A pivotal moment for two key democracies

Fazal Masood Malik and Farhan Khokhar, UK

The 2024 European Parliament elections (Thursday, 6 June – Sunday, 9 June 2024) and the Indian general election (Friday, 19 April – Saturday, 1 June 2024) represent pivotal moments that have the potential to shape the trajectories of two of the world’s largest democracies on critical issues of freedom of speech, religion, human rights, and the treatment of refugees and immigrants. These elections come at a time of rising geopolitical tensions and economic uncertainty.

In Europe, the expected gains by far-right populist parties hostile to immigration and EU integration pose a serious threat to minority rights, democratic norms and the rule of law. A potential far-right majority in the next European Parliament could undermine the EU’s ability to sanction member states like Hungary, where civil liberties are eroding. Progressive forces will need to articulate a compelling vision of pluralism and shared prosperity to stem the nationalist tide and defend an open, tolerant Europe.

The rise of far-right nationalism is likely to further jeopardise the rights and status of the EU’s 26 million refugees and immigrants. Parties like France’s National Rally and Italy’s Brothers of Italy have campaigned on rolling back asylum protections and imposing draconian anti-immigrant laws. A populist right coalition in the European Parliament would seek to push the European Commission to allow member states more discretion to limit refugee intake and asylum obligations. 

Interestingly, the donor nations of the EU, such as Germany and France, were never under Ottoman rule, suggesting their animosity towards Muslims is rooted more in nationalism than religion. While European nationalism surges, religious values are on the wane. The EU’s founding economic principles were based on the belief that economic interdependence prevents war. However, as Western powers’ appetite for promoting social reforms in weaker member states diminishes, intolerance and extremism are likely to rise among fiercely nationalistic nations, as exemplified by Marine Le Pen in France and the AfD in Germany.

Meanwhile, although the BJP is expected to win re-election in India, the opposition has made the government’s record on civil liberties and the treatment of minorities a major campaign issue. Critics accuse the Modi government of enabling discrimination and attacks against Muslims and other minorities, suppressing dissent, and eroding institutional checks and balances – charges the BJP denies. While the BJP’s Hindu nationalist rhetoric plays well with its base, its policies have raised concerns about the status of India’s 200 million Muslims and other minorities. 

However, the BJP and Congress are not cut from the same cloth. Congress champions a secular nationalism, while the BJP’s brand is deeply intertwined with religious affiliation. Since assuming power, the BJP has skillfully conflated nationalism with Hinduism, suggesting that true patriots must be Hindu. (“The BJP in Power: Indian Democracy and Religious Nationalism”, carnegieendowment.org)

But despite heated campaign rhetoric, the actual differences between the BJP and Congress on minority rights may be more modest than suggested. India’s next government will have to manage majority-minority relations carefully as it confronts economic challenges. As the Holy Quran reminds us, “O mankind, We have created you from a male and a female; and We have made you into tribes and sub-tribes that you may recognise one another.” (Surah al-Hujurat, Ch.49: V.14) In an interconnected world, retreating into narrow nationalism is not a viable path forward.

Ultimately, both elections reflect the fragility of pluralism and minority rights amid the global democratic recession. The EU faces a fundamental conflict between its liberal democratic values and the illiberal, nativist forces ascendant in many member states. Majoritarian politics is testing India’s syncretic traditions. 

How the EU and India balance these competing pressures and whether they can chart a course of inclusion, openness and respect for diversity will have profound implications for the future of democracy in a world increasingly defined by identity-based polarisation. As the Holy Quran states, “Surely, Allah changes not the condition of a people until they change that which is in their hearts. And when Allah wishes to punish a people, there is no repelling it, nor have they any helper beside Him.” (Surah ar-Ra‘d, Ch.13: V.12)

The 2024 elections will test whether the two largest democracies on the planet, Europe and India, can protect the basic rights and freedoms of all their citizens, including refugees and immigrants, and resist the siren song of xenophobic populism. The crucial difference lies in the role of religion: while European nationalism is largely secular, the BJP has skillfully fused Indian national identity with Hinduism. Progressive forces in both polities must articulate a compelling vision of shared prosperity, pluralism, and international cooperation to stem the nationalist tide. The future of democracy hangs in the balance.

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