The August 5 protests by India’s main opposition Congress party against soaring food prices and unemployment began like any other recent protest – an electorally weak opposition taking to the streets of New Delhi against the massively popular government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The protests quickly took a turn, however, when key Congress lawmakers led by Rahul Gandhi – Modi’s main opponent in the last two general elections – in a troop in parliamentleading to fierce clashes with the police.
“Democracy is a memory [in India]Gandhi tweeted later, describing the dramatic photographs that showed him and his party leaders briefly detained by police.
Gandhi’s statement was widely seen as another frantic effort by a struggling opposition party to bolster its relevance and was rejected by the government. But it resonated amid growing feelings that India’s democracy – the world’s largest with nearly 1.4 billion people – is in retreat and its democratic foundations are floundering.
Experts and critics say trust in the judiciary is eroding as control of the executive branch erodes. Attacks on the press and freedom of speech have become cheeky. Religious minorities face increasing attacks by Hindu nationalists. And largely peaceful demonstrations, sometimes against provocative policieswere eradicated by internet crackdowns and the imprisonment of activists.
“Most of the former colonies have struggled to establish a sustainable democratic process. India has done this better than most,” said Booker Prize-winning novelist and activist Arundhati Roy. “And now, 75 years later, to witness its systematic dismantling and shocking violence is traumatic.”
Modi’s ministers say India’s democratic principles are strong, even thriving.
“If today the world feels that democracy is, in one form or another, the future, then a lot of that is due to India,” External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said in a statement. april. “There was a time when, in this part of the world, we were the only democracy.”
History is on the side of Jaishankar.
At midnight on August 15, 1947, the red sandstone parliamentary building in the heart of India’s capital echoed with the shrill voice of Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first prime minister.
“At the stroke of midnight, when the world sleeps, India will awaken to life and freedom”, Nehru famously spoke, words that have been heard on live radio by millions of Indians. Then he promised: “To the nations and peoples of the world, we send our greetings and pledge to cooperate with them to advance peace, freedom and democracy.”
It marked India’s transition from a British colony to a democracy – the first in South Asia – which has since transformed from a poverty-stricken nation into one of the world’s fastest growing economies. fast in the world, earning itself a place at the global high table and becoming a democratic counterweight to its authoritarian neighbor China.
Apart from a brief hiatus in 1975, when a formal emergency was declared under Congress Party rule that saw outright censorship, India has stubbornly clung to its democratic beliefs – largely due to free elections, an independent judiciary that confronted the executive, a thriving media, a strong opposition and peaceful transitions of power.
But experts and critics say the country is gradually drifting away from some commitments and say the rollback has accelerated since Modi came to power in 2014. They accuse his populist government of using unbridled political power undermine democratic freedoms and concern themselves with pursue a Hindu nationalist agenda.
“The decline appears to be continuing in several fundamental formal democratic institutions…such as freedom of speech and alternative sources of information, and freedom of association,” said Staffan I. Lindberg, political scientist and director of the V-Dem Institute, a Sweden-based research center that assesses the health of democracies.
Modi’s party denies this. A spokesman, Shehzad Poonawalla, said India was a “thriving democracy” under Modi’s rule and had witnessed the “recovery of the republic”.
Most democracies are not immune to tensions.
The number of countries experiencing democratic backsliding “has never been so high” as in the past decade, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance said last year, adding the United States to the list along with India and Brazil.
Yet the descent seems striking in India.
Earlier this year, the US-based nonprofit Freedom House downgraded India from a free democracy to “partly free”. The V-Dem Institute classified it as an “electoral autocracy” on par with Russia. And the Democracy Index published by The Economist Intelligence Unit called India a “flawed democracy”.
India’s Foreign Ministry called the downgrades “inaccurate” and “distorted”. Many Indian leaders have said such reports are an intrusion into “internal affairs”, with the Indian parliament banning debate about them.
Overall, India strongly advocates democracy. During the inauguration summit for democracy organized by the United States in December, Modi claimed that the “democratic spirit” is an integral part of India’s “civilization ethos”.
At home, however, we see his government bucking that very spirit, with independent institutions coming under increasing scrutiny.
Experts point to long-pending cases in India’s Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of key decisions made by Modi’s government as major concerns.
They include cases related to a controversial citizenship review process which has already left almost 2 million people in the state of Assam potentially stateless, the now-semi-autonomous powers revoked regarding disputed Kashmir, the opaque campaign finance laws that are seen as disproportionately favoring Modi’s party, and his alleged use of military-grade spyware monitor political opponents and journalists.
India’s judiciary, which is independent of the executive, has come under criticism in the past, but the intensity has increased, said former Supreme Court justice Deepak Gupta.
Gupta said India’s democracy appears to be “in decline” due to the court’s inability to uphold civil liberties in some cases in deny people on bail and the sedition abuse and anti-terrorism laws by the police, tactics that have also been used by previous governments.
“As far as resolving disputes…the courts have done a good job. But when it comes to their role as protectors of people’s rights, I wish the courts had done more,” he said.
The democratic health of the country has also taken a hit due to the status of minorities.
The largely Hindu nation prides itself on its multiculturalism and is home to around 200 million Muslims. It also has a history of bloody sectarian violence, but hate speech and violence against muslims have increased recently. Some states ruled by Modi’s party have used bulldozers to demolish the homes and shops of alleged Muslim protesters, a move that critics say is a form of collective punishment.
The government has sought to downplay these attacks, but the incidents have left the minority community shaken by fear.
“Sometimes you need extra protection for minorities so they don’t feel like second-class citizens,” Gupta said.
This the rising tide of Hindu nationalism helped sustain Modi’s party fortunes is evident in his electoral success. It also coincided with a rather glaring fact: the ruling party has no Muslim legislator in parliament, a first in Indian history.
The failure to completely eliminate discrimination and attacks against other minorities such as Christians, Tribals and Dalits – who form the lowest rung of the Hindu caste hierarchy in India – has exacerbated these concerns. Although the government sees the rise of a indigenous woman as ceremonial president of India as an important step towards equal representation, critics expressed their doubts by calling it the political optics.
Under Modi, India’s parliament has also come under scrutiny for passing important laws with little debate, including a citizenship law based on religion and controversial agricultural reform which led to massive protests. In a rare retreat, his government removed the agricultural laws and some saw it as a triumph of democracy, but that sentiment quickly faded with increasing attacks on freedom of speech and the press.
The country fell eight places, to 150, out of 180 countries in this year’s press freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders, which said that “Indian journalists who are too critical of the government are subjected to harassment and all-out attacks”.
Declining press freedom in India dates back to previous governments, but recent years have been worse.
Journalists have been stopped. Some are stopped traveling abroad. Dozens face legal pursuits, including sedition. At the same time, the government introduced extensive regulatory laws for social media companies that give it more power to control online content.
“You only have to look around to see that the media has certainly shrunk under Mr. Modi’s rule,” said Coomi Kapoor, journalist and author of “The Emergency: A Personal History”, which chronicles the only period of India emergency.
“What happened in the emergency was frank and there was no pretense. What is happening now is more progressive and sinister,” she said.
Yet optimists like Kapoor say all is not lost “if India strengthens its democratic institutions” and “puts its hopes in the justice system”.
“If the independence of the judiciary disappears, then I’m afraid nothing will survive,” she said.
Others, however, insist that India’s democracy has taken so many beatings that the future looks increasingly bleak.
“The damage is too structural, too fundamental,” said Roy, the novelist and activist.