POPULIST LEADERS might injure democracy, but it is very hard to kill. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been forced into a runoff election — something he managed to avoid in both 2014 and 2018. In Thailand, voters have resoundingly rejected parties associated with the junta that has ruled since 2014, giving them only 15% of the seats. And, in India, voters in the southern state of Karnataka, which includes the technology hub of Bengaluru, handed the opposition Indian National Congress party the most decisive mandate in 34 years.
Erdogan appears likely to triumph in his runoff, and Thailand’s democrats will struggle to govern given that the legislature’s upper house is composed of junta loyalists. (Some 40% of the Thai senate are in the military or police.) The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) sharp reversal in Karnataka does not necessarily imply that Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself will struggle to win next year’s national elections.
Nevertheless, the last week has been full of reminders that, even in an age when democracy seemed to be in retreat, voters retain the power to prevent their countries from collapsing into autocracy.
In Karnataka, the BJP has lost its only southern stronghold. It now rules only a narrow band of states in the center of the country (and in the northeast, which tends to vote for whichever party holds power in New Delhi). Of India’s 20 large states, the BJP rules just six. And in two of them — Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh — it only seized power after engineering splits in opposition coalitions years after elections had taken place.
Powerful state governments have thus become the main check on the BJP’s control of India. Modi often pitches “double-engine development” to voters, promising that BJP governments at both state and federal level would serve as dual locomotives of economic growth. By and large, the message has fallen flat. That’s provoked a sharpening of rhetoric: In the Karnataka campaign, Modi accused Congress of promoting secessionism and “believing that Karnataka is separate from India.”
Voters may not have taken that accusation entirely seriously, given that one of the reasons Congress did well in Karnataka was because the party held one of the longest sections of its “Unify India” march over the past year in the state. At the same time, linguistic and “states’ rights” sub-nationalism was unquestionably instrumental in the Congress victory.
Take one of the unexpected flashpoints in the election: milk.
Congress accused the federal government of pushing its preferred milk cooperative — Amul, based in Modi’s home state of Gujarat — into Karnataka, which already has its own alternative, Nandini. A battle of brands morphed into a matter of local Karnataka pride defending against Gujarati ambition: Congress linked the milk row to the takeover of a local state-controlled bank by one from Gujarat, and of local ports and airports by the giant Gujarat-based conglomerate Adani Enterprises Ltd., run by Modi’s close associate Gautam Adani.
Other state parties have successfully deployed similar tactics. In West Bengal, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee won re-election by painting Modi and the BJP as “outsiders.” Tamil Nadu’s chief minister, M.K. Stalin, responded to the Congress’ win in neighboring Karnataka by celebrating the “landmass of the Dravidian family” — south India — being “clear” of the BJP. While the BJP’s Hindu nationalist ideology has been extraordinarily effective at the national level, regionalism and sub-nationalism have increasingly outweighed it at the state level.
Voters may also resent the weaponization of the National Government against regional leaders: Stalin highlighted the “unjustifiable disqualification” of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi from parliament, and the “misuse” of federal investigative agencies against opposition politicians. One of the Congress candidates to be chief minister of Karnataka was sent to jail in 2019 by the Enforcement Directorate, the police arm of New Delhi’s finance ministry; other state chief ministers have been similarly hounded by the Directorate and its sister agencies. When you put that together with the BJP government’s influence over the media, the judiciary, and the Election Commission, the odds can appear unfairly stacked against the opposition.
India is hardly alone in this. Erdogan has similar tools at his disposal. In Thailand, the breakout star of the election — the Move Forward Party — is actually its leaders’ second try, after an earlier party was dissolved by the country’s Constitutional Court. The Anti-Corruption Commission and the Election Commission may yet combine to disqualify Move Forward’s leader.
Such levers have helped many an autocrat to stay in power. Overuse of those weapons, though, may yet contribute to their fall.