India is considered by most to be the world’s largest democracy with a voting population of about 900 million people; however, since the election of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister in 2014, there have been signs of democratic erosion in India. This pattern has only escalated in recent months after Modi’s reelection in May 2019.
Since taking office, Modi, a Hindu-nationalist, has worked to weaken India’s democracy. Before his reelection, Modi was exhibiting some anti-democratic “red flags.” For example, in 2018, several justices on India’s Supreme Court accused the Chief Justice of perverting the judiciary in order to secure decisions that favored Modi’s government. The judges said they felt compelled to speak up after the death of a lower court judge a year earlier, who had been about to rule on a corruption case of one of Modi’s fellow party members (who ended up getting off without a trial). Also, there have been questions surrounding the Electoral Commission’s (EC) impartiality after 2017, when the EC seems to have kept election dates secret until last minute, then disqualified 20 members of a competing party from seeking election (this decision was later overturned).
Since his reelection, however, Modi’s anti-democratic initiatives have only escalated, especially policies targeting Muslims. In How Democracies Die, Levitsky and Ziblatt outline several strategies often used by authoritarian executives to weaken a democracy, such as denying the legitimacy of their opponents, tolerating or encouraging violence and showing a willingness to curtail civil liberties of their opponents. Each of these strategies have been deployed by Modi.
A top Indian general recently made comments suggesting that that Kashmiris, who are mostly Muslims, could be rounded up into “deradicalization camps.” This comes after India revoked statehood for the part of Kashmir it controls and instituted a near blackout of communications in and out. Nearly six months later, the internet is still largely down and a strict curfew has been enacted. There have been reports of mass detainments, especially among the ruling class, which have been arrested almost in its entirety. There have been increased reports of institutionalized police violence, including reports of torture of both Muslims and other protestors. This is a perfect example of how Modi is denying the legitimacy of his opponents and eliminating competition. Furthermore, he is curtailing the civil liberties of Kashmiris and limiting the ability of the press to report on what is happening in Kashmir.
As Lust and Waldner argue, India’s ethnic polarization helped to lead to its democratic instability. Modi has worked to exploit these divisions among Muslims and Hindus, especially, which have further divided India, while also helping him to remain popular among his Hindu base. This can also be seen with the Citizenship Amendment Bill.
In December, the Indian parliament passed a bill, which would establish a religious test for migrants who wish to become citizens, which many of India’s 200 million Muslims say is meant to target them and make them stateless, as the Citizenship Amendment Bill creates a clear pathway to citizenship for all religious minorities, except Muslims. A similar initiative in the Indian state of Assam, in which all residents had to prove (with documents) that they or their ancestors were Indian citizens-nearly two million (out of 33 million) residents, mostly Muslim, were left off the citizenship rolls.
Seeing how Modi’s party controls ⅔ of the legislature, the bill will likely become law, even though there has been mass protest against it. Furthermore, the bill is extremely popular among Modi’s base of Hindu-nationalists. Lastly, though many opponents of the bill point to India’s constitution for protection, Modi’s allies also argue that the bill is constitutional. They say that since they are not discriminating on the basis of religion against citizens, the bill is within the bounds of the constitution, showing how a constitution is not enough to stop democratic erosion as it can be interpreted in many different ways.
Levitsky, Steven & Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. How Democracies Die. New York: Crown. Chapter 1.
Lust, Ellen & Waldner, David. 2015. Unwelcome Change: Understanding, Evaluating, and Extending Theories of Democratic Backsliding. Washington, DC: USAID. pp. 1-15.