Indian Democracy Is On a Precipice, But America Responds By Pretending It’s Thriving

“Ten years from now, India is going to be a vibrant democracy, as it is today, in terms of free and fair elections,” US Ambassador to India Eric Garcetti said at a Council on Foreign Relations event in New Delhi, India on May 9, 2024. Ambassador Garcetti’s remarks, offered in larger context of a conversation where he framed India’s connection with the United States as a “dating” relationship in which the two countries may have already “moved in together” but very clearly “don’t want to get married,” were tailored for wooing Indian audiences but conveyed startling ignorance of the nature of democracy. Adolf Hitler, it is infamously said, was democratically elected.

The health of a democracy is judged on much more than whether or not voters are allowed to check a box once every few years, and Indian democracy, aside from presumed “free and fair elections,” is on the brink of extinction.

Despite Garcetti’s claim to intimacy with India due to traveling there at 14 and again as a university student, he seems unaware that legislators in the country have — apparently without any repercussions — repeatedly and openly distributed chicken and liquor to voters as recently as this year and distribution of cash, liquor, and drugs to voters traces at least far back as 2014, the year the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) attained the national power it still retains. Yet his diplomatically crafted outlook also suggests he is either ignorant — or, more likely, deliberately turning a blind eye — to the disastrous perspective on the future of Indian democracy proffered by most international bodies, including his own US State Department.

The April 2024 US State Department’s “Country Report” on human rights in India is damning. Documenting “significant human rights abuses,” the report expands on extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, misuse of an anti-terror law to target human rights activists, minorities, and journalists, and more. India responded by rubbishing the entire thing. Following that, Garcetti wove his narrative about the US-India romance.

Looking at democracy from the perspective of values rather than simply voting systems, it has been on a steep decline in India since even before the BJP took power.

The Sweden-based Varieties of Democracy Institute (V-Dem) has rated India as an “electoral autocracy” since 2008, noting that the descent into such has included “gradual but substantial deterioration of freedom of expression, compromising independence of the media, crackdowns on social media, harassments of journalists critical of the government, as well as attacks on civil society and intimidation of the opposition.”

India, “with 18% of the world’s population, accounts for about half of the population living in autocratizing countries,” states V-Dem. Autocratic countries are defined by the National Geographic Society as places where “one ruler has absolute control and decision-making power,” in this case the BJP’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.

Every other major global watchdog has continued to rate India’s democracy abysmally.

Reporters Without Borders places India at 159 out of 180 countries, highlighting how, with “violence against journalists, highly concentrated media ownership, and political alignment, press freedom is in crisis in ‘the world’s largest democracy’.” The Economist Group’s “Democracy Index,” in 2023, listed India as a “flawed democracy” below countries like Brazil. Freedom House, in 2024, ranks India as “partly free,” listing it at only a 66 out of 100 “freedom level,” noting, “India’s Freedom in the World score has steadily declined for much of the last decade, dropping 10 points since 2013.”

Meanwhile, Open Doors USA — the most prominent international watchdog for Christian persecution — currently ranks India as the 11th most dangerous country in the world in which to be a Christian. For the previous four years, India was the 10th most dangerous country for Christians. Conditions did not improve there, but merely worsened in other countries. Notably, on this list, India places below countries like China or even Saudi Arabia.

That takes us to the ideological basis underlying the BJP, which is the background behind both incessant calls for genocide of minorities in India as well as overall concerns about the health of democracy in the country.

The BJP, which is the political wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) paramilitary, is founded on an ideology of exterminating non-Hindus from India on the premise that only Hindus are true patriots of the nation.

After Modi, behaving like the priest of the nation, inaugurated a controversial temple to the Hindu deity Ram, there are now talks of rewriting India’s Constitution as one for a “Hindu Rashtra” — Hindu Nation — instead of a secular republic. In the midst of all this, BJP leaders and sympathizers are officiating calls to wipe out non-Hindu Indians, in some cases even describing Islam as a “fast poison” and Christianity as a “slow poison.”

This mentality is grooming a genocidal attitude, already manifested in 2023 in Manipur, towards India’s religious minorities.

Yet Ambassador Garcetti, pleading his diplomatic take, talks of India remaining a “vibrant democracy” in the next decade. Indeed, it could be one, but only if Hindutva — that is, the currently predominant ideology of Hindu nationalism — fades away.

If these trends continue, will democracy in India survive? This is not a diplomatic question. Yet, is diplomatic language the need of the hour?

About the Author: Pieter Friedrich is an independent journalist and author of several books, most recently Saffron America: India’s Hindu Nationalist Project At Work in the United States.

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