India has become an ‘electoral autocracy.’ Its covid-19 catastrophe is no surprise.
India’s humanitarian tragedy is linked to a deeper political crisis — that of democratic erosion. At independence from colonial rule, India had relatively low economic development and industrialization, widespread poverty and illiteracy, and immense ethnic diversity across linguistic, religious and caste lines. Leading political science theories argued these conditions made India infertile terrain for democracy. Yet in 1947, India instituted a democratic government and, with the exception of a short time from 1975-77, has remained one.
Up until a few weeks ago, that is. In its influential annual rankings of countries across the world, the U.S.-based democracy watchdog Freedom House downgraded India from a free democracy to a “partially free democracy.” Similarly, the Swedish-based V-Dem Institute demoted the country to an “electoral autocracy.” Both organizations cited the regime’s crackdowns on freedom of speech — and in particular, expressions of dissent — as a key factor driving India’s slide down these indexes.
How are India’s coronavirus crisis and democratic backsliding linked? Here’s what you need to know.
The decline of free speech in the world’s largest democracy
Since assuming power in 2014, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime has consistently and brutally undermined civil liberties, especially freedom of speech. This crackdown has affected journalists, editors, organizers, climate activists, Bollywood actors, cricketers, celebrities, and even ordinary citizens posting on social media.
The BJP has forced editors of prominent newspapers to step down. Police have raided or shut down the offices of media outlets that featured articles challenging the regime’s actions. Physical attacks on journalists have become commonplace. Some have been gunned down in broad daylight outside their homes, earning India a reputation as what the Columbia Journalism Review called “one of the world’s most dangerous countries to be a reporter.” Meanwhile, reporters and media organizations sympathetic to the regime have been protected and supported.