New India: Expanding influence abroad, tightening democracy at home

NEW DELHI – On the sidelines of a summit meant to be a show of force for a Russian leader looking to turn the tide on the battlefield, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi leaned toward a message other.

“Democracy, diplomacy and dialogue” – not war – was the answer, he told Vladimir V. Putin as the cameras turned this month, before announcing that the two would talk more about how to bring peace in Ukraine.

That assured interaction in Uzbekistan is the latest display of India’s rise under Modi. As an ambitious and assertive power, India has become increasingly indispensable in finding answers to some of the world’s most pressing challenges, from diplomacy to climate change to technology. and trade to an effort to diversify supply chains to counter China.

It is proof of India as the world’s largest democracy that Mr. Modi takes the global stage. But at home, diplomats, analysts and activists say, the Modi government is working on a project to recreate India’s democracy unlike any other in 75 years. year of independence – cracking down on dissent, eliminating civil institutions and making minorities second-class citizens.

While past Indian leaders have exploited religious divisions and weaponized institutions to stay in power, Mr. Modi’s focus is more fundamental: the systematic consolidation of power. system, achieved not through vigorous power struggles but through more sophisticated and long-lasting means, aimed at making the mark of a Hindu majority. ideology of India’s constitutional secular democracy.

Mr. Modi has obeyed his will to the courts, the media, the legislature and civil society – “arbitration” institutions that have defended India’s democracy in an area of ​​military coups and entrenched dictatorships. As he did, the country’s indispensability to major global issues, coupled with the challenges to democracy in both the United States and Europe, ensured little to no Western allies. West objected.

The question for both India and the world is whether the country can continue to be an engine of growth and a viable partner even as it is marginalized by minorities. especially 200 million Muslims, which raises the question cycle of extremism and permanent fluctuations at home.

The contradictions over India’s rise crystallized at the end of June, when Mr. Modi stood side by side with the Group of 7 leaders in Germany as his public relations team worked to document the seeming intimacy of India. with his counterparts: a shared smile with President Biden, an interlocking handshake with Justin Trudeau of Canada.

But just as Mr. Modi was signing a statement with his hosts urging the defense of democracies and affirming ideals such as “freedom of speech” and “independence of civil society,” his government still continued to suppress dissidents at home.

Indian authorities have arrested an activist who criticized the prime minister’s past record on human rights and a fact-checker who highlighted disparaging comments about Islam by a party spokeswoman ruling. A few days earlier, officials had again dispatched bulldozers to raze Muslim homes as part of the campaign “instant justice” this time targeting activists accused of leading sometimes violent protests against provocative remarks.

For now, Modi’s focus is on leveraging India’s strengths. As the global order has been disrupted by Covid, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and an expanding Beijing, Modi’s lieutenants have made it clear that they see this as the time to establish India, according to reports. on their own terms, as one of the leading powers.

India is a rising economic force, having just surpassed Britain, its once colonial warlord, as the world’s fifth largest economy. It is well-positioned to prosper with improved trade relations, a large youth population and an expanding technological infrastructure – a potential alternative, in the eyes of some democracies, for a future dominated by China.

Modi’s diplomats are encouraged to overcome apparent frictions by holding military exercises with both Russia and the United States, while increasing purchases of Russian oil despite US and European pressure.

India’s Western allies have shown little desire to challenge the Modi government, which diverges from some of their proclaimed democratic values.

The focus on trade and geopolitics often puts human rights in jeopardy, analysts and diplomats say. With the European Union’s swift negotiations on a free trade agreement with India, the talk was just “this deal, this deal, this deal,” said a European diplomat in Washington. New Delhi said.

The United States, whose two-year Biden administration remains without an ambassador in New Delhi, is reeling from former President Donald J. Trump’s attack on its democratic system. Its seriousness about a a foreign policy that prioritizes human rights came under suspicion because the search for cheaper oil brought Mr. Biden this summer to Saudi Arabia, where he clashed with the crown prince over the murder and dismemberment of a journalist.

“The US has also lost its right to criticize countries,” said Lisa Curtis, a former senior US national security official who leads the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. other in their record of democracy.

In many ways, diplomats, officials and analysts say, India’s rise combines two unique developments: a natural opening in the often uncertain postcolonial trajectory of the land country, and the emergence of a leader at the height of his power, who is already halfway through. century pursued its vision from scratch.

After India’s establishment of violence as an independent country in 1947, the country remained consumed for decades with questions about whether it was intact and whether its economy could feed a large number of people. population or not. The time to define itself, and its relations to the world, comes only after those questions have largely been resolved.

Mr. Modi, 72, has spent his life in the trenches of a right-wing movement calling the establishment of India as a secular republic a grave injustice to minorities like Muslims. Christianity and Christianity must pay the price of what they see as the legitimate claim of the majority of Hindus.

Mr. Modi’s political consolidation at the highest levels, coupled with extensive welfare projects to maintain a strong voting base, has given India’s right wing the most effective formula but has yet to deliver. reflect on the cultural and systemic changes that the movement has long struggled with on the streets.

Analysts say the country’s central investigative agencies have become leverage over dissident voices. Journalists and activists regularly face harassment, get bogged down in lengthy trials or are sent to prison under laws that make bail difficult. Independent institutions – from the courts to Parliament to national human rights commissions and electoral bodies – have been overwhelmed or largely withdrawn, as adherents are rewarded and detractors punished. .

Mr. Modi is not the first Indian leader to embrace institutions and launch them at political opponents, said Josy Joseph, who has a long history of abuses. in his book “Silent coup.” The country’s last democracy to crack was in the 1970s, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency to imprison dissidents and censor the media in an attempt to stay in power. .

Mr. Joseph said Mr. Modi was much more effective than Mrs. Gandhi in achieving his goals, aided by an unparalleled propaganda operation – allied media and press, and a social media machine that reaches every phone – providing coverage even at home. and abroad.

Mr. Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party “have very skillfully combined India’s traditional democratic credentials and autocratic controls,” said Mr. Joseph.

Gopal Krishna Agarwal, a BJP spokesman, said criticism of the government’s human rights record was politically related and that an unnamed “global relationship” could not promote development. development of India.

“Our emergence at the international level is because India, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is seeking India’s interests, making independent decisions,” Agarwal said. “We’re taking advantage of India’s strengths – whether it’s its large young population, its resources, its manufacturing power, its IT power, its human-resource power.”

Mr Agarwal said the government’s approach to law and order should not be “classified as a violation of human rights.” He rejected the argument that Mr. Modi was deploying investigative agencies against his opponents, saying the raids were aimed at cleaning up corruption.

“If someone opposes the investigative agency, then there are courts, etc., which take care of the balance of power,” he said.

But local courts, analysts and activists say, often act as a seal for abuses. The already congested high courts struggle to keep up and sometimes accused support the executive by ignoring important constitutional violations. There are nearly six million cases pending in the high courts of India and more than 70,000 in the Supreme Court.

One tactic adopted by the ruling party is to imprison critics under strict laws against terrorist activities and money laundering. Critics say conviction rates are sky-high, but the pardon process serves the political purpose of instilling fear.

Siddique Kappan, a journalist, and his taxi driver was arrested in October 2020 when he tried to report on the government’s efforts to suppress public opinion about a gruesome rape case. Before Mr. Kappan reached the village, authorities accused him of intending to hurt local community harmony. He was repeatedly denied bail.

Finally, when the Supreme Court of India heard his appeal this month, it took the judges less than 30 minutes to rule that the government’s case for denying Mr. was the most fragile and gave him bail. Both Mr. Kappan and the taxi driver spent nearly two years in prison. But even the highest court’s intervention did not free Kappan: He remains incarcerated in another pending case against him, while the driver has been released.

“In our criminal justice system, process is punishment,” lamented NV Ramana before retiring as chief justice of India last month.

Mr. Modi’s confidence at home has extended to confidence abroad.

Officials in his government often denounce international indicators that measure countries based on key indicators such as health, the press and religious freedom, seeing them as products of agendas. colonialism or foreign naivety about India’s civilized approach – an attitude that reminds many diplomats of the stance often taken by authoritarian China.

“Shouldn’t we set our own standards?” Mr. Modi said last month at an event to mark the 75th anniversary of his country’s independence, when helicopters bathed in rose petals. “We want freedom from slavery.”

In April, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said in a rare public comment on India’s domestic policies that the United States was “monitoring a number of recent relevant developments in India, including including an increase in human rights violations by some government officials, police and prisons. “

His Indian counterpart, S. Jaishankar, returned fire. “I want to tell you that we also have our views on the human rights situation of others, including that of the United States,” Mr. Jaishankar said during a visit to the United States. “So we deal with human rights issues as they arise in this country.”

Hari Kumar contribution report.

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