The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

Unpacking Modi’s Summit for Democracy Speech

The Indian prime minister gave an unusually narrow speech to avoid opening himself to criticism.

Unpacking Modi’s Summit for Democracy Speech

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivers his National Statement at the Summit for Democracy, Dec. 10, 2021

Credit: YouTube screenshot

India was one of the more than 100 countries that participated in the two-day Summit for Democracy organized by the United States on December 9-10. On the second day, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered the country’s “National Statement” – a speech that was unusually short in length and narrow in scope.

In contrast to the opening remarks made by U.S. President, Joe Biden, which touched on a wide range of issues central to democratic governance, Modi chose to focus on a few issues, deliberately avoiding others. In most parts, his remarks presented a normative framework of Indian democracy, rather than specificities of its reality today. In many ways, he chose to be constrained and vague, so as to avoid opening himself up to further criticism.

He began his speech with an assertion that the “democratic spirit” is integral to India’s “civilization ethos.” He went on to invoke examples of “elected republican city-states” of Lichhavi and Shakya from 2500 years ago and the 10th century “Uttaramerur” inscription that “codified the principles of democratic participation.” While this may not be the first time an Indian leader has offered an indigenous conception of democracy to an international audience, Modi’s civilizational narrative at the summit fits exceptionally well with his government’s cultural nationalism at home.

Members and patrons of his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) routinely talk about and celebrate a seemingly glorious civilizational past to validate sociopolitical narratives of the present and sustain the majoritarian voter base. Earlier this year, Modi told the Indian Parliament that there is mention of “81 democracies in ancient India.” Now, by making these historical links in front of an audience of more than a hundred countries, he seemed to be transplanting his domestic political playbook onto the global stage.

Modi’s emphasis on indigenous origins of democracy has another subtext – pitching the world’s largest democracy as also one of the oldest. This is a subtle attempt to place India at par with the United States, which is generally known as the world’s oldest continuously functioning democracy. This then logically means that India can be a credible global promoter of the very concept of democracy.

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Recalling the “unparalleled story” of India’s democratic nation-building over the last 75 years, Modi said that “the India story has one clear message to the world – that democracy can deliver, has delivered and will continue to deliver.” This contrasts with Biden’s apprehension, expressed in his opening remarks, about a growing perception around the world that democracies were failing to deliver for people’s needs.

This assertive narration of the “India story,” at its core, is designed to tell the world that the largest (and oldest?) democracy on this planet needs to be at the center of any and every project of democracy promotion. At the same time, it is also a finely-drawn pushback against the unenviable characterizations of India’s democracy, such as “electoral autocracy,” “decaying democracy,” and “decline of democracy, that have filled global headlines since he came to power. In fact, by telling the world that democracy is ingrained in Indian civilization, Modi seemed to be arguing that it is automatically immune to criticism or questions, regardless of how undemocratic the prevailing reality might be.

Notably, Modi spoke about how multi-party elections, independent judiciary, and free media are “structural features” that are “important instruments of democracy.” “However,” he insisted, “the basic strength of democracy is the spirit and ethos that lie within our citizens and our societies.” In essence, he deliberately decoupled the “textbook” – possibly even, by implication, Western – conception of democracy from democracy as understood by the citizens of the country. He seemed to be arguing that popular sentiments, and not established rules or norms, are paramount in a democracy.

In fact, this isn’t the first time Modi has made such a normative assertion. In an emphatic speech to the Indian Parliament in February, he argued that Indian democracy is “not a Western institution” but “a human institution.” In today’s political context in India, which is marked by a dramatic surge in Hindu nationalism accompanied by anti-Western cultural protectionism, this could be seen as an assertion of a populist and majoritarian rule under the garb of a constitutional democracy – which is exactly what the Modi government stands accused of practicing at home.

Modi also put the spotlight on two distinct aspects that India would like to share with others – “expertise in holding free and fair elections” and “enhancing transparency in all areas of governance through innovative digital solutions.” The first fits well in India’s traditional democracy promotion agenda, as part of which it has extended technical support and resources for election administration to other countries through the Election Commission of India. The emphasis on “innovating digital solutions” is an extrapolation of the Modi government’s flagship “Digital India” program, which has expanded e-governance coverage in the country.

Modi further talked about the need to “jointly shape global norms for emerging technologies like social media and crypto-currencies so that they are used to empower democracy, not to undermine it.” This is interesting and should be placed within two contexts. One, it is a pushback against what may be seen as a Chinese offensive against democratic and open internet regimes through cyberwarfare – a common agenda that countries like India, United States, and Japan share.

Two, in a more immediate sense, it is directed at “Big Tech” social media entities, like Facebook (or Meta) and Twitter, that have often locked horns with the Modi government over concerns of privacy and intermediary control. There is a growing sense among pro-BJP, Hindu nationalist quarters in India that U.S.-based social media firms exercise too much leeway in striking down or flagging right-wing content in the name of regulating hate speech or misinformation. They see it as a restriction on India’s sovereignty and have called on the government to restrict the intermediary rights that these firms have. In fact, earlier this year, the Modi government called Twitter’s policies attempts to “dictate terms to the world’s largest democracy” and accused the firm of “undermining India’s legal system.” Modi might have been hinting at these trends in his remarks.

To understand the deeper subtext of Modi’s remarks, one needs to pay heed to what he didn’t say, as much as what he said. Given that he was speaking at a “democracy summit,” there were some glaring omissions of issues that one may argue are central to democratic societies. These include a raft of normative and functional aspects such as rule of law, human rights, protection of human rights defenders, freedom of expression, press freedom, equality, and justice. Modi also chose to not talk about counter-democratic political cultures, such as authoritarianism, autocracy, and majoritarianism – themes that were conspicuous in both the U.S. State Department’s background briefer on the summit and Biden’s remarks. Notably, Modi also avoided talking about pluralism – which is the very essence of Indian democracy.

While these omissions are stark, they aren’t surprising. Modi was clearly avoiding stepping on thin ice. Over the last few years, especially since the second half of its first term, his government has received growing criticism on the specific aspects of democracy that he dodged in his remarks.

While most of the backlash initially emanated from domestic quarters, international voices joined the chorus after New Delhi imposed a harsh security clampdown and a communication blockade on the Muslim-dominated Kashmir Valley after the abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019. This was quickly followed by the passage of a sectarian amendment to India’s citizenship law in the Parliament four months later. Immediately, the Modi government’s decision met with fierce countrywide protests, which culminated in deadly sectarian riots in northeast Delhi in January 2020. According to several media reports, these violent clashes were triggered by Hindu nationalist leaders, abetted by the centrally-administered Delhi Police, and largely directed against Muslims.

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The violence was called out by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), and three months later, it slammed the Modi government’s Hindu nationalist policies for fueling “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom” in its annual report. Further, under the Modi government, India’s position in the annual World Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), has steadily slipped from 133 in 2016 to 142 in 2021 (out of 180 countries). According to the French NGO, the re-election of Modi in 2019 has increased pressure on the media “to toe the Hindu nationalist government’s line,” with “coordinated hate campaigns” on social media targeting and even calling for the murder of journalists who are critical of the right-wing Hindutva ideology.

So, for Modi to wax eloquent on these issues would be a great irony. He clearly didn’t want to step on that swamp.

Interestingly, Modi did not talk about the larger geopolitical landscape, particularly India’s position in it as a liberal democracy or its role in spearheading an open regional order as an alternative to China. Contrary to predictions made by some analysts before the summit, he stopped short of pitching India as a reliable Indo-Pacific partner that is keen on establishing a rules-based economic and strategic order with “like-minded” countries. By contrast, Japan – India’s partner in the Quad – talked about unity amongst “like-minded countries” in pushing back against “actions that would undermine fundamental values such as freedom, democracy and the rule of law.”

Modi also failed to mention India’s massive COVID-19 vaccination program or its capacity to assist other countries through bilateral, minilateral (such as the Quad), or multilateral alliances (such as COVAX). Biden, on the other hand, talked about amplifying the production and delivery of vaccines through “democratic partnerships.” Further, while Modi showcased India’s willingness to share its expertise on conducting “free and fair elections,” he surprisingly did not highlight India’s longstanding democracy assistance agenda through the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) program.

In all, Modi played it safe – perhaps a little too safe. He preoccupied himself with mounting a principled defense of Indian democracy, while failing to highlight the key strengths of the Indian national project or its utility in a rapidly evolving regional order. One could argue this was because his government did not accord great importance to this summit. But few can deny that Modi was walking on eggshells, given his strained reputation as the leader of the world’s largest democracy. In fact, it is precisely in Modi’s measured iterations and non-iterations that concerned observers of Indian democracy can locate its uncertain future.