India: An Illiberal Democracy

India: An Illiberal Democracy

As India completes 74 years of its independence, it seems to be witnessing an erosion of core liberal and democratic values. In a 2017 article for the Financial Times, Ashutosh Varshney described an illiberal democracy as “a regime which only pays attention to elections, while it violates some core democratic principles, especially freedom of expression.” Ignoring constitutional limits of power and depriving citizens of basic liberties, he continues, such a regime sees elections as the only measure of democracy and, after gaining office, it pursues power without restraint. 

Since the very day it got independence from British rule, India declared itself a liberal democracy, adopting its Constitution in 1950. Elections at federal and state levels have been held regularly in a competitive multiparty system. The transfer of power between governments had also been peaceful so far. On the basis of the conduct of fair elections and upholding political rights and civil liberties, the Freedom in the World 2021 report by Freedom House designated India as Free for 20 consecutive years. The signs of democratic erosion started to appear once the BJP came to power in 2014. While Modi has, to some extent, succeeded in controlling corruption and strengthening economic reform, his government has so far neglected a number of challenges to India’s democracy.

India had been praised internationally as a role model for upholding human rights and freedom of expression, but its experience with democracy and liberalism is far from perfect. Home to complex mix of different ideologies, religions, and ethnic groups, India has historically been a segmented nation.  With the rise of right-wing nationalist populism, Indian democracy has been seriously challenged. This has seen elected leaders eroding social norms, suppressing freedom of expression and undermining the very liberal ethics of a society. With the rise of the BJP and Modi coming into power, the perversion of Indian democracy and its descent into authoritarianism has become all the more prominent. The active mobilization of anti-Muslim and anti-minority sentiment, the rejection of core democratic principles such as equality of all citizens, sectarian tensions, the rise of Hindutva ideology, mob attacks, violence against Muslims, and the bending of India’s judicial system to the wishes of politicians, are all the elements which are very much working against the very definition of India as a liberal democracy.

The emerging trend of India’s deteriorating democratic system has now become part of the global discourse. In 2020, the Financial Times held a festival of ideas where more than 100 of the world’s brightest minds gathered and discussed major global issues. India was named during the event as the world’s largest “illiberal democracy”. The label came after Freedom House downgraded India’s status in its 2021 report from “free country” to “partly free” due to rising violence and discriminatory policies against minorities specifically Muslims.

Moreover, a Sweden-based institute V-Dem has said that India is no longer an ‘electoral democracy’, classifying the country as an ‘electoral autocracy’ instead, noting that much of the decline in democratic freedoms occurred after the BJP’s victory in 2014.

Days after the release of the Freedom House report, Yogi Adityanath, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh and member of the BJP, declared secularism “the biggest threat to India’s tradition of getting recognition on the global stage.” India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru laid the foundations of a pluralist and secular Indian nation. He had envisioned India as a nation whose citizenship laws would institutionalize unity in diversity and one where institutions would defend democracy. But unfortunately, under Modi’s rule, Nehru’s idea received a deep blow when the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was passed in Dec 2019 and made religion the basis of citizenship in open contradiction to the Constitution.

Institutional autonomy is also under constant threat in India. The media has become major tool in the hands of Modi’s government and is being used by BJP fanatics for advancing and promoting their Hindu nationalist agenda. Recently, CBC News spoke to 18 Canadian academics who say they had been harassed or threatened by those supporting Hindu nationalism. Their harassment ranged from abusive emails to death and rape threats. Likewise, a group of academics recently quit the Australia-India Institute at Melbourne University, citing concerns for academic freedom, and alleging interference by the Indian High Commission. The academics claim there was a reluctance to publicise commentary on caste and race, and that official events had “carried the flavour of propaganda”. Another example of Disha Ravi, a young environmental activist who shared a manual protest with the farmers against the government policies, shows how brazen the government under Modi is in silencing the critical voices.

Modi’s fanaticism does not stop here; it is expanding at the regional level too.  On 23rd April 2022, the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) advised students from India and overseas Indian citizens against pursuing higher education in Pakistan. The advisory says, “All concerned are advised not to travel to Pakistan for pursuing higher education. Any Indian national or overseas citizen of India who intends to take admission to any degree college or educational institution of Pakistan shall not be eligible for seeking employment or higher studies in India based on such educational qualifications (in any subject) acquired in Pakistan.”

India’s so called foundational credentials as a liberal democracy are fast eroding. Instances related to democratic backsliding are not new in the country. However, the danger has become very real under the Modi government. In its pursuit of Hindu majoritarianism, the Modi government is nullifying the very founding concept of India as a liberal democratic nation. India’s march towards an illiberal democracy is proceeding with alarming implications. Home to 204 million Muslims (constituting the largest religious minority), the country has miserably failed in providing them and other minority groups the confidence of living in an independent country.

India: An Illiberal Democracy

About Tooba Mansoor 1 Article
The author is a Senior Research Officer at the Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS) Islamabad.

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