Democracy in danger in India 75 years after its independence

The demonstrations on August 5 by the main opposition party to protest the high cost of living and unemployment began like any other mobilization of this type: An opposition party without much electoral weight took to the streets to criticize the popular government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The protest, however, changed tone when some lawmakers from the Congress Party led by Rahul Gandhi – Modi’s main rival in the last two elections – addressed Parliament and a tense situation with the police ensued.

“Democracy is history” in India, Gandhi later said in a tweet, describing photos of his brief detention, along with other top leaders of his party.

More than one believes that democracy is losing ground in India, the largest democratic country in the world, with 1.4 billion inhabitants.

Government experts and detractors they say the judiciary is less and less independent. Freedom of the press and expression is increasingly compromised. Religious minorities face heavy harassment from Hindu nationalists. And the generally peaceful demonstrations are hampered by internet restrictions and the arrest of leaders.

“Most former colonies have had trouble installing lasting democratic processes. India was more successful than most in that regard,” said Booker Prize-winning novelist Arundhati Roy. “Now, 75 years after (independence), to see it being systematically and violently dismantled is traumatic.”

Modi’s ministers affirm that democratic principles remain in force and are strengthened.

“If there is a sense in the world today that democracy is somehow the future, it is largely 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.”

Jaysankar is right.

At midnight on August 15, 1947, the voice of Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first prime minister, was heard.

“At the stroke of midnight, when the world is sleeping, India will wake up and know life and freedom,” he said on that solemn occasion. He then promised: “To the nations and peoples of the world, we send our greetings and our commitment to cooperate with you in promoting peace, freedom and democracy.”

It had just begun a transition from British colony to democracy, the first in South Asia, which has transformed a nation with enormous poverty into one of the fastest growing economies in the world, sitting at the table with the largest and it is a counterweight in relation to China, its authoritarian neighbor.

Except for a brief hiatus in 1975, India has stuck to democratic principles, with largely free elections, an independent judiciary that pitted the executive, a thriving press, a strong opposition, and peaceful transitions of power.

But many experts say the country has been gradually shelving some of its commitments and the backsliding accelerated after Modi came to power in 2014. They accuse his populist government of using its power to undermine democratic and political freedoms. promote a Hindu nationalist program.

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“The deterioration seems to continue and affects several vital democratic institutions, such as freedom of expression and alternative sources of information, as well as freedom of association,” said Staffan I. Lindberg, director of the V-Dem Institute, a think tank. Swedish that assesses the health of democracies.

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

Most democracies have bad times and “there have never been so many countries” that have experienced setbacks as in the past decade, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance said last year, incorporating the United States, Brazil and India. to his list of nations where democracy faces obstacles.

The deterioration of the situation in India led the American non-profit organization Freedom House to stop considering it a democracy and label it a “partly free” country. The V-Dem Institute classified it as an “electoral autocracy”, just like Russia. And the Democracy Index published by The Economist Intelligence Unit described India as a “failed democracy”.

Modi proclaims democratic ideals, but under his rule the institutions are coming under increasing pressure. Experts point out that there are a large number of cases pending in the Supreme Court in which the constitutionality of government measures is questioned.

Including the citizenship review that threatens to render nearly 2 million people stateless in Assam state, the repeal of powers that gave semi-autonomy to Kashmir, and laws related to campaign finance that disproportionately favor the party. of Modi, as well as his alleged use of military software to spy on politicians and journalists.

Former Supreme Court Justice Deepak Gupta, on the other hand, says democracy “seems to be going backwards” in the face of the court’s inability to preserve civil liberties, denying bail and misusing sedition and felony laws. terrorism by the police, although these tactics were also used by other governments in the past.

India is a multicultural, majority Hindu country with some 200 million Muslims. It has a history of sectarian violence, but intolerance and violence against Muslims have been increasing in recent times. Some states ruled by Modi’s party have used bulldozers to demolish homes and businesses of suspected Muslim protesters, in what some describe as a form of collective punishment of a community.

For the first time in history, the ruling party does not have a single muslim legislator in Parliament, in the midst of a nationalist wave that gives Modi great electoral successes.

Under Modi, parliament passed major laws with little debate, including one on religion-linked citizenship and a controversial land reform that sparked mass protests. Unexpectedly, the government backtracked on land reform, in what some saw as a triumph for democracy. But that sentiment was diluted with increasing harassment of freedom of expression and of the press.

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