At 75, India’s democracy is under pressure like never before

NEW DELHI (AP) — Demonstrations on Aug. 5 by India’s main opposition Congress party against rising food prices and unemployment began like any other recent protest: an electorally weak opposition that took to the streets of New Delhi against the massively popular government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The protests, however, quickly took a turn when key Congress lawmakers led by Rahul Gandhi, Modi’s main opponent in the last two general elections, arrived at Parliament, sparking fierce clashes with police.

“Democracy is a memory (in India),” Gandhi tweeted later, describing dramatic photographs showing him and his party leaders being briefly detained by police.

Gandhi’s statement was largely seen as another frantic effort by an ailing opposition party to shore up its relevance and was dismissed by the government. But it resonated amid growing sentiment that India’s democracy, the world’s largest with nearly 1.4 billion people, is in retreat and its democratic foundations are failing.

Experts and critics say trust in the judiciary as a check on the executive branch is eroding. Attacks on the press and freedom of expression have become brazen. Religious minorities face increasing attacks from Hindu nationalists. And mostly peaceful protests, sometimes against provocative policies, have been suppressed by internet crackdowns and the jailing of activists.

“Most former colonies have struggled to put in place a lasting democratic process. India was more successful than most in doing so,” said Booker Prize-winning novelist and activist Arundhati Roy. “And now, 75 years later, to witness it being systematically and shockingly violently dismantled is traumatic.”

Modi’s ministers say India’s democratic principles are sound, even thriving.

“If there is a sense in the world today that democracy is somehow the future, then a large part of it is due to India,” Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said in April. “There was a time when, in this part of the world, we were the only democracy.”

History is on Jaishankar’s side.

At midnight on August 15, 1947, the red sandstone Parliament building in the heart of India’s capital echoed with the shrill voice of Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first prime minister.

“At midnight, when the world sleeps, India will awaken to life and freedom,” said Nehru, words that millions of Indians heard on live radio. Then he promised: “To the nations and peoples of the world, we send greetings and pledge to cooperate with them to promote peace, freedom and democracy.”

It marked India’s transition from a British colony to a democracy, the first in South Asia, which has since transformed from a poverty-stricken nation into one of the fastest growing economies world growth, earning a seat at the world’s top table and becoming a democratic counterweight to its authoritarian neighbor, China.

Apart from a brief interruption in 1975, when a formal emergency was declared under Congress party rule that saw outright censorship, India stubbornly clung to its democratic convictions, largely due to ‘free elections, an independent judiciary that faced the executive, a thriving, strong media. opposition and peaceful transitions of power.

But experts and critics say the country has gradually drifted away from some commitments and argue that the backsliding has accelerated since Modi came to power in 2014. They accuse his populist government of using unbridled political power for undermining democratic freedoms and worrying about persecuting a Hindu nationalist. schedule

“The decline appears to continue in several core formal democratic institutions … such as freedom of expression and alternative sources of information and freedom of association,” said Staffan I. Lindberg, political scientist and director of the V Institute -Dam. a Swedish-based research center that assesses the health of democracies.

Modi’s party denies this. A spokesman, Shehzad Poonawalla, said India has been a “thriving democracy” under the Modi government and has witnessed the “recovery of the republic”.

Most democracies are hardly immune to tensions.

The number of countries experiencing democratic backsliding has “never been as high” as in the past decade, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance said last year, adding the US to the list along with India and Brazil.

Still, the decline seems surprising in India.

Earlier this year, the US-based non-profit Freedom House downgraded India from a free democracy to “partly free”. The V-Dem Institute classified it as an “electoral autocracy” on a par with Russia. And the Democracy Index published by The Economist Intelligence Unit called India a “flawed democracy”.

India’s Ministry of External Affairs has called the downgrades “inaccurate” and “distorted”. Many Indian leaders have said that these reports are an intrusion into “internal affairs”, and the Indian Parliament does not allow debates on them.

Globally, India is a staunch defender of democracy. During the inaugural US-hosted Democracy Summit in December, Modi said the “democratic spirit” is integral to India’s “ethos of civilization”.

At home, however, his government appears to be bucking that spirit, with independent institutions coming under increasing scrutiny.

Experts point to long-pending cases with India’s Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of key decisions taken by the Modi government as major concerns.

They include cases related to a controversial citizenship review process that has already left nearly 2 million people in the state of Assam potentially stateless, the now revoked semi-autonomous powers related to disputed Kashmir, opaque campaign finance laws that they are seen as disproportionately favoring Modi’s party and its alleged use of military-grade spyware to monitor political opponents and journalists.

India’s judiciary, which is independent from the executive, has faced criticism in the past, but the intensity has increased, said Deepak Gupta, a former Supreme Court judge.

Gupta said India’s democracy appears to be “on the decline” due to the court’s inability to uphold civil liberties in some cases by denying people bail and misuse of sedition and anti-terrorism laws by the police, tactics that were also used by previous governments.

“When it comes to the resolution of disputes … the courts have done a good job. But in terms of their role as protectors of people’s rights, I wish the courts had done more,” he said.

The country’s democratic health has also been affected by the status of minorities.

The predominantly Hindu nation has prided itself on its multiculturalism and has around 200 million Muslims. It also has a history of bloody sectarian violence, but hate speech and violence against Muslims has recently increased. Some states ruled by Modi’s party have used bulldozers to demolish the homes and shops of alleged Muslim protesters, a move critics say is a form of collective punishment.

The government has tried to downplay these attacks, but the incidents have left the minority community in fear.

“Sometimes extra protection is needed for minorities so they don’t feel like second-class citizens,” Gupta said.

That the rising tide of Hindu nationalism has helped propel the fortunes of Modi’s party is evident in its electoral successes. It has also coincided with a rather striking fact: the ruling party has no Muslim legislators in Parliament, a first in Indian history.

The inability to completely eliminate discrimination and attacks against other minorities such as Christians, tribals and Dalits, who form the lowest rung of India’s Hindu caste hierarchy, has exacerbated these concerns. Although the government sees the elevation of an indigenous woman as India’s ceremonial president as a significant step towards equal representation, critics have questioned it as a political move.

Under Modi, India’s Parliament has also come under scrutiny for passing major laws with little debate, including a religion-driven citizenship law and a controversial farm reform that sparked mass protests. In a rare retreat, his government rolled back the farm laws and some saw this as a triumph for democracy, but that sentiment quickly faded as attacks on freedom of speech and the press increased.

The country fell eight places, to 150, out of 180 countries in this year’s Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders, which said “Indian journalists who are too critical of the government are subjected to campaigns of harassment and all-out attacks.”

Curtailment of press freedoms in India dates back to previous governments, but recent years have been worse.

Journalists have been arrested. Some are prevented from traveling abroad. Dozens face criminal charges, including sedition. At the same time, the government has introduced sweeping regulatory laws for social media companies that give it more power to control online content.

“You only have to look around to see that the media has been ruined under Mr. Modi’s regime,” said Coomi Kapoor, a journalist and author of “The Emergency: A Personal History,” which chronicles the unique period of India emergency.

“What happened in the emergency was anticipated and there was no pretence. What’s happening now is more gradual and sinister,” he said.

Still, optimists like Kapoor say all is not lost “if India strengthens its democratic institutions” and “pins its hopes on the judiciary”.

“If the independence of the judiciary is depleted, then I’m afraid nothing will survive,” he said.

Others, however, insist that India’s democracy has taken so many body blows that the future looks increasingly bleak.

“The damage is too structural, too fundamental,” said Roy, the novelist and activist.

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Associated Press reporter Rishi Lekhi contributed to this report.

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