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The New India: Partisan Press and Dwindling Democracy

This article is an attempt to analyse the debates circumnavigating India’s position amid the world’s democracies in the context of the recent democracy indices. Since democracy and the press are correlated, the relation has been viewed in the light of the dwindling situation of the Indian press and the strangling of journalists with the coarse rope of UAPA.

Several of them would have protested if they could have found the right arguments.”

-Animal Farm: George Orwell

In the wake of the Lok Sabha elections in India, the world’s eyes are set on its largest democracy. With the ruling party’s intense confidence in winning the third term, there are apprehensions linked to the growing arrogance of power politics amid several instances that are forcing many to question the democracy in India. With an ever-falling press freedom index, weaponization of hate speech at the hands of the members of the ruling party and its supporters, demonization of journalists and activists, crony capitalism clearly visible in the association of media houses, the fourth estate is slumping. Is this the new India they promised?

V-Dem’s Democracy Report of 2024 recognises India’s governance as an “electoral autocracy” in which multiparty elections take place but there are “insufficient levels of fundamental requisites such as freedom of expression and association, and free and fair elections.” The government has obviously scrutinised this ranking as “inaccurate and distorted” and “hypocrisy”. India is ranked 104 in the Liberal Democracy Index (LDI) and 110 in the Electoral Democracy Index (EDI) for its performance in 2023 amid about 180 countries. It is explained that the drop is owing to “gradual but substantial deterioration of freedom of expression compromising independence of the media” amid attacks on activists and journalists critical of the government. The Modi-led government is cited as the source of such suppression, silencing the people who are critical of its propaganda.

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index of 2023 classifies India as a “flawed democracy” with a ranking of 41 out of over 160 countries. It cites an improvement in the scores for governmental functioning and political culture while a decline in India’s civil liberties score. Attention to the curbs on freedom of speech is yet again invited. This reiteration of an attack on individuals’ freedom of speech and expression is essential to be noted in terms of RSF’s Press Freedom Index in which India slips to 161st position in 2023 while it attained 150th rank in 2022. The latest rating has made people raise a finger at the evaluation process, calling it biased and unscientific, as Afghanistan under the Taliban known for its rigid restriction on press freedom is ranked 152nd, an improved ranking from 156th as its previous ranking of 2022. Another comparison with Pakistan is being made for it is positioned at 150, again better than India.

These rankings are often looked at with suspicion for being a western product. Most of the supporters of the Indian government approve of its idea of making its own democracy index. It is true that these rankings overlook hindrances to democracy and press freedom in the West and other parts of the world, be it the rigid restriction on abortion rights in the US or large-scale killing of journalists in Ukraine and Palestine, but it is clearly not enough to demonstrate that India’s democracy and press freedom are doing any better. The scrutiny is being shut by magnifying India’s shameful placement beneath its favourite rivals like Afghanistan and Pakistan. Is the red of face more significant than the red on the democratic establishment?

The Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and a similar pattern followed through it to silence journalists and activists needs to be positioned in the debate. In March 2024, GN Saibaba, a Delhi University professor who was arrested on assumptions of his Maoist links, was released after 10 years of imprisonment. The obsession with secret conspiracies with China is not new but profound in the wake of the “anti-Nationalist” labelling. Similar concerns were raised as Prabir Purkayastha, the founder of NewsClick, and its HR head were arrested in October 2023 on grounds of criminal conspiracies with Chinese companies. It must be noted that this news organisation is a critic of the Modi government. The pattern also reaches Kashmir where journalists are frequently booked and arrested under the UAPA. Irfan Mehraj, a Kashmiri journalist working with DW was accused of funding terror activities, and Fahad Shah, founder and editor of The Kashmir Walla, was arrested multiple times under the act and was released after 600 days of imprisonment in November 2023.

In its 2022 report, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) studies the distressing pattern of misusing the UAPA to control and fix dissent. It notes that during the UPA regime led by Manmohan Singh, the average number of UAPA cases registered per year by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) was 13 while during the Modi-led NDA registered 34 such cases. “This contrast in figures clearly shows that during the Modi era, there is an increasing tendency to use UAPA as the chosen legal weapon.” The most invoked offence being “conspiracy” is itself a problematic idea of attacking individuals as terrorists on the basis of assumptions of possible threats. These cases linger on for months, at times even for years. The same report mentioned that the conviction rate of UAPA cases is merely 2.8%. It is safe to say that this law is draconian in nature and is held so tightly to terrorise those who criticise the government. Who are we exactly afraid of?

The falling of media houses into the hands of big names linked and having strong ties with the ruling party is another key indicator of India’s poorly performing press freedom index. In late 2022, the Adani group acquired a majority share in NDTV and that set a strong stage to question the independence and reliability of the mainstream media in India. Adani’s vocal support for Modi and NDTV’s vocal criticism of Modi is an absurd match being questioned and pondered over.

In his tenure of 10 years, Modi never had a proper press conference. Factually speaking, the only press conference that was held in 2019 that the Prime Minister appeared for didn’t show his willingness to answer the questions from the present reporters. All the questions were passed on to Amit Shah. In this New India, the PM willingly appears for his radio show Mann ki Baat but the dichotomy stands still at the dilemma whether it is the “talk at citizens, or with them.”

The campaigning for the upcoming elections is at a tremendous pace. Our bags are filled with guarantees and promises. Every candidate wants to drive India to the next level of global recognition. Some excite the crowds with the plans of manufacturing a New India. This New India is being revised with a new history, a new curriculum, and new gods. There is commodification of gods, of faith itself, of promises. Partisan press is on its track to teach the public how to decide about the next leader. All we know for certain is that this new India has certainly been whipped off of its identity as the ideal democracy. It is young, our democracy, and yet it’s rusted with the high notes of loud baritones trying to convince the world almost victoriously, that we are better than ever before. Is the dwindling of our democracy just a myth created in the wombs of the West, and incubated in the lies of the oppositions? For how long can we unsee? Ignorance was never a bliss.

Hardika Sachdeva is a student pursuing M.A. in Human Rights from Jamia Millia Islamia.

 Edited by: Yash Mittal

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Written by Hardika Sachdeva

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