The much-discussed Summit for Democracy made more noise for its carefully curated guest list than for actual substance on democracy. As the competition for power between the US and China intensifies, it will not be enough to just succeed – it’s equally crucial to appear as the force of good in this Manichean binary.
Joe Biden’s organisation of the summit and the exclusion of China and Russia seeks to position the US as the flagbearer of liberal democracy and human rights. China’s reaction to the summit suggests that the US has been successful in hitting the right nerves. Sadly, democracy was reduced to a footnote. The conference’s text acknowledges that democracies today face threats not just from the outside but also from the inside. Democracy in the age of populism is vulnerable to being reduced to a mere procedural practice while its substantial value is chipped away.
Just Pretty Packaging
From distance, the summit seems to make a lot of right noises. Representatives from civil society, the private sector, and human rights activists were invited, beyond just the state dignitaries. The summit identified three themes—authoritarianism, corruption, and human rights—which are arguably the biggest challenges to democracy today. The panels addressed key agendas on the roles of women, the internet and technology’s intervention in democratic societies, human rights, freedom & protection of journalists, and the issue of political prisoners. But the closer one looks at the realities on the ground across countries, the more doubts arise over the credibility of the conference and commitments of its participants.
The timing of the summit could not be more ironic as the US won an appeal in London’s High Court to extradite Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder. Irrespective of the numerical age of several Western democracies, they have not been immune to populism, especially right-wing populism. The politics of polarisation is on the rise. Leaders at the very top, such as Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, and Viktor Orban, have all come to power riding this populist wave. The securitisation of minorities and migrants is influencing state policies. Majoritarian violence and vigilantism are becoming common practices. The top political leadership is actively instigating such actions, or at least, providing patronage and impunity to elements carrying them out.
India’s Prime Minister Modi was another such leader from this list of dubious democrats. Modi’s remarks followed his usual pattern of reminiscing a glorious past and making general statements about sharing knowledge and committing to democratic ideals.
Interestingly, these remarks came after he participated in a closed-door session at the Summit. The irony – a closed-door session at the Summit for Democracy.
However, there is enough one can read from his actions to look beyond the words.
Modi’s Sorry Record of Democracy
There is more than enough from before 2014 to question Modi’s democratic credentials. However, it is since the 2014 Lok Sabha elections that all powers have worked towards making Modi the face of India, and hence, the buck must also stop with him. The Indian state, even before Modi, has often relied on draconian laws like the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) and Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) to quash any incident of resistance and dissent. This has continued and has gone a step further under Modi. The current government uses bodies like the Enforcement Directorate (ED), the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), and the National Security Act (NSA) to harass political competitors. Horse-trading has become a norm both before and after any elections. Constitutional bodies, too, like the Judiciary and the Election Commission of India, are facing a crisis of credibility after several questionable decisions.
India’s democratic backsliding hasn’t gone unnoticed. India has slipped from 27 (2014) to 53 (2020) on EIU’s democracy index. The USCIRF 2020 and 2021 have marked India in the ‘country of particular concern’ category, recognising the increasing violence against minorities in the country. While minorities have faced injustice earlier as well, the violence (mob lynchings) and vile propaganda (love jihad, population myth etc.) against them today is unmatched. Elements, empowered under this government, have even attacked universities and schools.
Journalism has been one of the biggest victims of this transition. Mainstream media houses are right out of Goebbels’s fantasy. Instead of keeping the powerful in check, they have become propaganda machines spreading misinformation at large.
While it is shameful that the Prime Minister is yet to host a press conference, the interviews conducted or curated by TV media with him are just embarrassing. India currently ranks 142nd on the World Press Freedom Index.
Journalists like Gauri Lankesh have been murdered, Siddiqui Kappan is in prison, and goons and trolls are out for popular voices like Rana Ayyub and Ravish Kumar. The RTI Act has been diluted and FCRA has choked the functioning of several NGOs.
However, there is hope. The smiling picture of Sudha Bhardwaj after her bail (as the Summit was on) is symbolic of that hope.
Look At the Streets, Not the Summits
If the initiative to undermine democracy comes from the top, then the force to strengthen it shall come from the people. There is enough evidence to testify that. Several social movements have emerged in recent years like the Black Lives Matter Movement in the US, Farmers & CAA/NRC protests in India, Gilets Jaunes in France, and pro-democracy movements across several Southeast Asian states. These movements have challenged governments, their policies, the social conditions flourishing under their patronage, and have sought to reclaim the space for greater public participation.
While the US has claimed to commit funds towards democracy-related projects, partisan interests are bound to be the ultimate factor in decisions over such projects. The fact that populists who actively undermine democracy at home get to speak about it on such platforms is farcical. Democracy is being reduced to an episodic practice – elections. There is a need to challenge that, and it would require an umbrella coalition of activists, lawyers, civil society groups, journalists, and citizens.
(The author is a PhD Research Scholar (Diplomacy and Disarmament) at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)