Opinion | The Irony Of West's 'Democracy' Memos To India

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What to make of a spate of articles in Western media and research papers by think tanks there about democratic 'backsliding' in India, just before the general election? While such articles have appeared regularly ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power, what's striking is how this new flow of articles seeks to draw attention to India becoming increasingly more "authoritarian" and less democratic, and to an apparent gap developing between India and the West on the "values" front. The widely anticipated victory of the BJP in the upcoming elections seems to be the trigger for such commentary.

It is also not just the Western media and think tanks that are talking about the dilution of Indian democracy. Such concerns have been voiced even at the official level in Germany and the US. Both have commented on the arrest of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, while the US State Department spokesperson also additionally raised questions about the blocking of the Congress's bank accounts just before the elections. The statements of both countries have cast doubts over the judicial process in India. But New Delhi has firmly rejected these statements as interference in the country's internal affairs.


Why are such internal matters of any concern to the West? How are Kejriwal and Congress accounts of interest to the US or Germany? After all, these are not the only political figures or parties that have fallen afoul of Indian law, rightly or wrongly. That such comments are being made in support of the political opposition in India with full awareness about the impending general election makes them even more objectionable.

The West has also been very concerned about foreign interference in its own elections and is prepared to sanction countries that allegedly do so. They cite the use of social media and the support of certain local lobbies to influence voters as some of the tools employed by foreign countries to meddle in elections. In that spirit, New Delhi, too, can contend that the constant negative reporting about it in the mainstream Western press, echoing and amplifying what the opposition and sections of the civil society say about the ruling party and its leader, is a similar form of narrative-building aimed at affecting the political process in the country. That the Opposition in India has been citing such endorsements to justify their own charges against the government of undermining democracy, controlling the media, capturing public institutions, curbing the independence of the judiciary, persecuting minorities, rejecting secularism and promoting a Hindu state, shows the synergy between domestic political and social forces and India's foreign critics.

Old Prejudices Against India

When the West makes critical remarks at an official level about India's democracy or its human rights record - especially accusations of minority persecution - the media, academia and think tanks see this as legitimising their own broadsides against the country. This interplay leads to suspicions that the 'deep state' in these countries has an interest in maintaining pressure points against India through various channels, even when the messaging at official levels may be different, focusing on broader geopolitical and economic interests.

In any case, in liberal societies that allow for freedom of expression and where the government can be and is criticised, the discourse about a foreign country may be both friendly and unfriendly, especially in the case of the US, with which India has had long periods of political alienation. It is a country with lobbies that harbour old prejudices against India. The fact that movement between government positions and think tanks, business and academic worlds is frequent in the US means that such prejudices circulate within the system along with the circulation of individuals.

The Timing Of The Criticism

This campaign-like criticism decrying the anti-democratic trends in India is being pushed when the world is about to witness the largest-ever democratic election, comprising an electorate of 970 million eligible voters, which is more than the total population of the US, Canada, the EU and Britain. Together, these voters are set to elect a government for about 1.4 billion people in total - a sixth of the global population.

The organisation and planning that goes into conducting these elections, which will be spread over six weeks to make sure they are free and fair, is stupendous. No one has ever questioned the fairness of India's 17 general elections in the past. These are in addition to the assembly elections held at the state level. Their numbers are huge. Some of these states have population sizes that are larger than those of some major European countries.

Instead of celebrating India's success in preserving its democracy for the last 77 years, against all internal challenges of having diverse religions, languages, cultures, ethnic groups, issues of development and poverty, as well as external security challenges, including claims on Indian territory and terrorism, the West has preferred to focus on what it sees as India's democratic deficiencies. Of course, India's democracy, as democracies elsewhere, is not perfect. But no country has managed a democracy of India's size ever. The West's approach is judgmental and lacks empathy. There is little intellectual effort to look at the problems their own countries are facing and the erosion of the credibility of their own democracies internally and externally. There is a need to judge Indian democracy more objectively.

Voters Have The Last Word

What's also interesting is that a large chunk of the negative writing in the West on trends in Indian democracy is either by persons of Indian origin who have settled abroad or people who are writing from India. Those living abroad may be echoing the views of the establishments they work for to secure their future, or they may have actually imbibed Western prejudices enough to make them believe that India is truly becoming "illiberal". On the other hand, people who are writing from India are often close to opposition circles or are individuals who believe that secularism in India is being abandoned in favour of turning the country more "Hindu" in character.

In any case, the last word on India's democracy rests with the electorate. How the West looks at it is essentially immaterial. Its ties with communist China are much deeper than those with democratic India despite the growing concerns about Beijing's aggressive conduct, which makes the West's democratic posturing look hypocritical.

India is an open society and its people are more exposed to Western ideas, especially through the English language, and thus, how that part of the world looks at India resonates with some sections here. But a more self-confident India will take less notice of such enduring anti-Indian prejudices in Western circles.

(Kanwal Sibal was Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to Turkey, Egypt, France, and Russia, and Deputy Chief Of Mission in Washington.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author