Author : Niranjan Sahoo

Expert Speak India Matters
Published on Dec 09, 2021
Despite several democracy watchdogs calling India as a backsliding democracy, the vibrant democratic practices conducted in India would say otherwise
Democracy summit: How India should approach On 9 and 10 December, US President Joe Biden is slated to virtually host the much talked about international Summit for Democracy. The Summit aims to gather as many as 111 leaders from democratic nations, civil society, and influential thought makers “to set forth an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal and to tackle the greatest threats faced by democracies today through collective action”. The scale and magnitude of such a summit, exclusively on democracy and its related challenges, has no parallel in the recent memory. This is probably the biggest event to be kicked up by the 11-month-old Biden administration in an effort to “catalyse action toward the goal of renewing global democracy”. There is little doubt about the relevance and timing of the Summit. Democracies across the world—rich and established, developing and newly established ones—are grappling with serious crises on many key parameters. According to the reports of leading democracy watchdogs such as V-Dem, International IDEA, and Freedom House, democracy is witnessing an alarming decline. In March, Freedom House noted 15 consecutive years of decline in political rights and civil liberties across the world. This is further re-affirmed by a recent report of International IDEA which noted an alarming trend towards authoritarianism. A more stringent review by the Economist Intelligence Unit (Democracy Index 2020) found as low as 9 percent of the world population live in a “full” democracy. The recent military coups in Myanmar, Tunisia, and Sudan are testimonies to the steady rise of anti-democratic forces and the failure of global democracy collective to do anything meaningful to stem the rot.
Democracies across the world—rich and established, developing and newly established ones—are grappling with serious crises on many key parameters.
However, what is really concerning is the rising threats stemming from the steady rise of authoritarian powers, particularly China. At a time when the West, particularly the US and rich European countries, have considerably ceded their global commitment to democratic values, China has set its eyes on re-defining global human rights and democracy norms. China under a nationalist president, Xi Jinping, has marshalled the military and diplomatic means to threaten Taiwan, forced territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea, thrown millions of Uyghur Muslims in internment camps, curbed political freedoms in Hong Kong, and launched influence operations across many geographies. Curiously, aiming to counter the democracy summit, the State Council of the Communist Party put up a comprehensive document in public claiming it has a democracy that works. Beyond this, the Summit is likely to touch upon other related but equally critical issues such as misinformation, external (read authoritarian) interference on elections, political polarisation, rising income inequality, amongst others. On the whole, too many issues are slotted for this two-day virtual summit.

How should India approach the Summit

Being the largest and most populous democracy in the world with very rich and diverse experience in democratisation amongst all post-colonial countries, India is billed as the most critical country to lead the global pushback against an authoritarian China. Yet, at the Summit, India is likely to come under increasing international gaze for its poor records at home. While the Freedom House 2021 report put India as only “partly free”, the V-Dem report went a step ahead to call it an “electoral autocracy”. The most recent International IDEA’s Global State of Democracy 2021 report placed India amongst the 10 most backsliding democracies—a more severe and deliberate kind of democratic erosion.  Yet, India is not alone in this. The same report notes alarming democratic erosion in some of the most established democracies. Incidentally, the host America has been added to the list of “backsliding” democracies and the IDEA  notes, “the visible deterioration” of its democratic credentials, including a decline of its civil liberties and checks on government since 2019, as well as a dip in the “quality of freedom of association and assembly during the summer of protests in 2020”. The clearest proof of deterioration was demonstrated by the 6th January Insurrection at the Capitol. If President Biden can host an international democracy summit in the face of such democratic erosion at home, why should India cut a sorry figure and find itself in a corner at the Summit? On the contrary, the Summit offers the world’s largest democracy to confidently showcase its steady but largely under recognised contribution to democracy building.  As analysts have noted already, the Summit offers a rare opportunity for New Delhi to draw attention to its invincible record in running the largest electioneering process—with more than 900 million voters—accomplished seamlessly using electronic voting machines. While the counting of the last US presidential votes lasted for weeks with many controversies, India’s general elections results in 2019 were out with minimal controversies in days.
Being the largest and most populous democracy in the world with very rich and diverse experience in democratisation amongst all post-colonial countries, India is billed as the most critical country to lead the global pushback against an authoritarian China.
Beyond demonstrating the Election Commission (EC)’s enviable record in conducting free and fair elections, India can draw attention to the thousands of electoral officials from Asia, Africa, and other regions of the world who have received training in election management and parliamentary affairs from India for several decades. Beyond capacity building, India has created a Developmental Partnership Administration (DPA) within the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) to offer critical development assistance projects for many developing and new democracies across geographies. Notable examples are the building of the Afghan Parliament, providing support to Myanmar for upgrading its administrative and judicial capabilities, amongst others. Further, India has made rich contribution to strengthening international democracy watchdogs in terms of funds and institutional support. Together with the US, India was instrumental in the creation of the UN Democracy Fund (UNDEF) and the Community of Democracies to support democracy at international levels. Incidentally, India is one of the largest contributors to UNDEF (more than US $32 million) that supports 66 NGO-led projects in South Asia. Further, India hosted the World Movement for Democracy conference in 1999 (incidentally by the BJP-led National Democratic Government). India also helped to form the United Nations Democracy Caucus, the only body within the UN system to convene democratic states based on shared values.

Showcasing democratic innovations at home

Beyond its external contribution, India should make serious efforts to draw attention to its rich democratic innovation on a diverse range of issues that make democracy credible and inclusive. For instance, it can showcase its long held affirmative action (read reservation policy), which, despite its many limitations, has given due representation to historically marginalised communities and in several cases, opened up political spaces for Dalits and Adivasis in the democratic process. Before Barack Obama could break centuries of racial discrimination to rise to the highest office, India had Mayawati, a Dalit woman to rise to the highest office on multiple occasions in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state with known records of caste discrimination and feudalism. While such experimentation on social and political inclusion is still a work in progress, India can draw attention to its transparency revolution via the Right to Information Act 2005, a totally civil society driven grassroot movement that has truly democratised information spaces for ordinary citizens.

Decentralisation—the biggest democratic experimentation in the world

Yet, the most robust and fascinating democratic innovation that India can share to the world is its ongoing experimentation in democratic decentralisation. Kicked up in the form of twin constitutional amendments (73rd and 74th) in 1992 to create third-tier governments (rural and urban local bodies), this decentralised experiment has taken deep ground in the last three decades. With 3 million representatives at various levels (Gram Sabha, Panchayat Samiti, and Zilla Parishad), this is by far the largest democratic exercise anywhere in the world. The best part about decentralisation is its social inclusion story in terms of providing political spaces to the most marginalsed groups. The mandatory reservations for women, Scheduled Castes,  Scheduled Tribes, and Other Backward Classes have provided opportunities for more than a million new representatives from these sections. Arguably, this is India’s most transformative affirmative action plan for women in politics. While democratic decentralisation runs with many institutional and resource limitations and weaknesses, it is deepening and making cumulative impact. That a Gram Sabha (legislative body of Panchayati Raj System at village level) representing the most primitive tribes in Niyamgiri, Odisha can veto a mega mining project is a testimony of the power these institutions enjoy under this new democratic experimentation. This needs to be unequivocally conveyed before the participants of the democracy summit.
While democratic decentralisation runs with many institutional and resource limitations and weaknesses, it is deepening and making cumulative impact.
Finally, India needs to state unequivocally its long traditions of democracy, diversity, and participation, which goes back thousands of years before the country was colonised and then formally democratised in 1947. This fact was brought up by the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his recent UNGA speech, where he stressed on the existence of such democratic traditions. Even before Athenian democracy arrived with formal legislative mechanisms and norms, the Rig Veda had enumerated the idea of the Sabha (big gathering of people) and Samiti (smaller gathering of people). Ancient Indian kingdoms like the Licchavis had invented the republican system that allowed direct participation of people in polls and governance. Thus, it is time to articulate the non-western and native version of democracy and liberalism at the world stage.


To sum up, notwithstanding the growing political polarisation and heightened levels of democratic erosion in the recent decade, India’s democracy is a not doing as badly as pointed out by many international watchdogs and rating bodies. And those who have given up (read democracy rating agencies and other such bodies) on India’s future or categorised it as “electoral autocracy” must not miss out on the multitude of democratic experimentations going all the time, and India is a too large and heterogenous a democracy to be judged on a few self-selected axioms. It is a work in progress, which just got demonstrated in the success of a year-long farm protest. That the most powerful government, after many decades, relented to democratic protest to cancel the three highly contested three farm laws is a testimony to the resilience of its democracy. The vibrancy and resilience of its multi-level democracy cannot be simply wished away in the garb of micro-analysis of indicators.
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Niranjan Sahoo

Niranjan Sahoo

Niranjan Sahoo, PhD, is a Senior Fellow with ORF’s Governance and Politics Initiative. With years of expertise in governance and public policy, he now anchors ...

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