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Global decline in democracy? The lesson from India may be 'Not so fast.'

putting it in perspective

Many of the world’s established democracies are showing strains, and India is no exception. But the world's largest democracy also offers a portrait of a remarkably diverse, complex society resisting some antidemocratic pressures.

A police officer tries to detain a member of the Rajput youth wing during a protest against the release of the upcoming Bollywood movie 'Padmaavat' in Ahmedabad, India, Jan. 23.
Amit Dave/Reuters
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Indian cinema is not all light and airy Bollywood.

When the Indian filmmaker Sanjay Bhansali announced the nationwide release early this year of his film “Padmaavat” – a historical drama based on the legend of a 14th century Rajput queen who along with 16,000 women of the Rajput caste chose to die by self-immolation rather than bow down to the Muslim sultan of Delhi – it enraged India’s Rajput community and other conservative political forces.

Violent protests ensued, and the groups demanded that “Padmaavat” be kept off cinema screens, attacking the plot as revisionist – and appalled at rumors of a love scene between the queen and the sultan. As the governments of four conservative states enacted bans of the film in the interest of public safety, some rights activists and proponents of freedom of expression warned that the rage was nothing less than an attack on India’s democracy.

Moreover, they said, the ban was further evidence of a wave of antidemocratic populism that in 2014 had carried Prime Minister Narendra Modi to power – echoing a global trend that has worried democracy advocates in recent years.

Enter the Indian Supreme Court. In late January the country’s highest judicial body ruled that freedom of expression trumped all other concerns, and ordered states to permit and provide security for the screenings. The movie was released across India without serious incident – and constitutionally guaranteed freedoms prevailed.

The “Padmaavat” drama was no revolution or watershed national election, but it provided a small measure of the perseverance and buoyancy of India’s democracy. At a time when even many of the world’s established democracies are showing deep strains, leading some experts to warn of democracy’s retreat in the face of rising authoritarianism, does India stand out?

There are troubling trends, to be sure, from rising Hindunationalism to mounting corruption. But India’s democracy – hands down the world’s largest, based on a voting population nearing one billion – may challenge the simmering global thought that perhaps democracy no longer works to govern diverse, complex societies facing 21st-century challenges.

“India’s democracy is alive and kicking,” says Ornit Shani, a specialist in Indian democracy who teaches at the University of Haifa in Israel. “It’s facing challenges of its own, but it kicks.”

A cinemagoer takes a selfie in front of a poster of Bollywood movie 'Padmaavat' outside a movie theatre in Kochi, India on Jan. 25.
Sivaram V/Reuters
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A 'more encouraging story'

Part of what gives India’s democracy its glow is how the system has managed to withstand the pressures of the conservative populist juggernaut that arrived with Mr. Modi. As other democracies as different as Poland and the Philippines have shocked the world with their retreats from such basic norms as an independent judiciary and due process, India – thanks in part to a raucous and empowered civil society – has in some measure resisted the global trend.

India’s courts are woefully backlogged, and rising communalism clashes – sometimes violently – with equally rising demands for individual rights. Some press freedom advocates complain that cowed media toe a government line, as well. Yet while acknowledging those trends, some democracy experts underscore how mobilized rights advocates are moving the country forward.

“India is showing some signs of polarization and illiberal populism, but the more encouraging story in India is one of strong activism and society pushing back – often successfully – against the forces that would restrict rights like freedom of expression,” says Thomas Carothers, an expert on democracy around the world at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

That is not to say India’s democracy doesn’t have its “problems,” he adds, but rather that it has appeared to resist global pressures on governance better than some. “Part of the reason [India] has been a bright spot is that it has been a fairly stable and functioning democracy, even as others have fully retreated from democratic rule,” he says.

Earlier this year the Washington-based watchdog Freedom House concluded that “liberal democracy is under severe threat, even peril, all over the globe,” as its president Michael Abramowitz said in a January briefing announcing the group’s annual “Freedom in the World” report. The report found that India’s democracy, meanwhile, had remained stable over the previous year, even as Venezuela sank to “military dictatorship” and the United States experienced democratic “retreat.”

Two-sided picture

In India, however, longtime observers say the situation is more complex than the 65 years of mostly free and fair electoral politics that the world tends to cite in assessing Indian democracy.

“India presents a unique paradox of a robust democracy, particularly on the electoral level, but one maintaining many limitations on rights and individual freedoms,” says Yamini Aiyar, the president and chief executive of New Delhi’s Center for Policy Research. Intermarriage between castes is legal, for example – but community restrictions on it often go unchallenged.

Many forms of political action in India – protesting a supposedly offensive movie, for example – remain “very much an act of community,” particularly religious and ethnic communities, she adds. But where its democracy comes up short “is in translating that political representation into a better life for individuals.”

Ms. Aiyar smirks a bit when told of the Freedom House report card. The flying colors issued to India may reflect a more macro international appreciation of the stability of the world’s largest and more diverse democracy, she says, rather than a micro assessment of India’s enduring democratic challenges.

Take the high number of criminals in office, for example – which some political experts cite as a serious threat to India’s democracy. Whereas voters in many countries tend to shun criminals, in India the masses seem to turn to them as individuals who have demonstrated they know how to get results, says Milan Vaishnav, an expert in India’s political systems at Carnegie.

“It’s not just coincidence that at the time of their election about a third of members of Parliament and state legislators faced ongoing criminal prosecutions – with about 1 in 5 charged with really serious crimes ranging from extortion and committing grievous bodily injury to murder,” Dr. Vaishnav says. “With deepening frustration about government’s ability to deliver, you end up with people opting for someone who has proven he’s willing to do whatever it takes to get things done.”

The danger Vaishnav sees is that India’s democracy ends up something of a two-sided Janus – on the one hand, working remarkably well in terms of elections and giving the diverse elements of a complex and populous society a voice; but on the other “feeding growing disappointment about what the system delivers in between elections.”

New voices rising

But while the challenges continue, Aiyar also ticks off a list of “signs of the vitality of our democracy.”

One is what she calls “new social formations” that she says are building a voice and a measure of political power, despite facing regular threat. One example: India’s LGBT community, which managed early this year to get Supreme Court review of anti-gay laws that states and Parliament have often resisted changing.

Another is the batch of new, mostly young leaders who are rising in politics and hoping to change the conversation, something like the rush of women candidates in the US in the wake of President Trump’s election. Aiyar cites the election of numerous young first-timers in December state elections in Gujarat, Modi’s home state.

She also cites an “uprising” among India’s Dalits, the people at the bottom of India’s Hindu caste system. Working on their own and with the help of national solidarity organizations, the Dalits are pushing back more than ever against continuing widespread discrimination – and against government failure to enforce existing anti-discrimination laws. Dalit women, for example, have long been exploited by police who see them as easy targets for bribes and petty theft (such as of their gold rings and nose piercings).

“In a political landscape typified by cronyism, “ Aiyar says, “that there is space for new voices to rise up and become players is an encouraging story.”

And on paper, at least, those voices have always been recognized. Dr. Shani insists that many of the signs of strength in India’s democracy have at their foundation an electoral system that since independence has operated under the assumption that every adult – women, illiterates, the poor, marginalized groups – has a right “to vote and thus to be heard.”

“The British thought it simply couldn’t be done, that universal suffrage was impractical in India and doomed to failure,” says Shani, who has just published “How India Became Democratic: Citizenship and the Making of the Universal Franchise,” which chronicles the Herculean task of how a newly independent India created a list of its 173 million voters.

“But when you consider the basis of India’s electoral system – that all adults are really individuals, each with a voice – you see the roots of some of the positive aspects of India’s democracy today,” she says.

India’s first national elections were in 1952 (The same year the US held a presidential election with an electorate of about just 90 million, Shani likes to point out – and with a system still operating with something less than universal suffrage). Sixty-five years later, India’s hulking democracy may be straining, and failing to deliver in ways that more than a billion Indians expect.

But it is also offering fresh evidence of why it is “still kicking.”

“India’s DNA of multiple ethnicities and multiple religious communities, not to mention the variety of linguistic groups, makes for such a complex society,” says Aiyar. Despite the shortcomings and disappointments, she adds, “The idea is still pretty strong that managing the multiple pressures of the diversity of India is only possible in a democratic system.”

*This story was updated to reflect the correct number of voters in 1952.

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