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India’s democratic exceptionalism is now withering away. The impact is also external

A democracy which speaks with one voice, which elevates citizen duties over citizen rights, which privileges obedience over freedom, which uses fear to instil ideological uniformity, which weakens checks on executive power, is a contradiction in terms.

“Since the end of the Cold War, most democratic breakdowns have been caused not by generals and soldiers but by elected governments themselves”. This is a central claim of How Democracies Die, one of the most widely read books worldwide on politics in recent years. It is coauthored by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, two of the finest political scientists of their generation.

The recent military coup in Myanmar was an aberration for contemporary times, as was the coup in Thailand in 2014 and in Pakistan in 1999. Such coups were quite common in the 1960s and 1970s. More prevalent now is what scholars are calling “democratic backsliding”, a new concept to depict democratic erosion led by elected politicians, often quite legally. “Many government efforts to subvert democracy”, write Levitsky and Ziblatt, “are legal in the sense that they are approved by the legislatures or accepted by the courts”. They use copious examples from Latin America and Europe, their respective areas of expertise, and the damage done by Donald Trump to the US, the land of their birth and residence. What is legal, they emphasise, is not necessarily democratic. Undemocratic legislation can be passed, or existing laws manipulated to undermine democracy.

Levitsky and Ziblatt are now clearly relevant to India. India’s democracy is backsliding, not because of the generals and soldiers, but because elected politicians are subverting democracy. Very soon, two of the most widely read annual democracy reports — by America’s Freedom House and Sweden’s V-Dem Institute — will be published. They had argued last year that India was on the verge of losing its democratic status. Let us see whether this year’s reports call India undemocratic, or only “partly free”.

Partisans of Delhi’s ruling regime will vociferously decry these formulations, contending that the BJP government was elected by the people, and it is only enacting what it was voted for. They will say that parliament has approved BJP’s legislation, from Kashmir to citizenship amendment, from preventive detention to farm reforms. Therein lies the fundamental conceptual confusion.

For democratic theory, elections are necessary, but not sufficient. Elections alone cannot be equated with democracy. Democracy is measured by a composite index. The overall judgement depends partly on elections, and partly on what the elected governments do between elections.

Democratic theory lays out two kinds of post-election requirements: One pertains to institutional constraints on the executive, another to civil liberties. Is the power of the executive checked by the legislature and/or judiciary? Are citizens free to speak? Are they free to organise and protest? And after the anti-Jewish horrors of Germany’s “Nazi democracy” (1933-1945), an inescapable question also is: Are the minorities protected from majoritarian fury?

Democratic backsliding in India is especially concerning because India’s democracy, according to most leading scholars, was exceptional. Decades of research showed that democracies could indeed be established at low levels of income, but they tended to survive generally at high levels of income. Until recently, barring the exception of 1975-77, India had spectacularly defied this statistically valid theorisation. Only one developing country, Costa Rica, has a better democratic record. But Costa Rica is infinitely smaller and six times richer than India. Robert Dahl, the world’s leading democratic theorist after the Second World War, called India the greatest contemporary exception to democratic theory.

India’s democratic exceptionalism is now withering away. Democracies do not charge peaceful protestors with sedition, do not have religious exclusionary principles for citizenship, do not curb press freedoms by intimidating dissenting journalists and newspapers, do not attack universities and students for ideological non-conformity, do not browbeat artists and writers for disagreement, do not equate adversaries with enemies, do not celebrate lynch mobs, and do not cultivate judicial servility. A democracy which speaks with one voice, which elevates citizen duties over citizen rights, which privileges obedience over freedom, which uses fear to instil ideological uniformity, which weakens checks on executive power, is a contradiction in terms. For democratic theorists, these are all signs of creeping authoritarianism, not of democratic deepening. Elections alone cannot define what it means to be democratic.

The biggest impact of these developments is, of course, internal. Those opposed to the ruling regime are frequent targets of attack — political, legal, physical, financial. But the impact is also external. Prime Minister Modi has often claimed that since his rise to power, India has been accorded greater respect in the world. Even if that was true in his first term, the perceptions are now changing.

The international standing of nations is normally a combination of the strategic, the economic and the political. Compared to China, whose GDP is now five times as large as India’s, India exercises lesser economic power internationally, and the expected economic invigoration after 2014 is yet to occur. Democracy was unquestionably one of India’s biggest international assets.

In purely strategic terms, given the rising anti-China chorus in world capitals, India’s significance will no doubt remain, but politics may now compete with geopolitics. Because of China, India will certainly be embraced as a partner, but the embrace will not be ardent or wholehearted if its democratic backsliding continues. President Biden can’t define foreign policy in non-Trumpian ways, as he repeatedly claims he wants to, if democracy and human rights are completely ignored, as they were under Trump.

In its annual democracy report last year, Freedom House had put the matter thus: “Almost since the turn of the century, the United States and its allies have courted India as a potential strategic partner and democratic counterweight to China in the Indo-Pacific region. However, the Indian government’s alarming departures from democratic norms under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party … could blur the values-based distinction between Beijing and New Delhi. While India … held successful elections last spring, the BJP has distanced itself from the country’s founding commitment to pluralism and individual rights, without which democracy cannot long survive.”

Here, then, is the key question: Will India’s democracy decline further? India today is closer to Indira Gandhi’s 1975-77 Emergency than ever before. There are, of course, two critical differences. Beyond Kashmir, there has been no mass arrest of politicians, and many more state governments are run by political parties that do not rule in Delhi. If these two variables also change, India’s democracy will be well and truly dead.

This article first appeared in the print edition on February 23, 2021 under the title ‘The rise and fall’. The writer is Sol Goldman professor of international studies and professor of political science at Brown University

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