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The South Asian Insider

Why West's Rhetoric of 'Democratic Backsliding' in India Is Hypocritical

The West has developed a discourse of a division in the world today between democracies and authoritarian regimes. Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran are seen as forming the principal axis of authoritarian regimes as against the democratic axis composed principally of the West and Japan. India is seen as part of the democratic world but with caveats. These caveats are expressed without restraint by the Western media, think tanks, academics, human rights organisations and other components of civil society. At the official level too, the standards of Indian democracy are questioned in direct statements or reports issued by state organisations. India is not seen as measuring up to the high standards of liberal Western democracies. The fact that India holds free and fair elections makes it difficult to deny its democratic credentials, but these are sought to be blemished by referring to India as an “electoral democracy”. The Indian democracy is accused of being tainted with “majoritarianism”, meaning that the rights and interests of the “minority” are infringed. It is therefore qualified as an “illiberal democracy”. The current narrative of “backsliding of democracy” in India has now got wide currency in Western commentary on India.India, in the eyes of its Western critics, supposedly lacks the strong institutional checks and balances that exist in Western democracies. Poverty, relatively low levels of education, and caste divisions have always been seen as factors that do not make Indian democracy comparable in its quality to Western democracies. The approach towards India’s democracy has always been judgmental, patronising, questioning and censorious on human rights issues, to which has been added the issue of religious freedoms after the BJP came to power. For long after our independence, it was doubted if our democracy would survive. India’s huge diversity in languages, cultures, religions, and ethnic groups was seen as unmanageable. In the past some prominent European intellectuals had little sympathy with India’s democracy, believing that India needed a revolution like in China to address its core problems of poverty, inequality and social ills. The West’s rhetoric of “democratic backsliding” in India is hypocritical. The democracy factor has played little role in the West’s policies towards India since 1947, which have been dictated by hard national interest. In our region, the US and its allies favoured the non-democratic military regimes in Pakistan over India. India’s democracy did not shield us from years of sanctions by the US and its allies on nuclear, missile and dual-use technology issues. This policy was reversed by signing the nuclear deal with India in response to geopolitical changes.The US and its allies have favoured communist China as a partner over democratic India for many decades. Even now, despite China becoming increasingly dictatorial under Xi, openly rejecting democracy and Western values in general, and persecuting its Muslim minority on a vast scale, the US and its allies have a much more extensive relationship with China than with India. If the US and its allies are reaching out to India more recently and ties have greatly improved, the key reason is not “democracy”, which India always was. It has more to do with the rise of India economically, the accompanying economic opportunities available for Western capital, India’s more openness to foreign business and investment, and India’s perceived role as a counter to China’s increasing economic, technological and military strength that is feeding its geopolitical ambitions to rival the US as a preeminent global power. The US rhetoric of democracy is, admittedly, directed at the entire non-Western world, not only at India. The promotion of democracy and Western values is a declared feature of US foreign policy. Its European allies as well as countries like Japan, Australia, Canada, etc, being democratic, it is the non-Western world that becomes the objective of colour revolutions and regime change policies. Spreading democracy becomes a moral excuse to interfere in the internal affairs of countries. India, as the largest democracy in the world effectively, is a special case. To have an excuse to interfere in its internal affairs a narrative has to be built that India’s democracy is “backsliding”. This then gives the US and others a self-acquired political and moral right to demand that India live up to certain standards. The issue of human rights and minorities is raised with the Indian government, and the “civil society” is cultivated to raise these issues, as is the media. Funding is provided to NGOs to question government policies. By its very nature, such interference is in favour of the opposition and against the government in power. Opposition lobbies in India get encouragement from the external support of powerful Western countries to pursue their agendas. It is not surprising therefore that Indian politicians at times openly seek external intervention to “save” democracy in India. Our media amplifies external criticism of the Indian government’s policies by foreign governments. It gives prominence to the “rating” of India’s democracy by Western organisations without any questioning. Negative reports of Western think tanks on developments in India, as well as articles in the Western media known to be congenitally hostile to India, are given a lot of space. Such space is provided also to Indian-origin academics living abroad known to be very critical of the present government This “backsliding of democracy” narrative becomes a pressure point on India, putting it on the defensive, forcing it to either reach out to critics in the West to explain why the strictures on India are misplaced or push back. At many international gatherings the question of “democratic backsliding” is raised with our External Affairs Minister and he is obliged to respond.The current general election, which is the largest democratic exercise ever in human history, has naturally attracted interest. But instead of celebrating it, a flurry of articles has appeared in Western mainstream media and journals associated with think tanks which regurgitate all the old arguments about the decline of Indian democracy, the erosion of India’s secularism, the rise of Hindutva ideology, the emergence of fascist trends, minority persecution, curbing of freedom of speech, constraints on the independence of judiciary, control over institutions, and so on. To this litany of charges has been added the arrest of Kejriwal, the blocking of some accounts of the Congress party, and the unleashing of enforcement agencies to intimidate the opposition, etc. The trigger for these often vicious articles is the general expectation that the BJP will get a third term in power under Prime Minister Modi. These articles have been mostly written by persons of Indian origin resident abroad or in India, but not in every case. The most atrocious charges have been made in these articles, such as if Modi wins this will be the last general election in India. It is claimed absurdly that the constitution will be amended, India will formally become a Hindu state, the Muslims will be permanently marginalised and made second-class citizens, and so on. That even supposedly serious and reputable journals can publish such outrageous propaganda suggests that this is part of a campaign instigated by those in the West who feel uncomfortable by the rise of a “civilisational” Indian state and what this may mean as a challenge to Western “civilisational” hegemony. The further consolidation of the Hindu personality of India through a legitimate democratic process and the accompanying decolonisation of the Indian mind and polity under a personage like Modi seems to have actuated this orchestrated campaign.