Free and fair? Far from it!

India is not quite a one-party state yet, but we're getting there, writes Aakar Patel

Representative image
Representative image

Aakar Patel

Bangladesh is ‘partly free’ in the Freedom House report of 2024. India and Pakistan are classified in the same way. Bangladesh is today, according to the Economist magazine, a one-party state. Of course, Parliament exists and other parties are present. But the primary opposition is missing and its leader, Khaleda Zia, has been convicted.

In January 2024, Bangladesh had its general elections in which the ruling Awami League won 224 seats, giving it a two-third majority in a Parliament of 300 seats. In the previous election, Khaleda Zia had asked for a caretaker government to conduct the elections, which Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina refused.

Accusations of misuse of government machinery, including jailing and hounding of the opposition, are common. That is one reason why, despite having an elected government, Bangladesh is classified as ‘partly free’.

India hailed the Bangladesh election. Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted: "Spoke to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and congratulated her on her victory for a historic fourth consecutive term in the Parliamentary elections. I also congratulate the people of Bangladesh for the successful conduct of elections.”

A US state department spokesman said “the United States shares the view with other observers that these elections were not free or fair and we regret that not all parties participated”.

The following month, February 2024, Pakistan went to the elections with incumbent Prime Minister Imran Khan in jail. The US said: "We join credible international and local election observers in their assessment that these elections included undue restrictions on freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.

"We condemn electoral violence, restrictions on the exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including attacks on media workers, and restrictions on access to the Internet and telecommunication services, and are concerned about allegations of interference in the electoral process. Claims of interference or fraud should be fully investigated.”

Pakistan tried to be an opposition-free democracy like Bangladesh, but was less successful. The jailed Imran was still able to get a third of the votes. As is common in our part of the world, post-poll ‘convincing’ of his Parliamentarians to see the light, with a healthy use of agencies, will doubtless continue.

In 1977, Pakistan had an election which was won by the ruling party, at a time when Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was popular. Despite his popularity, the election was seen as not neither free nor fair, with the opposition hamstrung by the state even though it was weak. Pakistan suffered for four decades as a result of the events of that period.

Democracies are healthy where there is active nourishing of the independence of institutions, such as the Election Commission and the Supreme Court. Meaning their independence from the ruling government. Where the opposition does not feel that it is playing a fixed match, with different rules for one team, and biased umpires. These are basic parameters but they need to be repeated, unfortunately.

India has been sliding since 2014 to arrive at where it has today. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index monitors civil liberties, pluralism, political culture and participation, and electoral process. In 2014, India was ranked 27th. In 2020, India was classified as a ‘flawed democracy’. Last year, the ranking was 41.

This was the "result of democratic backsliding under the leadership of Narendra Modi" and the "increasing influence of religion under Modi, whose policies have fomented anti-Muslim feeling and religious strife, has damaged the political fabric of the country".

The CIVICUS Monitor’s National Civic Space Ratings monitors the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression, all necessary for democracy. In 2017, India’s rating was ‘Obstructed’, but it has since fallen to ‘Repressed’.

In March 2022, Civicus said: “India has been added to a watchlist of countries that have seen a rapid decline in civic freedoms”, and that Modi “continues to resort to drastic measures to silence critics”.

Freedom House says “the BJP has increasingly used government institutions to target political opponents”. The University of Gothenburg’s V-Dem report says India has suffered "one of the most dramatic shifts among all countries in the world over the past 10 years". It said under Modi, India lost its status as a democracy and was classified as an ‘electoral autocracy’, joining nations like Hungary and Turkey. On freedom of expression, media and civil society, India was "as autocratic as is Pakistan, and worse than both Bangladesh and Nepal".

This is how democracies die in our part of the world, not with a bang but with a whimper. The independence of institutions is hollowed out from within over time, slowly deflating until little is left. ‘Corrupt’ and ‘anti-national’ elements are removed or neutralised through the misuse of law. Elections are held, but to the outside world, they seem neither free nor fair.

The other interesting aspect of this is that once this sort of state is achieved, it is difficult if not impossible to get out, as Pakistan and Bangladesh show. No election in those nations is today conducted without bitterness, rancour, and one side feeling and saying it has been wronged. We are either already there or almost there.

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines

    Published: 07 Apr 2024, 12:26 PM