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India can help reverse global retreat of democracy

Modi must promote political freedom especially in Asia

| India
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi should seize the chance to revive India's claim to the world's "fastest-growing free-market democracy" as America retreats while China looms.   © Reuters

This time last year Chinese President Xi Jinping won an unlikely public relations triumph by casting himself at Davos as the unlikely savior of globalization. On Tuesday, India's Narendra Modi arrives in the Swiss resort with his own opportunity to seize the world agenda. Sadly, he is likely to pass up what should to be his most compelling message: casting his country as a very strong advocate for the advance of global democracy.

Modi's visit to the elite alpine gathering is the first by an Indian prime minister in two decades. He arrives ready to highlight his nation's economic progress, armed with the International Monetary Fund's forecasts of growth holding steady above 7% next year. As the U.S. turns protectionist under President Donald Trump -- who will also put in an appearance amongst the business titans this week -- India wants to position itself as an ever-more important cog in the global economic system.

Yet Modi is still in no position to mimic the kind of claims made by Xi last year. India's $2.3 trillion gross domestic product, at around a fifth the size of China's, remains too small to offer genuine global leadership. Its recent momentum has also been slowed by two of Modi's own signature initiatives: first his economically damaging "demonetization" anti-corruption drive in 2016, which scrapped most of the country's currency stock; then a badly-implemented new sales tax system last year.

So when he takes the stage on Tuesday, Modi's main message will be to implore the global chief executives to send more investment his way. This is a shame, because India's prime minister could craft a bolder story, speaking up not just for his country's economic successes but its system of government too.

India has traditionally been reluctant to engage in what the U.S. often calls democracy promotion. As a former colony, it avoids commenting on the internal politics of others. Along with their counterparts across the emerging world, policymakers in New Delhi watched Americans preaching democratic values and smelt the rank whiff of hypocrisy.

Anti-democratic forces

Yet Modi should reconsider this reticence, for three reasons, the first being a growing anxiety about governance amongst the world's business elite. Last week the World Economic Forum, the Davos host organization, released its pre-event survey of members' worries. This highlighted concerns about rising anti-democratic forces, from populism to nationalism, while also listing the "buckling" of democracies as one the "future shocks" that should most alarm Davos invitees.

The WEF's warning in turn followed a survey this month on the state of democracy from Freedom House, an independent think tank. This made lamentable reading, detailing the democratic decline from Hungary and Turkey to Asian states like Cambodia and Myanmar. This sustained tilt toward autocracy is causing increasing alarm around global boardrooms, meaning any political leader speaking out against these developments could win friends, and potentially even investment too.

Second, as Modi considers how best to position India as a world leader, there is an obvious gap in the market. Earlier American presidents painted themselves as guardians of democratic values. But Trump has little time for such high-minded ideals, preferring instead to befriend the autocrats his predecessors once chided.

Since taking power in 2014, Modi has often sought ways to buttress Indian soft power, not least in his enthusiasm for yoga, a gimmick he will roll out again in Davos this week, offering free classes to attendees. Yet India's position as the world's most populous democracy should provide a distinctive moral platform from which to win allies and seek influence around the globe, as well as offering a clear contrast with China.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, India has of late thrown its lot in with its fellow democracies in any case. Last week, for instance, Modi addressed the annual Raisina Dialogues in New Delhi, India's premier annual foreign policy gathering. The event was notable for its absence of Chinese speakers, while also showcasing India's renewed membership of the so-called "quad" grouping of Asian democracies, together with Australia, Japan and the U.S. Given Modi is cozying up to these powers as a geopolitical counterweight to China, he might as well try to seize the high ground and push a more overtly pro-democracy agenda too.

Pressure on backsliders

Doing so would not be without complications. Internationally, India's creaky democracy is often derided as a block on its development ambitions, where the government's inability to take decisions often blocks the development of the kind of grand infrastructure projects that helped to propel China's rise. Meanwhile domestic critics have good reason to question Modi's own democratic credentials, noting his strongman leanings. Many argue that India has grown gradually less liberal since he took power in 2014. The minority Muslim population is particularly worried over the leanings of his center-right Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party government towards the Hindu majority.

Yet Modi remains a confirmed democrat, at least in the narrow sense that he enjoys winning elections. Freedom House continues to rank India as one of Asia's freer nations. Domestic imperfections also need not be an insurmountable barrier to speaking out abroad. Last year, Xi painted himself as a savior of global free markets, even though he leads a state-dominated economy riven with protectionism.

What an India democracy promotion agenda might involve is more intriguing. Partly it would mean being more critical of those nations backsliding on democratic norms, especially in its own neighborhood, for instance speaking up about Myanmar's treatment of the Rohingya refugees. More important would be using its growing economic heft to offer financial and political support to other developing democracies around Asia and Africa.

Either way, Modi would have an opportunity to redefine India's role in the world. His country last made waves at Davos during its mid-2000s economic boom. Back then, in 2006, India's delegation plastered the Swiss mountainsides with adverts talking itself up as the world's "fastest-growing free-market democracy." As America retreats, Modi has a chance to claim that mantle more than a decade later, and to act as a more forceful advocate for the kind of democratic capitalism that should in turn underpin India's future rise. He should take it.

James Crabtree is an associate professor of practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. His book,"The Billionaire Raj," will be published in July.

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