When the G7 group of rich democracies assembles this weekend in southwest England, it will discuss issues including COVID-19, taxes, and climate change.
Why is India the hinge point?
The world’s most successful democracies are mostly small, wealthy, and homogenous.
Of the world’s 10 most populous nations, only the United States and India are long-established democracies. Two (China and Russia) are undisguised autocracies, and the other six can be charitably described as “democracies in progress.” That a political system works for Iceland—which has 341,000 residents, almost all of them practically relatives—means little to Brazil, Indonesia, or Nigeria.
That’s India. If democracy can make it there, it can make it anywhere.
Until recently, democracy clearly could make it there.
But India’s democracy has seen worrisome erosion. On The Economist’s list, the country has slid from No. 35 in 2006 to No. 53 today.
At the root of the backsliding, in India as elsewhere,
Sectarian tensions flared throughout the BJP’s rise to power, and the flames were often fanned by the party itself. In 2014, Narendra Modi supplanted a generation of soft-edged figures and led the party to electoral victory.
The first illiberal thrust was launched not against the hardware of democracy (the electoral system) but the software that enables it to operate—that is, an apolitical judiciary, a free press, and other elements of civil society.
India’s judicial system has bent to the wishes of politicians since 2014.
Likewise, attacks on India’s press have grown brazen. Of the past decade’s 405 cases filed against journalists under a colonial-era sedition law, all but a few have been registered since Modi took office.
Unless they are paid to be careless. Being feisty is so not worth it if you don't get paid.
Weakening these civil-society foundations enabled the next stage of Modi’s program: the use of democracy’s mechanisms to undermine democracy’s core.
In 2019, Modi returned to office with an absolute parliamentary majority. Shortly after, he abrogated the special status written into the constitution for Jammu and Kashmir (India’s sole Muslim-majority state). Protests in Kashmir were met with a months-long clampdown. Modi followed up with actions that officially and unofficially advantaged Hindus over Muslims nationwide. Demonstrations against these moves peaked in December 2019, and were extinguished only by a COVID-19 lockdown three months later.
All of these moves would have been anathema to the drafters of India’s constitution.
Gyan Prakash, a scholar of the Emergency,
Do constitutional questions matter to a farmer scraping by on $4 a day (the national average)? They should. As the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen once noted, “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy.”
All of this may sound familiar to American ears.
No. A democracy can decide to disenfranchise or even to ethnically cleanse a minority. America has plenty of experience with such things.
Perhaps the most dangerous threat of all is complacency. Whether doomscrolling Twitter or ignoring politics completely, most Americans share a baseline confidence that democracy will endure. But will it? American democracy isn’t nearly as deeply rooted as we like to believe. Half of the population (that is: the female half) weren’t generally permitted to vote until 1920. Black Americans in Jim Crow states (that is, most of them) had to wait nearly another half century. If measured by universal suffrage, how long has America been a true democracy? For less time than the Rolling Stones have been touring.
This is why Americans should be paying close attention to the politics of India. The U.S. is not Iceland; it’s huge, diverse, and tough to govern. Only one other country with comparable size and complexity has given democracy a sustained, multigenerational shot. If the system fails in India, it can certainly fail closer to home.