Urgent need for rebooting Indian democracy - GulfToday

Urgent need for rebooting Indian democracy

BRP Bhaskar

@brpbhaskar

Indian journalist with over 50 years of newspaper, news agency and television experience.

Indian journalist with over 50 years of newspaper, news agency and television experience.

Narendra-Modi-750-

Narendra Modi

When Narendra Modi led the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance to power in 2014, India was ranked 27th in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index. In the 2020 index, released last week, it is at the 53rd place in the list of 167 countries.

The 26-point drop in six years is a serious blow to the country, which, on the strength of the size of its population, has taken pride in being the world’s largest democracy.

EIU classifies India as a ‘flawed democracy’, not a ‘full democracy’. Most of India’s neighbours are one step below, in the ‘hybrid regime’ category. Afghanistan is classified as ‘authoritarian’.

Incidentally, EIU classifies the US too as a flawed democracy. The EIU ranking of counties is based on an index in the 0-10 scale. In 2014, India’s index was 7.92. Falling continuously since then, it has come down to 6.61.

EIU attributed the latest slide to ‘democratic backsliding’ and crackdown on civil liberties.

It also took note of the recent introduction of a religious element in the concept of citizenship, which critics see as undermining the secular basis of the Indian state.

It said the handling of the coronavirus pandemic had led to further erosion of civil liberties. It is possible to pick holes in the findings of studies of this kind, howsoever objective they may be. Observers in India will test them against their own experience, not on the basis of theories.

The EIU report came as the country was witnessing fresh curbs on civil liberties to contain farmers’ protests against three agricultural reform laws which they consider inimical to their interests.

A few hundred thousand protesters, mostly from neighbouring states, have been camping at three points on Delhi’s borders since December, seeking withdrawal of the laws.

The Supreme Court, in an unprecedented step, stayed the laws for 18 months without anyone even asking for it. In talks with farmers’ unions, the Centre offered to hold the laws in abeyance for three years. They rejected the offer and vowed to stay put until the laws are scrapped.

Barring stray acts of violence, allegedly by agents provacateurs, during a tractor rally held in Delhi with police permission, the farmers’ agitation, in which whole families are taking part, has been peaceful. This has earned them much goodwill. Opposition parties which initially took guarded positions are coming forward to support them openly.

After an attempt by pro-BJP groups to drive the protesters away failed, police erected barricades, laid barbed wire fences and even built concrete walls at the protest sites to isolate them. The government blocked Internet services to deny them communication facilities.

The authorities also put obstacles in the way of NGOs who were supplying food and water at the protest sites.

Undeterred by the repressive measures, farmers are expanding the protests. On Friday they organised a three-hour blockade of the nation’s highways. Farmers’ assemblies across the country are adopting resolutions opposing the reform measures.  

Media reports of repressive measures invited critical comments in the social media from teenaged Swedish climate campaigner Greta Thunberg and American pop singer and businesswoman Rihanna.

The BJP’s cyber teams immediately launched abusive campaigns against them. In command performances, Indian film and sports personalities questioned foreigners’ right to involve themselves in the farmers’ issue.

Delhi police reportedly considered levelling sedition and conspiracy charges against Greta. Cyber police started gathering information about Rihanna’s social media activity. However, good sense prevailed and they did not persist in the ludicrous course.

The External Affairs Ministry asked Indian embassies to counter criticism of the government’s handling of the farmers’ agitation.

On Sunday, in an election speech in Bengal, where Assembly polls are due, Modi said foreign elements were conspiring to give India a bad name and they would be given a fitting reply.

The government must realise that at the root of its current troubles are its propensity to enact legislation ignoring the interests of stakeholders and its propensity to unleash repression against protesters. The situation calls for urgent rebooting of Indian democracy. It is for the government to initiate action in this regard without delay.

The Prime Minister missed an ideal opportunity to do so when he replied to a discussion in Parliament. Instead of offering any new concrete proposals, he merely repeated the vague offers the farmers had previously rejected.

He must give high priority to settlement of the farm laws issue as disruption in the agricultural sector will imperil the nation’s food security.

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