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Podcast

Asia Stream: Democracy summit and the future of India's republic

Nikkei Asia's podcast premieres, finds gaps in Indian democracy

NEW YORK -- Nikkei Asia is launching a new podcast: Asia Stream.

Every week, Asia Stream will track and analyze the Indo-Pacific with a mix of interviews with experts and original reporting from our team of correspondents from across the globe.

New episodes are available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and all other major platforms, and on our YouTube channel.

This is our premiere episode, and we hope you will subscribe and join us every week as we bring you the sound of Asia, streaming into your ear.

LISTEN HERE

This week's podcast, "The Democracy Summit and the Future of India's Republic," is hosted by Wajahat Khan, our digital editor, and produced by Monica Hunter-Hart and Jack Stone Truitt.

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TRANSCRIPT:

WAJAHAT KHAN:

(Theme Music in: "What's the Angle," by Shane Ivers)

Hello and welcome to Asia Stream -- where we track, report and analyze the issues and interests of the world's largest region. This is our very first episode. We're glad you're here! A lot's been going on in Asia, or as many are calling it, the "Indo-Pacific." From supply chains to standoffs -- from COVID to cricket -- and from the Taliban to TikTok -- Asia's been front and center of the global conversation. With Asia Stream, we're bringing that conversation here to you. I am Wajahat S. Khan, the digital editor of Nikkei Asia here in New York City. For the last two decades, I've covered the biggest stories in South Asia. I've interviewed presidents and pariahs. And reported the headlines from the front lines. If you're new to Nikkei Asia, I can't wait to introduce you to our brilliant analysts and brave reporters. If you're a regular reader, we hope you'll enjoy peering behind the curtain of our unparalleled coverage and listening to the sound of Asia, streaming in your ear. From Nikkei Asia, this is Asia Stream.

(Theme Music out)

U.S. President Joe Biden convenes a virtual summit with leaders at the Summit for Democracy from the White House on Dec. 9.   © Reuters

KHAN:

Since the beginning of his administration, U.S. President Joe Biden has talked a big game about renewing America's leadership role in the world.

JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT:

America's back. I speak to you today as President of the United States at the very start of my administration, and I'm sending a clear message to the world: America is back.

KHAN:

The messaging has been that the days of Donald Trump's isolationism are over. And one of the big areas in which Biden sees the U.S. able to lead -- especially with an eye on strategic rival China -- is in a "rules-based international order," where the promotion of democracy is paramount.

BIDEN:

Democratic progress is under assault... Democracy doesn't happen by accident. We have to defend it, fight for it, strengthen it, renew it.

KHAN:

This week, Biden's hosting a democracy summit that will bring together leaders from dozens of countries to discuss agendas for global democratic renewal. Here to talk about it with us is Asia Stream correspondent, Monica Hunter-Hart, from our digital desk. Thanks for being here, Monica.

MONICA HUNTER-HART:

Thanks for having me.

KHAN:

So talk to me about this summit, Monica. What do I need to know?

HUNTER-HART:

There are really five things you need to know, Waj. Number one is that this is a very exclusive event where everyone's watching who gets an invitation.

KHAN:

No kidding! (laugh)

HUNTER-HART:

Yeah. It's kind of like the Met Gala, except no one cares what Biden's wearing. (Khan laugh.) Number two is that you don't actually need to be a functioning democracy to be invited.

KHAN:

Right. OK, that's interesting, so who's, who's invited?

HUNTER-HART:

Well, you've got traditional democracies like South Korea and Germany alongside struggling democracies like Serbia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Iraq. The Carnegie Endowment did a breakdown and found that only 69% of the invitees are considered "free" or fully democratic, per Freedom House's famous democracy index.

KHAN:

Right. So we're going to see Iraq giving tips to, let's say, Germany about how to be more democratic.

HUNTER-HART:

It's possible.

KHAN:

Right. OK, that's fantastic. So who's not invited?

HUNTER-HART:

Venezuela, Turkey and Hungary didn't make the cut, and neither did most of Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and East Africa. The entire Southeast Asian peninsula was excluded, and seven of the region's 11 countries in total. And of course, China and Russia.

KHAN:

Huh. But you don't sound surprised.

HUNTER-HART:

Well, no, and that brings us to number five. This summit is sending some pretty loud messages to the leaders of those excluded countries -- especially China's [President] Xi Jinping.

KHAN:

How so?

HUNTER-HART:

Symbolically, the event rejects the idea of a China-led world order, at least as long as Xi embraces authoritarianism. It's notable that Biden invited Taiwan, the self-governed island that China says is part of its territory.

KHAN:

So wait up. Taiwan is invited, but not China?

HUNTER-HART:

Yeah.

KHAN:

That's a little awkward, considering the "One China" policy that Washington's been practicing for decades, now, isn't it?

HUNTER-HART:

Tensions are definitely high between the U.S. and China over Taiwan. That really started to escalate with Trump, who broke with decades of protocol by phoning up the Taiwanese leader. Biden has also been making provocative moves -- for his inauguration, for example, he invited Taiwan's envoy to Washington. I mean imagine that: On the Capitol lawn, you have the Chinese ambassador sitting there, and just feet away is Taiwan's de facto ambassador. Beijing, of course, responded by sending military planes flying over the Taiwan Strait. And now this is one year later, Waj, and with the democracy summit invite, we're looking at Biden's Taiwan policy in motion. Critically, as part of the "One China" policy, the U.S. doesn't take a position on Taiwanese sovereignty. So with this invite, democracy is really what's being rewarded, not sovereign status.

KHAN:

Understood.

HUNTER-HART:

Honestly, it's also a bit awkward that the U.S. is hosting the summit, since it's experiencing a democratic backslide of its own. It's recently gone through setbacks in terms of voting rights, leaders questioning the credibility of elections, and more.

KHAN:

So, in the grand scheme of things, and pardon my analogy, but this sounds like Biden's own U.N. General Assembly. A big summit of his hand-picked friends and allies.

HUNTER-HART:

There's some merit to that comparison, in that some of the invitations seem to have a bit more to do with U.S. strategic interests than in rewarding successful democracies. That would explain the invites for countries like Ukraine, Pakistan and the Philippines.

KHAN:

Hang on, why are you picking on Ukraine, Pakistan and the Philippines?

HUNTER-HART:

Well, because they're all so-called imperfect democracies. But each serves an important U.S. strategic interest. For Ukraine, it's Russia. For Pakistan, it's Afghanistan. And the Philippines are an anchor for the U.S. to counter Chinese claims in the South China Sea. But also, compared to something like the U.N. General Assembly, this summit may not turn out to be all that important. Some analysts worry it may end up being no more than a photo op. But time will tell.

KHAN:

Right, a photo op or a screenshot, because it's going to be virtual, most of it. But, if it's not Biden's own U.N. General Assembly, then it's kind of like Biden's Christmas party, and you're not invited?

HUNTER-HART:

Yeah, exactly. (Laugh.)

KHAN:

Alright, well, thanks, we'll be watching the summit closely. Thanks, Monica.

HUNTER-HART:

Thanks, Waj.

Professor Ashutosh Varshney   © Brown University

KHAN:

Speaking of things to know, here's another one -- the most populous democracy in the world is India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi calls India "the mother of democracy." But he's actually been at the helm of a serious democratic deterioration. In a historic shift for the India of Gandhi and Nehru, Freedom House recently downgraded the India of Modi from its privileged status of being quote, unquote "free" to only "partly free" this year. A lot of this shift has to do with the targeting of religious minorities. Muslims in particular have gotten the worst of the democratic downturn, with their communities and regions being subjected to politically motivated arrests, detainment without charges, internet shutdowns, media censorship and state violence against protesters. But the crackdown machine is extending beyond Muslim-majority regions like Kashmir. It's headed to the courts. It's headed to the press. It's headed to civil society. Here to talk about it with us is Professor Ashutosh Varshney, an award-winning expert on South Asian politics. He's a former adviser to the UNDP and World Bank. He's taught at Harvard and the University of Michigan, and is now leading the Center for the Study of Contemporary South Asia at Brown. He's written many books on India, including one on ethnic conflict between Muslims and Hindus, which I read while I was in college, and one most recently on Indian democracy, "Battles Half Won." Ashu, thanks for being with us.

ASHUTOSH VARSHNEY:

Pleasure to be with you.

KHAN:

Ashu, I'll start with a scene. Just a couple of days ago, the Myanmar military was cracking down on pro-democracy protests, and there was a picture circulating on social media of a protester holding a sign that had a desperate plea: "India, please help us." Myanmar, of course, is India's neighbor to the southeast, and many people there still view India as the beacon of democracy in the region. Nevertheless, India has been experiencing what you political scientists call "democratic backsliding." Can you please explain to us how that applies to the democracy summit? The world's biggest democracy, backsliding?

VARSHNEY:

So the basic purpose of the democracy summit appears to be providing Washington's might, Washington stature, to an attempt to reverse democratic backsliding virtually all over the world. The United States has, first of all, a domestic democratic battle to fight, and second, an international democratic battle to fight. The democratic backsliding in the world outside, its prime example is India. The largest democracy in the world, at this point is primarily an election-based democracy. It does not satisfy the other important criteria of democracy, which is a constrained executive. An executive constrained by constitution of the country, constrained by the idea of minority rights, constrained by the idea of independent oversight to some institutions. So you can call it "half democracy," that's the term Freedom House has used. And the term V-Dem Institute of Sweden has used is "electoral autocracy." Now that's a bit too harsh, I think, because India remains electorally accountable. Mr. Modi has not reversed the principle of electoral accountability. But he does not like institutional oversight on the executive, whether by an independent judiciary, whether by an independent press, or by any other independent institution that the Constitution of India has established to check executive abuses. That's a problem.

KHAN:

So based on that, Ashu, why is Mr. Modi then so popular?

VARSHNEY:

Mr. Modi is very popular because he represents what might be called the rising Hindu majoritarianism in India. India is 82% Hindu. India was not set up as a Hindu democracy or an ethnic democracy. India was set up by its constitution as a pluralist democracy with a very strong commitment to minority rights. A reaction against that Mr. Modi has led, and he would like to establish what might be called a Hindu-majoritarian polity. That has become quite popular after 70 years of India's pluralist democracy, that sentiment he's representing. That's the reason for his popularity.

KHAN:

India was always majority Hindu. Why is this so-called backsliding worse under Mr. Modi?

VARSHNEY:

No, India, always had a Hindu majority, but Hindus were never united. Hindus were deeply divided by internal caste, caste differentiations. That is what Mr. Modi's project is. Reducing the intensity of caste differences. And intensifying the division between Hindus and Muslims in particular, and Hindus and minorities in general. That particular project, which has been a project of Hindu nationalists since the birth of Hindu nationalism in the 1920s, was going nowhere until the 1990s, when it emerged as a serious force. And now finally, that project is in power.

KHAN:

Right. And based on that, upon mention of ethnic conflicts, Ashu, I must also ask: there is on social media, and popular literature, elsewhere, a slogan has been raised, that India is headed Pakistan's way. That of course, is in reference to Pakistan's own experiments, dangerous experiments, with violent extremism. Do you agree with that slogan? Do you agree with that critique of what Mr. Modi has done to the modern contemporary Indian polity?

VARSHNEY:

The direction, certainly, is correctly identified by that description. The direction. But I don't think we can say that India is there yet. It is partly because the constitution, which was formed in 1950, has never been suspended. Pakistan has gone through several constitutions. India's constitution has never been suspended, which means that the attack on minority rights and the establishment of Hindu majoritarianism -- first of all, it's not yet constitutionally approved, not yet judicially approved. Secondly, please also note that in twin states of India, Hindu nationalists do not rule. Twelve out of 28 states of India, they are not in power, and this includes three of the five biggest states of India: West Bengal, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. [Uttar Pradesh] elections are coming up in March, UP is India's biggest state, it's as big as Brazil. If Mr. Modi loses UP elections, if the BJP, his party loses UP -- which is now not unlikely, which some in some surveys appears to be quite likely, actually, according to some surveys -- then the battle for establishing Hindu majoritarianism will be very, very seriously blocked, if not entirely defeated.

KHAN:

You keep mentioning this word, "majoritarianism," which basically describes the belief that a majority group is entitled to make the decisions in a society. But majoritarianism has a closely related cousin, "populism." Now, you've written in the past about how populism's right-wing form involves privileging a majority group's ethnicity, race, religion, etc, at the cost of minority rights. But, Ashu, can't populism be democratic?

VARSHNEY:

So long as it manages to get electoral affirmation, so long as it manages to get an electoral mandate, it can -- it is, certainly electorally speaking, democratic -- but with the exception of England or Britain, no democracy in the world is without a constitution. Every democracy, especially after 1945, also protects minority rights. Given what happened in the late 1930s and 1940s in German lands, and given what happened also in American South, where the Blacks were disenfranchised during the Jim Crow period. After the Second World War, it became very clear to democracy theorists and legal scholars, that democracy is not simply about expression of racial majority, majoritarian wishes of a race, of a religious community. It is also about protecting minorities from majoritarian excesses. And the most important institution for that project was the judiciary, the courts. So an attack on the court, so weakening judicial independence is one way in which populism, right-wing populism begins to hurt democracy, even if electorally legitimated.

KHAN:

Before I let you go, Ashu, what's your crystal ball analysis of the world-famous, planet's largest, billion-strong Indian democracy?

VARSHNEY:

Well, India's electoral democracy is not in trouble. The problem is how to revive judicial independence and how to revive independence of the press and how to revive the idea of checks on executive power. But this project, the project of establishing constraints on executive power or neutralizing executive excesses, this project cannot begin without electoral defeats of the BJP. That's where the the main energy of India's polity right now is. If Mr. Modi is defeated, for example, in India's biggest state, in March, in a few months, in four months or so, if he is defeated there, that will be the beginning of the revival of older, pluralist version of Indian democracy. It will be the beginning of that battle, it will not be the end. The battle will still have to be launched. But the revival of of the power of independent institutions which are non-electoral, paradoxically depends on electoral defeat of the BJP.

KHAN:

Ashutosh Varshney of Brown University. Real pleasure, Ashu. Thanks for being on the show with us.

VARSHNEY:

Wonderful to be with you.

KHAN:

That was Ashutosh Varshney of Brown University describing the backsliding of Indian democracy, not in terms of electoral accountability, which is fine and dandy, it seems with these massive UP elections coming up in India's largest state. But in terms of institutional accountability, and the protection of minorities. Here to talk to us more about those two issues of concern is Dev Chatterjee, Nikkei Asia's correspondent from Mumbai. Dev, thanks for being with us.

DEV CHATTERJEE:

Pleasure to be with you, Waj, it was great hearing you.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi attends a meeting with Russia's President Vladimir Putin in New Delhi, India, Dec. 6, 2021.   © Reuters

KHAN:

Alright, so Dev, we just had an expert telling us that democracy seems to be in trouble in India because of the deterioration of institutions. How do you see that, especially as a journalist? Do you see an attack on the freedom of the press and freedom of the media at large, on freedom of the judiciary?

CHATTERJEE:

Well, Waj, to a certain extent, yes, but it is not bad, as in some other parts of the world. Here, I would just like to mention that I'm in Mumbai, which is a state government which is not ruled by Bharatiya Janata Party, which is at the power in central government, and also they are in power in various other states in India. But in a way I'm working in Mumbai, we are not facing much problems as far as the local government is concerned. Press to a large extent is free over here.

KHAN:

So Dev, are you telling us that in India's multistate system, in its 28 states, the states which are ruled by Mr. Modi's BJP, those states tend to have, I guess, a more difficult environment for the press versus states like Maharashtra where you are, which are not ruled by the BJP, which are more relaxed about the press?

CHATTERJEE:

Yes, that's absolutely right. And if you've noticed, you know, there's a lot of other incidents which has happened in the large part of states where BJP is in power, where the actions against journalists, you know, filing of FIRs against them, by FIR, I mean, police complaints against them, and those are which are bringing a lot of friction to the fore between journalists and the BJP government. And now I'm not talking about journalists, I'm just talking about the civil society. There was a program which was being held last week by a comedian. And that program was also had to be withdrawn because the local government was against that particular comedy program.

KHAN:

Right, that I'm going to take a quick segue. Speaking of civil society, one of my favorite stand up comedians, Vir Das, was in Washington recently. And there was this speech he made at the end of his show about the two Indias.

VIR DAS, COMEDIAN:

I come from an India where children in masks hold hands with each other and yet I come from an India where leaders hug each other without masks. I come from an India where the AQI is 9,000 but we still sleep on the roof and look up at the stars. I come from an India where we worship women by day but gang rape them at night. I come from an India where we claim to be divided over Bollywood on Twitter and yet are united by Bollywood in the darkness of a theater.

KHAN:

And even though the speech was made in Washington, D.C., and it got a standing ovation, Mr. Das, I think has returned to India with a gamut of court cases and legal proceedings awaiting him because he spoke freely about contradictions in modern Indian society. Tell us a little bit about that.

CHATTERJEE:

Yeah, actually, that's quite a tragedy, what Vir Das is facing, you know, in a democratic country like India, I don't think, none of us had ever seen that previously in our lives. And I'm talking about, I'm a journalist for the last 30 years, and it has been very, very rarely when we have seen so much of angst against comedians, against journalists, against the civil society, and against anyone who is, you know, raising the voice of revolt against the present government. But I think, I just hope that the good sense will prevail among the, you know, among the powers that be and this kind of cases, which are quite frivolous. And the best thing, you know, the silver lining, if I may call it, the silver lining is that when these cases go to the judiciary, and of course, to the top top court, like Supreme Court, all these cases are thrown out. And at that time, you know, we know that we are living in a quite a democratic country. But it is the harassment, you know, which is the sheer harassment which one has to go through, you know, when these investigations are going on, which is actually the punishment for any, you know, any kind of person like, like Vir Das, or, you know, journalists or the people who are on the civil society.

KHAN:

Right, now, moving on to, perhaps from comedy to conflict. Besides the attrition of institutions, what about the protection of minorities? Now for years, decades, in fact, more than half a century, right from the beginning, we've heard about the Kashmir issue. But to be more pointed, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, the AFSPA, has been used to target not just Kashmiris but other minorities, other people as well. For an outsider like me, from what I understand of AFSPA basically gives the military the power to do whatever it wants, in areas of conflict, without much accountability. Tell us a little bit about this law, and tell us where it applies and how it applies, not just in Kashmir, but elsewhere.

CHATTERJEE:

Well, Waj, first of all, I would just like to talk about an extremely unfortunate incident, which happened in Nagaland this week where the army killed 13 civilians, and they were just taken for extremists and there was a case of a mistaken identity. And those, first the army stopped the vehicle and they tried to, as per the government's version, this vehicle tried to flee, and then the army opened fire and they kill innocent civilians. So, yes, this act was promulgated in 1958 by the Indian government. And this was basically a legislation which has allowed the armed forces to control and maintain public order in designated areas, which was called disturb. And as you rightly pointed out, Kashmir is one of those areas. And, of course, couple of northeastern states like Assam and some parts of Assam, Nagaland and Manipur, of course. And what is worrying is that civil courts and the Indian courts will not be able to, you know, try these people, those who are absolutely responsible for this absolutely unfortunate incident.

KHAN:

Right. Dev Chatterjee from Mumbai. Stay safe, Dev, and happy holidays to you in Mumbai.

CHATTERJEE:

Thanks a lot, Waj. Same to you and your team.

(Theme music in)

KHAN:

Thanks to Ashutosh Varshney and Dev Chatterjee for being with us. We'll be watching the Biden democracy summit this week, the latest out of which is that Pakistan, a close ally of China, has politely opted out of the summit, due to what analysts are calling Islamabad's deference to the "One China" policy. So, even though it's not invited, Beijing has already made its presence felt, perhaps as a counter to Washington's diplomatic boycott of the upcoming Winter Olympics. That's it for Asia Stream today. This episode was produced by Monica Hunter-Hart and Jack Stone Truitt. I'm your host, Wajahat S. Khan. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share, like and subscribe. Thanks for listening, and talk to you soon.

(Theme music out)

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