Most citizens support military rule in the world's largest democracy

  • A majority of Indians support military rule, according to a new Pew Research Center survey
  • Citizens want a stronger hand on the country's long-standing problems of corruption and economic inequality, experts explained

India, the world's largest democracy, is showing an appetite for military rule — a potential indicator that the country's nationalist politics are evolving.

A majority of Indians, 53 percent, support military rule, according to a Pew Research Center survey released last week. India is one of only four countries that has a majority in favor of a military government, the American think tank said. Vietnam, Indonesia, and South Africa are the other three.

Indians queuing to exchange bank notes after the government introduced demonetization in November, 2016
Indians queuing to exchange bank notes after the government introduced demonetization in November, 2016

At least 55 percent of Indians also back a governing system "in which a strong leader can make decisions without interference from parliament or the courts," the survey added, noting that support for autocratic rule is higher in India than in any other nation surveyed.

Since its first election in 1952 following the end of British colonial rule, the South Asian nation has become a multiparty government with a parliamentary system and a commitment to free elections. But like many democracies around the world, its citizens are increasingly leaning toward a leader with authoritarian tendencies.

From President Donald Trump to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, the revival of the strongman leader has been a defining trend of global politics in recent years. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who remains immensely popular at home, is no different with his hard-line stance on corruption and security.

Supporters of Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and urban dwellers "are significantly more likely" to support military rule than backers of the opposition Congress party and rural residents, the Pew Research Center survey showed.

Given India's high levels of corruption, there's a perception that recent tough measures such as demonetization have made sense, so the public now wants a stronger hand on hot-button issues such as economic inequality as well as law and order, explained Tony Nash, founder and CEO of data analytics firm Complete Intelligence.

The survey's results weren't surprising, Nash said. "Now that we're deeper into the nationalistic wave that started with leaders such as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, people are seeing that centralized decisions make progress so they're not opposed to something more dramatic."

Modi's critics often accuse his government of autocratic rule. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who is the founder of the All India Trinamool Congress political party, alleged last month that the BJP was hurting media freedom by harassing news agencies critical of New Delhi. Another common complaint directed at the BJP is its use of central agencies to interfere in provincial governments.

"In the embrace of strong leaders who promise both economic growth and stability, Asia risks a return to authoritarian rule if institutional checks and balances are not also in place," said Curtis Chin, former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank and Asia fellow at the Milken Institute.

"There is no question that these are troubling times for democracy in Asia, but long-suffering citizens want results not rhetoric. The latest Pew data may well underscore that," he said.