By Aditya Aamir
The audit of global freedom, the latest report of Freedom House, an independent think-tank that rates free countries and not-free countries, is out and India remains in the ‘free’ category, while China and Russia are not worth the thought much less the description. None of the Gulf countries, not even the UAE, which gives a truly high standard of living to its residents, is ‘free’. Saudi Arabia is an out-and-out monarchy and Crown Prince Salman is a mixture of progressive and regressive. Zimbabwe now has a chance because Robert Mugabe no longer remains at the helm. Most of the rest of Africa remains in the dark zone.
But at the end of the day, a true democracy is only a liberal democracy, the conservative-right dispensation at the top an aberration best avoided. So US President Donald Trump, who will deliver the keynote address at Davos, is the default page for all that is wrong in a world going less-free. And Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who will deliver the inaugural address, probably is off the hook because he is the friendliest head of state on the planet.
The good news for South Asia is India is no longer the only shining exception to autocracy in the region. There are countries in South Asia, Nepal for one, which are getting democratised, with only Pakistan, with an elected government “not-free” because it is completely under the thumb of its ham-handed army.
The bad news is 2017 was the 12th consecutive year in which the number of countries becoming ‘more free’ were outnumbered by those becoming ‘less free’. The fundamentals of democracy, according to the report, are “regular and honest elections, a free media, the rule of law and the rights of minorities”, all of which are under attack around the world. In three words, “democracy is in crisis”.
The Congress party can take that as a rallying cry for the 2019 elections, except that Freedom House counts India, even under BJP-rule, a beacon among democratic countries. It places India in the 80-90 percent democratic category. The United Kingdom and the United States fall in the 90-100 percent category, with only Scandinavian countries able to max. According to the report, 39 percent of the world’s 7 billion population is ‘not free’.
But the “big picture” is negative and the audit falls on default page ‘Donald Trump’ for much of why the world is retreating into ‘less-free’. The left-liberal thinker-dominated world is not inclined to give an inch to the right-surge of the last few years, which saw Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, not to mention the triumph of the ‘Hindu-nationalist’ Narendra Modi in 2014.
According to the report, from Venezuela to the Philippines, more countries have become ‘less free’, and quite a few of those counted as democracies have become dysfunctional. Tunisia is ‘troubled’. Syria is a charnel house. Turkey is autocratic and there is creeping authoritarianism in Poland and Hungary. Worldwide, attacks on “the soft guard rails” of democracy have increased – attacks on on unfettered media, independent judiciary and basic level of respect for political opponents.
On the last point, the diatribes that both the BJP and the Congress are unleashing against each other as the BJP goes for the conquest of Congress-held Karnataka would leave India on the margins of ‘less free’. Congress President Rahul Gandhi questioning the intentions behind Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s hugs and Mani Shankar Aiyar calling Modi ‘neech’ should have put India among the ‘not-free’ countries a couple months ago.
The report classifies the right’s electoral success in recent years to a resurgence of nationalism and regionalism. It says populists have exploited voter anger to win elections and the “wave” has not ended. The report alludes that populists gained currency by debunking democracy as a “sham”. Their prescriptions find resonance because the economic discontents they point to are real and the economic slowdown had put a squeeze on living standards.
The report blames western countries, which previously promoted liberal values but don’t do so with the same zeal anymore, for the retreat of democracy in many countries. Almost all democracies in Europe have become inward looking is the lament with bloody consequences for the rest of the world –Myanmar, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
America, the shining city on the hill, has the Oval Office occupied by a president, who has trashed democratic norms at home and shuns responsibility for universal human rights. Under Trump’s watch, the United States has given up its role of an enabler of democratic regimes. In the process, the anti-freedom agendas of China and Russia have got a free-run. Chinese President Xi Jinping, says the report, is intensifying repression at home and promoting the Chinese model of autocratic capitalism globally. Russian President Vladimir Putin is no less a bad influence on the world. And if the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is a threat to world peace, it is because he has examples in his neighbourhood to emulate. (IPA Service)