India has joined a bunch of countries where autocratisation is manifesting and democracy is seriously in peril, especially after the election of the NDA government in 2014, said a new study.
The level of democracy in India has declined significantly over the last decade, showing a disquieting trend, particularly in freedom of speech and alternative sources of information, civil society, the rule of law, and some electoral aspects.
Many of these changes have taken place after the Bharatiya Janata Party won the parliamentary elections in 2014 and its leader, the current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi assumed office, according to the V-Dem Liberal Democracy Index, published at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.
The government’s pursuit to revitalise India’s slumping economy has come at the expense of a reduction in the overall quality of India’s democracy, according to the indicators in the index. India and the US — the world’s most populous democracies – became backsliders on democracy for the first time in the V-Dem data. They joined other democracies such as Brazil, Hungary, Poland, and Suriname registered as backsliders already last year.
India exemplifies a trend in which the rights and institutions being diminished are the ones that make electoral processes meaningful and fully democratic. “This is a worrisome set of developments, posing a clear challenge to the future of democracy,” said the study.
In India, the infringements on media freedom and the civil society activities of democracy following the election of a Hindu-nationalist government have started to undermine the longest-standing and most populous democracy in the global south, according to the study. But the main indicators of the core electoral aspects of democracy do not show significant decline, it added.
The study said freedom of expression and alternative sources of information in India have been affected. “While there are about 12,000 newspapers circulating in India today, the media is increasingly being censored. Several newly introduced or more harshly enforced laws hinder free speech and encourage censorship.”
The study cited as example the law on defamation that contains prison sentences of up to two years and said it being is used to silence critical journalists at an increasing rate. Moreover, sedition laws that were upheld by the courts in 2016 even allow harsh punishment of people accused of inciting “dissatisfaction” — disloyalty and all feelings on enmity — towards the government. Its existence serves as a deterrent and encourages self-censorship.”
Harassment of journalists is also on the rise, said the study. “Many journalists have been murdered or threatened for reporting critically on the actions of the ruling party.”
Clampdown on CSOs
These apart, the government increasingly restricts the entry and exit of civil society organisations (CSOs) by using a law on foreign funding for NGOs, the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA). “As of 2017, 20,000 CSOs – mainly working on human rights and environmental issues – have lost their licenses. After that only 13,000 CSOs remain to continue working unconstrained.”
A noticeably large drop in the V-Dem indicators on the ease of entry and exit, and the level of repression of civil society organisations in India, reflects the current challenges, said the study. “These above also illustrate that law enforcement is gradually becoming less predictable, and that the state fails to effectively protect its citizens from politically motivated killings.”
Elections in India have remained free and fair and open to multi-party competition. Nevertheless, several indicators capturing how clean elections have declined, the study warned, particularly the increase in intimidation and at polling stations. “Party agents intimidate, harass and bribe voters, in effect preventing them from casting their votes freely.”
First Published: IST