Undemocratic Rule of Modi’s India is a Security Threat to South Asia

By Asanga Abeyagoonasekera – Executive Director SAFN

“When a significant civilisational state is astray, it impacts its neighbourhood and stability, threatening regional security.”

“West’s neglect of India’s smaller neighbours served to boost India’s ambitions in the region”

“With India’s undemocratic practices, will Modi deliver the strategic partnership Washington seeks?”

Is India a Democracy? One of the fundamental conditions for a democracy to function in a country is that the individual mind should be free to speak what they think. Understanding this, the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize in 1913, Rabindranath Tagore, wrote in his masterpiece Gitanjali, “Where the mind is without fear, and the head is held high,” to seek freedom from colonial rule. It is as if the colonial oppressive rule was replaced by another form of oppression, where democracy is bleeding in India today. Had Tagore lived to see the ill-liberal regime of PM Modi, fearing its citizens with the suppression of democracy, he would have been disheartened. “Does the BJP want to crush the country’s democratic system and institutions and turn the entire country into its slave?” questioned Arvind Kejriwal after the BBC raid. Today, Kejriwal is arrested. Freedom House 2024 report identifies India as a ‘Partially Free Country’ where independence of the judiciary has been a serious concern. According to the report, India’s ‘Several key Supreme Court rulings in recent years have been favorable to the BJP’, the ruling party. Many Indians know their country’s plight but tend to be quiet, fearing Modi’s aggression. While Modi is projected to win the upcoming elections with Hindutva at the core of his campaign, will he be accepted by the broader global community as a democratic leader? I highly doubt it.

Professor Maya Jasanoff from Harvard University opined in the New York Times that Modi ‘has delivered prosperity and national pride to some, and authoritarianism and repression of many others that should disturb us all’. The undemocratic rule is not limited to Indian geography but has spilt over to India’s immediate neighbouring countries. When the centre is weak, the periphery becomes weaker. Such is the case in South Asia when looking at India, the larger civilisation-state with the world’s largest demography and its immediate periphery nation-states. When a significant civilisational state is astray, it impacts its neighbourhood and stability, threatening regional security.

The Indian government has lost its democratic ingredients, from the raid of the BBC office to the arrest of key opposition leader Arvind Kejriwal a month before its national election. One could quickly draw parallels in India and Pakistan’s elections, where its opposition was crushed. A similar autocratic grip crushed thousands of opposition members in the Bangladesh election, paving the way for Sheikh Hasina’s victory. As India moves out of its democratic norms and values, it will directly impact its surrounding nations. The democratic example India sets will be viewed by its immediate neighbourhood as hypocrisy, increasing the trust deficit. This will affect regional stability and how India is viewed by its close allies, such as the US and other Western democracies. Is this another fleeting event? Such as the Indian Intelligence Operation that went terribly wrong on US soil and was swept under the carpet to save face. The message from Kejriwal’s arrest will be much more robust and impactful. Western democracies will view India with doubt about its capacity as a regional democratic leader, setting examples for others to follow and its ambition to rise in Asia. Indian government projects its image as the world’s largest democracy. Unfortunately, Modi’s policies had pushed its people towards a narrow corridor of illiberal rule.

Indian external affairs ministry was quick to defend its position after the arrest of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, stating, “In diplomacy, states are expected to be respectful of the sovereignty and internal affairs of others. This responsibility is even more so in the case of fellow democracies. It could otherwise end up setting unhealthy precedents.” The unhealthy precedence was from India and not from the countries questioning India. The US State Department and several Western democracies were appalled by recent developments in India. “We encourage a fair, transparent, and timely legal process for Chief Minister Kejriwal,” said the US State Department. Sebastian Fischer, spokesperson for Germany’s foreign office, said Kejriwal was entitled to a fair and impartial trial. In return, India has summoned the US’ Acting Deputy Chief of Mission, Gloria Berbena and the German deputy chief of mission, Georg Enzweiler in New Delhi, conveying India’s strong protest for questioning the independence of the Indian judiciary. This was not a case of judicial independence, thus the practice of own government policies targeting dissent.

Several South Asian countries have become a case study of crushing dissent using undemocratic practices with illegitimate means to secure election victories. Electoral irregularities were apparent in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Washington partnered with India due to its like-minded democratic norms and values. India is an important strategic partner to the US in pushing back against undemocratic and authoritarian rule in the Indo-Pacific. Good governance and democratic principles are integral components in the US Indo-Pacific strategy to back against aggression and bullying where China is identified. If US partners can’t sustain democracy at home, then there is a question in the strategy itself. This will further enable China to gradually grow its strategic space in South Asia, underlying the Western hypocrisy towards a rules-based order. An internationally recognised Professor from the University of Chicago explained to this author in a meeting in Washington DC, “I don’t even speak about this rules-based order” due to the ambiguity and sincerity. China will have a better space to grow when India’s immediate periphery loses trust with India. Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu is extending his ‘India Out’ campaign used for the election by upgrading close strategic ties with China, Bangladesh’s import restrictions for Indian products, Pakistan has their traditional rivalry with India, the Sri Lankan former president has dragged India into the Easter Sunday Terror attack, and Modi’s election rhetoric on winning back Kachateevu the uninhabited island which belongs to Sri Lanka has raised attention in Colombo questioning Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. Nepal’s political shakeup has pushed the nation more towards Beijing. Bhutan is perhaps the only South Asian nation in India’s immediate periphery with a pro-India posture. While the US is making an effort to voice out when undemocratic practices are seen in countries such as India, the arrest of Kejwal, Bangladesh and Pakistan elections, and Sri Lanka’s Online Safety Bill, there is considerable repulse from these nations.  

Washington’s considerable attention and dependency towards India to push back against China requires rethinking. With India’s undemocratic practices, will Modi deliver the strategic partnership Washington seeks? How do Washington and its allies build a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific with an undemocratic partner where India’s own judiciary is questioned by the West? Are some questions worth revisiting with the fresh outlook in Modi 3.0, his third term. During the past years, the West’s neglect of India’s smaller neighbours served to boost India’s ambitions in the region and perhaps endanger the security of smaller states surrounding India.  There is an immediate requirement to rethink this danger twice and strengthen its relationship with neglected small nation-states in India’s immediate periphery. The exercise will preserve democracy in the entire region, not pivoting to the larger geographical centre. Rather than an unfruitful exercise discussing authoritarianism versus democracy perspectives in Western capitals, where the discussion is not leading anywhere, there should be an effort to restore democracy in the context of ‘Center vs Periphery’ in South Asia, an essential requirement for stability and regional security.

Asanga Abeyagoonasekera is a Senior Fellow at the Millennium Project and the Executive Director of SAFN. The commentary was initially published by South Asia Journal .

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