Europe Warns Modi: Don't Mess With India's Democracy

India's recent discriminatory citizenship law has triggered rare censure from Europe, a close economic and strategic ally. How far will India's foreign relations suffer as a result of Modi's violent crackdown on dissent?

Shairee Malhotra
Shairee Malhotra
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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses his Bharatiya Janata Party's campaign rally ahead of Delhi state elections in New Delhi, India. Feb.3, 2020
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses his Bharatiya Janata Party's campaign rally ahead of Delhi state elections in New Delhi, India. Feb.3, 2020Credit: Manish Swarup,AP
Shairee Malhotra
Shairee Malhotra

India’s recent serial assault on democratic values have made waves worldwide – and now the repercussions have reached the heart of Europe.

Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) represent the second largest electorate in the world, after the Indian parliament - about 427 million voters. And in its recent plenary session in Brussels, the European Parliament tabled no less than five different, and biting, resolutions on India.

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MEPs didn’t hold back with their criticism – and neither did India, in response, calling for the European Parliament to withdraw the motions, describing the issues as India’s "internal matters," and blaming their critical tone on "unobjective" and "leftist parties." 

India’s new Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) – which offers preferential treatment to non-Muslim migrants, and has been widely criticized for unconstitutionally discriminating against Muslims, as part of a wider Hindu nationalist program to devalue the equal citizenship of India’s Muslim minority - was called "fundamentally discriminatory in nature." 

The resolutions characterize the CAA as "a dangerous shift in the way citizenship is determined in India," and, referring to the National Register of Citizens (NRC), a government list intended to formalize the status of all of India’s citizens, but which is also accused of being a tool to expel Muslim migrants, "with its potential to create the largest statelessness crisis in the world." Parliamentarians also criticized India’s abrogation of the special constitutional status of Jammu & Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, and the ongoing detention of political leaders there. 

A general view of the European Parliament in Brussels during a plenary session. Belgium January 30, 2020Credit: FRANCOIS LENOIR/ REUTERS

British MEP Shaffaq Mohammad from the Liberal Democrats spearheaded the resolutions; support for the resolutions was broad with political blocs representing 626 out of 751 MEPs backing them.

India has, though, won itself some breathing space. Voting on the resolutions, meant to take place the following day, was postponed to March. There is plenty of speculation about the reasons: effective lobbying by Indian diplomats in Brussels, the pending decision of India’s Supreme Court on the Citizenship Act’s constitutionality, and the desire to avoid casting a shadow on a visit by India’s eloquent External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar in February – and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s scheduled visit to Brussels for the EU-India Summit in March.

India’s standard line of defense - that the international community shouldn’t meddle in its internal affairs - holds less weight this time, and that’s because New Delhi has been caught in its own trap. given its 2019 October invitation to a group of MEPs, including representatives of far right parties, to visit Jammu and Kashmir for a "tour of normalcy" - while India’s own opposition leaders are still prohibited from accessing the region.

The hypocrisy could not be more apparent. India wants MEPs to legitimize its actions in Kashmir, but gets upset and irate when the same institution voices concerns over its citizenship act.

Given India’s long experience of colonialism, it has long prioritized the concept of strategic autonomy - broadly defined as a state’s ability to pursue policies in favor of its national interest without being constrained by other states.

Protesters from Shaheen Bagh hold placards as they take part in a demonstration against India's new citizenship law at Jantar Mantar, in New Delhi on January, 29, 2020Credit: AFP

Naturally, then, India opposed the EU resolutions: "As fellow democracies, the EU Parliament should not take action that calls into question the rights and authority of democratically-elected legislatures in other regions of the world." Imagine the reverse: if the Indian Parliament held sessions to debate and pass resolutions on Brexit or the EU’s migration laws. It sounds surreal, right?

Of course, the European Parliament is only one amongst seven EU institutions, and the EU has stressed that the Parliament’s position is not reflective of the EU as a whole. Equally, the  EU distanced itself from the Kashmir tour that right-wing MEPs took, emphasizing that that they were there in a private capacity. And neither are the parliament resolutions reflective of member states such as France, which share a robust bilateral relationship with India.

So how much impact will these resolutions have on India-EU relations?

For all the symbolic damage resolutions without legislative bite could do to the relationship, the strategic and technical consequences will be minimal. There is too much at stake, for both sides.

A demonstrator reacts as she is detained by police during a protest against a new citizenship law, in New Delhi, India, December 27, 2019Credit: ANUSHREE FADNAVIS/ REUTERS

Top of the list is the substantial economic and trade ties between India and the EU. The EU is India’s largest trading partner accounting for 12.9 per cent of total Indian trade, ahead of China (10.9 percent) and the US (10.1 percent). As a top EU official stated, "The European Union is keener on getting the trade and investments pacts concluded with India than speaking on issues like Kashmir and the CAA."

And more generally, the EU-India entente is gaining in strength. They are bound by a Strategic Partnership, signed in 2004, and cooperate extensively on many issues.

Could any of this be threatened if India’s democratic credentials are weakened? Democracy is central to the EU’s foreign policy, as reiterated in its 2019 Council Conclusions on Democracy. But the perception amongst many in India is that despite this self-declared centrality to democracy in its policymaking, the EU in reality deals with democratic India and more authoritarian states like Pakistan and China on an equal footing. There is no price to pay for loosening democratic guardrails.

In contrast, America’s wooing of India never fails to highlight India’s favorable democratic credentials, a theme to which Modi warmed when tweeting recently about U.S. President Donald Trump's upcoming visit to India: "India and USA share a common commitment to democracy and pluralism." But despite this confident tone, the U.S. Congress has, in recent months, offered a less generous assessment of India’s trajectory, especially among Democrats.

For a continent whose entire history hinges on imperialism and colonialism, the EU’s attempts at morally policing fellow democracies reveals a patronizing and misplaced superiority complex.

But another way of viewing Europe’s India conundrum is that it views democratic India as an essential counterbalance to authoritarian China, and a vital partner in revitalizing the rules-based multilateral international order.

Trade issues aside, Europeans are politically aligned with India: "The EU sees India as a "natural partner" in its mission to spread "rules-based multilateralism… if we live in a multipolar world with multilateralism under threat, the EU and India need each other. We both want to prevent that a logic of force takes precedence over a system of rules," as incoming EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell noted recently on a trip to India.

European Commission of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Vice President, Josep Borrell speaks at a Raisina Dialoguee, a global conference, in New Delhi, India. Jan. 16, 2020Credit: Manish Swarup,AP

The EU is thus understandably concerned when a country that shares their fundamental values exhibits worrying trends. India must learn how to respond to this scrutiny, and move past knee-jerk defensiveness, as it becomes a more crucial player on the world stage.

There are further reasons for Europe’s interest in India’s current situation that can’t be dismissed with righteous anger. A continent that has struggled so intensely with the international migration crisis will naturally find the prospect of further potential mass statelessness alarming. It would have been more prudent therefore for the EU to stick to debating the merits of the citizenship changes, and not lump Kashmir in with them, a very different sphere where it has far more limited  awareness and where it has long exhibited a lack of empathy with the decades India has suffered from Pakistani state-sponsored terrorism launched from the territory.

The postponement of the European parliament vote is an undeniable - if temporary - diplomatic win for India. But more broadly, the implications of the controversial citizenship act, the raw images of the Indian state’s violent crackdown on protestors, and the overall instability of recent months risk causing heavy damage to Brand India, and for its associated values of inclusiveness, pluralism and openness.

Nowhere has that been more stark than in the U.S. and European media, with the latest cover of the Economist magazine – headlined "Intolerant India" neatly indicative of this. In an increasingly globalized world, soft power - a resource India has plenty of, but which only recently, during Modi’s first term, has been creatively harnessed as a tool of foreign policy - together with public diplomacy and messaging matters tremendously.

India’s loss of control over its narrative abroad doesn’t augur well for a state with serious geopolitical ambitions, including a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

India’s diplomats can be prepped to present an effective case for the citizenship act. But that case becomes weak when it jostles for airtime with simultaneous state-backed violent attacks on peaceful forms of dissent. How long can India’s diplomats sustain this program of damage control? As The Hindu’s Suhasini Haider states, "The government must evaluate the toll on its diplomatic resources that have been diverted for much of the year in firefighting negative international opinion."

But branding, messaging and public diplomacy are ancillary services to the core enterprise. India is still very much part of the international liberal order. It must ensure it remains so.

Shairee Malhotra is an international relations expert who has worked for the European External Action Service - the foreign policy arm of the EU, and think tanks in India and Europe. She has written for The Diplomat, Fair Observer and Open Democracy and holds a masters in international relations from Queen Mary College, University of London. Twitter: @MalhotraShairee

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