Delhi Police detained Indian Youth Congress (IYC) party activists in New Dehli on June 11, 2021.

Delhi Police detained Indian Youth Congress (IYC) party activists in New Dehli on June 11, 2021. Photo by Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Indian Democracy Is On The Ropes. The US Must Act

There are still things U.S. policymakers can do to shore up the world’s largest democracy.

Even as the U.K. hosted President Biden on a visit to “rally the world’s democracies,” Britain’s reopening is under threat from a new strain of the COVID-19 virus. This new variant, which originated in India, is directly related to Narendra Modi government’s disappointing and less-than-democratic handling of the pandemic. The new coronavirus strain is just one example of the threat that awaits U.S. interests if India, the world’s largest democracy, should complete its slide into authoritarianism. Thankfully, the U.S. still has a number of options to combat, if not prevent, democratic backsliding in India. 

Democratic or not, India’s relevance is assured. Its size alone guarantees this. India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, boasts a population of over 200 million people, larger than any individual country in Africa, Europe, or Latin America.  This hard fact has led Republicans and Democrats to agree on India’s importance, with both sides emphasizing its potential role as a regional counterweight to China. The Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy stressed the benefits of a “free and open Indo-Pacific region” and promised to “strengthen our alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific…to preserve the free and open international system.” The Biden administration made similar pronouncements in its Interim National Security Guidance, saying it will “reinvigorate and modernize our alliances and partnerships,” partially to “hold countries like China to account.” The Biden administration specifically promised to “deepen our partnership with India” as part of this effort. 

This strategic logic presumes the United States will be dealing with a democratic India that prefers a “free and open international system,” rather than an authoritarian India that domestically more closely resembles “countries like China” than it does a full-functioning democracy. 

But the pace of Indian democratic backsliding has noticeably quickened. It was an ominous warning when Narendra Modi, who was banned from the United States for turning a blind eye to a virtual pogrom against Muslims while chief minister of Gujarat, was elected Prime Minister in 2014. After seven years in power, Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, have further eroded Indian democracy, leading the nonprofit Freedom House to rank India as “partly free” for the first time in 30 years. 

Modi’s authoritarian actions have ranged from the pseudo-scientific and laughable to the egomaniacal and lethal. Most notoriously, the BJP sought in 2019 to openly discriminate against Muslim immigrants. The law passed, and when it drew mass protests across the country, the BJP met them with authoritarian force. Later in the year, India stifled the Internet in Kashmir. 

India’s democratic backsliding has also hurt its lackluster COVID-19 response. Modi’s BJP has propagated a number of inane myths about the disease, especially quack cures. Party leaders from Modi on down have set bad examples, appearing at large rallies, without masks, and turning the Hindu Kumbh-Mela festival into a superspreader event because “the faith in God will overcome the fear of Covid-19.” 

The Modi government has also moved to stifle dissent, especially investigative journalism on its pandemic response. In April, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh threatened to seize the property of people propagating “rumors” of oxygen shortages. And just last month, when information on the Indian variant was desperately needed, a top Indian virologist on a government panel to investigate the variant suspiciously resigned, after he had been quoted in the New York Times criticizing the government. All this suggests that continued democracy in India is no sure thing.

A fully authoritarian India could take a number of forms, with disparate effects on its relationship with the United States. Shared concerns about China could lead the U.S.-India relationship to mirror the path of American relations with Vietnam, where the two countries have managed to work constructively despite their tempestuous past and Vietnam’s one-party rule. 

Perhaps more likely, India under Modi could present a challenge not dissimilar to that of the Philippines under Duterte, a country too strategically important for the U.S. to ignore in its efforts to counter Chinese influence in the region, but one whose authoritarian streak routinely impedes greater cooperation. 

Most detrimentally for the United States, India could even one day seek to follow the path of Russia, prioritizing allegiance to right-wing authoritarian ethno-nationalism rather than its historical and geographic disputes with China. This worst case scenario is not as far-fetched as it once might have seemed: in the last few months alone, Russia and India have taken eerily similar steps to stifle Twitter in response to domestic critics. 

No matter how authoritarian the government in New Delhi becomes, the United States will need to engage with it constructively on certain issues, especially transnational threats like climate change and nuclear weapons. Fortunately, the Biden administration has already demonstrated its capability to do just that by cooperating constructively with Russia on nuclear arms control and with both China and Russia on climate change, while at the same time confronting both countries on other issues as necessary. 

However, there is no scenario where further democratic backsliding in India would make life easier for the United States. At the very least, an increasingly authoritarian Indian would jeopardize the push for cooperation among ‘like-minded’ democracies, especially when it comes to countering China. 

International partnerships, like the recent project of coordinated vaccine production from the emerging ‘Quad’ countries—India, Australia, the U.S., and Japan—could conceivably continue even if India moves further from the democratic camp. Even so, they would surely be less resilient if based solely on common interests rather than common values. Efforts by the European Union to increase ties to India would also likely be undermined. 

India’s authoritarianism has already proven to be a stumbling block for crafting an international response to the ongoing autocratic crackdown in Myanmar. Despite sharing a border with that country, India was a noticeably absent signatory to a statement of 12 democracies, including Germany, Japan, the U.S., the U.K. and South Korea, criticizing the Myanmar military’s brutal killing of pro-democracy protesters. Instead, India chose to be one of only seven countries to attend Myanmar's Armed Forces Day parade. 

While the ultimate fate of Indian democracy will depend on Indian nationals themselves, the United States can and should take active countermeasures to bring about a favorable outcome. Luckily, a number of options exist for the U.S. policymakers to help stop Indian democracy from backsliding. 

First, the United States should continue to strengthen ties with the people of India themselves, rather than solely predicate the relationship on the political leaders in New Delhi. To this end, humanitarian cooperation like we have seen in recent weeks on the COVID-19 pandemic should be continued and preferably accelerated. 

Second, U.S. policymakers should make anticorruption a larger international priority, as Hindu extremist groups rely heavily on international financing, often from the West. Various proposals exist to tackle international corruption, but any successful strategy must begin with an understanding that unaccountable flows of money frequently find their way across borders to fund violent extremism. The U.S. should adopt an approach that does not ignore the Indian and Hindu nationalist component of this global problem. 

Third, pro-democratic forces in the United States should do a better job at reaching out to potential partners in India. While right-wing authoritarian nationalists have managed to retain friendly and cooperative ties with their counterparts in India, no comparable infrastructure exists on the other end of the political spectrum. In a world increasingly defined by common threats, supporters of liberal democracy worldwide should make a greater effort to seek common cause. 

Finally, the U.S. must do a better job of upholding democracy at home. This is obviously not a novel suggestion, but it is one that bears repeating. Any successful effort to defend democracy abroad will depend heavily on the state of democracy at home. Democratic backsliding like that exemplified by the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol is certainly no excuse for similar authoritarianism in India, but the former does provide useful political cover for the latter. 

The coming decades and the success of the United States’ Indo-Pacific agenda will depend heavily on the future of U.S.-India relations. Whether that relationship will be one between ‘like-minded democracies’ or not is still an open question. The U.S. should act within what time remains to encourage a positive result. 

Akshai Vikram is a former Roger Hale Fellow at Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation. He is a member of both the NextGen Initiative at Foreign Policy for America and the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Nuclear Scholars Initiative.