Prime Minister Narendra Modi was one of five leaders of democracies from Asia, Africa and Latin America invited to attend the annual G-7 summit of the most advanced nations. This year the challenges before the developed nations were quite complex. On top of the persisting Covid-19 pandemic, the Ukraine War has diverted their attention from climate change and the rise of China.
From the Indian standpoint, besides enabling the prime minister to hold bilateral meetings with some of the twelve leaders converging on Krun in the the German Alps, there was also focus on the threat to liberal democracy globally. Underscoring this has been the ongoing US congressional hearing on the mob attack on Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021, to undermine the Presidential election. The emerging role of former president Donald Trump is both unbelievable and shocking.
All guest-attendees joined the G-7 members in issuing the “2022 Resilient Democracies Statement”. The core principle articulated is that global liberal order is unachievable unless liberal democracy is also safeguarded at home. The internal politics of nations cannot be put in a separate silo from the one which holds international relations. Of course, during the Cold War, even the US often let realpolitik trump promotion of democracy globally. Even today, President Joe Biden has had to climb down and offer to engage Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman because energy costs are pushing up global inflation. The Saudis need to be weaned away from Russia and thus crack open the OPEC+ cartel. Even Turkey had had to make up with the Crown Prince despite taking the lead and exposing the country's hand in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
But for India the challenge is immediate because the continuing degrading of institutions that keep liberal democracy afloat. Many analysts maintain that in the contemporary context in various democracies, there are no military coups or mass uprisings to undermine the system. It is being done by a gradual capture of institutions like the judiciary, election commissions, media etc. This is happening in Hungary, Brazil and even in India. The government has been changed in Maharashtra, with the Supreme Court intervening despite a Constitution Bench ruling that courts must not intervene while a legislative proceeding is underway. The deputy speaker’s hands were bound first by giving almost two weeks to defecting legislators, and then the Governor’s interference was allowed to take its course. The superior court keeping the issue alive hardly helps the affected party, as once power is transferred the dynamics shift. The BJP has of course maintained that they have nothing to do with all this. But the strings attached to the political puppets are undeniable.
While all this was going on in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was endorsing the statement on resilient democracies. The sub-headings of the two-page statement are telling. First one refers to “Global Responsibility: Democracies as Reliable Partners”. These are then the bedrock of an international order that is fair, and rules based. India makes much of that in the context of Chinese conduct in their neighbourhood. The logic is that unless democracies strengthen their domestic democratic moorings, they cannot defy autocratic powers internationally.
The second one relates to “Information Environment: Democracies defending Open and Pluralistic Debate”. The arrest of a civil society activist by the Gujarat antiterrorism police unit, using some parts of a supreme court ruling, undercuts such debate. On its heels another journalist, who is a co-founder of a popular fact-checking site, was picked up by police for a two-year-old tweet that merely conveyed what a Hindi film carried years ago. This kind of conduct to demoralise critics of the government is far removed from creating open debate.
The next subheading is: “Civil Society: Democracies Protecting and Fostering Open and Pluralistic Civic Spaces”. The BJP government has tightened the foreign contribution administration and cancelled licences of Indian and foreign organisations occupying this space. Again, intolerance towards criticism, which strengthens roots of any liberal democracy, has been increasing in India.
Finally, the statement talks of “Inclusion and Equality: Democracies Promoting Equal Representation”. BJP’s supporters wills maintain that on this count BJP has done no less than past governments. After all, they have now given a chance to a woman from a tribal background to hold the high office of president. Critics will call it tokenism and electoral calculation.
However, BJP cannot keep ignoring criticism that emanates from India’s friends in G-7 nations and even at the United Nations. Civil society advocates in those countries need to be taken seriously. Jingoism is a poor response to principled criticism, especially when the Indian government is quite happy when India is wooed precisely because it is a functioning democracy. Thus, it cannot be a one-way street.
It is incumbent on the prime minister to address this paradox of liberalism on the lips abroad and realpolitik at home.
(The writer is a former secretary, Ministry of External Affairs.)