Prof Rahul Mukherji: Declining trend of democracy in India is not good for the region

The Annapurna Express

The Annapurna Express

Prof Rahul Mukherji: Declining trend of democracy in India is not good for the region

India’s democracy is important not only for India itself but also for the entire region. If India’s democracy declines, it will not be good for Nepal

Prof Rahul Mukherji is associated with South Asia Institute of Heidelberg University, Germany.  He teaches and conducts research in the area of comparative and South Asian politics and international relations. His current research involves democratic backsliding, politics of welfare and India’s emergence in the global order. In September, Mukherji visited Nepal to share his view on the status of democracy in South Asia. Kamal Dev Bhattarai of ApEx talked to him about the latest trend of democracy in South Asia and Nepal.

What is your view on the current state of democracy in South Asia? 

The status of democracy in South Asia is quite precarious in many respects. India’s situation in 2016 and 2021 is comparatively worse than Poland and Hungary, the two countries that the world is talking about because their democracies are falling short of expectations.

Sri Lanka and India are very close to each other, but India has been ranked worse than Sri Lanka in the V-Dem report.  The global report shows that India’s democracy is declining in this period. Pakistan’s status of democracy is even worse and Bangladesh seems to be backsliding even more.  So, this is a sort of negative side of the story. The positive story is that Nepal and Bhutan are consolidating their democracy.  In many ways, it is difficult to make a comparison between Nepal and India. In terms of democracy, Nepal has a positive trajectory, while India has a somewhat negative trajectory. India’s trajectory in the South Asian region is very important because other countries in this region look at India’s democracy. India’s democracy is important not only for India itself but also for the entire region. If India’s democracy declines, it will not be good for Nepal.

How does India’s backsliding democracy affect the region? 

It will certainly have a huge impact for the countries in this region. For example, In Bangladesh, the Awami League government, considered to be more secular, could find it difficult to sustain itself if Hindu nationalism in India is pursued in a certain way. If there are leaders with an autocratic bent in Nepal, Sri Lanka, or any other country in the region, they will draw inspiration from India, and there are already some indications of it.

What is the role of civil society in protecting democracy in South Asia? 

Civil society organizations in South Asia are becoming weak and that is partly because the state is not letting them grow. Civil Society needs the state.  Several legislations introduced by India over the past few years have led to cutting off of foreign lending to non-governmental organizations. The Prevention of Money-Laundering Act has been used to attack both opposition politicians and non-governmental organizations.

Likewise, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act has been used to catch many people from civil society and some of them are in prison. These are only but a few of the facets that I have been discussing now.

In Bangladesh, the situation is even worse than India. Civil society organizations there are harshly dealt with, which is why the V-Dem ranking of Bangladesh is very low than that of India and Sri Lanka.

Civil society is not certainly dead because we have seen farmers’ protests, which led the Indian government to repeal the controversial farm laws. In Sri Lanka, too, the civil society movement led to the ouster of the Rajapaksa family.

I guess Nepal must be in a better position, as it has a lot of civil society organizations. Despite some problems, civil society is more alive in Nepal.  In India, too, civil society is active, but it is becoming more and more difficult for it to sustain because the state is trying to restrain them, which is not good for democracy.

How do you observe the state of democracy in Nepal? 

Nepali democracy is currently in the transitional phase. It seems that Nepal is trying to consolidate its democracy. It took a long time to promulgate the constitution. Before that I was wondering whether the Nepali politicians were actually interested in the constitution.

When the constitution was finally endorsed, many people hailed it for its many good features. But only having a good constitution is not enough. Nepal is sandwiched between India and China. Along with a good constitution, Nepal needs strong political parties, which carry a certain agenda. Now it seems that power is the main goal for every political party of Nepal rather than a real agenda. No matter what your ideology, you can come together for a coalition to ascend to power. If power becomes the goal, then it does not matter how good a constitution you have. Consequently, the people of the country will be the ones who will suffer.

How optimistic are you about the future of democracy in South Asia? 

The future of democracy in South Asia will certainly depend on countries like India, Nepal and Bhutan. India, because it led the way for democracy in the region. When India became a democracy in 1947, no recognized global scholars thought that the country could consolidate as a democracy. Because modernization theory and a lot of statistics suggest democracy comes only after a certain level of per capita income is secured. At that time, India was very poor, it hardly had a middle class. But there was democracy nonetheless. In many ways, India challenged the world sustaining its democracy.

India had a coalition government after 1980 and people thought that there was a need for a strong politician.  And today, they have such a strong leader that democracy itself is getting a challenge. In many ways, India is going to become an important country in the region. If it is able to secure its democracy, it will have a good impact on other South Asian countries. If not, it is going to become difficult for the region.

Meanwhile, the trajectory of democracy in Nepal and Bhutan are reasons to be hopeful. I hope democratic Nepal and Bhutan will not follow India.

Some countries are consolidating democracy on their own but if India does not do so, it will have a negative impact in the region. I am still hopeful that India’s democracy will rise.

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