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Democracy is Under Attack: The Outlook from India

Populists and illiberal leaders are gaining traction in democratic countries at alarming rates. Panelists at the leading dialogue between Americans, Europeans, and Indians, GMF’s India Trilateral Forum (ITF), provided a sober overview on the state of affairs for the liberal world order: Democracies globally are under attack and seeing sharp declines in political rights and civil liberties. 

In Europe, populists seized on the fear of migrants to develop nativist political platforms. They continue to consolidate their grip on power despite the “migrant problem” being substantially reduced in recent years by delivering fear-based narratives. Populism could be the ultimate democratic expression by the masses to get the political establishment to address their needs. The challenge facing populist leaders is what they do when in office. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s populist rule is marked by the demonetization scheme but, his other policies are more moderate. Taking the European examples of Hungary and Poland, populists tend to seize office through democratic election and then swiftly attack and limit democratic institutions.

Recent reporting on Cambridge Analytica illustrates a troubling fact that was raised repeatedly during the conference: authoritarian regimes are weaponizing democratic institutions to undermine and erode democracy. Russia and China are actively engaged in sophisticated disinformation campaigns globally. Efforts to quash these insidious, targeted attacks are hampered by domestic protections of the sacred freedoms of speech and expression. Further exacerbating the issue is the fact that their nefarious interventions are not limited to elections but aim to influence and shape the domestic political debates. As noted by one panelist, by forcing political debates to look internally, China is attempting to ensure that discussions on China’s global rise or issues raised in the South China Sea are limited. Nations need to address the new challenges raised by the spread of disinformation campaigns while also acknowledging the fact that disinformation is forever going to be problem in liberal societies with freedom of expression. Efforts to address the disinformation challenges should seek to help people learn how to vet information to prevent mass public disengagement from political debate spurred by an influx of “fake news.”

China is now, without question, a global power with influence around the world. Various discussions among government officials, members of the media, and business leaders during ITF addressed its evolving role. Xi Jinping recently consolidated power and set himself up to be leader for life. China has significantly increased its military and diplomatic outreach and the Belt and Road Initiative can be viewed as Xi Jinping’s Monroe Doctrine, expanding China’s sphere of influence throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The question now is whether China’s global engagements were indicative of a new phenomenon, which is part of a new norm-driven strategy, or a continuation of the same strategy that is amplified on the global stage.

China’s engagement abroad seeks to serve as an alternative model to democratic rule, showing how liberal principles are not the path to peace and prosperity. An ITF panelist bluntly stated that for China, the concept of democracy has always been a Western value. From China’s view, the global state of affairs indicates clearly that democracy has failed, and that China’s system of checks and balances produces the best leaders that ensures sustained prosperity and peace. These sobering words drove a flurry of discussion, as China’s system is based on repression and uniquely derived from Chinese history, not easily replicated in other parts of the world. 

China’s rise has obvious implications for the Indo-Pacific region. Its prevalence is exacerbated by the U.S. withdrawal from the multilateral system. The shifting geo-political balance exposes the fact that there is only one country that is actively engaging in the Indo-Pacific region — and it is not India. Indian foreign policy has developed into four different strands: idealism, realism, imperialist legacy, and isolationism on global conflict. Historically, India’s foreign policy has been based on self-interest and engagement with neighbors to retain stability. India now, in the face of rising China, needs to establish alliances with friends abroad to regain balance with China, and stabilize the region — but participants were hesitant to indicate that support would be forthcoming from the Western world. One discussant frankly stated “threats to India have rarely been recognized as threats to the global concept of democracy in the past.”

ITF discussions highlighted the perils of being progressively reliant on technology, particularly in India where biometric information is used more frequently without adequately constructing a cybersecurity system to protect that data. Digital colonization is an issue plaguing India. The state serves as the collector of data to prevent corporations from collecting that data, it does not protect the individuals’ rights and the risk of data breaches is incredibly high. The concept of an Aadhaar card to facilitate easier engagement in political and economic spheres of life for the masses is empowering — until the data is breached. The lack of conscious consent every time the card is used is a recipe for disaster. One panelist compared the attitudes toward data collection in India to cancer, stating “if you are smoker, you don’t worry about the health implications until your doctor tells you there’s an issue with your x-ray; similarly, in India, we don’t worry about privacy until our data is breached.” Technology has the ability to be transformative in information-sharing and production mechanisms but is susceptible to manipulation. Reliance on technology as a silver bullet oversimplifies the problems many nations face today. A combined toolkit of trade, military, and power — as well as technology — are needed for the sustainable prosperity, security and stability of nations.   

The 14th India Trilateral Forum, hosted by ORF, GMF, and the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs brought together policymakers, thought-leaders, civil society members, and private sector representatives to discuss the state of India­–Europe–U.S. relations.

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