India’s Autocratic Democracy

Photo source: Outlook India

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

India’s democratic ideals are no more as free by nature as they were before. The country has slipped towards  repression in various forms. The country now ranks 161st on the World Press Freedom Index. Freedom House and the Economist Intelligence Unit say it is no longer a fully free democracy.

The country is the world’s biggest swing state in the struggle between democracies and autocracies. It is both the world’s largest democracy as well as a vital ally of the West in its rivalry with China.

The BJP’s leadership is widely believed to be in firm control of India’s political narrative. Due to this, some officials empowered by the political movement, who lean towards right-wing politics might even be encouraged to try out their most extreme and partisan ideas. Others will simply be confident in believing that if they act in obviously partisan ways even to the extent of undermining the ideals of their offices, they will not suffer. What might be called bottom-up illiberalism makes India look like a Hungary- or Russia-style banana republic rather than the mother of democracies it claims to be. Under Modi, India now applies dictatorship under ideals of democracy. 

In autocracy, the one thread that is common to all narratives on dictatorship is the glorification of the dictator’s personal characteristics. According to Dutch historian Frank Dikotter, every single state action, every welfare for people, and even normal administrative activity would be attributed to him. The marketplace would abound with dictator’s memorabilia. The news media must repeat his name and his likeness ad nauseam. Hoardings, medallions, portraits, and images have to proliferate. As watchers, we can see many such characteristics evident in India now.

The challenge for democracy mongers in the political arena of the world is how to get a genuine win situation for democracy in India. They not only should recruit it into their democratic alliance but should also persuade Indian leaders to reverse course and safeguard constitutional rights and freedoms. Some contend that these goals will be very tough to achieve, and others are overly optimistic that change might take its course in Indian politics, eventually. However, until India is autocratic, it will be no fast friend in the struggle against other autocracies. A sustainable alliance of anti-authoritarian regimes requires genuinely shared values.

On the contrary, Modi has been feted and praised from Canberra to Paris, for his democratic credentials. Yet, his regime continues to muzzle big media and weaponise the legal system to crack down on dissent. It has also barred nearly seventeen thousand NGOs from receiving foreign funding, from Oxfam to Delhi University.

Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi also had been the latest target of regime lawfare. He was kicked out of parliament in March 2023 after being convicted of defaming the prime minister’s name. The infamous Enforcement Directorate has increased investigations of political leaders by four hundred percent since Modi came to power, with ninety-five percent of those targeted hailing from the opposition. And all this has been for the service of a Hindu nationalist regime that has been menacing to minorities. There are many examples proving this.

Hate crimes against Muslims are up three hundred percent since Modi came to power and new legislation threatens to disenfranchise a large percentage of the country’s two hundred million Muslims.

World leaders and other opinion shapers need to go public with their concerns about Indian democracy. They should apply the adage: good friends speak hard truths. However, whenever world leaders do that, Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party will claim colonialism, bullying, and Western hypocrisy in such political dissent.

According to Ricken Patel, a chief executive of Avaaz, India will be culturally, linguistically, economically, and politically entwined with the West, and the democratic world in the future. He wrote in an Oped in LA Times: ‘authoritarians thrive on the aura of invincibility. Every time we compromise with India’s current leaders we reinforce that strongman image, and every time we criticize them we help puncture it.’

That’s why, India’s relationship has a potential to rapidly grow with the West because Western countries are ‘decoupling’ their economies from China and want to shift their industry to India.

International criticism should also remain a fair game for the Indian media to cover. It would be ethical if they do that because India’s media can become a powerful tool to reach the Indian public. This is what the BJP fears most. In fact, its political repression has been carefully hidden, and it has been twisted to win over Indian voters. Repression works well under this kind of veil, but when debunked, it can become a serious miscalculation by rapidly turning people against authoritarians.

For Modi, there is no need to raid foreign news agencies or jail opposition politicians to silence critics. It would make more sense, in fact, for Modi and other BJP leaders to push back against these things, when they claim to do things by the book, and swear by their organic popularity stemming from the propaganda of everybody’s emancipation.


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