Thursday, Aug 11, 2022

Is India’s Democracy Safe At The Time Of A Global Democratic Recession?

Indian democracy is still vulnerable with a number of soft spots. Country’s regional and ethnic divides and economic underdevelopment continue to pose challenges...

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The non-profit and non-partisan Washington-based Freedom House in its recent report “Freedom in the World 2018” warns that democracy in the world is facing its most serious crisis in decades . Political rights and civil liberties have declined in seventy-one countries in 2017 while only 35 countries have witnessed some progress in these areas.

This downward global trend for democracy is not a new development, it has been continuing on this path since 2006. In the last 12 years, total 113 countries have experienced reverses in their democratic transition processes compared to net improvement by only 62 countries.

Not only young democracies like Turkey, Hungary and Myanmar who had brought much hope in recent years for global democratic development are turning back to authoritarian rule, the rise of anti-immigrant populism in European countries like France, UK, the Netherlands, Germany and Austria have also brought serious worries over the deteriorating health of these developed democracies.

Expectedly, the Freedom House report laments over the rapid democratic decline in Trump’s United States of America. While the USA, the leader of the free world, is retreating from being the champion and model of democracy, the authoritarian leaders like Putin in Russia and Xi in China are becoming stronger at home and more influential abroad.

In its country report on India (which excludes Kashmir), though the ‘freedom score’ remains 77 out of 100, same as previous year, Freedom House raises some serious concerns over the deteriorating quality of Indian democracy.

Corruption in politics and business, media censorship and attacks against minorities, Dalits and tribal population are being mentioned as main challenges for India’s democratic progress. Freedom House report criticizes Modi government for not appointing Lokpal and diluting the RTI Act, which could have improved transparency and helped to expose and control corruption. 

Increasing politician-business nexus is blamed for lowering of public confidence on media, and at the same time, report points out government’s silence over journalists facing increasing harassment, threats and physical violence.  Colonial era sedition law is being used by the Modi government to target political opponents. Cow related violence against Muslims have increased and communal tensions are also being deliberately created for electoral mobilizations.

Violent activities in university campuses by RSS’s student wing ABVP and religious and cultural intimidations have adversely affected academic freedom in the country.  Modi government’s ban on 11,000 NGOs to receive foreign grants has affected theses NGOs to pursue their activities in human rights and governance issues. Security forces fighting against insurgencies in the Northeast and Maoist areas are accused of being engaged in extra judicial killings, rapes, torture, arbitrary detention. Reports on various forms of discrimination and violence against women, Dalits, scheduled tribes, LGBT community have become particularly worrisome. A full report by the Freedom House on Indian administered Kashmir is yet to be released. However, the freedom score is only 49 in the Indian part of the Kashmir Valley compared to 77 for the rest of the country.

Considering the on-going democratic recession in the world and particularly in India’s neighborhood, this year’s Freedom House report should ring alarm bells for India.

Vladimir Putin has been the supreme leader of Russia since 2000 and has been controversially reelected again last week to remain President for another six years.  In China, I remember attending a closed-door meeting of selected political scientists at Shanghai on the occasion of 90th Anniversary celebration of Chinese Communist Party in 2011, in which the discussion was primarily over the transition of the Communist Party to a multi-party system in the country.

Seven years is a long time, even in China’s politics. Forget the democratic transition, the Chinese President Xi Jinping last month even changed country’s constitution to pave the way for him to remain President for life. In Pakistan, which had witnesses a peaceful democratic transition for the first time in 2013, its popularly elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been removed through a judicial coup in July 2017. Bangladesh’s transition to democracy, which has been going on since 1990 looks more fragile now than any time in the last 28 years. Ruling party’s forceful marginalization of opposition and large influx of Rohingya refugees to the country have pushed the reverse gear for the country’s democratic progress. Aung San Suu Kyi, who was world’s hope for a democratic Myanmar in 2016 is now being accused of committing genocide for following a “scorched earth policy”.

In the small island nation Maldives, democracy has already drowned. Freedom House has even put Afghanistan in its watch list because of country’s failure to prepare for the election in 2018. Among India’s neighbors, according to Freedom House, Nepal only has shown an upward trend in its democratic journey, though its recent election has brought communists to power. 

It is true that India has been able to remain as a democratic country for the last seven decades proving many political analysts wrong. At least, the first four decades of its democratic journey has been in a very inhospitable regional as well as global environment. In spite of the country’s long commitment to democracy and repeated peaceful transition of power, Indian democracy is still vulnerable with a number of soft spots. Country’s regional and ethnic divides and economic underdevelopment continue to pose challenges. The large youth population at present is getting restless in the absence of satisfactory economic opportunities. Over and above, as the western liberal democracies are now virtually under siege from a resurgence of ethno-nationalism, India is also witnessing a full power display of its religious nationalist forces. This sort of crisis in flawed democracies provide the opportunity for the so-called ‘strong men’ to capture the power as Putin has done it in Russia and Erdogan in Turkey. When democracy in in a country like USA is under threat under Donald Trump and as Freedom House reports of an accelerating decline in political rights and civil liberties in America, it will be unwise to feel confident at this point of time about the future of democracy in India.

(The writer is professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden)