India’s prestige is up globally, but there are image issues

When it comes to economic achievements, administrative capacity and defence, India’s prestige has gone up because of actual good performance, not mere claims. Can the government do the same on democratic values?
In Parliament last week, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) members accused Rahul Gandhi’s recent London speech, in which he said India’s democracy was under attack, of ruining India’s prestige abroad. Congress speakers shot back that this was “a mirror of the truth”. Some BJP members want Rahul suspended from Parliament for allegedly insulting the country.
Having worked abroad part of each of the last 25 years, I am well placed to assess what matters for Indian prestige abroad. On the economic side, India’s prestige is currently high. It is lauded as the fastest growing major economy with the world’s best stock market in 2022, an impressive incubator of unicorns, and the destination for 1,570 Global Capability Centres (doing everything from back-office work to research and development) of the top global multinationals. Infrastructure is being boosted massively. School education is deplorable, yet India produces 15 lakh engineers per year, the most anywhere. A feat only China can match.
India’s military prestige has risen, though it lags way behind China. It has joined the elite group of countries capable of producing an aircraft carrier (INS Vikrant) and nuclear missiles with a 5,000-km-plus range (Agni-5).

India’s prestige in administrative capacity has improved too. Its Unified Payments Interface has revolutionised payments. Despite glitches, Jan Dhan Yojana and Aadhaar have created bank accounts for the vast majority of villagers that facilitate direct cash transfer of government benefits, slashing bureaucratic delays and corruption. India produced its own Covid vaccines and, despite glitches, conducted one of the world’s biggest inoculation programmes. The list of achievements is long.
But in human rights and democratic values, it’s a different story. Forget what Rahul or the BJP says abroad or at home. India’s prestige depends on performance, not political claims and counter-claims. Alas, several international indices measuring democratic performance show India in poor light. The most prestigious global media deplore India’s deterioration. That determines India’s image and prestige. Revoking the licences of Oxfam and Amnesty for foreign funding worsens India’s prestige. So does banning a recent BBC documentary, followed by tax ‘surveys’.
What the indices say
Freedom House, measuring political and civil liberties across the world, has downgraded India from ‘free’ to ‘partly free’. The Democracy Index of the Economist Intelligence Unit shows India falling from 27th position in 2014 to 46th. India is now categorised as ‘flawed democracy’: it was once ‘full democracy’. The Cato Human Freedom Index shows India falling from 75th position in 2015 to 111th in 2020. Sweden’s V-Dem measure of liberal democracy now places India at only 108th position in freedom. The World Press Freedom Index puts India at a dismal 150th position, though it was as bad as 140 even during Congress rule.
Now, all indices of this sort have shortcomings. They attempt to assess a very complex situation with a few measurable parameters, which can be misleading. The government has quite rightly highlighted the flaws of some of these indices. However, the shortcomings also apply to indices showing an improvement in Indian performance. India rose fast in the World Bank’s Doing Business Index and this made us feel good. But that index was later dumped by the Bank itself as tainted by political influence.

Even after making allowance for exaggerations and errors, none can wish away the sad deterioration of India’s performance in human rights and democratic values as measured by a wide variety of independent actors. Dissent is under threat in India. The Supreme Court has bemoaned the use of “process as punishment”. It complains that, by harassing targeted victims through arrests and raids, life is being made a nightmare for those targeted even if they are ultimately proved innocent. The court has strongly regretted the misuse of laws on sedition and unlawful activities. One does not have to look at international indices to see the problem.
Liberal democracy is above all about the right to dissent freely. In no true democracy is criticism of the government called “insulting” the country. Those trotting out this line are damaging, not protecting India’s democratic prestige.
What can be done to improve India’s image and prestige? The answer is clear: improve actual performance instead of complaining about critics. India’s prestige in economic achievements, administrative capacity and defence has gone up because of actual good performance, not mere claims. The same holds for democratic values.
To improve India’s prestige, stop misusing laws on sedition and unlawful activities; end a situation where most of the politicians targeted by investigating agencies are Opposition politicians; end vigilante attacks on minorities and efforts to stop inter-faith marriages. Such an approach is a necessary condition for improving India’s prestige abroad.
This article was originally published by The Times of India on March 18, 2023.

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