By Gyan Pathak
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi a democrat? No one believes. Not even Modi Fan Club who claim his being a ‘strong’ ruler, an euphemistic term for ‘autocratic’. In the last one month, three international organizations came out with their reports on the status of democracy in the world, in which India badly fared, simply backsliding on democracy, especially under Modi rule since 2014. His rule has been worst for democracy, and when Rahul Gandhi twitted to express his concern and said India is no longer a democracy, he was accused of siding with the reports. It’s an irony. India should rather go through the contents to know how democracy in India is being sabotaged by the ‘strong’ leadership. It would be important more so because we will be celebrating 75th year of India’s independence only after five months.
The V-Dem Institute’s report is the most recent one of the three, which Rahul Gandhi cited while expressing his concern about deteriorating democratic conditions in the country. The report has opined, “The world’s largest democracy turned into an electoral autocracy”. The report clearly refused India to be a “democracy”, and therefore saying India is no more a democracy [according to the report] by Rahul Gandhi cannot be said incorrect, and it is in no way siding with the report. It is just a concern of a most potent of the leaders against Narendra Modi, though far behind in his political support base.
Is it not a matter of serious concern for a citizen of India to know that India is among the top 10 decliners of the world as per the V-Dem’s report? “There are alarming reports of harassment of journalists covering Covid-19 in India,” it was mentioned. India’s democratic decline, which led to a transition to an electoral autocracy in 2019, was specifically made a point because the country now hold 43 per cent of the global population. It was a sharp increase in autocratisation is just six years of Modi rule.
India recently lost its status as an ‘electoral democracy’ and has become ‘electoral autocracy’ because its Liberal Democratic Index (LDI) has declined from 0.57 in 2010 to 0.34 in 2020, following the government led by Prime Minister placing restrictions on multiple facets of democracy such as civil society and free speech, the report has observed while giving its details. Among the top ten autocratising countries, India occupies the seventh position, and no country in South Asia was performing so badly. India’s autocratisation process has largely followed the typical pattern … a gradual deterioration where freedom of media, academia, and civil society were curtailed first and to the greatest extent.
While comparing autocratisation in India with Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, the report said, “… most of the decline occurred following BJP’s victory (2014) and their promotion of a Hindu-nationalist agenda. India’s level of liberal democracy registered at 0.34 by the end of 2020 after a steep decline since its high at 0.57 in 2013. That represents a 23-percentage point drop on the 0 to 1 LDI scale, making it one of the most dramatic shifts among all countries in the world over the past 10 years, alongside autocratising countries like Brazil, Hungary, and Turkey.”
The various indicators responsible for such a fall in democracy leading to autocratisation typically range from 0 to 4 and a drop of two full points on that scale represents a dramatic shift towards autocracy. Notably, the autonomy of the election management body is found in top group. This captures a severe depreciation since around 2013 and signals the decline in the quality of critical formal institutions. The overall freedom and fairness of elections (“Elections free and fair”) also was hard hit, with the last elections held under Prime Minister Modi’s reign in 2019, precipitating a downgrading to an electoral autocracy.
Yet, the diminishing of freedom of expression, the media, and civil society have gone the furthest. The Indian government rarely, if ever, used exercise censorship as evidenced by its score of 3.5 out of 4 before Modi became Prime Minister. By 2020, this score is close to 1.5 meaning that censorship efforts are becoming routine and no longer even restricted to sensitive (to the government) issues. India is, in this aspect, now as autocratic as is Pakistan, and worse than both its neighbours Bangladesh and Nepal. In general, the Modi-led government in India has used laws on sedition, defamation, and counterterrorism to silence critics. For example, over 7000 people have been charged with sedition after the BJP assumed power and most of the accused are critics of the ruling party.
The law on defamation, upheld in India’s Supreme Court in May 2016, has been used frequently to silence journalists and news outlets that take exception to policies of the BJP government. The punishment for critical messaging range from two years in prison to life imprisonment for “words, spoken or written, or signs or visible representation that can cause “hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection” toward the government.
Modi and his party have placed constraints on civil society and have gone against the constitution’s commitment to secularism, the report stated. Recently the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) has been used also to silence dissent in academia. Universities and authorities have also punished students and activists in universities engaging in protests against Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The CAA was passed in the Parliament of India in December 2019. It makes it possible for illegal immigrants that are Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, or Christian to become citizens while denying it to Muslims. Arguably, the bill violates the constitution, which prohibits discrimination by religion.
Civil society is also being muzzled in the autocratisation process. The indicators gauging the level of repression of civil society organization (CSO) and the government’s control of which organizations are allowed to exist (“CS0 entry and exit) capture that sever deterioration. Meanwhile, civil society organizations aligning themselves with the Hindutva movement have gained more freedom. The BJP have increasingly used the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA) to restrict entry, exit and functioning of CSOs. The FCRA was amended in September 2020 to further constrain the use of foreign contributions to NGOs in India. These developments are among the instances contributing to the descent into electoral authoritarianism in what used to be the world’s largest democracy. BJP among the worst political parties on Anti-pluralism index due to which India lost its status of democracy in 2019, the other three are the Pis of Poland, HFP of Hangary, and AKP of Turkey which have lost their democratic status earlier.
Only a few days ago another international organization Freedom House had released its “Freedom in the World 2021” report. In their assessment India dropped from “Free” to “Partly Free” status. The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and its state-level allies continued to crack down on critics during the year, and their response to COVID-19 included a hamfisted lockdown that resulted in the dangerous and unplanned displacement of millions of internal migrant workers.
The report further stated that the ruling Hindu nationalist movement also encouraged by scapegoating of Muslims, who were disproportionately blamed for the spread of the virus and faced attacks by vigilant mobs. Rather than serving as a champion of democratic practice and counterweight to authoritarian influence from countries such as China, Modi and his party are tragically driving India itself toward authoritarianism. India is among the 39 countries of the world where Freedom House noted major protests, out of which 23 further declined in 2020. Protests were taken by surprise, regained their footing, arresting and prosecuting demonstrators, passing newly restrictive laws, and in some cases resorting to brutal crackdowns.
Freedom House found India’s condition particularly damaging for the global democracy. Political rights and civil liberties in the country have deteriorated since Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014, the report said, with increased pressure on human rights organizations, rising intimidation of academics and journalists, and a spate of bigoted attacks, including lynchings, aimed at Muslims. The decline only accelerated after Modi’sr election in 2019.
Democracy Index prepared by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) came with its report for 2020 in February in which India reported to have slipped two places to 53rd rank in the world and against 51st in 2019. The report termed it the “democratic backsliding” by authorities and said the “crackdowns” on civil liberties has led to further decline in the country’s ranking. India’s overall score fell from 6.9 in 2019 to 6.61 in 2020. “With mounting pressure on India’s democratic norms, India’s score fell from a peak of 7.92 in 2014 to 6.61 in 2020 and its global ranking slipped from 27th (in 2014) to 53rd as a result of democratic backsliding” under the current regime, the EIU said. It classified India as a ‘flawed democracy’ the next category after ‘full democracy’.
The report further said that the Narendra Modi-led government has “introduced a religious element to the conceptualization of Indian citizenship, a step that many critics see as undermining the secular basis of the Indian state”. The report further said, “The authorities’ handling of the coronavirus pandemic led to a further erosion of civil liberties in 2020.”