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This piece was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been updated and republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.
Last week, Narendra Modi told the world that democracy was born in Ìndia, but nobody seized this opportunity to ask whether it is also flourishing in its birthplace. The question needs to be asked because all the institutions measuring the level of democracy across the world have noticed that India has entered a phase of de-democratisation.
The decline of democracy in India is well documented, year after year, by a wide range of surveys. In 2018, the Varieties of Democracy Institute described India as an “electoral democracy” (and not a “liberal democracy”) because of an “autocratisation process” that found expression in “a partial closing of the space for civil society,” including NGOs and the media, and in a decline of political transparency. The 2019 Democracy Index of The Economist Intelligence Unit showed that India had slipped 10 places in the 2019 global ranking to 51st place, behind South Africa, Malaysia, Colombia and Argentina. In this index, India was now part of the “flawed democracies,” because of “an erosion of civil liberties in the country”. In 2020, in its yearly report, Freedom House pointed out that India earned “the largest score decline among the world’s 25 most populous democracies.” As a result, India is now placed among “countries in the spotlight’’, along with Haiti, Iran, Nigeria, Sudan, Tunisia, Turkey, Hong Kong and Ukraine.
India has been losing ground on press freedom since 2014. Its ranking in the annual World Press Freedom index of Reporters without Borders slipped by nine spots between 2016 and 2020, when it was ranked 142 out of 180 countries. Freedom House partly justified its own ranking of India – which is only partly based on press freedom ― by emphasising, “Authorities have used security, defamation, sedition and hate speech laws, as well as contempt of court charges, to curb critical voices in the media. Hindu nationalist campaigns aimed at discouraging forms of expression deemed ‘anti-national’ have exacerbated self-censorship…”
In spite of these converging views, no Western government is raising the issue with Narendra Modi, as is evident from the harmonious relations that the Indian prime minister has been cultivating with American and European statesmen in New York, on the occasion of the UNGA. Kamala Harris has simply sent him a gentle reminder about what democracy implies in terms of human rights – by using words even milder than those Anthony Blinken had used during his July visit to India.
Why is the West so complacent? Because it needs India to balance China in the Indo-Pacific and more generally speaking because “the other side” is now forming an ever larger coalition around China and Russia, which is naturally seen as a bigger evil. In this context, the West is seeing India as a pivotal state in a rather transactional manner. The same logic applied in the past to the pivotal state of Pakistan during the Cold War: the fact that the country was ruled by the army after military coups in 1958-1970 and 1977-1988 did not deter the US from relying on it for containing the USSR.
These episodes reveal the pragmatism ― and even realpolitik ― of the world’s oldest modern democracy, and of most of its European allies. Inevitably, such a cynical view of international relations has badly affected the credibility of the Western commitment to democracy. To a large extent, Westerners are shooting themselves in the foot by not defending their core values, their main asset in terms of soft power – and even their raison d’être.
Christophe Jaffrelot teaches at King’s College London and Sciences Po, Paris. His latest book is Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy.