India’s Democracy Challenge, and Modi’s
In the wake of Narendra Modi’s overwhelming victory in India’s recent elections, commentators have noted the many, daunting challenges facing the new prime minister of the world’s most populous democracy. Here are a few of those challenges, as drawn from the most recent edition of Freedom in the World:
Communal violence: There are 177 million Muslims in India, and all view the new prime minister with suspicion given his past record of support for Hindu nationalism and charges that he failed to stop the 2002 sectarian riots in Gujarat, in which some 1,000 Muslims were killed. The issue of communal violence, though in decline over the long term, remained acutely relevant during the past year, as the country recovered from the 2012 ethnic and religious clashes, in which half a million people were displaced from northeastern states. In September 2013, confrontations between Hindus and Muslims killed 40 people and displaced roughly 40,000 Muslims near the Uttar Pradesh town of Muzaffarnagar.
Corruption: Modi campaigned on an anti-corruption platform, and the perception of the ruling Congress party as riddled with graft, nepotism, and cronyism played a major role in its crushing setback. India was ranked 94 out of 177 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index. Though politicians and civil servants are regularly caught accepting bribes or engaging in other corrupt behavior, a great deal of corruption goes unpunished. Domestic and international pressure has led to legislation and activism to counter this trend. While this legislation has had clear positive effects, more than a dozen right-to-information activists have reportedly been killed since late 2009.
Press freedom: Despite India’s vibrant media landscape, journalists continue to face a number of constraints. The government has used security laws, criminal defamation legislation, hate-speech laws, and contempt-of-court charges to curb critical voices on social media as well as traditional media platforms. The election campaign brought heightened attention to the pervasive practice by newspapers and television stations of demanding payment from political candidates in exchange for news coverage. There are also problems with internet freedom. Under India’s internet crime law, the burden is on website operators to remove content if requested to do so, and they face possible criminal penalties. Potentially inflammatory books and films are also occasionally banned or censored.
Justice and Injustice: The lower levels of the judiciary have been rife with corruption, and most citizens have great difficulty securing justice through the courts. The system is severely backlogged and understaffed, with an estimated 32 million cases pending in lower courts, and 66,000 at the Supreme Court. This leads to lengthy pretrial detention for a large number of suspects, many of whom remain in jail beyond the duration of any sentence they might receive if convicted. The creation of various fast-track courts to clear the backlog has prompted charges that in some instances due process has been denied.
- Insurgency: The Maoist insurgency in several parts of the country remains a serious problem. Deaths related to this left-wing extremism peaked in 2010 with 1,180, and in 2013 with 421 fatalities—including 159 civilians. Among other abuses, the rebels have allegedly imposed illegal taxes, seized food and shelter, and engaged in the abduction and forced recruitment of children and adults. Local civilians and journalists who are perceived to be progovernment have been targeted by the Maoists. Security forces responding to the threat, including paramilitary troops and police, have also been accused of serious human rights abuses. Tens of thousands of civilians have been displaced by the violence and live in government-run camps.
Rape and Sexual Violence: Rape and other crimes against women are serious problems, and lower-caste and tribal women are particularly vulnerable. The fatal gang rape of a woman on a Delhi bus in December 2012 led to mass demonstrations and drew international attention. The government responded by enacting significant legal reforms, and a special court sentenced four men to death for the crime less than nine months later. However, less publicized rape investigations and trials are still lagging nationwide. According to India’s most recent National Family Health Survey report – which was released in 2009 and covers the years 2005 and 2006 – 37 percent of married women between ages 15 and 49 have experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of their husbands.
- LGBTI Rights at Risk: A landmark 2009 decision by the Delhi High Court struck down Section 377 of the Indian penal code, which criminalized homosexual behavior. However, a Supreme Court panel reversed the ruling in December 2013, finding that an act of Parliament would be required to change the code. An appeal was pending at the end of 2013. Widespread discrimination against LGBTI people continues in practice, including violence and harassment, though transgender people receive varying degrees of official recognition across the country.
Photo Credit: Al Jazeera English
Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.
As India marks 70 years of independence, its democratic institutions are suffering from weaknesses that the government has done little to address.
“Paradoxical” is how many describe the complexity of India. Astronomical growth coupled with extreme poverty, a vibrant citizenry coexisting with intense corruption, and modernity juxtaposed with antiquity confound and confuse observers.
Paradoxical also describes two simultaneous trends in India’s democracy. As suggested over the last few years, and reinforced in 2012, India is transitioning away from identity-based politics, yet also returning power to identity-based parties.