Most people in India have never heard of Alberto Fujimori. But he is making somewhat of a whispered comeback in political and academic circles.
Fujimori was the president of Peru for ten years from 1990 to 2000. He had suddenly emerged on to Peru’s political scene with his party, Change 90, in an era of radical divide between rich landowners and the campesino (peasants) resulting in years of guerrilla warfare. He won the 1990 election with a populist message of security and economic prosperity. While Peru’s economy under Fujimori flourished for the rich, the poor suffered as the country was quickly mired in massive inflation.
Increasingly frustrated with the legislature, Fujimori staged a coup with military support, declaring a state of emergency, dissolving the Congress, and calling for a new constitution. Fujimori’s political allies subsequently won a majority of legislative seats, which allowed the president to rule nearly unopposed. His government also began to conduct secretive military trials of suspected guerrillas.
Even when it was clear that Fujimori was behind a number of assassinations and death squads, a majority of Peruvians continued to vote for him, leading many political scientists worldwide to label his regime as “electoral authoritarianism.”
Fujimori is now in prison and Peru is under democratic governance, but the Fujimori effect is what we now see around the world.
“Electoral authoritarianism,” write political scientists Todd Landman and Neil Robinson, “is authoritarian instincts behind electoral façade.” Like Fujimori, often these politicians advocate messages that, in print, sound popular but when in power they do little to implement said policies. They also treat electoral exercise as theatrics, demonising the Opposition using egregious language and making outlandish promises. Once in power they try to squash all dissent including and foremost existence of a free press, threaten the Opposition with prison terms, and even, as in the case of Fujimori, try to hijack future elections.
It is difficult to predict how much of Fujimori—or an “electoral authoritarian”—Narendra Modi will turn out to be, but current analyses seem to suggest that he, like Trump, Johnson, Erdogan, Orban, Netanyahu, Duterte among other leaders, are a new breed of Fujimori lookalikes who have won elections promoting non-democratic ideas and exclusionary politics. Because they share similar paths to power, they also share instinctual affinity.
While he is less forthcoming about others, Modi’s affinity towards Western electoral authoritarians is particularly notable.
Days before his landslide win this month, Conservative party leader Boris Johnson issued a letter to highlight his “personal relationship with Prime Minister Modi” and promised to deliver a “truly special UK-India relationship.” “When I was with Prime Minister Modi I stressed that the UK and India are two modern democracies who should work closely together to promote trade and prosperity, improve global security and tackle the challenges our countries face,” Johnson wrote in the letter addressed to the British Indian voters.
During a campaign visit to the London’s Swaminarayan Temple Johnson referred to Prime Minister Modi as “Narendra bhai” and talked about standing “shoulder to shoulder” with India against cross-border terrorism and supporting the Indian leader in his quest to “build a new India.”
Modi’s endorsement came in the form of a Conservative party promotional video titled “Boris ko hamein jitana hai” (We must help Boris win) set to a song with lyrics in Hindi and images of Modi and the Indian high commissioner. Johnson’s race-baiting anti-immigrant comments during his tenure as London’s mayor were conveniently forgotten as was his pro-Brexit rhetoric of dog whistle xenophobia.
Modi and Johnson may personally share a bond, but does it mean that the Conservative party, a party of imperial ambitions and historically premised racist policies, will suddenly throw a welcome mat at the Indian diaspora? Highly unlikely. A promise by pro-Brexiters during the European Union referendum of 2016 was that a “leave” vote would secure more working visas for South Asians to work in Britain’s curry industry. Following the vote, the visas did not materialise. More recently, Indian students were left off the list of international students who would have easier access to UK student visas. There is no indication that Modi and Johnson’s bhaigiri would translate to anything policy-wise that would benefit India or its diaspora.
More than Johnson, Modi’s embrace of President Trump is far ebullient, but equally hard to fathom for the layperson.
Long before the “Howdy Modi” concert in Houston and Modi’s effervescent scream, “Ab ki baar Trump sarkar”, at the event—seemingly endorsing Trump’s 2020 reelection—he had fondly spoken of a special relationship with Trump. In a May interview with Rajat Sharma of India TV, Modi spoke of his affinity towards Trump. “When I first met President Trump we spent about nine hours in the White House. He specially took me to the room where Abraham Lincoln lived. I was very impressed. There was so much love,” he had said.
While he mentioned the Obamas it was Trump, Modi insisted, who had treated him like a “family member”. His lengthy comments were entirely about Trump’s personality rather than a president with whom he was expected to negotiate on behalf of India.
The bond between Modi and Trump has left most policy mavens scratching their heads. Unlike Johnson’s rhetoric, there is nothing in Trump’s vocabulary which ever purported to help India and the Indian American diaspora who overwhelmingly voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 elections. Trump is an overt no-holds-barred hard line conservative who has attacked the existence of the H1B visa programme and family reunification visas on which most Indians have depended to immigrate to the United States. Currently H1B issuance and renewals are at an all-time low with Indian immigrants facing long and excruciating waits to get green cards.
So what could be the basis of such affinity?
Electoral authoritarians not only recognise the path each of them has taken to get where they are, but also respect each other for the rules they break on the way. Unlike Xi of China or MBS of Saudi Arabia, who preside by decree over their disenfranchised populations, Modi, Trump and Johnson understand that electoral authoritarians share a unique brand of governance and circuitous paths to power.
Such camaraderie may spell well for their own electoral continuity and consolidation, it is bad for the continuity of global democracy.
Shakuntala Rao teaches at the Department of Communication Studies, State University of New York, Plattsburgh. The views are personal.