Talks About Democracy and Institutions in Modi’s Visit to US

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is on a visit to the US for a bilateral talk. In a joint media appearance before their first in-person meet, Kamala Harris, US vice president, talked openly about democracy and democratic institutions. She said,

“As democracies around the world are under threat, it is imperative that we defend democratic principles and institutions within our respective countries and around the world.”

This statement has come when PM Narendra Modi has continuously been accused of curbing dissent and controlling the democratic institutions. “Kamala Harris presses India’s Modi gently on human rights in historic meeting,” the Los Angeles Times reported in its headline.

We must remember how Vice President Kamala Harris was quite vocal about the human rights violation in Kashmir after the revocation of Article 370. Also, she was one of the five Indian-American lawmakers who were against the Citizenship Amendment Act. So her statements, on Thursday, about the democratic values have some meaning in the Indian context.

India’s ranking in Democracy Index published by The Economist Intelligence Unit has slipped from 27 in 2014 to 53 in 2020. Moreover, India has been termed as a ‘flawed democracy’. This is not the only report which claims so. Freedom House’s freedom in the world report has also changed India’s status from ‘Free’ to ‘Partly Free’. The V-Dem Institute, an independent research institute based at the University of Gothenburg, which has published democracy reports since 2017, identified India as an ‘Elected Autocracy’ in its latest report published in march this year.

Next day, in Modi’s first ever meet with the US President Joe Biden, the latter one again talked about “the need for non-violence, tolerance and diversity in current times”. This was the second time in as many days the US has talked about democracy and human rights with India in public. On the same day Biden also made remarks about the Indian media. Biden said that Indian media is “much better behaved”. We all know what that means, don’t we? Soon after exchanging greetings Biden said,

“I think what they’re going to do is bring in the press. The Indian press is much better behaved than the American press…And I think, with your permission, we should not answer questions because they won’t ask any questions on point.”

And continuing his legacy of never holding press conferences, Modi agreed with the US Prez (he attended a press conference in 2019 but refused to answer any question).

In 2019, the then US president Donald Trump made similar remarks about our media, when in a joint meeting of Modi and Trump, India Today‘s Gaurav Sawant had asked Trump if there was a roadmap to deal with “Pakistan state sponsored terror”. According to a report in Newslaundry, Trump turned to Modi and said, “You have great reporters. I wish I had reporters like this.” Turning back to the media, Trump then said, “You’re doing better than anybody I’ve ever heard. Where do you find these reporters? This is a great thing.”

India’s ranking in the Press Freedom Index reported by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), an NGO based in Paris, was 142 among 180 nations. There are numerous stories about what has happened with Indian journalists in the past few years: from Anti-Terror charges to even murders. Not only the current dispensation has curbed Indian press, but they have also tried to put restrictions on foreign media. A report in The New York Times points out,

“His government has also imposed the strictest restrictions on foreign journalists in decades, suddenly and without explanation. Visas have been tightened, and foreign journalists have been banned from hotbeds of unrest such as northeast India and Jammu and Kashmir, a Muslim-majority area that was stripped of its statehood in August and put under a severe crackdown.”

And now there has been an effort from the government to curb the only independent media in today’s India, the digital media, with the The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021. (read this report by The Scroll) These are only a few things. There are many other institutions which the government has tried to control. And most important of all, they have tried accuse the dissenters of serious crimes. Data by Article-14 points out that 96% of all the sedition cases for trying to criticize the government or a political leader in the last decade were filed during the after BJP’s victory in 2014. 65% of 10,938 Indians accused of sedition in the last decade found themselves implicated after 2014. The report’s author Kunal Purohit, an independent journalist, writes,

“Much of this increase in sedition cases has been driven by the way BJP-ruled state governments have pursued critics and protesters. The database found that sedition charges were a de-facto strategy for many of these governments, each time they encountered public criticism and protests.”

UAPA, the draconian anti-terror law has also been used in a similar fashion. But the thing is, all these cases have very little conviction rate. The 2019 Crime in India Report compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) said, only 2.2 % of cases registered under the UAPA between the years 2016 and 2019 ended in convictions by court.

To conclude, US President and Vice-President has put the issue of Freedom and Democratic values in an open forum in the presence of Indian Prime Minister. Certainly, the global image of the Indian PM has deteriorated and there is a message for him from the most powerful nation in the world.

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