Will India be part of President Joe Biden’s Summit on Democracy? No one should look at the Capitol Rebellion and the Republican Party’s efforts to topple the 2020 elections without questioning whether the United States has enough credibility to host such a summit. I wonder how the new State Department will approach other countries to promote democratic rule. India, whose kisans have camped outside the New Delhi border for the past four months, provides the latest example of a democratically elected leader restricting fundamental freedoms. Will the Foreign Ministry urge India to uphold the right to protest?
The protesting farmers want the Indian central government to abandon three agricultural reform laws. As former World Bank chief economist Kaushik Basu and Professor Nirvikar Singh explain, the laws reinforce the asymmetries of power that harm smallholders and inflate corporate buyers with excessive market power. For example, a dispute settlement clause in the agrarian reform laws, similar to other arbitration proceedings, places parties with insufficient resources against larger players in the market system.
In the past few weeks, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has attacked the demonstrators instead of sympathizing with the farmers, many of whom are from the northern state of Punjab. By beating activists, arresting protesters and shutting off electricity, water and internet at campsites, Modi is daring Western allies to question his rule.
This week Rihanna took up the challenge. Still, as the economist Amitabh Kundu said of Modi’s repressive policies in 2019, “Do you really believe that American business people care what happens here?” Kundu’s feelings still apply.
The von Biden government has reasons to be concerned about democracy at home and abroad. An effective summit for democracy requires that we first democratize our approach to foreign policy by advocating for institutions of global governance. Domestically, Congress should remove the power of the executive to declare illegal wars. These initiatives may not stop the breakdown of democracy in India, but they will add to our declining credibility.
The focus of the Summit on Democracy should be international accountability mechanisms. Market participants who see India as a partner in curbing China’s influence will pressure the Biden government to remain silent. By now we should understand that economic growth cannot replace the rule of law. A foreign policy that seeks to promote civil liberties cannot pursue the rights of the Uigars in Xinjiang and keep the Muslims in India silent.