When a judge in India’s Gujarat state sentenced the country’s most prominent opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi, to two years in prison last month for a remark personally offensive to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he was doing more than sanctioning speech in a narrowly censorious way. If it is upheld, his ruling, seemingly by design, would remove Modi’s rival from the parliament and dramatically marginalize his place in India’s politics.
In most democracies, speech in general, and political speech in particular, benefits from strong constitutional or legal protections not as a matter of coincidence, but because the ability to speak critically, even scathingly, of one’s rivals is almost universally seen as a bedrock of this form of government.
For many years now, the international media has formulaically spoken of India as the world’s largest democracy. But seldom have those who write such descriptions with almost function-key-like regularity taken the time to consider the healthiness or accuracy of this credential. Now, more than any time in recent decades, would seem to be a compelling moment for this.
In fact, under Modi, who has been prime minister since 2014, India has been inching ever more deeply into the murky intermediate zone between democracy and authoritarianism, without Modi ever losing any of his entrée in the West. He leads a political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, that has become increasingly dominant in the country and whose growing power has been marked by ever more extreme religious identity politics; the weakening of judicial independence; the erosion of academic freedoms; and, as the Gandhi case dramatically shows, the steady and dramatic reduction of space for criticism.
As this column will try to make clear in a moment, India’s direction is, of course, worth worrying about for India’s sake itself. But it is also of profound relevance to the legitimacy of Western democracies and the claims that they often make about their promotion of what they say are universal values.
The move against Gandhi by a judge in Modi’s own native state, Gujarat, should be setting off loud alarm bells in Western capitals about India’s commitment to democracy and the health of the rule of law in that country, but they have so far generated little political or diplomatic response. It is not, however, as if this were the only big opportunity for the West to show some consistency of concern about a drift toward ethno-religious authoritarianism in India of late. The West has been all but unwilling to speak about the democratic erosion in the country over a period of years, and it is important both to think about why that is and to reflect on the potential consequences.
The elephant lurking obviously in the room on the first point is China. For decades, the United States has eyed India with longing in the hope that New Delhi will lean more and more in the direction of the West in the latter’s contest with China. But this desire has become both more intense and more explicit, as Washington has promoted a variety of formulas to encourage this, from a rebranding of the oceans (think “Indo-Pacific”) to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, a forum for security dialogue among the United States, Japan, Australia, and India.
An underlying premise of these and other such diplomatic and security schemes is that democracies share fundamental interests and must work together to defend and promote a common value system, lest authoritarianism continue to strengthen and spread. But what if the West’s urge to push back against certain rivals—most obviously, the case of the United States and China—renders it numb to the sharp erosion of democracy among its own coalition members?
Modi’s India is a prime exhibit, but this cannot only be said to concern the West’s far-flung partners. Many Western countries are themselves facing major challenges to democratic rule, the United States perhaps most glaringly of all. [Continue reading…]