play to the galleries and indulge in optics and virtue signaling to increase their likability. Kings and Queens had a choice but likability is a necessity for the political leaders of the day.

The biggest signal that politicians have become like the despondent and over-indulgent Royals of the pre-democracy era is clear from the shenanigans of certain heads of state – the party girl PM of Finland.

Leaders are more focused on being liked to win elections rather than formulating policies and enacting tough much-needed decisions. Freebie culture and populist politics have become the norm everywhere. The demographic change in some European countries is one of the more serious consequences of this lack of action and desperation to be liked.

No leader under the constant threat of elections in the current democratic system is incentivized to take unpopular and tough decisions. All leaders kick the can on tough decisions for some future leaders. PM Modi stands out in this regard and is appreciated by the business community and global leaders for his monumental effort although he still has many challenges ahead of him.

So, in conclusion, the very benefit of democracy itself is in question. The ideals espoused in the name of democracy are largely ignored as a result of impracticality. The export of democratic values seems more to have been a tool for American expansion by keeping any potential rivals in a state of disorder. India has achieved little from these developments and instead lost her soul as it gave into the confusion that resulted from the change.

Democracy, as we know it, seems to be on its last legs. The only thing to watch out for is how quickly the transformation happens or maybe it is already underway. It’s visible to the keen!

With the help of inputs from @porboliatora

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