Congress leader Rahul Gandhi
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi interacts with children Image Credit: PTI

India’s de facto main opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi, while negating the accusation that opposition’s weakness has made it possible for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to take unilateral decisions, observed last week “give me free press and other key institutions and this government will not last long.” If it is true, it raises serious questions over the health of India’s democracy.

For over seven decades, India has been well respected throughout the world for nurturing democracy in a very inhospitable terrain of widespread poverty, illiteracy, and staggering ethnic diversity. Democracy has been India’s most potent soft power at the global power table, except for 21 months of ‘Emergency’ in the mid-1970s. Though the world has been witnessing a decline of democracy for 14 consecutive years as the Freedom House report shows, the concerns over India’s democracy is more recent.

Slide on Democracy Index

India has dropped 10 ranks to 51st position in the 2019 Democracy Index’s global ranking of the Economist Intelligence Unit. What Modi’s rule has done to India’s democracy, Trump Presidency has also done similar harm to America’s democratic standing. The Freedom House ranks the democracy in the USA behind even Greece, Slovakia, and Mauritius. The status of Indian administered Muslim-majority Kashmir, being assessed separately from India by the Freedom House, has dropped from ‘Partly Free’ to ‘Not Free’.

US is going to polls in less than a month to possibly begin a journey towards recovery. But, India and the opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi have to wait at least till 2024 to get the democracy back in the country

- Prof Ashok Swain

The decline of democratic values in the world’s most powerful democracy and the world’s most populated democracy has global implications. As the President of Freedom House, Mike Abramowitz warns, “India and the United States are the largest and perhaps the most influential democracies in the world, and their drift from liberal democratic ideals is sending exactly the wrong message.”

Unlike the past, democracies are not perishing because of military coups or radical revolutions. In their book, ‘How Democracies Die’, while drawing insightful lessons from across history and examining Trump presidency, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue: “ Democracies may die at the hands not of generals but of elected leaders — presidents or prime ministers who subvert the very process that brought them to power.”

More by Ashok Swain

Subversion of democracy

These subversions of democracy by populist authoritarians as Levitsky and Ziblatt point out take place in four ways: 1. Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game, 2. Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents, 3. Toleration or encouragement of violence, and, 4. Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media. Indian democracy is being subjected to all these subversions for the last six years.

Narendra Modi’s government, though openly doesn’t reject India’s secular constitution, it has been very open in mocking India’s secular laws and norms and strives to make India, a theocratic country. It has ignored the Constitution while taking away the limited autonomy of Kashmir and also refusing to allow citizenship to Muslim refugees. Its weak commitment to the democratic rules of the game has been manifested in while it has repeatedly refused to respect election results in several state elections like Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Goa, and Bihar and using unfair means and engineering defections captured the power.

Delegitimization of political opponents has become an industry in India. The ruling party’s IT cell has been using massive resources and taking the help of social media to personally and politically demean and defame the country’s opposition leaders, particularly Rahul Gandhi. Anyone who opposes the present regime is being branded as antinational, and being called as agents of Pakistan or China. Several intellectuals and activists, whom the regime calls ‘Urban Naxals’ or ‘Khan Market Gang’ have been put behind bars.

Violence against minorities

Under the patronage of the Modi government, violence against Muslims and other minorities is being tolerated. The lynching of Muslims and Dalits and open violence against Christians and Kashmiris have become legitimate political acts.

Finally, there is a relentless assault on freedom of speech in India. Democratic peaceful protests are being suppressed using police force and marauding party cadres. More than 20,000 civil society organisations have been banned to receive funding from foreign countries, which has even forced organisations like Amnesty to halt their works in the country. Large parts of Indian media are actively working to glorify Modi’s personality cult and deriding the opposition. All sorts of legal and illegal means are being adopted by the government to buy or bully a very small group of independent media, which are still struggling to survive in the country.

Despite having an elected leader, India’s democratic foundations have crumbled and the opposition is finding it very difficult to play its role effectively on this extremely uneven battlefield. Institutional strength and resilience have not made the health and well-being of the American democracy that bad, and the country is also going to election in less than a month to possibly begin a journey towards recovery. But, India and the opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi have to wait at least till 2024 to get the democracy back in the country.

Ashok Swain is a professor of peace and conflict research, Uppsala University, Sweden.