Democracy in India: Down but Not Out
India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership has become less democratic, but that isn’t irreversible.
In democracy’s global trajectory over the last seventy-five years—from its worldwide conflict with international communism during the Cold War, to the surge of democratization from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, to the end and indeed partial reversal of its progress in the “democratic recession” of the last several years—India has played an important role. The world’s most populous democracy, it also qualifies as one of the least likely: it includes many different linguistic, social, and religious groups; and it had no real tradition of democratic governance or even national unity before its independence from Great Britain in 1947. Despite these handicaps, however, and with a twenty-one-month hiatus from June 1975 to March 1977, India has remained staunchly democratic, demonstrating both the breadth of democracy’s appeal and the strength of its institutions—until recently, when it began to drift in an undemocratic direction.
The principal credit for the country’s initially democratic course belongs to modern India’s two founders, Mohandas Gandhi (known as the Mahatma), the leader of the movement that secured independence, and Jawaharlal Nehru, for seventeen years thereafter India’s prime minister. Both were educated in Britain, where they absorbed a commitment to democratic values. The two determined that their country would become not only democratic but a “civic” democracy that honored and protected the rights of all its citizens, including the 20 percent who were not, as Gandhi and Nehru were, Hindus. The largest minority religion was then and continues to be Islam, the faith of more than two hundred million Indians today. The two founders established the principle of secularism, whereby all religions enjoyed equal legal standing.
In the last decade, however, India has joined the ranks of the democratic backsliders. Secularism in particular has eroded in practice. The architect of this regression is the country’s current prime minister, Narendra Modi. He led the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with its roots in India’s century-old Hindu nationalist movement that Gandhi and Nehru vigorously opposed during their lifetimes, to victories in the 2014 and 2019 national elections. On both occasions it won a clear majority in the Indian parliament. The BJP had previously participated in governments but had always had to do so as part of multiparty coalitions. The fact that it represented, above all, the interests of high-caste Hindus, the most influential although not numerically the largest segment of India’s population, had limited its appeal.
Modi managed to extend his party’s electoral reach by emphasizing religion rather than caste, and he did so by making clear his hostility to Islam, to its practitioners in India, and to Pakistan, the neighboring country carved out of British India in 1947, where Islam is the official state religion. His strategy involved mobilizing the country’s Hindu majority against alleged threats to it from Muslims.
The prime minister’s electoral success stemmed as well from three additional sources. His humble origins helped him to present himself as a populist, opposing, on behalf of the people as a whole, what he designated as the country’s self-serving, corrupt elite. His particular target was the Congress Party—in Nehru’s day the country’s dominant political force but now severely reduced in political strength. Modi demonstrated formidable personal political skills. He is also an energetic and often magnetic campaigner. In addition, he employed, in both his victorious elections, the most advanced digital technology to a far greater extent and to much better effect than his opponents.
In office, Modi’s government has tolerated, encouraged, and in some cases carried out anti-Muslim initiatives. It has looked the other way when groups of Hindu vigilantes have assaulted Muslim communities. It has enacted legislation harmful to the interests of Muslims, such as the law suspending the special status of India’s only Muslim-majority province, Kashmir. It has intimidated, directly and indirectly, critics of these and other policies who work in the press and the universities. It has worked to limit the legal protections Muslims enjoy from India’s courts.
In his book Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy, Christophe Jaffrelot, who holds academic positions in Paris at CERI-Sciences Po/CNS and in London at King’s College, recounts in great detail the prime minister’s political rise and the way BJP-dominated governments at both the national and provincial levels have worked to turn the civic, secular, liberal democracy that Gandhi and Nehru established into what he calls an “ethnic” democracy, in which religious minorities have a legal and political status inferior to that of the majority.
The principal rationale that Modi’s colleagues and followers give for their anti-Muslim activities are not based on facts. The claim that all or even many Indians who adhere to the Islamic faith are terrorists, for example, or the assertion that Muslims are displacing Hindus demographically, in part by the seduction of Hindu women by Muslim men in what those who propagate this allegation call a “love jihad,” are not true.
Some features of the BJP’s appeal are, however, grounded in reality. Its harsh populist attacks on the opposition Congress Party gain credibility from the fact that the Congress leadership is in practice determined by the non-democratic principle of heredity. A few years after Nehru’s death, his daughter, Indira Gandhi, succeeded him as prime minister. When she was assassinated, the office passed to her son, Rajiv Gandhi, and when he, too, died violently his Italian-born wife, Sonia, became the party’s leader. Her only qualification for the position was her marriage. Rajiv and Sonia’s son Rahul was the party’s candidate for prime minister in the most recent election, but he did not, to put it mildly, present a dynamic, compelling alternative to Mr. Modi. Moreover, although India’s Muslims do not carry out acts of terrorism against their country, the government of Pakistan does, which, unfortunately, only serves to increase anti-Muslim sentiment among India’s Hindus.
While India’s democratic slippage has been under way for the seven years that Modi has been prime minister, it is not necessarily destined to continue. The reason that this is so goes back to democracy’s basic structure. It is a hybrid form of government, combining two equally important component parts. One is popular sovereignty—free and fair elections. The other is liberty, which comes in three varieties: economic, religious, and political. The first part involves how governments are chosen, the second what governments can and, more importantly, cannot do once in power. (The distinction is a theme of my 2006 book, Democracy’s Good Name: The Rise and Risks of the World’s Most Popular Form of Government.)
The BJP used its success in elections to violate norms of liberty. An electoral defeat for the party would bring to power a different government, with every chance that the new leaders would be more committed to civic than to ethnic nationalism; and such a development is entirely possible.
Elections will continue to be held in India. They will not be suspended and cannot be successfully rigged. Indians expect, value, and participate enthusiastically in them, and while Modi’s BJP has managed to tilt the electoral playing field in its favor by raising far more money than its opponents and constraining the operations of the country’s electoral oversight body, the country is too big and its citizens too rambunctious to permit the governing party to control the outcome of national voting.
Even in its greatest triumph, in 2019, moreover, the BJP received only 37 percent of the popular vote, the rest being divided among the Congress Party and a number of regional parties. Almost two-thirds of the electorate, that is, spurned Modi. (In India, as in other countries such as Great Britain with similar electoral systems, a mere plurality of the votes can yield a majority of the seats in the legislature.) Historically, moreover, in the country’s many national, provincial, and local elections, incumbents have regularly lost power. That did not occur in 2019, but the election of that year took place under special circumstances. Shortly before the voting, India suffered a Pakistani terrorist attack in Kashmir, in which forty people died. Modi ordered a retaliatory strike on Pakistan and claimed, without convincing evidence, that the Indian strike had inflicted serious damage. He then campaigned as the stalwart defender of the nation. The tendency of the public to rally around the leader of the moment in such circumstances, in evidence in many countries throughout history, surely added to his vote total.
Under normal circumstances, Indian incumbents have often lost power because they have not fulfilled their campaign promises. Modi has not fulfilled his: the acceleration of economic growth and the alleviation of economic inequality that he promised in 2014 have not materialized. Nor did his government perform well in coping with the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. In the elections during that year to choose the governments of several major provinces he campaigned vigorously but achieved disappointing results, suggesting that his formula for political success might be losing its potency.
The course of Indian politics, like the course of politics in every country, is unpredictable. It is impossible to know the outcome of the next national election, scheduled for 2024; but it is not at all impossible for the BJP to lose it. Elections have consequences, and one consequence of such an outcome could well be the end of the policies that Narendra Modi and his party have carried out since 2014 and a return to the older and more fully democratic political tradition of the India of Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.
Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor Emeritus of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a member of the editorial board of American Purpose. His new history of American foreign policy from 1765 to 2015, The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy: Weak Power, Great Power, Superpower, Hyperpower, will be published in June 2022.
Modi image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38865695
Nehru image: AFP, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37641536
Gandhi image:, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76882768
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