By Šumit Ganguly
India’s Democratic History
Contrary to popular belief, the British had done little to bequeath democracy to India. Instead, democracy emerged in India due to the relentless efforts of Indian nationalists who appropriated liberal democratic ideals and embedded them in the nascent country. The country forged a democratic constitution in 1950, just three years after its Independence. Under its aegis, in 1952, several hundred million Indians exercised their franchise in a free and fair election. This election belied a popular political science axiom that democracy was impossible in a country with low levels of literacy and faced with widespread poverty.
Since then, barring a brief interregnum in the late 1970s when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had suspended personal rights and civil liberties, the country has had a long and honorable tradition of holding mostly free and fair elections, enjoyed the benefits of a feisty press and a largely independent judiciary. However, the second election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2019 has challenged those traditions. Indeed, many of the features of India’s democracy that both scholars and analysts alike had taken for granted now seem to be under assault. India’s current leaders have cowed the press, compromised the judiciary’s autonomy and even raised questions about the fairness of some electoral practices. None of these trends bode well for the future of the country’s democracy.
Democracies Look to India
Ironically, at a time when both democratic institutions and mores within the country are under duress, it is being courted in the global arena. Among other matters, mere weeks ago it assumed the rotating presidency of the G-20 for the coming year. Not surprisingly, Prime Minister Modi heralded this development as an opportunity to highlight India’s achievements. At another level, many in the world are also looking to New Delhi to find a possible diplomatic pathway out of the quagmire in the making in Ukraine. Even the Biden administration, despite India’s vacillating posture in the Quad, is continuing to woo India. So, will all these hopes pinned on India as a possible democratic pole and leader of global consequence amount to naught? The answer is quite complex.
A Post-Colonial Legacy
Long before Modi ascended to the national scene in India, as it deepened and consolidated democracy at home, New Delhi was already quite chary about promoting democracy abroad. But why was India reluctant to boost democracy aboard? In considerable part, New Delhi’s hesitation stemmed from two sources. At one level, it was tied to the country’s own historical experience with colonial rule. As a post-colonial state, it did not want to promote an international norm which might justify foreign interference in the domestic affairs of other countries.
Of course, this unwillingness to criticize or challenge the internal political arrangements of other states was not an ironclad principle. For example, unlike the United States and the vast majority of the Western advanced industrial world, India was an early and staunch critic of the apartheid regime in South Africa. But beyond this glaring exception, India adopted a mostly muted stance on democracy and human rights abroad during much of the Cold War. Although in some small degree, it did provide limited assistance to pro-democracy movements in its neighborhood especially in Burma (Myanmar) and Nepal.
After the Cold War…
Nonetheless, after the Cold War’s end, its opposition to democracy promotion actually became a bit more vocal. I attribute a considerable part of this unease to the Clinton administration’s full-throated embrace of the idea of democratic enlargement on a global basis. Along with this commitment to democracy promotion, the administration also spoke out vigorously, if selectively, on human rights violations abroad. At the time India confronted two major insurgencies in Punjab and in the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir. It was acutely concerned about coming under American scrutiny for its own wobbly human rights records in both cases. So, it adopted a fairly unequivocal stance against the Clinton administration’s posture on the subjects of democracy and human rights promotion.
Unlikely to Change Now
Given this historical background and the steady erosion of democratic rights at home under the Modi government, the prospect of New Delhi playing a significant role in democratic enlargement is all but chimerical. More to the point, New Delhi is well aware that most Western democracies are preoccupied with the challenge that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) poses to their interests in Asia and, in some cases, beyond. Furthermore, they see India as a potentially viable alternative to their dependence on the PRC for various supply chain issues especially in the wake of growing authoritarianism in the PRC coupled with its erratic Covid policies. Consequently, India expects to receive a pass despite its growing democratic deficits. This was evident from the blunt reaction from India’s articulate foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, following the decision of a number of non-governmental organizations ranging from Freedom House to V-Dem downgrading India’s democratic credentials.
Sadly, far too many Western democracies, while mostly adhering to democratic ideals and principles at home, are quite selective and fitful in their commitment to guaranteeing and supporting democratic principles and forces abroad. This uneven record is not lost on the current government in New Delhi. As its material power increases and thereby its significance in the global order, its leadership appears convinced that it too can shrug off criticisms of its domestic record while shying away from pursuing a foreign policy that pays heed to the promotion of democracy in the global order.
About the Author
Šumit Ganguly is a Distinguished Professor of Political Science and holds the Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is also a Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
Democracy Paradox Podcast
Democracy Paradox is part of the Amazon Affiliates Program and earns commissions on items purchased from links to the Amazon website. All links are to recommended books discussed in the podcast or referenced in the blog.