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  Opinion   Columnists  01 Apr 2024  K.C. Singh | West’s disquiet about India: Meddling or friendly nudge?

K.C. Singh | West’s disquiet about India: Meddling or friendly nudge?

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry. He tweets at @ambkcsingh.
Published : Apr 2, 2024, 12:05 am IST
Updated : Apr 2, 2024, 12:05 am IST

Diplomatic tensions escalate as US voices concern over India's election conduct.

US Acting Deputy Chief of Mission Gloria Berbena arrives at the South Block after being summoned by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), in New Delhi, Wednesday, March 27, 2024. India on Wednesday summoned the senior US diplomat and lodged a strong protest against Washington's remarks on the arrest of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. (PTI Photo)
 US Acting Deputy Chief of Mission Gloria Berbena arrives at the South Block after being summoned by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), in New Delhi, Wednesday, March 27, 2024. India on Wednesday summoned the senior US diplomat and lodged a strong protest against Washington's remarks on the arrest of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. (PTI Photo)

The rumblings were audible in India for months as investigative agencies like the Enforcement Directorate and the income-tax department had been selectively targeting Opposition leaders and parties. It was expected that once the elections to the Lok Sabha were announced the Model Code of Conduct would compel balanced restraint till the elections were over. However, if anything, the arrest of Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal on March 21 and exaggerated income-tax claims from the Congress, the main Opposition party, defied that logic. The un-levelling of the playing field continues under the very nose of the Election Commission.

Germany was the first country to express discomfort over this scenario. India reacted with calculated diplomatic ire, advising the Germans to mind their own business. But when the US state department expressed similar anxiety, the ministry of external affairs first strongly protested, although less stridently, and then followed up by summoning acting US deputy chief of mission Gloria Berbena. India’s expectation was that the matter would end there, both sides having appeased public opinion in their respective countries.

However, US state department spokesman Mathew Miller, when asked about the summoning of their diplomat, in seniority next only to the ambassador, had no hesitation in reiterating that “we continue to follow these actions closely, including the arrest of the Delhi CM”. Not stopping there, he added that the US was also aware of tax authorities hampering the electioneering ability of the Congress Party by freezing their accounts. Mr Miller concluded that they “encourage fair, transparent and timely legal processes for each of these issues”. Justice and fairness of the proceedings was also emphasised.

Amongst those who were trolled in India was an anchor of a major television channel when he simply tweeted the latest US reaction. This writer’s comments a day earlier on a major business television channel, when posted on X and YouTube, generated huge viewership and some acerbic comments. The main line of counterattack by pro-BJP elements was that comments on the fairness of Indian elections by foreign powers was a breach of Indian sovereignty and interference in India’s internal affairs. All those reporting such criticism, and especially those pointing out the misuse of the agencies only against government’s opponents were anti-national.

This writer, in his social media response, pointed out that the “bhakts”, or hardcore BJP supporters, failed to perceive the difference between the government and the nation. Mark Twain’s quote captures it perfectly that “loyalty to the country always, loyalty to a government when it deserves it”.

The fracas raises the broader question about the validity of the Indian defence that any criticism of the Indian electoral processes is a breach of Indian sovereignty. US President Joe Biden came into office in January 2021 promising a summit of democracies, intending thereby to globally advance the values that the liberal democratic model represents. But the United States has a poor record historically of such evangelism. Late US secretary of state Zbigniew Brzezinski had named his memoir Power and Principle, underscoring the conflict in the conduct of foreign policy between ethics and realpolitik. A case in point is Pakistan. The minute the Soviet Union militarily intervened in Afghanistan in 1979, the US sidelined its ire over Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul Haq’s military coup, the hanging of former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Pakistan’s clandestine nuclear weapons programme. A similar long rope was offered again to military dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf after Al Qaeda’s 9/11 terrorist attack on the United States.

However, India presents a separate case. Even during the Cold War, the US was drawn to India as a citadel of democracy in Asia. Thereafter, India became additionally attractive for its economic rise, huge market, increasing military strength and as a counterfoil to China. But its basic relevance persists as an established democracy, which shares the American commitment to a global liberal democratic order. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promoted this soft power of India by coinages like India as the “mother of democracies”. 

Understandably, thus, India’s friends among the Western nations get concerned about any democratic slippage in India. In the European Union itself, they have similar anxiety about democratic recession in member nations like Hungary. Brazil, as the 21st century opened, was seen alongside Germany, India and Japan as a natural candidate for permanent membership of the UN Security Council. But after the short and democratically destructive presidency of Jair Bolsonaro, that edge is gone.

On March 28, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ spokesman also commented on the Indian elections, hoping in “India, as in any country that is having elections, that everyone’s rights are protected, including political and civil rights, and everyone can vote in an atmosphere that is free and fair”. India may tell the UN to stick to more pressing issues like the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the protracted war in Ukraine. However, the fundamental question of partisan conduct by the investigative agencies cannot be ignored.

The Indian legal system is basically sound, but faces questions about its independence. One is symbolised by an anti-Opposition judge of the Calcutta high court quitting overnight to become the BJP’s candidate in the forthcoming election. Similarly, an excessive number of sensitive political cases have gone to a Supreme Court judge with past Gujarat government links. This may be a coincidence but the Chief Justice must ensure, as the phrase goes, that “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion”.

What can happen next? It is possible that, diplomatic demarches aside, the Indian government realises the damage that it is doing to India’s reputation as a robust democracy. It may curb its inexplicable desire to overplay its winning hand, with possibilities of diminished gain. Separately, the highest court may freeze the income-tax orders and also start de-weaponising the Prevention of Money Laundering Act by restricting the detention powers of the ED. A warning signal was one member of the Election Commission suddenly resigning.

Hopefully, like the US institutions defending the democratic framework when defeated incumbent President Donald Trump attempted to subvert the verdict, Indian institutions will not completely wilt. It would be a mistake to ignore warnings from the US and other Western powers as mere bluster. The people of India may be thinking analogously and vote accordingly.


Tags: us india ties, 2024 lok sabha elections, arvind kejriwal arrest