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Articles

Modi’s New India, where democracy is a joke

No 'free and fair' can attach to the impending 2024 Lok Sabha elections, and that is self-evident — but just in case we needed a third-party opinion...

Aakar Patel
This is not a free and fair election.
The repercussions and ramifications of this rigging and fixing will be felt throughout Narendra Modi’s third term in office. This election — even before it takes place — has damaged and will further damage our republic.
One need not expend much labor on making the case that the election is rigged.
Two chief ministers are in jail. Why? Not because they are convicted but because they have been jailed by agencies controlled by Modi.
The Congress party has no access to its bank accounts. Why? Not because it has been convicted but because it is being manhandled by agencies controlled by Modi.
Those who have been previously booked by the same agencies have now been given clean chits after they switched their allegiance to the NDA.
In no real democracy does this happen.
We don’t even have to go into the electoral bonds scandal.
The strange thing is that most people had assumed Modi would return to power in 2024; so why do this?
Perhaps it is just who he is. That is the most natural explanation for those who have noted with alarm the sequence of events that led to this pass.
This includes the outside world and especially the institutions that study democracy. They have been telling us for years now that India is not fully free, that its democracy has slid and that it has become authoritarian.
V-Dem, inside the University of Gothenburg, classified India as an ‘electoral autocracy’ in 2018. In its 2024 report, released in March, it said India was ‘one of the worst autocratisers’.
In 2020, the Economist Intelligence Unit classified India as a ‘flawed democracy’, saying that ‘democratic norms have been under pressure since 2015’.
In 2021, Freedom House, the think tank in Washington, said India was now not free but only ‘partly free’. The rating has remained since.
The government’s response to the Freedom House finding was to trot out a press release which said: ‘Many states in India under its federal structure are ruled by parties other than the one at the national level, through an election process which is free and fair and which is conducted by an independent election body. This reflects the working of a vibrant democracy, which gives space to those who hold varying views.’
This was dishonest.
The Freedom House report had two parts. The first, given 40 per cent weightage, was on political rights. Here India got a score of 34/40 (falling to 33/40 in 2023), including full marks for free and fair elections, impartiality of the Election Commission, freedom to start political parties and opportunities for the Opposition to increase their power.
In this part, India did not get full marks on whether voting was unhampered by violence and unaffected by communal tension. This is hardly arguable.
In fact, the government even got 3/4 on transparency, which was probably overly generous.
The government response was therefore merely repeating what Freedom House had anyway said.
Where India’s rating was hurt was in the other 60 per cent, for civil liberties, which are also a part of freedom. Here it performed poorly (33/60).
On the issues of freedom of expression, freedom of religion, academic freedom, freedom of assembly, freedom for NGOs to work (the report named the government’s attack on my organisation, Amnesty International India, specifically), rule of law, independence of the judiciary and the application of due process by the police, India’s rating was poor.
But the scores merely reflected the reality.
In fact, as readers may have realised, India should expect that on the side of political rights, the score will now crater. It is not possible to jail your Opposition and pretend you are a democracy with universal political rights.
When the scores began to fall, at first the government appeared baffled by the results, because Modi was convinced he was doing a good job. The government sought details from ministries of the parameters used by the Economist Intelligence Unit in downgrading India to a ‘flawed democracy’ — though the report itself cites the reasons clearly: It said that the ‘primary cause was an erosion of civil liberties’ and introduction of religion as a factor for citizenship.
Again, all this was already on public view. What is new now in ‘New India’ is the direct assault on democracy and its processes.
What should we now expect in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections and after the polls? If Modi is able to get a very large majority and the vaunted 400 seats he claims he will, then the election will be seen the same way those in Russia and North Korea are. There will be no credibility to the results and that stain will remain through the next term of the government.
On the other hand, if he gets fewer seats than in 2019 but manages a simple majority, the Opposition will not be cowed down easily this time. They already know he will misuse authority and abuse his office to put them in jail.
For India has become like Bangladesh is, a democracy where the Opposition is not allowed to function. This same state of affairs has been seen in Pakistan as well, most famously in 1977. We should recognise it readily therefore.
Prime Minister Modi can coin grand phrases like ‘Mother of Democracy’, but it has been apparent for some time now that this is not only untrue but a joke.
The author is an Indian journalist and activist.

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