US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s two-day visit to India has come at a particularly stressful time for New Delhi.
Even as the country recovers from a devastating second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, there are already fears of an oncoming third wave. Floods and landslides have left more than 150 people dead and at least 100 missing in India’s west. The farmers’ protests against sweeping reforms legislated last year have regained momentum after a period of lull that coincided with the second wave. And if these challenges aren’t daunting enough, a 150-year-old boundary dispute between two states in India’s north-east has led to the deaths of six policemen and one civilian.
While dealing with these ground realities, the Indian government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is also having to contend with allegations made by opposition parties of corruption and overreach on various issues, during Parliament’s current – and rather chaotic – monsoon session. The cacophony has been so consuming that four potentially contentious population control bills scheduled for proposal days ago have, at least for now, slipped out of the national conversation.
In their very essence, some of these bills – if passed – could threaten to undermine the spirit of India’s constitution. One bill seeks to set up a national population planning authority and a committee in each district to “encourage and promote family planning”, whatever that entails. Another one mentions the need to “revitalise efforts towards promoting the small family norms of up to two children per eligible couple”. Even if one were to ignore the fact that 168 out of the 540 MPs have more than two children, the language around the original framing of these prospective bills signals an appetite for coercion as a means to control population growth.
But it isn’t just Parliament that could be discussing these bills in the near term. A few states have sought to jump the population control bandwagon. The Uttar Pradesh state legislature is currently discussing what could be the most coercive bill yet. India’s most populous state – of about 220 million – has proposed denying government jobs, promotions, subsidies and the right to contest local elections to anyone who has more than two children. Other states, including Gujarat and Karnataka, are mulling similar proposals.
Populist attempts to control population growth are not new, of course. Since 1990, at least 12 states have tried some version of the two-child policy and failed. But that hasn’t dissuaded politicians from persisting with what several experts believe is the wrong way to go about fixing a problem that is already on its way to being solved. Indeed, India’s population growth has been slowing over the past four decades, with fertility rates having come down across the country. Uttar Pradesh’s own fertility rate nearly halved from 4.8 in 1993 to 2.7 in 2016. The same government pushing the bill expects it to reduce even further, to 2.1 by 2025.
Experts have warned about a number of long-term psychological, sociological and economic downsides to enacting such laws in a coercive manner. Many such as Poonam Muttreja, the executive director of the Population Foundation of India, have pointed to how they could deny women agency and possibly even increase sex-selective abortions – especially as many parents continue to have a preference for sons.
Opposition parties allege that the BJP-led government in Uttar Pradesh is using this bill as a dog whistle ahead of next year’s crucial election. There has long been a perception in India that Muslims, comprising less than 15 per cent of the country's total population, are determined to increase their numbers – even though there are no statistics to back this assertion.
Whether the dog-whistle theory is true or not, the bill does help to create the impression that this Uttar Pradesh government, elected with a record majority in the 2017 election, is doing whatever it takes for the state's development – particularly as it tries to mitigate public perception that its pandemic response has been inadequate.
What is ironic about these attempts to legislate population control – at a time when other solutions, such as education, economic development and social mobility, are already working – is that Indian politicians seem to be inspired by China’s now-defunct one-child policy. If true, this would be surprising.
For one, with that country’s population ageing, and given the aforementioned effects of such a policy on society, Beijing chose to reverse it in 2015 after 36 years. Secondly, Indian perceptions about China, which have ranged from awe to suspicion to derision to envy depending on the times, are at an all-time low right now. According to the 2020 Mood of the Nation poll conducted by the India Today media group, up to 84 per cent of Indians said they could not trust China; this figure is, no doubt, an outcome of last year’s fatal clashes at the border. Why then, it is fair to ask, would Indian politicians want to be seen copying China?
Mr Blinken, currently in India to co-ordinate strategies in Afghanistan and the Indo-Pacific, may appreciate all the ongoing noise in New Delhi as being typical of India’s robust domestic politics; it may even remind him of politics back home. America’s top diplomat has often stressed the need for countries that share certain values with the US to band together to confront such challenges as Covid-19, climate change and, yes, a rising China. The subtext for “shared values” is, of course, the system of government prevalent in these countries: the US and India are both democratic republics.
The secretary of state’s past remarks haven’t just arisen from personal conviction. The Biden administration, it seems, wants to frame America’s competition with China as an ideological battle between two systems of government and, by extension, two ways of life. And as much as US-India relations are about aligning strategic, military and economic interests, both countries have sought to further this “democracy rules” narrative.
But Indian politicians' interest in failed policies, the hurried passage of the agriculture bills without adequate consultation with farmers’ groups, and the tendency for governments at various levels to shut down dissenting voices are all problematic for the country's image and for the narrative it is trying to create.
In his remarks yesterday, Mr Blinken acknowledged some of these challenges. At a roundtable with civil society, he said both Indian and American democracies were "works in progress" and that successful democracies include "thriving civil societies". He added that a vibrant civil society is needed to make democracies more open, inclusive, resilient and equitable. India should pay heed.