Democracy on Ballot in 2024: Billions Ask ‘Who Are You’

Shankkar Aiyar
5 min readJan 7, 2024

Pete Townshend’s hit single is the anthem for 2024 as 50 nations go to polls. Identity is the new ‘ism’. The results — especially Taiwan — will define the future. The world is faced with competing crises. The process of resolution in democracy is chaotic and is showcased by China to promote its alternate OS. If faith in democracy is to survive its evangelists must enable a renaissance.

By Shankkar Aiyar | The Third Eye | Published: 07th January 2024 |

Who are you? A chance encounter at a bar in 1964 triggered legendary rocker Pete Townshend to convert the existential question into a hit single ‘Who Are You’. Over time, the song has evolved into an anthem challenging listeners to question their identities and values. The question is verily the theme song defining the context of contemporary politics. Identity has overtaken ideals as campaigns focus on ‘who are you’ illuminating both the elected and the elector.

In 2024, the future of democracy is on the ballot. Beginning this Sunday in Bangladesh, over 50 countries across the world with a population of around 4 billion or roughly half the world’s population, will vote to determine who will govern their nations. The countries going to poll include the world’s largest democracy, India, and the world’s oldest democracy, the US; among the others are Taiwan, Indonesia, Pakistan, United Kingdom, South Africa, Mexico and Russia.

Not all democracies are equally democratic. In Bangladesh, the elections have been boycotted by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Exiled opposition leader Tarique Rahman dubbed it as a sham and said it would be inappropriate to participate in a poll with a predetermined outcome. In Pakistan, where polls are scheduled for the first week of February, Imran Khan, in a signed article written from prison and published in The Economist, declared that democracy was under siege and that the elections could be a farce.

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Elsewhere, challenge is ensured despite scepticism. In Russia, where Vladimir Putin is contesting for a fifth term as president, Russia’s national election commission has approved the candidature of two challengers — Leonid Slutsky of the Liberal Democratic Party and Vladislav Davankov of the New People Party — on the ballot for the March 15 election. In 2018, the main opposition leader Alexei Navalny was barred and Putin won 76 percent of the votes. The outcome is expected to be similar in 2024.

Contests are often portrayed as a do-or-die binary. On Friday, US President Joe Biden, who is pitted against twice-impeached Republican front-runner Donald Trump, told Americans, “Whether democracy is still America’s sacred cause is what the 2024 election is all about.” Trump responded by calling Biden’s rally a “pathetic, fear-mongering campaign event”.

Democracy demands choice. The median age of the US population is around 38 years. Biden is 81 years old and Trump is 77. Unsurprisingly, polls reveal that 70 percent of the respondents don’t want Biden and 60 percent do not want Trump as their next president.

In India, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi at a campaign rally presented the contest as one between his party’s vision of empowerment and the BJP’s ideology of hate and inequality. The president of the party, Mallikarjun Kharge, observed, “If the BJP and RSS came to power again, democracy will be finished.” Modi, seen on cue for a third term, rejected such claims and pointed out, “These claims not only insult the intelligence of the Indian people but also underestimate their deep commitment to values like diversity and democracy.”

Increasingly, the contests are less about the isms of ideology and more about ethno-identities and socio-cultural schisms. In the UK, for instance, the Rishi Sunak regime has ratcheted up the rhetoric on immigration with disastrous results in a quest to regain lost ground. This year will also see elections for the European parliament. Despite an ageing population which needs new workers and immigrants, voters are voting for anti-immigration parties. The influence of populist propaganda presented by far right groups is visible in Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Slovakia and indeed in France.

It is useful to remember that the contours of democracy are traced by voters convinced by contextual popular persuasions. The messaging by Adolf Hitler ensured voters elected the Nazis and sustained the reign of the third Reich. In India, voters reverted to Indira Gandhi in 1980 despite the experience of Emergency. The rise of Trumpism illustrates the power of the victim-vs-villain narrative.

Beyond the rough and tumble of national politics, upheavals in democracies matter for the survival of the rules-based world order. In a week’s time, Taiwan goes to the polls. The contest is effectively between a pro-China opposition alliance of Kuomintang and Taiwan People’s Party, which have vowed to restart talks with China, and the independent Taiwan stance of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party. The outcome has serious geopolitical implications.

The construct of the democratic state is of recent vintage — the oldest democracy, the US, was effectively established in 1789. Politics in the US has yo-yoed from isolationism to internationalism to isolationism, from New Deal liberalism to neo-liberalism. The swing from thesis to anti-thesis and back is typical of democracies.

ALSO READ| 2024: Resolutions for India amid global disorder

The world is confronted by a confluence of competing disruptions in climate change, demography and adoption of technology. The emerging constituency of grief merits attention, but campaigns are focussed on painting phantoms.

The process of resolutions in a democracy is unwieldy, unpredictable and tumultuous. As this column has observed, chaos makes the idea of order seductive. The spectre of chaos is showcased by Chinese President Xi Jinping and his ilk to promote their operating systems.

If faith in democracy is to be sustained, its evangelists must bridge the gap between the electors and the elected, and enable a renaissance.

Shankkar Aiyar, political economy analyst, is author of ‘Accidental India’, ‘Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12-Digit Revolution’ and ‘The Gated Republic –India’s Public Policy Failures and Private Solutions’.

You can email him at shankkar.aiyar@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @ShankkarAiyar. This column was first published here. His previous columns can be found here.

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Shankkar Aiyar

Journalist-Analyst. Author of ‘Accidental India, ‘Áadhaar: A Biometric History’ and ‘The Gated Republic’. Studying how politics rules the economics of people!