A royal crown. Photo: iStock
A royal crown. Photo: iStock

Modern leaders – whether in democratic India or communist China – feel nostalgic for the days of autocracy, rule by one person with the absolute power to transform the nation in accordance with their individual vision without any political and legal obstacles.

Paul M Johnson, in his A Glossary of Political Economy Terms, defines autocracy “as a system of government in which supreme political power directs all activities of the state and is concentrated in the hands of one person whose decisions are subject to neither external legal restraints nor regularized mechanism of popular control, except perhaps for the threat of coup d’état or mass insurrections.”

The election of Xi Jinping as president, effectively for life, by the Chinese Communist Party, which recently abolished term limits, has ignited a conversation about how modern leaders are heading toward autocracy. Now Xi can stay in power when his term expires in 2023.

In India, the agenda of the BJP government led by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi is to create oppositionless democracy. During the last four years, the BJP has relentlessly attacked opposition parties and leaders, implicating them in politically motivated corruption cases, manipulating them into merging with the BJP or working secretly to bring about their demise.

It is quite evident that Xi is now the most powerful leader of China since Mao Zedong. At the 19th Party Congress last October, two crucial decisions were made: one, “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for New Era” was added to the party’s charter; and second, no immediate successor to Xi was selected, which is a deviation from political tradition. Xi is the absolute ruler of China, controlling the party, the government and the military. In 2016, Xi was conferred with “Core Leader” stature, and like Deng Xiaoping, who is credited with China’s economic rise, Xi has strengthened its position on the global power map.

Unlike Xi, Modi’s rise is attributed to his pro-Hindutva policy during and after the 2002 Gujarat communal riots, in which more than 2,000 Muslims were butchered, and which earned him the title “Hindu Hriday Samrat” (Monarch of the Hindu Heart). As chief minister of the Indian state between 2002 and 2007, he was accorded the title “Vikas Purush” (Development Man). His popularity soared high enough that his supporters built a temple in Rajkot city in Gujarat, where he is worshipped as a deity. As a diehard RSS missionary, Modi aims to convert the Indian parliamentary system into a presidential monarchy like that of the erstwhile rulers of ancient Indian states

Interestingly, both Xi and Modi, like autocratic rulers in the Middle East, harp on about rooting out corruption in the political system, which means, in the current parlance, that previous governments were too corrupt to ever be permitted to hold power again.

In 2012, when Xi was made the general secretary of the Communist Party of China, he launched an all-out anti-corruption drive aimed at purging political leaders, businessmen, military officials and members of other elite classes, thus presenting himself as clean enough to preside over a future “China Dream.” Meanwhile, Modi is famous in India for the motto “Na khaunga na khane dunga” (Neither I will take bribe nor allow anyone to do so), and in all election rallies in 2014 he lampooned opposition leaders or directed his salvos as if only he and his party men were pious hermits, and hence eligible to govern the country and shout the “Make in India” slogan.

To crush their opponents, both Xi and Modi have successfully used the media as a propaganda tool to highlight the accomplishments of the ruling party while underscoring the failures of the opposition and the threats they pose to the security of the nation in opposing the government’s policies

To crush their opponents, both Xi and Modi have successfully used the media as a propaganda tool to highlight the accomplishments of the ruling party while underscoring the failures of the opposition and the threats they pose to the security of the nation in opposing the government’s policies.

Xi has demanded that the newspapers and TV and radio stations be loyal to his government, while Modi communicates with the people via a national radio program called  “Mann Ki Baat” (Talk from the Heart). By attracting a large number of followers on social media, Modi, like a cult leader, has been able to brainwash a large section of the population, mostly students and teenagers, to follow him like an apparatchik. For self-promotion and image-building, Xi has made 39 foreign trips so far while Modi has made 37, and has even made a point of mocking the opposition while abroad.

While the Chinese leader is the head of his party, the government, and the military, enjoying absolute power over everything in his country, his Indian counterpart is burning the midnight oil to secure a similar level of authority.

Both portray themselves as simple men working for the poor: while Xi makes a point of mixing with ordinary people (for example, his famous visit to a simple dumpling shop in Beijing in 2014), Modi highlights his love of children (he wrote Exam Warriors, a book for students) and is ultimately trying to be seen as Hindutva philosopher. With strong media support, both Xi and Modi have been successful in achieving cult figure status, a significant step toward autocracy.

Via the Chinese messaging app WeChat, Li Datong, a former editor for the state-run China Youth Daily, commented that lifting term limits for Xi would “sow the seeds of chaos.” No term limits on the country’s highest leader means China is moving towards an imperial regime once again, while the BJP in India nurses the long-cherished dream of changing the Constitution of India to make way for an autocratic Maharaja (great king).

In the name of fighting corruption, eliminating poverty and transforming their countries in accordance with their peculiar visions, more and more world leaders are taking their nations back to the medieval era. Fearing violent repercussions, the people keep silent.

M Shamsur Rabb Khan is assistant professor in the Department of English, King Khalid University, Abha, Saudi Arabia. He specializes in security issues, foreign relations and terrorism. He is writing a book on right-wing terror in India.

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