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India has become an ‘electoral autocracy.’ Its covid-19 catastrophe is no surprise.

By restricting freedom of speech and freedom of the press, the BJP government can oversee virus′s spread without fearing accountability at the ballot box

A man walks past an informative coronavirus mural in Mumbai on July 4. (Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images)

On Thursday, the White House announced that it is deploying response teams, composed of officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal agencies, to combat the “hypertransmissible” delta variant of the coronavirus spreading across the United States and the world. This variant first emerged in India, where a devastating second wave of virus infections have been accompanied by a parallel epidemic of mucormycosis, or “black fungus,” that is maiming and killing patients.

India’s humanitarian tragedy is linked to a deeper political crisis — that of democratic erosion. At independence from colonial rule, India had relatively low economic development and industrialization, widespread poverty and illiteracy, and immense ethnic diversity across linguistic, religious and caste lines. Leading political science theories argued these conditions made India infertile terrain for democracy. Yet in 1947, India instituted a democratic government and, with the exception of a short time from 1975-77, has remained one.

Up until a few weeks ago, that is. In its influential annual rankings of countries across the world, the U.S.-based democracy watchdog Freedom House downgraded India from a free democracy to a “partially free democracy.” Similarly, the Swedish-based V-Dem Institute demoted the country to an “electoral autocracy.” Both organizations cited the regime’s crackdowns on freedom of speech — and in particular, expressions of dissent — as a key factor driving India’s slide down these indexes.

How are India’s coronavirus crisis and democratic backsliding linked? Here’s what you need to know.

The decline of free speech in the world’s largest democracy

Since assuming power in 2014, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime has consistently and brutally undermined civil liberties, especially freedom of speech. This crackdown has affected journalists, editors, organizers, climate activists, Bollywood actors, cricketers, celebrities, and even ordinary citizens posting on social media.

The BJP has forced editors of prominent newspapers to step down. Police have raided or shut down the offices of media outlets that featured articles challenging the regime’s actions. Physical attacks on journalists have become commonplace. Some have been gunned down in broad daylight outside their homes, earning India a reputation as what the Columbia Journalism Review called “one of the world’s most dangerous countries to be a reporter.” Meanwhile, reporters and media organizations sympathetic to the regime have been protected and supported.

Thousands of individuals and organizations critical of the regime have had wide-ranging charges filed against them. Many awaiting trial still languish in jails across the country.

These attacks on freedom of speech harm democracies’ effective functioning. An uncensored public realm enables the open exchange of information; an unencumbered press enables popular accountability. That leaves governments insulated from evidence and accountability, making decisions in isolation.

This story first appeared on washingtonpost.com