IN MARCH last year when US-based Freedom House and Sweden-based V-Dem Institute downgraded Indian democracy, calling out its restrictions on civil society, treatment of minorities, and crackdown on free speech, the Ministry of External Affairs hit back saying India did not “need sermons”. Slamming a set of what he called “self-appointed custodians of the world,” External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said, “India is not looking for their approval, is not willing to play the game they want to play.”
On the ground, things were a little different.
An investigation of records accessed byusing the Right to Information Act reveal that within days, Jaishankar’s Ministry was at work: preparing a detailed slideshow and a talking-points list to showcase Indian democracy, “the Indian way” (see adjacent story).
And in a move that raises questions of Constitutional propriety, it also sent these to the Lok Sabha Secretariat which is an independent office that functions under the advice of the Lok Sabha Speaker.
Consider the sequence of events based on official records that include emails obtained under the Right to Information Act:
- March 3, 2021: Freedom House report rates India as “partly free” and pulls down its score to 67 from 71 where it was rated as “free”. It said Indians’ political rights and civil liberties have been eroding since the government took charge 2014. It flagged “increased pressure on human rights organizations, rising intimidation of academics and journalists, and a spate of bigoted attacks” targeting minorities.
- March 11: V-Dem calls India an “electoral autocracy” citing “restrictions on multiple facets of democracy” such as civil society groups and free speech. V-Dem Institute said India registered a 23 percentage point drop on its 0-to-1 Liberal Democracy Index (LDI) scale, marking “one of the most dramatic shifts among all countries in the world over the past 10 years”.
- March 30: MEA’s Foreign Policy Planning division sends an email to a Joint Secretary in the Lok Sabha Secretariat attaching a power point presentation on “Indian Democracy”. This is copied to seven other MEA officials including Joint Secretary (EAMO – External Affairs Minister’s Office), Joint Secretary (Parliament) and Director (FS – Foreign Secretary’s Office).
- August 5: A second email from MEA to the Lok Sabha Secretariat attaches “speaking notes on – India a democracy” as a document file. Like the March 30 communication, the second email is also copied to five Joint Secretary (JS)-level officers and three Director-level officers.
In its response to the RTI request by The Indian Express, the MEA shared these emails but did not share the two attachments citing Section 8(c) of the RTI Act, which relates to breach of privilege of Parliament.
Official sources told The Indian Express that the MEA provided these inputs to the Lok Sabha Secretariat for reference by Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla apparently to brief Heads of Missions of other countries.
Significantly, the Speaker, as per the Lok Sabha website, “is looked upon as the true guardian of the traditions of parliamentary democracy,” and his weighing in on the subject, sources said, was considered by the Government.
In response to another RTI application by The Indian Express seeking information on the presentations made or proposed by the Speaker to resident Heads of Missions, the Lok Sabha Secretariat denied information citing Section 8 (1) (a) of the RTI Act, which relates to national security. Asked why the MEA had sent these notes to the Lok Sabha Secretariat given its independent status, the spokesperson declined to comment.
Separately, the MEA and the Lok Sabha Secretariat also refused further information on appeals filed with the RTI Appellate Authority and did not respond to detailed queries about the presentations on democracy, the Constitutional propriety of sending it to the Speaker’s office, and proposed briefing by the Speaker to Heads of Missions.