At the G-7 meet of the world’s richest nations in sea-tossed Cornwall, England, last weekend, democracy and liberal values took centrestage. It was a change from the four previous acrimonious summits, where Donald Trump’s accusations against Europe got prominence. US President Joe Biden is committed to promoting democracy, and with the US taking the lead and Western democracies supporting the move, there is renewed vigour on liberal values.
As the world grapples with the pandemic and authoritarian regimes use it to curb freedom, China’s treatment of its minorities comes into sharper focus. Keeping in mind China’s assertive behaviour, the G-7 is asserting the value of open societies as envisaged in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Democracies like India, South Africa and South Korea are invitees to the Outreach Session of the G-7.
PM Narendra Modi took part in it virtually. Additional secretary in the MEA P. Harish said Modi spoke at the third session, on ‘Open Societies and Open Economics’. “PM was the lead speaker in this session and highlighted India’s civilisational commitment to democracy, freedom of thought and liberty. As the world’s largest democracy, India is a natural ally of G7…to defend these shared values from…authoritarianism, terrorism and violent extremism, disinformation and infodemics and economic coercion.” The PM also “shared the concern that open societies are particularly vulnerable to disinformation and cyber-attacks, and stressed the need to ensure that cyberspace remains an avenue for advancing democratic values and not subverting it,” the MEA said.
Thus, the prime minister waxed eloquent on free speech, internet freedom and the freedom to protest peacefully as part of the democratic values he promotes abroad. Similarly, Quad too was first conceived by Shinzo Abe as a gathering of democratic nations playing by the rules, unlike authoritarian China.
The right noises have served India well diplomatically, but its human rights record has been sharply criticised since 2014. While abroad the government expatiates loudly on India’s democratic credentials, at home the BJP-led regime is intolerant of criticism and stifles dissent. However, in the post-Trump world, scrutiny of India’s much-touted liberal values in everyday practice will intensify. The progressive wing of the Democratic Party in the US will shrilly call out any abuse. As India gets closer to the US and the West, the Modi government needs to watch its back.
Many in India were amused by Modi’s address on open societies. Trinamool MP Mahua Maitra tweeted: “Irony just died a thousand deaths.” Ambassador K.C. Singh pointed out: “Deeds more than words matter.” Others wondered if freedom of expression was for the rest of the world, but not for critics at home. Modi’s words on a free internet is rich with irony too, considering 4G services were shut down for 18 months after Kashmir’s special status was scrapped.
“It is a reflection of the change in guard in the White House,” says human rights activist Subhas Chakma, commenting on Modi’s speech. “However, the duplicity will be caught soon unless there are substantive changes to put an end to repressive policies. The litmus test is holding polls in Kashmir. If statehood will be eventually restored, there was no case for turning it into a Union territory.’’
Like all nations, New Delhi has to balance its domestic agenda and foreign policy imperatives. While Biden has to stress his agenda of human rights, he knows well the role New Delhi can play to advance US strategy on China. According to Observer Research Foundation’s Harsh Pant, Washington wants India to have a pivotal role in Asia. “A values-driven India brings a lot to the table. Otherwise, Biden would not go out of his way to woo India. So despite shades of grey and issues of human rights, US wants India on its side,” he says. So, though domestic compulsions will lead Biden to pressure India, realpolitik would draw him closer to it. The Modi government knows this well.