Updated: March 5, 2021 9:05:32 am
India has been demoted in the latest annual rankings by global democracy watchdog, the Washington-based Freedom House, and let no one please say “sinister foreign hand” or brush it under the PR carpet. It’s a report, not a conspiracy. The fall in India’s status, from “free” to “partly free”, comes from an assessment that takes into account performance on 25 parameters and indices, measured and measurable, and concludes that “rather than serving as a champion of democratic practice and a counterweight to authoritarian influence from countries such as China, Modi and his party are tragically driving India itself towards authoritarianism”. There can be disagreement over that assessment and conclusion. It can be argued that the dots are being connected in dire ways — from the “dangerous and unplanned” displacement of migrants due to the COVID-19 lockdown to the “scapegoating” of Muslims in the wake of the Tablighi Jamaat episode; from “love jihad” laws against religious conversion in BJP-ruled states to the use of the sedition law to “deter free speech, including discussion of a discriminatory citizenship law and the COVID-19 pandemic”; from a “pattern of more pro-government decisions by the Supreme Court”, to an increasing number of internet shutdowns. But the fact is that each of these dots plots a curve that has raised anxieties with regard to citizens’ freedoms, particularly the freedom of expression, especially of minorities and vulnerable groups. As a mature democracy, India must be able to talk about them, and address the charge of democratic backsliding. As a sure-footed player on the world stage, it can ill afford to swat away concerns, or attribute motives and spectres to them.
At the heart of the “foreign hand” narrative, which is, more and more, the reflexive riposte to any criticism from abroad, lies insecurity and an obvious double standard. After all, other certificates from foreign monitors or watchdogs are welcomed and celebrated. This is true of the QS World University Rankings 2021, in which 25 courses offered by Indian universities have figured in the top 100 globally, and earlier, India’s move up by 14 spots in the World Bank’s annual report on ease of doing business in 2020. These are applauded — as they should be. Yet, the bedrock beneath top-notch campuses and a vibrant market are the nation’s democratic credentials and the work of maintaining them is the most stellar achievement of all. They are what separate India from its neighbours in the region, and what distinguish it from its opponent in the face-off with China. The combination of an open market and an open democracy is what attracts private players and investors factor into their economic calculations. There must be no erosion or backsliding here — and in an increasingly interconnected world, perceptions of erosion and backsliding need to be addressed, not dismissed.
India’s slide in rankings such as those of Freedom House must be a prod not just for its government, but also for its countervailing institutions and civil society. It is not the political executive alone that defines or circumscribes freedoms in a constitutional democracy — these must also be protected and expanded by the courts, and firewalled by civic norms. The demotion by the watchdog is a cue for an alert and vigilant democracy to do more, and to do better.
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