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Defending India’s ‘Democratic Descent’ May Be Embarrassing for MEA

Here’s how India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar reacted to mounting international censure of his govt.

Updated
Opinion
8 min read
Image of MEA S Jaishankar used for representation.
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Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar is a cerebral external affairs minister. Even during his long career as a diplomat, he had the reputation of possessing extraordinary brain power, which previous prime ministers used to pick in formulating major foreign policy initiatives. After his extended tenure in MEA was over, he was obviously looking to continue to play an active role in shaping India’s foreign policy in ways that could change its established paradigms.

Around the same time, Narendra Modi in his second term, was in search of a more energetic person in the MEA in place of an ailing Sushma Swaraj. It was a happy ‘samyog’, a union of desire on one side and need on the other.

Jaishankar is also a minister in mission mode. He is passionate about elevating India’s diplomatic profile globally, commensurate with our country’s size, antiquity and ambition.

He constantly looks for opportunities for expanding India’s diplomatic footprint worldwide, and a rapidly changing world order presents many such opportunities. For example, India’s commendable ‘COVID vaccine diplomacy’, which has won praise among countries small and big, also near and far, certainly has the stamp of his zealous and proactive leadership.
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Defending the Indefensible

However, after becoming a minister in a BJP government — he had to become a party member in order to occupy that position — he now has to publicly defend many indefensible things happening in India under Modi’s rule.

As a new entrant to the party, which has been pursuing its Hindu nationalist agenda in a well-planned manner, he has to take public postures that are neither justifiable nor, perhaps, are in consonance with his own personal beliefs and judgement.

One such moment came after the Modi government suddenly — and unconstitutionally — abrogated Article 370 of the Constitution and not only stripped Jammu & Kashmir of its (vastly eroded autonomy), but also degraded its status as a full-fledged state of the Indian Republic by bifurcating it into two union territories.

When Home Minister Amit Shah boasted in Parliament that India would do whatever it takes — “Hum jaan de denge” (we are ready to die for this) — to retrieve Pakistan-occupied Kashmir PoK and the Aksai Chin region, Jaishankar felt compelled to join the bandwagon. “We expect one day that we will have physical jurisdiction over PoK,” he said.

How can India conceivably have physical jurisdiction over areas of erstwhile Jammu & Kashmir, which are now under Pakistan’s control — not only PoK but also Gilgit Baltistan, which is six times larger than PoK? Only through one of two ways — either Pakistan gives that territory on a platter to India, or India occupies it through a military conquest. Neither is possible.

Indeed, after the recent ceasefire agreement between India and Pakistan along the LoC, both countries have agreed to not do anything “which have the propensity to disturb peace and lead to violence”.

Obviously, there is no way India will “one day have physical jurisdiction over PoK” when its military cannot march across the LoC. Yet, to appease the Pakistan-bashing hyper-nationalist supporters of the BJP, Jaishankar said something he simply cannot repeat now. (We must note here that he never said India will one day “have physical jurisdiction over Aksai Chin”, for that would have evoked a very different response from China.)

Is Ruling Govt ‘Undemocratic’? Let’s Look at the Facts

Jaishankar has again had to defend the indefensible in the wake of two western organisations severely criticising India under the Modi regime for curtailment of freedom and democracy.

First, the US-based human rights watchdog Freedom House downgraded India’s status from ‘free’ to ‘partly free’ and accused the Modi government of “driving India toward authoritarianism”.

Its annual report said: “Under Modi, India appears to have abandoned its potential to serve as a global democratic leader, elevating narrow Hindu nationalist interests at the expense of its founding values of inclusion and equal rights for all.”

Then came a report by Sweden-based V-Dem Institute, which, commenting on a steady decline in democratic freedoms after the BJP’s ascent to power in 2014, said India is no longer an “electoral democracy” but has now become an “electoral autocracy”.

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The Many Blows to India’s Democratic Ethos

Predictably, the two reports have made big news, both in our own country and internationally, adding to the discomfiture of the Modi government. If facts are the basis judging whether India under BJP rule has remained faithful to its Constitution by safeguarding its citizens’ democratic rights and freedoms, then the judgment is unambiguous.

No unbiased observer in India or foreign lands can praise the ruling government’s record on this count.

On the contrary, there is growing concern, bordering on alarm, over how the basic structures of India’s democracy and the secular fabric of our multi-religious society are being damaged by Hindu majoritarianism.

Freedom House and V-Dem Institute have not based their judgement on manufactured facts. The BJP government at the Centre and BJP-ruled states, especially Uttar Pradesh, have been furnishing a steady stream of facts for the entire world to see.

Suppression of the democratic rights and freedoms of the people and leaders of Kashmir; the prolonged struggle of the farmers, with over 200 of them having died at the protest sites; assaults on the dignity and security of Indian Muslims; the wanton misuse of the CBI, ED and other agencies to browbeat the opponents of the ruling party; the stark erosion in the independence, integrity and prestige of the judiciary and the election commission; attacks on media freedom — most recently evident in the new rules that seek to muzzle the digital media platforms; arrest of pro-democracy activists and activists fighting for social causes on sedition charges; and the PM himself flaying these activists for spreading what he called ‘Foreign Destructive Ideology’ — the list is long and frightening.

Global Condemnation of Goings-On Under Modi Regime

Not only Freedom House and V-Dem Institute, but also prestigious media outlets in democratic countries have slammed the Modi government for these very reasons, and in almost identical words. For example, on 25 February 2021, The Washington Post in its editorial titled “The arrest of this activist should put India’s ‘democracy’ title in question” wrote: “Any government that would charge a 22-year-old climate and animal rights activist with sedition on the basis of a Google Doc cannot be readily described as a democracy. So the arrest this month of Disha Ravi by the Indian administration of Narendra Modi ought to ring alarm bells about whether a country that boasts of being the world’s largest democracy still deserves that title.”

(Ironically, Modi chose the same Washington Post to pen, along with Joe Biden and the prime ministers of Japan and Australia, an edit-page article to praise the first-ever virtual summit of the leaders of ‘Quad’ countries on 12 March.)

There is no reason to think that only a few American newspapers have condemned the democratic downslide in India over the past 7 years. A survey of opinions expressed in the media (and social media) in Europe, Canada, Latin America, Africa, Australia and Asia would certainly not give Modi much comfort.
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Jaishankar’s ‘Embarrassing’ Counter-Attack to International Censure of His Govt

How has MEA Jaishankar reacted to this mounting international censure of his government? By behaving like a pugilist who believes that offence is the best part of defence. He has accused Freedom House, V-Dem Institute and others of “hypocrisy” — for criticising the curtailment of freedom and democracy in India.

Speaking at the India Today Conclave South 2021 last week, he said they are acting like “self-appointed custodians of the world who find it very difficult to stomach that somebody in India is not looking for their approval”. He added, India “is not willing to play the game they want to play. So they invent their rules, their parameters, pass their judgments and make it look as if it is some kind of global exercise.”

In another attempted counter-punch, he argued, “Whatever you may say, nobody questions an election in this country. Can you say that in those countries?” He was obviously referring to the US presidential election, where Donald Trump had claimed the polls were rigged.

Jaishankar’s ‘Offensive-Defence’ & Contradictions

Frankly, Jaishankar’s offensive-defence is embarrassing to any democracy-lover in India. One wonders if he would have reacted in the same way if he were not a minister in the Modi government requiring to shield it from critics in the very country — the United States — with which he wants India to forge the strongest partnership.

Let’s recall what Modi said in his speech at the Quad summit. The prime minister described the Quad as “a force for global good” because “We [the four Quad countries] are united by our democratic values.”

If India, along with the US, Japan and Australia, are united by “our democratic values”, how can Jaishankar claim that western democracies (or organisations and media outlets in these countries) “invent their rules, their parameters, pass their judgments and make it look as if it is some kind of global exercise”? How can he say that India “is not willing to play the game they want to play” and that India “is not looking for their approval”?

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What Jaishankar is saying, in effect, is that India does not care what the rest of the world — especially the democratic world — says about its current regime at the Centre.

But he cannot pretend that these “rules and parameters” for judging the functioning of democracy in India are “invented” only non-official entities like Freedom House, and that they do not represent the thinking of the Democratic president in the White House.

Look at the readout of President Biden’s first phone conversation with Modi on 8 February. It said, “The President underscored his desire to defend democratic institutions and norms around the world and noted that a shared commitment to democratic values is the bedrock for the U.S.-India relationship.”

Revealingly, these words in the statement issued by the White House — emphasising the importance of “defending democratic institutions” and “shared commitment to democratic values” being the “bedrock for the US-India relationship” — were missing in the readout of the conversation issued by the MEA.

Having to defend the ruling government’s ‘undemocratic’ behaviour is particularly embarrassing for Jaishankar for another reason.

He is known to be the strongest voice in the government calling for bolstering India-US relations through the Quad alliance, whose primary agenda is to contain China. But he cannot stop either the non-official or the official voices in the US that are critical of the growing democratic deficit in India under the BJP rule.

What Should Jaishankar Do Instead of Going on the Offensive?

There is yet another reason for Jaishankar to feel embarrassed. I mentioned earlier that many of the things happening in Modi’s India, especially the BJP’s politics of polarisation and the shrinkage of democratic space, may be against his personal beliefs. After all, his illustrious father, K Subrahmanyam, who was one of India’s foremost experts on strategic affairs, would have disapproved of these things. For example, writing in The Indian Express in 2012, he had affirmed: India’s “unity is only possible under a secular, pluralistic, democratic and quasi-federal constitution.”

Today, secularism, pluralism, democracy and India’s federal structure are all under threat.

To make things less embarrassing for himself, and better for his own proud motherland, Jaishankar (as one of the very few intellectual and well-read ministers in the government) can certainly do one thing: advise the prime minister to change his ways, so that India — and not the ‘flawed democracies’ of the West — emerges as the inspiring model of democracy, economic and social justice, civil liberties, human rights, respect for all faiths and ideologies, and media freedom for the rest of the world to emulate. But giving such advice could prove to be risky.

(The writer, who served as an aide to India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is founder of the ‘Forum for a New South Asia – Powered by India-Pakistan-China Cooperation’. He tweets @SudheenKulkarni and welcomes comments at sudheenkulkarni@gmail.com. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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