An Appraisal of Democratic Regression in India

Trends of democratic regression across various states worldwide, coupled with the rising right-wing forces of fascism and authoritarianism, can be considered as one of the characteristic features of 21st-century global politics. Democracy, when viewed with a maximalist perspective, transcends beyond the minimalist notion of holding regular elections as the only determining indicator. Hence, democracy, in its maximalist sense, ensures equitable political participation, citizen’s rights and freedoms, an unequivocal application of law and order, the unhindered functioning of state institutions, and individual/institutional accountability. While democracy in its minimalist sense may continue to prevail, research suggests that the phenomenon is experiencing a considerable regression in its effectual and maximalist notion. Strong-arm leaders are making political headways, mainly buoying on the politics of polarisation. Hence, compromised functioning of state institutions and crackdowns on individual freedoms and liberties come in tandem.

In South Asian countries, in particular, the democratic process has seen unrelenting challenges posed by issues of weak governance structures, feeble political institutions, the politicisation of militaries, tides of sectarianism, polarisation and other extremist ideologies. Nevertheless, India’s soft power was built on the premise of its unfettered commitment to democratic norms and secularism. However, lately, tides have turned for this South Asian giant as well, with evident signs of democracy in retreat. Most recently, the “Democracy Report” published in 2020 by the Sweden-based V-Dem Institute, suggested that India was “on the verge of losing its status as a democracy due to the severely shrinking of space for the media, civil society and the opposition under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government (sic)” (See Figure 1). The report indicated that India was among one of the major G-20 countries experiencing the trends of autocratisation.

Figure 1: India’s performance on Indicators of Democracy (2009-2019)
Source: Autocratization Surges – Resistance Grows: Democracy Report 2020

The decline in the democratic norms across India can be studied across vast depth and width. The most recent, yet not the only manifestation of this, was detected as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government’s response to the ongoing farmer protests unfolded. Apart from a heavy-handed approach employing coercive and repressive measures, the Indian government took stringent actions to restrict freedom of speech and communication. Nationalism was ascribed as a tool to discredit the protestors as anti-nationals, aiming for divisive forces in the country. Most surprisingly, arrest orders were issued (however later declined) against the prominent Indian political and academic figure Shashi Tharoor and Indian journalists. In the recent past, the Delhi Riots, resulting from the BJP government’s discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act – 2020, was met with a similar state-led response. With the rising tide of religious nationalism across India, not only has the state normalised discriminatory policies and a non-democratic outlook, but even independent institutions like media and judiciary have taken a similar course. In the same vein, independent civil society organisations (CSOs) and left-wing journalism have borne the brunt of a dismantling democratic apparatus in India.

India is estimated to have perhaps the widest network of mass media outlets in the world, with around 178 television news channels, more than 17,000 newspapers, 100,000 magazines, and countless news websites. Also, the Indian media has historically played a key role in the democratic evolution of India, specifically during the 1975 state of emergency under the Indira Gandhi administration. However, the role assumed by the Indian media, specifically under the Modi administration, has experienced a significant reversal. State-led curbs on press freedoms and violent attacks against journalists have largely increased in India, specifically under the Modi government.  A 2019 report “Getting Away with Murder”, published by the Free Speech Collective in the year 2019, found out that around 40 journalists were killed between 2014 and 2019, along with 198 serious incidents of assaults against them. The report further revealed that of 30 journalist killings (since 2010) directly related to the victim’s professional work, there were only three cases that met with judicial convictions. In 2020, attacks against journalists further gained momentum during the COVID-19 outbreak, as journalists sought to cover the mishandling of the epidemic by the Indian government.

With the rising tide of religious nationalism across India, not only has the state normalised discriminatory policies and a non-democratic outlook, but even independent institutions like media and judiciary have taken a similar course.

On the one hand, the Indian government has been taking systematic measures to suppress liberal media outlets and personnel. Such efforts have primarily included berating editors, cutting off advertisements, ordering tax investigations, and carrying out arrests and detentions of journalists. On the other hand, right-leaning media groups and personnel have consistently employed mass media for extending pro-Hindutva ideologies and political inclinations towards BJP. As suggested by the World Press Freedom Index 2020  of Reporters Without Borders, an independent France-based NGO, press freedom in India has been declining since the off-set of PM Modi’s second tenure on account of “police violence against journalists, ambushes by political activists, and reprisals instigated by criminal groups or corrupt local officials.”

Another important aspect of democratic freedoms in India is the facet of social media. While the Indian government holds itself in high regard for its vision of universal digital literacy, social media has emerged as a platform for fuelling aggressive and extremist ideologies. Communication via social media has consistently come in to play for fuelling vigilantism and political violence, specifically during the Delhi riots and the outbreak of the first wave of COVID-19. In response, the Modi government has largely remained unable to devise social media regulatory policies to curb the menace of misinformation resulting in political violence against religious minorities. However, this is not to say that the Modi administration has no policy outlook towards social media either. In 2016, following the Pathankot Incident, India’s Ministry of Home Affairs initiated the controversial Geospatial Information Regulation Bill, which came as a massive blow to equitable access to information. Later, however, the draft bill was declined after it received massive resistance from nearly all Indian political, social, and industrial sectors. In January 2019, months before India’s general election, the Indian government once again sought to introduce stringent social media regulatory policies that were viewed as a means to increase surveillance and crackdown on political dissent. Most recently, during the ongoing farmer protests, the Indian Home Ministry requested the mega-social networking platform Twitter to suspend around 250 Twitter accounts, including the one belonging to Caravan magazine, for allegedly inciting violence by posting political content.

On the other hand, right-leaning media groups and personnel have consistently employed mass media for extending pro-Hindutva ideologies and political inclinations towards BJP.

Interestingly, a similar trend has been witnessed in India’s entertainment industry, as well. While period films demonstrating the primacy of Hindu nationalism and Islamophobia have been embraced across India, those appreciative of liberal values have been utterly rejected and dismissed. In 2018, an Indian feature film called “Padmaavat” led to excessive controversy by aggressive Hindu nationalists on similar lines.  Hence, freedom of cultural expression is strictly straitened in India.

Likewise, the operational space for CSOs, which are considered to be essential pressure groups in any democratic state, is also shrinking in India.  Under the garb of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, the BJP government has taken a number of decisions that threaten the very basis of CSOs’ functioning in India. In June 2016, the Indian government suspended the registration of the Sabrang Trust, the owner of which was running a sustained campaign against the perpetrators of the Gujarat Pogrom. Similarly, registration of the Lawyers Collective, an NGO whose co-founder was known for being critical of Amit Shah’s Sohrabuddin fake encounter case, was also denied. The BJP government also acted against the Ford Foundation and the Green Peace similarly. Hence, the voice of civil society as a means of advocating political, economic, social, civil, and cultural priorities has been deliberately stifled by the Indian government.

As of now, liberal democracy is evidently in retreat in India, with mounting state-led discriminatory policies and an increasingly closed society. For India, or for any other state to qualify as a democracy, achievement of the ideals of political, social, and cultural liberties are a given. As per Francis Fukuyama, the notion of “liberal democracy” is wide and deep enough to entail civil freedom and a probable “end of history” of political governance. Hence, a democracy, in its true sense, is certainly bound to transcend above and beyond cosmetic electoral politics alone.

Maryam Raashed

Maryam Raashed

Maryam Raashed is a Research Assistant at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research. She is a graduate of International Relations from National Defence University, Islamabad.

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