By Arun R Swamy*
For India, 2021 was a year of trauma and portent. Alongside the continuing COVID-19 crisis — despite an ostensibly successful vaccination drive — the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) anti-democratic tendencies intensified. A year-long protest by farmers eventually resulted in the government withdrawing a landmark bill to liberalise agricultural trade. State elections heralded the strength of regional parties. Yet despite domestic setbacks, India raised its profile regionally and globally.
India’s COVID-19 surge between March and June 2021 was exceptionally high and sharp. By the end of the year, the country had recorded nearly 40 million positive tests, totalling 3 per cent of the population and 500,000 deaths. Both numbers are likely gross underestimates given the lack of reporting and testing in rural areas. By mid-year, the economy was reeling and the crisis took a toll on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity. This led the government to lash out at critics — including ordering Twitter to shut down criticism of the government’s handling of COVID-19.
The attempt to censor criticism on Twitter illustrated the government’s most notable anti-democratic practice of pressuring social media companies to police criticism of the government. It asked Twitter to shut down hundreds of accounts critical of the government — including news organisations and supporters of the farmers’ protests — and investigated Twitter for labelling a BJP spokesman’s tweet misleading. Facebook dithered over-policing hate speech in India for fear of alienating the government and initially blocked a hashtag calling for Modi to resign, while WhatsApp took legal action to prevent the Indian government from tracing accounts.
The attacks on social media are an extension of years of effort by the Modi government to control information on the internet, resulting in a low and declining Freedom on the Net ranking. The attempts to intimidate and muzzle journalists also produced a low rank of 142 in the World Press Freedom Index. While elections remain free and fair, the decline of civil liberties and increasingly open attacks on religious minorities are eroding India’s democracy, with watchdog group Freedom House dropping India’s democracy status to ‘partially free’ for the first time.
These crackdowns are notable for their brazen disregard for international opinion, even at a time when India is becoming more assertive internationally. In Asia, the term Indo-Pacific is replacing the old ‘Asia Pacific’ as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue — composed of the United States, Japan, Australia and India — more actively seeks common ground. And nothing in India’s recent democratic setbacks got in the way of Modi being given a prime speaking slot at US President Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy.
Globally, Modi won plaudits at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow for committing to a distant deadline for capping greenhouse emissions. At the same time, India’s decades-old security cooperation with Russia, most notably on weapons systems, received a major boost during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s high-profile visit despite US disapproval. This partnership has resulted in the first major sale, to the Philippines, of a jointly developed Indian–Russian missile system.
It seems that Modi, in his eighth year in office, has learned that democracy activists and editorialists count for little in the halls of diplomacy, and is making the most of India’s strategic location and flexibility.
In domestic politics, the jury is still out on the BJP. Elections in various states in May 2021 showed it is yet to penetrate much beyond its core regions in the north and west, but also demonstrated the continued weakness of the main opposition Indian National Congress. Many BJP-ruled states are scheduled to hold elections in early 2022, including the largest state in the country, Uttar Pradesh.
While opinion polls show the BJP ahead in Uttar Pradesh, other states show a tight contest — often between two or three opposition parties. There are also signs that the BJP’s position is eroding in Uttar Pradesh and a defeat there would provide a catalyst for opposition parties to come together for the national elections in 2024.
The BJP’s prospects of becoming the first party in over 50 years to win a third consecutive term will depend on the performance of the economy, which is still suffering from the effects of the pandemic. To this end, the government has undertaken a massive stimulus that has taken the fiscal deficit to 9.5 per cent of GDP but eschewed any direct relief for the poor. Various liberalisation measures should also be seen in this light, from the privatisation of Air India to the attempted agricultural liberalisation bills.
India’s stock market boomed over the last year with tech start-ups taking off led by mobile payment apps, but US automaker Ford exited the market, India’s 5G rollout was ‘bumpy’ and agricultural reforms were withdrawn. The poor are suffering the most in the COVID-19 recession.
Above all, 2021 was a year in which Modi and the BJP implemented their authoritarian vision of a resurgent Hindu India. Despite a setback at the hands of the farmers’ movements, domestic opposition is divided and international attention is focussed on India’s usefulness in emerging geopolitical alignments. There is little reason to think that the trajectory of Indian politics or foreign policy will change in 2022.
*About the author: Arun R Swamy is Professor of Political Science at the University of Guam.