The rise of populist leaders in the United States and Europe has reshaped the political scene all around the world. From seeking political hegemony and challenging elites, populists derive their legitimacy from the “will of the people” in this personalist leadership. Unlike their Western counterparts, democracy in Asian countries is more susceptible to threats from populism than it is in western countries, where strong democratic institutions and norms keep the population in check. Even in India, where democratic roots are stronger than other countries in Southeast Asia, there have been gradual signs of sharp democratic decline with the election of Prime Minister in Narendra Modi in 2014. Modi won his office with a campaign that targeted the traditional elites for mishandling the economy in the early 2000s and portrayed himself as the “sole leader” who can fix India. Modi is now slowly creating extreme populist sentiment and causing India’s democratic erosion through a multitude of changes such as undermining constitutional rights of the people through demonetization, personalizing politics in government, and undermining independent agencies such as the strangulation of Greenpeace India.
In November 2016, Modi tweeted “To strengthen our democracy it is important for people to know about the aspects of our constitution.” Yet in the same month, Modi announced demonetization. Holders would have to deposit all 1,000 rupees and 500 rupees into the bank by the end of the year. This action questions if Modi truly practices constitutional morality as under the constitution the Prime Minister and his counsel are, “collectively responsible to the house of the people.” Modi chose to announce demonetization through the electronic media and then announced the policy in public rallies which shows disregard for the house of the people. This choice not only damaged the credibility of India’s central bank but also resurrected fears that the Bharatiya Janata Party is taking advice from heavy-handed bureaucrats. Demonetization has deprived fundamental and constitutional rights of India’s people by forcing every Indian, not just black markets and counterfeiters, to stand in line and deposit money with any prior warning or asking for input from the people. Citizens are temporarily deprived of their property by a single policy, which goes against the constitution that property can only be taken away under the authority of law.
Supporters of Modi’s government justify his new policy of demonetization as a quick way to jumpstart the slow banking sector with cheap funds. There may be some benefits such as a decrease in shadow economy, reduce the risk of counterfeit money, and expand the tax base by making economic transactions electronic. However, it’s important to question whether the end justifies the means. one needs to consider that Modi implemented and announced this policy to the public without consulting experts prior.
Modi personalizes politics as he concentrates political influence and favoritism in the hands of his preferred group, the Hindus. He is renowned for pursuing Hindu nationalist policies which cause the BJP to make policies that only represent Hinduism as the primary Indian national identity. This is a problem because this leads to the ostracizing Muslims and other religious minorities and ultimately leads to polarization in the country. All of major political and governmental decisions are made by a small group of Modi’s most trusted advisors and officials, and due to this, the parliament and the cabinet are slowing becoming a mere formality. This problem was exemplified by the demonetization as mentioned earlier in which Modi took this decision after only consulting his finance minister and a few other closer officials. Modi, under the BJP, goes against the idea of “unity in diversity” which has been one of the core beliefs of Independent India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and many other democratic countries.
Modi’s latest move is the war on Greenpeace India. Modi’s government began cracking down on foreign-funded charities, and in April 2015, the government suspended the Greenpeace India’s registration under the premise that it was underreporting foreign contributions and using the money without government clearance. Not only did they shut down the charities through alleged allegations, but the government also targeted groups and individuals and cast them out as foreign enemies. Undermining human rights and environmental Non-Governmental Organizations are often big signs that point to the democratic decline of a country.
What can one say about the rise of this populist governmental rule under Modi? These changes under Modi’s government are a slippery slope that points to alarming amounts of democratic erosion in India. India has moved away from constitutional democracy to populist democracy. It is possible if Modi’s populist sentiment goes continuously unchecked, this newly born democracy under Prime Minister Modi may change to a form of dictatorship.
However, another problem arises as India’s democracy erodes. Rather, the possibility of the Modi government shifting India into dictatorship country is not the main worry. Many Asian countries are engaged in a regional arms race and opening up a fault line of conflict such as democratic decline amidst all this could lead to dire consequences. India and China were on the brink of war last year over the tri-junction border shared by China, India and Bhutan referred to as Doklam in India and Donglang in China. Other conflicts areas include the multiple flashpoints in Northeast Asia, tensions over the South China Sea, and especially North Korea. This risk of minor conflicts could possibly be magnified into something more dangerous than just democratic de consolidation. With China’s president Xi and India’s Prime Minister Modi — both populist leaders with strong personalities that coincide with their extremist tendencies – working to consolidate power in their respective countries, could slip into a dispute and ultimately lead to war.
Muller, Jan-Werner. 2016. What is Populism? Philadelphia: UPenn Press
Photo by Wolfgang Rattay, “India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is seen at the G20 summit in Hamburg”, Germany July 7, 2017. REUTERS license