The Political Fix: Will India’s illiberal turn under Modi hurt chances of engaging with the West?

Plus, how the Delhi Police's riots chargesheet will have a chilling effect.

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The Big Story: Optics

India has become more illiberal under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Many have argued that the outcomes of Modi’s biggest recent policy decisions – stripping Jammu and Kashmir of the autonomy it had been guaranteed under the Constitution, creating a process for the neighbourhood’s persecuted minorities to become Indian citizens, making it easier for farmers to sell their produce outside tightly regulated state markets – have reasonable aims that are good for the republic.

However, it should be clear even to Modi’s supporters that the means by which just these recent efforts have been achieved reflect the government’s troubling majoritarian attitude towards the key tenets of India’s checks-and-balances democratic system. There has been a long crackdown on any political activity by all residents of Kashmir (including detaining all major politicians and prohibiting access to high-speed internet). Thediscriminatory citizenship law for the first time created a religious test for Indian citizenship that was advertised with blatant dog-whistles and the use of brutal police violence to suppress those protesting the legislation. Three Bills relating to farmers were bulldozed through Parliament without bothering with committee scrutiny or even proper voting.

Earlier this year, Freedom House, an American organisation that tracks democracy and civil liberties, said that events like these have “shaken the rule of law in India and threatened the secular and inclusive nature of its political system. They also caused the country to receive the largest score decline among the world’s 25 largest democracies in Freedom in the World 2020.”

This hard turn away from liberal democracy is easiest to spot when you look at the way the government has treated those who criticise it. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has assiduously worked to create an atmosphere that portrays dissidents as “anti-national”, as if asking questions of Modi’s actions is seditious behaviour.

The government has used a combination of blatantly partisan media, provocative BJP leaders and the police to drive home this message. The Bhima Koregaon case is the template. Caste violence that threatened the BJP’s Hindutva narrative was used an excuse to project a massive “Maoist plot” to assassinate Modi. This led to the arrests of a number of eminent civil society leaders who have been critical of the ruling party. Read this report to understand how that case came together.

In the investigation into riots that convulsed the Capital in Februrary, the Delhi Police’s principal chargesheet attempts to do the same thing. The chargesheet completely skips over provocative speeches from BJP leaders, including Kapil Mishra, threatening to take the law into his own hands in front of police officers thereby sparking off the violence. Instead, it seeks to portray the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests that broke out around India as a sinister plot against the country.

The bias in the investigation is evident, as my colleague Supriya Sharma has written, yet it appears to be par for the course for the government. It is using the opportunity to arrest some critics and paint others as being part of the conspiracy.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta sketched out the real aim of this investigation:

“What does the pattern of filing chargesheets suggest? It is following a script. The whole purpose is to argue that there is a liberal, left, Islamist conspiracy to embarrass and subvert the Indian state. The political class repeats this, the media parrots this and the police, as if on cue, frames the issues this way.

The idea is not just to deflect attention from violence and discrimination, it is to declare any critic of the government a potential subversive. It is to invent an enemy of the people, in students and intellectuals. The state has diabolically shifted the emphasis away from investigation of the riots to delegitimising the anti-CAA protest…

If you strongly argue that a particular policy was a subversion of constitutional values, and some incident carried out by someone else follows, you are responsible. But if ministers and politicians instigate a chorus of “goli maaro saalon ko” [“shoot the traitors”] it is some kind of allegorical defence of the rule of law. The definition of incitement is partisan beyond belief…

The point is to send every young person a message: Choose between democratic protest, thinking or your life. The message is chilling.”

Reputational damage

The challenge of living in a state that has moved away from pluralism as its stated aim is one that Indians will have to grapple with. Over the last few months, this drift has also led to a debate among those who follow India’s strategic thinking and foreign policy efforts.

The question is quite simple: will India’s drift towards illiberalism harm its image, and therefore engagement with Western democracies like the United States?

American scholar Ashley Tellis kicked off last week’s round of the debate, arguing that “the community of liberal democracies internationally stands to lose if domestic unrest fueled by confrontational politics stymies India’s growth or if India enlarges its material capabilities only by sacrificing its liberal character. Either outcome would dilute the West’s eagerness to partner with India.”

The Indo-US nuclear deal in 2009, in which Tellis played a key role, is a case in point. The deal ended India’s nuclear isolation, de-hyphenated it from Pakistan from Washington’s point of view and in some ways represented growing acknowledgement of India’s ‘rising power’ status.

But despite convergence on the need to contain China, it still took tremendous effort to actually push the deal through the American and international system, as Shyam Saran’s How India Sees The World, makes clear. Part of the effort rested on convincing many players of India’s democratic, liberal character, while also relying heavily on Washington’s willingness to make this argument to other countries.

Still, knowing that the West has often been more than happy to work with despots and dictators though, will India’s recent moves actually harm its chances?

Some of this debate played out on Twitter:

Paul Staniland, an associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago, brought some of the key questions emerging out of this discussion together in a blogpost:

“It’s undeniably the case that the US has worked extensively with a whole variety of nasty regimes (as I’ve pointed out myself). But it’s also the case that America’s closest security partners have tended to be liberal-ish democracies…

The real inferential challenge becomes the counterfactual – if India was more/less liberal, what variation should we expect? Critiques of the Tellis argument could point to US-India cooperation and say, ‘A-ha – there is cooperation, thus Modi can do whatever he wants!’ but if there is a counterfactual world in which cooperation would be deeper and smoother and more broad-ranging, then the simple fact of cooperation doesn’t disprove the Tellis ‘ragged engagement’ thesis.

In turn, advocates of the ‘liberalism helps cooperation’ thesis need to specify what smoother engagement would actually look like in the absence of an ‘illiberalism tax’. For instance, one could point to the amount of time and energy Indian diplomats spent on CAA [Citizenship Amendment Act]/Kashmir-related topics in 2019 and ask how that time could have been spent in a counterfactual world.”

Of course, the liberal character of India is only one of the indices that the West will track as it considers increasing engagement with New Delhi. Maybe as important is the assumption that underlies the ‘rising power’ label – are India’s economy and military developing sufficiently for it to command a bigger seat at the global table?

As the Hudson Institute’s Aparna Pande put it in a Friday Q&A in August,

“If India was growing at 8%-10% economic growth, if India had the military, which could stand up to China, then maybe we could turn around and say, you know, ‘Why are you [criticising our move away from liberalism]?

But actually we seem to have it bad on all fronts. Economic growth has slowed down. We haven’t invested in human capital as Covid shows us right now. Our military modernisation has not gone as planned. And we have political and social tensions.

So China could say, you know, ‘I’m growing at 8-10%. I have a massive military, which may not be as large as America’s, but it’s the second largest in the world. Talk to me.’ What is India offering aside from its image?”

Flotsam and Jestam

Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairman Harivansh Singh cited the lack of order in the House as a reason to disallow a proper counting of votes while passing the controversial agricultural bills. But despite Singh’s earlier claims, video of the proceedings made it clear that MPs had followed the rules.

The laws themselves continued to provoke large protests around the country, with the Shiromani Akali Dal officially quitting the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance over the issue.

Bihar elections will take place in three phases between October 28 and November 7, with results on November 10.

Thanks for reading the Political Fix. We’ll be back on Friday with a Q&A and links to pieces from around the web. Send feedback to rohan@scroll.in.