There has lately been an uptick of articles in the media, particularly the Western media, warning about the impending end of India’s democracy. Concurrently, many officials in India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have engaged in illiberal rhetoric toward minorities. The government has acted in authoritarian ways toward social media, most recently attempting to intimidate Twitter in an attempt to censor voices critical of the government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis. India’s rank in democracy indexes has subsequently dropped.
For example, a recent article in Responsible Statecraft stated that the Modi government “demolished the secular foundations of Indian democracy, replacing it with a Hindu state in which non-Hindus are at best tolerated,” dangerously mixing truths with falsehoods. An uninformed reader could be forgiven for thinking that India’s democratic constitutional disposition had been abolished and replaced with a fascist dictatorship à la Hitler. While, on one hand, it is certainly true that the rhetoric and actions of the BJP would lead one to that conclusion, it is also true, on the other hand, that the Indian state, built on the basis of the 1949 constitution, has not been replaced. This would be like arguing that the former U.S. President Donald Trump’s rhetoric and incitement amounted to the replacement of the U.S. government and constitution with a racist dictatorship.
In reality, reports of the collapse of India’s democracy are often alarmist and misinformed. India’s institutions — particularly the courts — remain strong; democracy remains vibrant — especially at the local and state levels, where the BJP has been defeated multiple times and where opposition parties control many governments — and most importantly, its society remains heterogeneous, thus inhibiting a centralized tyranny. India is a far cry from being a one-party state.
It is important, however, to differentiate between democracy and liberalism.
In an interview with journalist Yascha Mounk, Raghuram Rajan, former governor of the Reserve Bank of India, noted that despite some institutional erosion in the past few years:
…there is a sense, still, that the ultimate strength of India is a free and fair election, which is partly why the BJP pulled out all the stops to try and win the [recent] West Bengal [state] election — to try and show, ‘we can do it there also, in the stronghold of Mamata Banerjee, the leader of the opposition there. We can beat her. The people love us. And they’re showing that to us.’ The BJP’s current leadership flourishes under the sense that they’re liked by everyone, under every circumstance.
Democracy in India is strong and entrenched, especially at the state level. A bigger problem is the lack of a competent political party that could challenge the BJP on the national level. The party that used to fill this role, the Indian National Congress, or simply the Congress Party, has its own set of problems. While it avoids much of the ethno-religious rhetoric of the BJP, it lost legitimacy because of its history of stifling bureaucratic policies, its role serving as a front for feudal interests, and most damaging, its own anti-democratic dynastic politics. The BJP’s emergence had much to do with its promise of development and competence rather than its core Hindu-nationalist ideology, which only appeals to a relatively narrow base. The BJP’s platform for development and good governance is why ambitious politicians have defected to it from the Congress Party. Minus Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s charisma, it is not self-evident that the BJP would have staying national power. India is sorely in need of a functional alternative to the BJP that can provide an alternative to that party at the center.
The BJP’s inability to handle the COVID-19 crisis and get much done is not just a reflection of its own capabilities, but a reflection of India’s weak state, an institutional deficiency that results in the state not being able to get much done. This phenomenon goes back thousands of years, as I have previously discussed at The Diplomat. Democracy works extremely well for India’s society, because it is the means by which different identity groups in a highly heterogeneous society can share and balance power. It prevents any individual or group from becoming too strong and imposing their will on the customs of other groups. India’s post-independence constitution and the entrenchment of federalism and ethnic-based states has merely perpetuated a system that will never look like China’s centralized, totalitarian state. India’s very diversity itself pushes back against any democratic backsliding.
However, despite India’s democratic norms and heterogeneity, India’s society is not particularly liberal, and this is reflected in the actions of its elected governments. India’s famed tolerance is more a function of different caste, religious, and ethnic groups maintaining a peaceful coexistence with each other rather than converging into a shining melting pot (outside of certain circles and big cities). Tolerance is not celebration and oneness.
Today’s cultural and social trends are not necessarily evidence of democratic backsliding, but are rather evidence of social norms in India that are illiberal toward speech, individual expression, and criticism. As the political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote, “individual freedom in India has been limited much more by things like kinship ties, caste rules, religious obligations, and customary practices. But in some sense, it was the tyranny of cousins that allowed Indians to resist the tyranny of tyrants.” India’s democratically elected rulers, from all parties and on all levels — union (central), state, and local — behave in an illiberal manner because the society from which they spring is in many ways illiberal, sociologically speaking. Parties across the ideological spectrum have resorted to censorship, libel cases, and intimidation by the police. Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of the state of West Bengal, whose party, the local All India Trinamool Congress, was recently lauded for defeating the BJP, has herself often intimidated critics. The desire of every local potentate to carve their own fief is a strong factor that prevents any party from establishing an authoritarian government at the central level.
Ultimately, many in the media and among activists want to see a version of India come into being that accords with their own preferred vision, rather than dig deeper into the complexities of India’s history and sociopolitical evolution. It is not conducive to an accurate analysis of India’s politics to view it through the dichotomous lens of democracy versus authoritarianism, and of freedom versus fascism. Political systems are in a constant state of change based on the dynamics of the actors and institutions involved, and there is no one particular endpoint. For example, the English and then British political system witnessed numerous battles for power between royal authority and the nobility, then between the king and parliament, and then between the established and working classes before becoming what it is today.
There is every reason to believe that a society as diverse as India’s will likewise witness a constant tug-of-war between various groups, political parties, regions, and institutions, and that it is unreasonable to expect India to develop a Western-style liberal democracy right off the bat, if ever. India will continue to evolve in a direction that will probably be both relatively democratic — given democracy’s enormous popularity and legitimacy in the country — but also relatively illiberal, given political and social attitudes. But India’s democracy and constitutional order will remain strong and resilient, with its ethnic heterogeneity, regionalism, and multiplicity of groups providing a cushion against the entrenchment of authoritarianism, even if this is expressed in terms of group identities rather than individual rights.