The West has long tried to present India as a democratic counterweight to China, and the recent meeting between Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also had those undertones. In their meeting, the two leaders emphasised the nations’ “shared values”.
This is reasonable. Indian democracy can be an effective alternative to the influence of the Chinese model in the developing world. For years, the Chinese Communist Party has argued that democracy is too messy and chaotic to function in the developing world.
Chinese dissidents have long looked to India to counter that rhetoric. The Dalai Lama has been based in India for well over half a century. In 2016, prominent dissidents from China planned a conference in India to discuss prospects for democracy in China.
In recent times, however, some Western commentators have wondered if India can remain a reliable ideological ally against China. Under Mr Modi, India has slipped in several democratic indices.
The 2020 Freedom in the World report ranked India near the bottom of the pile for countries marked ‘‘free’’. Early this year, a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was nominated to Parliament, raising questions over the independence of the judiciary. Then, as India went into lockdown, journalists were being arrested.
Not surprisingly, all this has had significant impact on India’s soft power in the democratic world.
Last month, a Lowy Institute poll showed that only 45 per cent of the Australian public trusted India to behave responsibly, compared with 59 per cent in 2018. Despite recent events, the West should continue to see India as an ideological ally.
For one, New Delhi remains a champion of the rules-based order, which it sees as protection against Chinese aggression. But even on democracy and human rights, India is not China.
Over the decades, Indian democracy has proven remarkably resilient in the face of occasional authoritarianism, thanks to a strong democratic culture and mature state institutions.
Take other recent events, for instance. While legal experts have raised concerns over the independence of the Supreme Court, High Courts at the state level have pushed back against the government. In the aftermath of deadly communal riots in Delhi early this year, the Delhi High Court pulled up the police for its failures.
In scathing remarks, the court also tore into leaders from the ruling party for hate speeches in the run-up to the violence. In the state of Assam, the local High Court overruled internet restrictions passed by the state government.
Some sections of the press have also remained fiercely vocal despite intimidation. Ravish Kumar and Nidhi Razdan, two journalists from the NDTV Group, recently won the Ramon Magsaysay Award and the International Press Institute award for their efforts in holding the government accountable.
Elections too remain freely and fairly contested, as evidenced by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s losses in some key states recently.
Australia should help strengthen Indian democracy by making these values an integral part of co-operation with New Delhi. By making democratic values and human rights issues more central to Indian foreign policy, both countries can hold any government under any prime minister accountable to these values.
That effort should go beyond mere mention of “shared values” in bilateral meetings. For instance, India and Australia should pursue periodic bilateral dialogue on global human rights issues from Lebanon to Hong Kong.
Australia should also push India to adopt policy commitments on these matters in international organisations, including by goading New Delhi to adopt strong stances against human rights violations, something that India has so far avoided.
The strength of India’s democracy is important to the democratic world, especially in light of recent Chinese aggression. Australia should help sustain it.
(c) 2020, The Sydney Morning Herald