Two years after the start of Narendra Modi’s second term as Prime Minister, India is no longer the world’s largest democracy in a significant sense. To be sure, the main procedural pitfalls of an electoral democracy are still intact, and the country’s general elections are still the biggest universal suffrage exercises anywhere in the world.
Fundamentally, however, India experienced a rapid descent of democracy under the rule of Modi and the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
This descent is written roughly in a number of world ranking systems.
For example, in February 2021, The Economist Intelligence Unit demoted India from 51st to 53rd place on its 2020 Democracy Index, citing a “democratic setback” and “crackdowns” on civil liberties.
A month later, the American NGO for the defense of democracy Liberty house demoted India to “partially free democracy” status and claimed the Modi regime was leading the country towards authoritarianism.
At the same time, the V-Dem Institute report 2021 called India an “electoral autocracy” because of the way the BJP government imposes “Restrictions on multiple facets of democracy” such as civil society activism and freedom of expression.
Growing authoritarianism is only one dimension of India’s descent from democracy. Another equally worrying trend is the intensification of religious majoritarianism that has occurred under Modi’s leadership. Since 2014, when Modi first took power in India, violent attacks on the Indian Muslim community by Hindu nationalist self-defense groups intensified greatly, often with fatal consequences.
And since Modi’s re-election in 2019, the ideological diktats of Hindu nationalism began to shape the legislation in a way that threatens to make Indian Muslims second-class citizens.
How to explain this descent into the majority autocracy?
Models of political change
My chapter in Destroy democracy answers this question by unpacking models of political change in India since the early 2000s.
By this time, the Congress Party – which had led India to independence in 1947 and dominated the country’s political landscape for the next 25 years – was trying to regain lost ground. No longer a hegemonic force in Indian politics, the party, which had implemented and led the liberalization of the Indian economy since the early 1990s, needed to rebuild its image.
Leading congressional politicians decided to do so by appealing to India’s poor majority – those languishing in the belly of the country’s growing economy.
The party did relatively well in the 2004 elections. At the head of a new coalition called the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), Congress took over the reins of power from the outgoing BJP government. The UPA set to work on the basis of the Common Minimum Program, allegedly to combat inequalities and injustices in the Indian economy and society.
Importantly, it did not result in a break with the pro-market economic policies the party had been promoting for a decade and a half. Rather, Congress has attempted to reconcile a neoliberal economic policy regime with what political scientist Sanjay Ruparelia has called a “new rights agenda” for India.
This rights agenda has essentially established civil liberties and socio-economic rights as legally enforceable rights.
For example, the National Guarantee for Rural Employment, which was enacted in 2006, guaranteed 100 days of work each year to households in rural areas affected by the crisis in India. And the Forest Rights Law, also enacted in 2006, granted land rights in forest areas to marginalized indigenous communities.
In my contribution to Destroy democracy, I argue that this project can be seen as a form of “inclusive neoliberalism” that concedes some long-standing demands and demands of marginalized community movements, but without fundamentally deviating from market-driven economic growth.
This strategy worked for Congress and the UPA for some time. The coalition was re-elected in 2009, but not with an overwhelming term. However, in the early 2010s the UPA was running out of steam and the 2014 elections saw the coalition swept away by the BJP, which won. 31% of the vote and an absolute majority of 282 seats in the Indian parliament.
Uneven economic growth
Why, however, has the UPA lost popular support in such a drastic way?
While there were signs of economic stagnation, the growth performance of the 2000s was overall very impressive. The UPA has been tarnished by corruption scandals, but not to the point of costing the coalition an election. What is more significant is the fact that the economic growth that took place was both uneven and jobless. This has generated widespread frustration among poor and marginalized groups in the country.
The authoritarian populism of Modi’s BJP exploited this frustration very effectively. Posing as an adversary of the dynastic elites of the Congress Party, Modi vowed to bring development and “good days” to ordinary people in India by unleashing entrepreneurial energies. As a strong man from a modest social background, he was of course well placed to play the role of a leader in direct contact with the Indian people.
However, the authoritarian populism of Modi and the BJP is more than just anti-elitism and promises of development. It is also a particular way of building the Indian people and their Others. In short, Modi’s authoritarian populism draws a line between the “real” Indian people, defined as the country’s Hindu majority, and their anti-national enemies within – corrupt elites, dissidents and, most importantly, the Muslim minority in the country. India.
This majority dividing line reflects the ideology of the Hindu nationalist movement of which the BJP is a part and for which it serves as a parliamentary front. Founded in the 1920s, the Hindu nationalist movement seeks to unite all Hindus regardless of caste and class, and strives to make India a Hindu nation. This uniquely Indian form of ethnic nationalism is promoted through a dense network of organizations deeply rooted in Indian society.
With the Modi regime, this movement shifted from civil society to seizing the state. He is using this hold to transform the Indian political system in very significant ways, through vigilance and legislation that asserts the supremacy of the Hindu majority in the country.
Go beyond the social base
The 2019 elections turned out to be a major vote of confidence in Modi and his government, who won over 37% of the vote and 303 parliamentary seats. The 2019 general election results also reveal the one major achievement that enabled this breakthrough by the BJP and the Hindu nationalist movement at large – that they succeeded in transcending the narrow social base of Hindu nationalism, which traditionally consisted mainly of of higher castes. and middle class groups, and attract support from lower castes, Dalits and the poor.
To be sure, the BJP still derives most of its support from the upper echelons of India’s social pyramid – 61% of upper-caste Indians and 44% of the upper middle class and the wealthy voted for Modi in 2019. But the party significantly voted for Modi. increased its share of the non-elitist vote, so much so that 44% of all Hindus voted for the BJP. In other words, the Hindu vote was consolidated across caste and class lines.
Will this hegemony hold?
After all, Modi has presided over the deepening economic stagnation, with higher unemployment figures and deepening inequalities. What is more, the Mismanagement by the BJP of the Covid-19 pandemic left as many as five million Indians dead and caused generalized pauperization. However, recent polls suggest that Modi has a 70% approval rating. This is of course lower than the 82% approval rate of a year ago.
But that still says a lot about the ominous hold of authoritarian populism that has little to offer most ordinary Indians other than empty promises of prosperity and the gratification of religious majoritarianism. SM / MC
Alf Gunvald Nilsen is Professor of Sociology at the University of Pretoria. He is the author, more recently, of Adivasis and the State: Subalternity and Citizenship in the Heart of Bhil, India (2018). He is also co-editor of Indian democracy: origins, trajectories, disputes (2019).
This is the fourth in a series of 10 essays written by chapter authors of Destroy democracy, neoliberal capitalism and the rise of authoritarian policies, Volume 6 of the Democratic Marxism series recently published by Wits University Press and edited by Michelle Williams and Vishwas Satgar. The sixth volume focuses on how the global democratic project is eroded by decades of neoliberal capitalism and how authoritarian politics are gaining ground. The trials focus on four cases of countries – India, Brazil, South Africa and the United States – in which the Covid-19 pandemic fueled the pre-existing crisis. They question questions of politics, ecology, state security, media, access to information and political parties, and affirm the need to reclaim and rebuild a large and inclusive democracy.
Destroy democracy is an invaluable resource for the general public, activists, academics and students who wish to understand the threats to democracy and the rising tide of authoritarianism in countries of the South and North. He is available for free here open access.