On India’s Farmers’ Protest And Biden’s Summit

Does India belong in President Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy? Nobody should look at the Capitol riot and the Republican Party’s effort to overturn the 2020 election without asking whether the United States has enough credibility to host such a summit. I wonder how the new State Department will approach other countries in our quest to promote democratic rule. India, with its kisans camping outside of the New Delhi border for the last four months, offers the latest example of a democratically elected leader chipping away at basic freedoms. Will the State Department push India to observe the right to protest?

The protesting farmers want India’s central government to renunciate three farm reform laws. As former Chief Economist of the World Bank Kaushik Basu and Professor Nirvikar Singh explain, the laws magnify the asymmetries of power, which hurt small farmers and bloat corporate buyers with inordinate market power. For example, a clause in the farm reform laws on dispute resolution, similar to other arbitration systems, pits under-resourced parties against larger players in the market system.

Over the last few weeks, rather than sympathize with the farmers, many of whom are from the northern state of Punjab, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has lashed out at the protestors. By beating activists, arresting protestors, and cutting off electricity, water, and internet at camp sites, Modi dares Western allies to challenge his rule.

This week, Rihanna took the challenge. Nevertheless, as economist Amitabh Kundu commented in 2019 on Modi’s oppressive policies: “Do you really think that American businessmen care what is happening here?” Kundu’s sentiments still hold true.

The Biden administration has reasons to worry for democracy, at home and abroad. An effective Summit for Democracy requires that we first democratize our approach to foreign policy by championing institutions of global governance. On the domestic front, Congress should wrestle away the executive’s power to declare unlawful wars. These initiatives may not stop the decay of democracy in India, but it will boost our declining credibility.

At its heart, the Summit for Democracy should nurture international mechanisms for accountability. Market players, who see India as a partner to curb China’s influence, will pressure the Biden administration to stay 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 rights for Uighars in Xinjiang and offer silence for Muslims in India.

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