With a voting population of 900 million people, India is the world’s largest democracy. But since the election of Narendra Modi in 2014, critics are increasingly voicing concerns that India’s democracy is in danger. Modi guaranteed “Minimum Government, Maximum Governance” – a plan to eradicate corruption, strengthen institutions and set the country on a path of extreme economic growth. However, during Modi’s tenure as Prime Minister, democratic institutions are increasingly being weakened by pressure from a government that has swelled and become more intrusive than ever. As India prepares for its national election beginning next month, in which Modi is seeking a second term, the future of India’s democracy lies in the outcome.
Narendra Modi and his Hindu-nationalistic Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rose to power in a landslide victory in 2014. Modi promised “good-times” and development for all, however, after more than four years in power, these assertions have more resembled a populist appeal than serious policy strategy and action. His economic policies have produced marginal, if any, benefits and the promise of prosperity and growth has instead led to chaos and instability in the market. Specifically, Modi’s surprise demonetization plan (notebandi)in November 2016 called for the banning of 500 and 1,000 rupee notes – 86.4% of the money in circulation – in order to transform the cash-based economy and rid the market of “black money,” corruption, and terror funding. The policy was backed and supported heavily by the Reserve Bank of India. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley argued that the plan would encourage financialization of savings and would in turn accelerate capital and spur economic growth. However, household savings decreased and the sectors that relied heavily on cash, namely small business, has yet to recover. Economic policy failures abound, unemployment has risen, economic growth has slowed, and Indians have lost faith in the RBI, viewing it as a mere puppet of the BJP government.
Broken promises of economic development are far from India’s only problems resulting from Modi. Under the majority rule of Modi and BJP, democratic institutions and norms are being undermined. In How Democracies Die, Levitsky and Ziblatt outline three common strategies utilized by autocratic leaders to subvert democracy: taking control on the judiciary, marginalizing political opponents and civil society, and changing electoral rules to their unfair advantage. Modi’s government has illustrated all three. First, consider India’s Supreme Court. Cases there are decided by two or more judges assigned by the chief justice. In January 2018, four of the Court’s most senior judges held an unprecedented press conference implicitly accusing Chief Justice Dipak Misra of manipulating the judiciary and assigning cases “with no rationale” to preferred judges in an effort to secure decisions that favored the government.
The government has also interfered with India’s military. Breaking from the tradition of the senior general ascending to the job, Modi appointed General Bipin Rawat as Chief of Army Staff and bypassed two higher-ranking generals. Further, the BJP majority in Parliament has blocked multiple motions by opposition parties. And in 2018, BJP passed the Budget of India without granting the opposition parties the traditional and necessary discussion of the proposed budget.
Worse still, the Electoral Commission (EC) has lost its critical impartiality. In 2017, the BJP then-appointed chief, Achal Kumar Jyoti, altered the dates of two state’s elections and then delayed the announcement of the change, allegedly to help BJP attract more voters. And in January 2018, the EC attempted to expel twenty members of an opposition party in the Delhi Legislature, an action that would have directly benefitted BJP. Ultimately the Delhi High Court struck down the decision, but the damage had already been done; Indians viewed the previously strong and neutral institution as weak and acquiescent to BJP pressure.
Finally, India’s civil society has been under constant attack. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are two necessary conditions for a strong democracy. Article 19 of India’s Constitution guarantees those rights, but the language used is ambiguous and overly broad which creates an opportunity for abuse and manipulation. Since Modi took power, the number of sedition cases, internet shutdowns, banning of print and television media, and attacks on journalists have increased significantly. Freedom House has tracked the progressive decline of freedom of the press in India under Modi.
Modi’s BJP is a right-wing party, featuring Hindu nationalism as the foundation of its ideology. The rhetoric propagated by leaders in BJP is dangerous and has real world consequences. BJP president Amit Shah called Muslim migrants from Bangladesh termites that were eating away at India. In January of this year, the BJP controlled lower house of Parliament passed legislation that provided citizenship to illegal, non-Muslim migrants. The bill makes it abundantly clear that Muslims are not welcome. The government is attempting to restrict citizenship based on religion. Both are in direct violation of India’s promise of pluralism encoded in its Constitution. The bill will no doubt be used by BJP to incite further religious polarization in an effort to motivate their nationalistic base in the upcoming election.
As a result of the government legitimizing hate and exclusion, there has been a dramatic rise in violence against Muslims. Critics have complained that Modi has not done nearly enough to protect minorities, specifically Muslims, from the vigilante attacks and upsurge in hate crimes. But why would he? Modi was Gujarat’s Chief Minister during the violent Godhra riots in Gujarat in 2002 in which more than 1,000 people were killed. Violence erupted after a group of Hindu pilgrims died when the train they were on was set on fire. Modi has been credibly accused of encouraging and allowing the retaliatory violence to occur. It should therefore be no surprise that he was done little to quell the violence being inflicted upon minorities.
Despite his ineffective policies and provocative, divisive rhetoric, Modi has enjoyed popular public support. Modi and the BJP are currently the favorites to win in the upcoming election and the likelihood of Modi’s reelection should be cause for serious concern. Since 2014 life in India has become more restrictive and more dangerous. The country’s institutions, while systematically weakened by the government’s influence, have not completely fallen, yet. But five more years of Modi could cause further, more lasting damage to the world’s largest democracy. Unfortunately, because his tactics are not as brazenly obvious as other autocratic strongmen leaders, the threat Modi poses to democracy has not yet garnered enough attention. As Levitsky and Ziblatt note, regime changes are less likely to occur through coup d’état. Instead, backsliding has taken a more insidious form: democratically elected leaders subvert democracy from the inside, making incremental changes that are hard to spot as threats until it is too late. Opposition parties face an uphill battle in the up-coming election, but a forceful and definite repudiation of Modi and BJP is crucial to prevent further erosion.
Photo by Financial Express, https://www.financialexpress.com/india-news/tripura-election-2018-pm-narendra-modi-appeals-all-to-turn-up-to-vote/1070188/