India failure threatens freedom globally

The decline of democracy in India highlights challenges freedom faces around the world and how malevolent forces exploit them. To Kill a Democracy by acclaimed journalist Debasish Roy Chowdhury and renowned political scientist John Keane combines reporting from deep within the Indian polity and academic rigor to portray the issues tearing at the social fabric of the world’s largest democracy. (Full disclosure, Chowdhury and I have worked together intermittently since the mid-2000s.) Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu sectarianism runs counter to democratic tenets such as equal treatment under the law, but the authors note that many of his opponents embrace similarly toxic tactics.

Subtitled “India’s passage to despotism,” the book holds that democracy extends beyond electoral processes and rights guarantees. “To the man in the street, democracy doesn’t exist, and he knows the situation isn’t right,” Chowdhury explained during the online launch of To Kill a Democracy. “He knows it in the daily struggle and choices he has to make between his budget and his family’s needs, in the frantic phone calls from his wife if their daughter is 10 minutes late coming home. This could not be the kind of life that the patriots who founded the country meant for him to be living 74 years after India’s independence.”

The authors argue that providing a decent standard of living underpins democracy, and India’s failure on this point has planted the seeds for alternatives. As in so many other fields, technology and Covid have accelerated preexisting trends. Although economic desperation is far less severe in developed countries, similar alienation drives the success of other would be despots. People feel that politics dominated by an elite no longer responds to what matters most to them. Chowdhury and Keane note the irony that those impulses are most often exploited by the rich and powerful, seeking to enhance their own positions.

It’s not a pretty picture, but it’s an important one to understand and address. For nuclear armed India, and its 1.4 billion people plus the world at large, the alternatives are terrifying.

Former US diplomat and broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is a columnist for ICE 365, a contributor to Forbes and Inside Asian Gaming, columnist/correspondent for Asia Times, and author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.