India has long enjoyed the label of the ‘world’s largest democracy.’ This marker has always been a source of strength, frequently garnering admiration and respect from members of the international community. But do recent developments challenge India’s democratic reputation, and by extension its foreign policy ambitions?
The dangers were evident during the recent farmers’ protests over the passage of new market-friendly agriculture laws. Eight journalists covering the protests in Delhi on January 26th were charged with sedition, promoting communal disharmony and making statements prejudicial to national integration. Sedition charges were also levelled at 22-year-old Disha Ravi, who allegedly edited and shared an advocacy document in support of the farmers with overseas observers. Additionally, the government successfully pressured Twitter into removing hundreds of accounts that criticised its handling of the protests; under Indian law, Twitter’s domestic executives would have faced seven years in gaol had the company failed to comply with government orders to remove content it considered subversive or a threat to public order and national security. The BJP also cut off mobile internet access in ‘troubled’ areas to mitigate protesters’ ability to mobilise and organise against the government’s legislative agenda. These examples reflect a blueprint by which authorities have sought to shield themselves and their actions of public condemnation: by depicting critics as a challenge to India’s national interest, then seeking to silence them via threats of punitive action.
Such tactics are not limited to the farmers’ protests; they represent a pattern of behaviour for the Modi government. Last year, a Kashmiri journalist was charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for indulging in ‘anti-national activities’ on social media by uploading photos that could ‘dent the image of law enforcing agencies besides causing disaffection against the country;’ rhetoric that was heavily criticised by both domestic and international press agencies. Furthermore, some reporters claim they have previously been threatened with physical harm, abused on social media and ostracised by the administration for writing articles critical of Modi’s actions and/or policies.
This accumulation of repressive behaviour by the BJP has challenged India’s status as a flourishing democracy. In 2020, India slipped from 27th to 53rd in The Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual Democracy Index. Global indices like Freedom House and V-Dem have also questioned whether India can still be called a democracy. The Varieties of Democracy project in Sweden has said that India is transitioning into an ‘electoral autocracy.’ Nevertheless, such reports have been met with clear disdain by the Indian Government; Minister for External Affairs, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, quickly belittled the hypocrisy of ‘self-appointed custodians of the world,’ arguing these organisations could not stomach the fact that Indians were ‘not looking for their approval.’
While it is true that India is not the only established democracy facing serious social, economic, political and institutional challenges, concerns over the nation’s democratic regression cannot simply be dismissed as the musings of foreign actors with vested interests. India’s strategic interests, regional influence and diplomatic relations are heavily reliant on its global reputation as a multicultural, multifaith democracy. India has long been seen by the West as an ideological and strategic bulwark to China’s rise in the Indo-Pacific; augmented by their inclusion in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, along with the supposedly aligned liberal democracies of Australia, Japan and the United States (U.S.).
However, the Modi government’s brazen repression of civil liberties has placed some democratic allies in a bind. U.S. President Joe Biden campaigned on revitalising democratic norms, values and institutions both at home and abroad, raising questions as to how his administration might view India as a credible strategic partner in the region, despite the two counties sharing defence and commercial interests. Moreover, the sincerity of India’s commitment to human rights has been publicly challenged in multilateral forums; last year, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet urged against the criminalisation of peaceful expression and/or assembly in India.
These challenges all point to an inescapable truth: it is not the actions of protesters and/or dissenters that are subversive to India’s national interest, a claim continually perpetuated by the Indian Government. The BJP’s campaign to criminalise dissent, undermine free speech and ignore human rights represents a much more potent threat to India’s future economic and strategic objectives. The cultivation of a reputation mired in anti-democratic values could complicate a number of the country’s long-term projects; receiving a permanent seat on the U.N Security Council being chief among them. Therefore, for India to fully realise its regional and global ambitions, Modi and his administration must change course before the nation’s democracy withers to the point of no return.
Sanjay Balakumar is a fifth-year student at the University of New South Wales, studying a Bachelor of International Studies and a Bachelor of Laws. He is currently an editor for both the Young Diplomats Society and Politik, the student-run UNSW International Affairs Review. He is also a Grants Officer at the United Nations Association of Australia NSW Division and a volunteer at the Toongabbie Legal Centre. Sanjay’s research interests include economic and political security in the Indo-Pacific, the dynamics that shape countries’ elections, climate politics and technology’s impact on informed public discourse.
Sanjay is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW.