In the world’s largest democracy, India, a five-week election is currently underway to determine the next lower house of Parliament. In this country where 900 million people are eligible to vote, this election is seen by some as a referendum on the incumbent prime minister and his party, Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), respectively. Even with his popularity at an all time low, Modi still leads in popularity compared to other candidates.
As a part of his political campaign, Modi appears to be appealing to populist sentiments in order to maintain popularity. As Levitsky mentions, populist politicians often will “test positive” for authoritarianism criteria, and that meeting even one of the four behavioral warning criteria outlined by Levitsky could indicate potential authoritarian tendencies (22). Though Modi’s populism in itself could merit an exploration of possible authoritarian sentiment, I am instead choosing to focus on the comparison of Levitsky’s criteria to Modi’s political leadership in order to determine if Modi is exhibiting authoritarian behavior. I will be specifically examining if Modi meets the third criteria, the toleration or encouragement of violence. By exploring Modi and his government’s responses to instances of violence in India, as well as statistics of religion-based violence over the past decade, I argue that Modi does seems to meet Levitsky’s criteria for the third factor.
Modi’s political career has been marred by potential complacency of religious-based violence since the 2005 riots that occurred in Gujarat, which was a state run by Modi at the time. Though the Indian Supreme Court cleared Modi from the events of the 2005 Gujarat riots, Modi is still widely criticized for his apparent complacency with the events that occurred; the United States even banned Modi from receiving a US visa in light of Modi’s actions during and after the Gujarat riots.
Modi’s connection to religion-based violence only grows after he became prime minister in 2014. According to Hate Crime Watch, a database of hate crimes in India from 2009 to 2018 that investigates the relationships among religion, intent, and incumbent political parties, the year 2018 saw the greatest number of hate crimes derived from religious bias since 2008. Of the 81 crimes in 2018 with information on the victims’ religions, the database indicated that 60% of the victims were Muslims and 14% were Christians; in other words, 75% of the incidents were carried out upon India’s religious minorities. Furthermore, up to 90% of these religion-based crime incidents occurred after Modi became prime minister. Had Modi truly been punishing or seeking to diminish the number of religion-based hate crimes, 2018 should not have had the greatest number of these crimes. Coupled with the sentiments of Hindu nationalism and the accompanying religious intolerance that Modi seems to eschew, Modi indicates an ability to turn a blind eye to the violence that is being enacted upon the religious minorities of India, and so do the authorities under Modi’s government. One of the questions that Levitsky asks in regard to the third behavioral factor is if the political leader “tacitly endorsed violence by their supporters by refusing to unambiguously condemn it and punish it” (24). Given the rising instances of religion-motivated hate crimes and the overlooking of authorities to properly punish these acts, Modi appears to thus indicate the warning sign of toleration to violence. This complacency to the religion-based hate crimes could reflect his platform, that of Hindu nationalism. Under Modi and the BJP, India has become a more polarized state, with Modi elevating the Hindu agenda within the government. As a result, this could be thus empowering Hindu nationalists and thus resulting in more hate crimes against minority religions; Muslims would especially become a target, given the relationship between Hindus and Muslims since Indian independence.
The implications of Modi’s potential authoritarianism is great; if Modi is re-elected into office in the next few weeks, the world may witness a more divided India. This India may experience even greater violence towards religious minorities and a strengthening sense of populism and Hindu nationalism through Modi and the BJP. And if Modi indicates the first behavioral warning sign of authoritarianism, there is a possibility that he may begin to show signs of the other criteria in the future in an effort to make India a more Hindu-centric state and, as a result, threaten the democratic and secular government that has endured in India since its independence.
- Levitsky, Steven and Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. How Democracies Die. New York: Penguin Random House. Chapter 1.
Todd Heisler, New York Times. All images have been used under the Creative Commons Zero License. The original source of the photo can be found here.