Watch | Foreign interference in elections | Is there a basis for India’s fears?

Watch | Foreign interference in elections | Is there a basis for India’s fears?

In this episode of Worldview, we look at the history of allegations of foreign interference worldwide

As election season takes off in India, allegations by PM Modi and EAM Jaishankar of foreign interference from the West heat up the campaign – we will look at the history of such allegations worldwide, and whether theres basis for New Delhi’s present concerns.

Hello and Welcome to WorldView- as Elections get under way in India, diplomatic activity may be on the decline- but undiplomatic activity is in the spotlight- as the PM and EAM accuse global powers and western media of running interference in Indian elections

What really is of concern to New Delhi?

1. Reactions in US, Germany and even the UN, that spoke about the arrest of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, and then perhaps for the first time, spoke of the need for “free and fair elections” in India

2. The release of Human Rights reports, especially during election season by the US and EU parliament.

Pg 8 of EU Parliament Resolution on India Human Rights concerns referred to divisive speeches by leaders

In the US, Secretary of State Antony Blinken released a report this week that said there are significant human rights abuses- spoke of lynchings, Manipur violence and several other issues in India

The MEA response was tough:

“This report, as per our understanding, is deeply biased and reflects a very poor understanding of India. We attach no value to it and urge you also to do the same.”

Then, there’s the worry that embassies and diplomats are interfering in India’s internal politics- there have long been allegations by this government on Pakistan, including in Gujarat elections in the past, more recently the government accused Canadian officials based in India of interfering in India’s internal affairs, and then ordered the High Commission to downsize numbers. This was in the context of the allegations over the assassination Nijjar and of the plot against Pannun in the US, that the government’s high-level panel continues to investigate.

Finally, there is the barrage of criticism of Indian elections and democracy in the Western media that has upset the government- despite PM Modi giving interviews to foreign publications like the Financial Times and Newsweek, here’s a list compiled by former CEO of Prasar Bharati

In Ireland, India’s Ambassador came in for criticism for over-stretching his mandate with a response to the Irish Times, where he defended the current government but also criticised previous Indian governments leading to calls for his sacking from the opposition

The Indian worries over foreign interference have yet to be proven, but globally there are many such fears- especially as more than 60 countries around the world go to polls this year. according to an Oxford University Study: Industrialized Disinformation 2020 Global Inventory of Organized Social Media Manipulation, at least 81 countries’s governments attempt cyber manipulation for propaganda and disinformation. Historically it was the US and Russia that were accused of manipulating one in 9 countries’ elections during the Cold War

1. This week U.S. President Joe Biden on Wednesday signed a bill that forces Tik Tok owner Byte dance to sell the company in the next year or face being banned, as the US Congress believes it is used by China’s ruling communist party to influence elections in the US and spy on Americans, a charge the company denies.

2. In 2018, the US Senate released a report that concluded Russia’s spy agencies used Facebook ads to manipulate US voters in the election Donald Trump won in 2016. 

3. Canada just completed an investigation on foreign interference during previous elections, which its NSA said countries including Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan and even India may have tried to manipulate. Eventually, however, its report did not find conclusive evidence against India, but did against China. UK conducted a similar enquiry last year

4. This month Microsoft said in a report that Microsoft has issued a warning that Chinese state backed cyber troops will attempt to disrupt elections in the US, South Korea and India this year using artificial intelligence-generated content, and with support from North Korean groups following a trial run during the presidential election in Taiwan- however, Taiwan elected an anti-China president

.5. In India’s neighbourhood, India is often accused, especially in Bangladesh, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka of leaning in favour of one party or another, to oust anti-India leaders. While these have yet to be proven, the allegations have been made by senior regional leaders like Rajapaksa, Yameen, Khaleda Zia.

6. The European Union too has released a report on its fears over manipulation during upcoming EU parliament elections in June, called Combating foreign interference in elections

7. Of course the major allegations historically made are against the two cold war powers- US and Russia- The US for elections in South America, in what were then called Banana Republics, and Russia in Europe, including famously helping a West German leader survive a confidence vote in 1972.

What does Indian diplomacy need to do:

1. It is necessary to do researched studies rather than make allegations of a foreign hand without substantiating them with proof- this speaks to the country’s diplomatic credibility

2. In the age of AI and Deepfakes, it is important to improve India’s technology security capabilities, and techonology diplomacy to share best practices

3. Counter external influences by building consumer and cyber voter awareness – and share concerns with other democracies

WorldView Take: The best response to interference and criticism is to walk the talk on democracy, and on building democratic practices into India’s diplomatic culture as well. Since independence, India has been seen as a country that is democratic pluralistic and rule-abiding- which is why many speak of “shared values” with India. Over sensitivity to criticism, invoking an imaginary foreign hand, or expressing loyalty to a government not the State or nation are not exemplars of democratic diplomatic culture, however.

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