On December 9 and 10, US President Joe Biden will host a virtual “summit for democracy”, which will bring together leaders of 100 countries, civil society and private sector representatives “to set forth an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal and to tackle the greatest threats faced by democracies today through collective action”. The list of invitees is intriguing: From the South Asian region, besides Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, three democracies, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka — the latter two with democracy-deficit challenges similar to India’s — did not get an invitation, but Pakistan, where the Army calls the shots, is an invitee. More such contradictions plague the list.
For India, the summit comes at a piquant moment. The world’s largest, most populous democracy is now regularly described as authoritarian. The US-based Freedom House’s “Freedoms of the World” index categorises India as only “partly free”; the Swedish V-Dem calls India an “electoral autocracy”; others lump India with Hungary, Turkey and the Philippines, where authoritarian leaders rule the roost. Rights violations in Kashmir, where India snatched the record for the world’s longest internet ban from Myanmar, the conflation of political dissent with the colonial-era crime of sedition, the use of anti-terrorism laws to silence critics, the failure of the state to ensure freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, the anti-Muslim amendments to citizenship laws, and the China-like control over citizens that India aspires to, including with invasive high-tech surveillance, have all but shredded India’s democratic image. Only last week, the UN Human Rights Office castigated India for the arrest of rights activist Khurram Parvez in Kashmir, and the “increasing” use of the UAPA to “stifle the work of human rights defenders, journalists and other critics in Jammu & Kashmir and other parts of India”.
Given this, the agenda of the summit holds contemporary resonance in India. According to the State Department, the summit will convene around three broad themes — defending democracy against authoritarianism, addressing and fighting corruption, and promoting respect for human rights. Leaders will be “encouraged” to announce “specific actions and commitments” to meaningful domestic reforms and international initiatives that advance the summit’s goals.
India’s contribution to this agenda will be scrutinised closely, not least because in recent weeks, Indians have heard a number of interesting interpretations of and observations about democracy and human rights from the country’s leaders. One theme that emerges from these observations is that of cultural relativism — the “Indianness of India’s democracy”— “as India becomes ever more democratic, democracy will become ever more Indian in its sensibilities and texture” (Minister for External Affairs S Jaishankar); India as the “mother of democracy” (Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the UN); “Our democracy is not a western institution. It’s a human institution. India’s history is filled with examples of democratic institutions. We find mention of 81 democracies in ancient India” (PM Modi in the Rajya Sabha in February this year).
A second theme is the role of civil society. It has been accused of “defaming” or bringing harm to India, as espoused most recently in statements by the National Security Adviser, who also called them “the new frontier of a fourth generation war”. Earlier, at the foundation day of the National Human Rights Commission, the PM said the nation must be wary of those who dent India’s image in the world by “selectively” raising human rights violations.
Another noticeable theme is around the responsibility for ensuring democratic rights. Though this rests with the government of the day, there are near daily situations in which it has been seen to surrender this responsibility all too readily, or is reluctant to carry it out as seen recently in the cancellations of shows by two standup comics in Bengaluru. Related to this is the puzzling trend of the government’s whataboutery when confronted with its own violations, by pointing to “rights violations by terrorists”, without seeming to care that this undermines its own legitimacy and authority.
PM Modi’s expected participation in the summit will come against this rather bleak backdrop of relativism, misinformation, confusion, obfuscation and polarisation on these issues. He also has to reconcile the paradox inherent in submitting to international gaze at a global assembly where he is apparently required to make commitments adhering to “western” standards of democracy while claiming there is an Indian model.
In March this year, External Affairs Minister Jaishankar dismissed global standards and international metrics of democracy as rubbish. “You use the dichotomy of democracy and autocracy… You want the truthful answer, it is hypocrisy … Because you have a set of self-appointed custodians of the world, who find it very difficult to stomach that somebody in India is not looking for their approval… so they invent their rules, their parameters, they pass their judgments and then make out as though this is some kind of global exercise,” Jaishankar had said.
For perspective, this is what China says too. At their virtual summit on November 16, when President Biden brought up Beijing’s human rights record, President Xi Jinping told him there was no “uniform model” of democracy, and that dismissing other “forms of democracy different from one’s own is itself undemocratic”.
And no one has explained yet what normative model countries including India, China, Iran, Russia, and the Central Asian “stans” are using when they demand that Afghanistan should become a gender and minority inclusive country. If democracy is to be defined by cultural relativism, the Taliban could well advance its own version.
The summit may intensify these differences, particularly because the host has no shining credentials either. Just four months back, Biden threw democracy under Taliban wheels in Afghanistan. If democracy-building was never the US goal in Afghanistan, as Biden declared, why make the unfreezing of Afghan assets overseas conditional to the Taliban turning democratic and inclusive overnight? In this century alone, this was the second body blow from the US, the world’s oldest democracy, to the cause of democracy and human rights, as those terms are broadly understood in the world today — the first was when it normalised violations of human rights during the global war on terror in the name of security.
It is no coincidence that the biggest slide in democracy has come in the last two decades as others took the cue from the “leader”. The leader, in its own interests, acts pragmatically when it chooses strategic allies and partners, not putting too fine a point on whether they are democrat, autocrat, dictator or kleptocrat. And it has weaponised human rights to achieve strategic objectives, as in the Cold War-type threat of a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in China.
The list — which has geopolitics written all over it — can only increase the cynicism about democracy and the universalism of human rights now rife in the world’s most authoritarian countries and even in some constitutional democracies. Some of these will be able to preen at the summit and project their participation as an endorsement of their democratic claims, while others will sulk at home and carry on being repressive. For those at the barricades, or worse, in jails, the fight will remain a lonely and difficult one.
This column first appeared in the print edition on December 7, 2021 under the title ‘Trance of democracy’.