India’s parliament disqualified Congress Party and Opposition Leader Rahul Gandhi, after he was sentenced to two years in prison in a criminal defamation case filed in the home province of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In an extraordinary development in the world’s largest democracy, Gandhi was convicted by a court in Gujarat for comments made in 2019 alluding to corruption of the current prime minister.The verdict comes as allegations mount on Prime Minister Modi for his alleged involvement with the Adani Group which is embroiled in numerous financial scandals. Gandhi and the opposition Congress Party have been demanding a joint parliamentary committee to probe against alleged stock manipulation and accounting fraud by the Adani Group, closely associated with Prime Minister Modi.
While the disqualification of Gandhi is now in Appeals Court and can be expected to move all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary for a verdict on the use of criminal defamation, it is yet another disturbing sign of the rapid deterioration of democracy in India. Reversal of rights of minorities, especially the Muslims, sectarian violence tolerated by the ruling regime and numerous curtailments of the media and freedom of expression makes one wonder if India has transferred from an ’electoral democracy’ to an ‘electoral autocracy.’
This autocratisation process has largely followed the typical pattern for many countries, both in the Global North and South with a gradual deterioration where freedom of the media, academia, and civil society had been curtailed. Narendra Modi led the Bharatiya Janata Party’s victory in the 2014 elections which marks the starting point of this decline in democratic space along with the promotion of a Hindu-nationalist agenda that has alienated many minority communities in the traditionally pluralist country.
Long years ago at the dawn of independence in 1947, India presented to the Global South, still reeling under colonialism or in its immediate aftermath, a free, democratic, pluralistic nation that was united amidst phenomenal diversity. In the early years after independence, India was no romantic utopia. It was wretchedly poor, famines were not in the too distant past, socialism had its limits in uplifting the downtrodden, and to boot, the country faced multiple security threats, with wars with Pakistan and China. Yet through all this, not only did India survive and endure but it delivered the greater South Asia, from the yoke of British colonialism into independence. India’s republican constitution adopted in 1949 recognised group-differentiated rights and multiculturalism that included quotas for marginalised castes and tribal communities, and self-government rights for linguistic, ethnic and religious groups.
This pluralistic, secular democracy which is enshrined in the Indian constitution has served it well throughout the last eight decades. While countries around it succumbed to militarism, majoritarianism, nationalism and religious extremism, India managed to keep its territorial integrity and maintain relative stability against many odds. Based on this political stability it has progressed remarkably on the economic front as well. From being a wretchedly poor, famine-prone country with numerous challenges, it has achieved remarkable growth, uplifting hundreds of millions out of poverty and becoming the world’s fifth largest economy.
Yet all this progress is anchored on the democratic values which the modern republic of India is founded on. The attempts to disqualify the Opposition Leader from representation in parliament is just the latest signs of a deteriorating situation. Such anti-democratic moves matter not only for the citizens of India but for those who live under the shade of this great nation and civilisation in the South Asian region. Just as the freedom struggle that was sparked in India delivered independence to the whole of South Asia and beyond, the attacks on democratic space in India will also be a dog whistle for aspiring autocrats. It is a dangerous precedent which will weaken India and along with it the many fragile democracies, including Sri Lanka, in the region. India’s shrinking democratic space should be in the very least a regional concern while its repercussions will no doubt be global.