Home to over 1.3 billion people, India’s ability to maintain democratic governance despite long-lasting issues of economic, social and ethnic inequality, is impressive. However, since Narendra Modi’s election as prime minister in 2014, the world has watched Modi’s government blatantly disregard its responsibilities towards a portion of the country’s people: Muslims. “Intolerant India”, an article from the issue of The Economist released on January 25th 2020, explains how Narendra Modi’s new citizenship law blatantly excludes a significant portion of the nation’s Muslims from citizenship. The article correctly identifies how Modi’s actions are likely as a result of his desire to consolidate his predominantly Hindu voter base for future elections but in doing so, is wreaking havoc across the nation on social, political and judicial levels. Intolerant India gives Modi’s India as a prime example of democratic erosion and the abuse of state power. This response to the article attempts to explain key ways in which Modi and his party’s policies constitute an assault on Indian democracy.
Modi and his political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, rose to power in 2014 on a foundation of division. Modi’s Hindu nationalist rhetoric and the BJP’s pro-Hindu policies were able to unite the majority Hindu population of India, keeping Modi in power for two terms thus far. However, Modi was able to win the 2014 election not by creating new ethno-religious tensions, but by capitalizing on preexisting paranoia among Hindu nationalists. The decades-long India-Pakistan conflict has created a widespread belief among many Hindus, that Indian Muslims are all fifth-columnists, rooting for Pakistan and that they are a threat to the continued existence of Hinduism and the values of a Hindu India. Richard Hofstadter’s essay The Paranoid Style in American Politics explains a very similar situation in the USA. Hofstadter writes about a number of issues that some citizens aligned with the political right see as threats to American values and ideals, such as religions other than christianity, a dwindling regard for tradition and the tolerance of immigrants. The campaign that placed Modi in office preyed on similar insecurities of the Indian population. Hofstadter’s essay describes how many American voters believe that these “threats” are so large that compromise is no longer possible. Along comes uncompromising Modi with the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA); a borderline explicit, government-sanctioned message to India and the world saying “Someone is finally fixing the problem”. The issue with this, is that a majority of the Muslims affected by this new act are legitimate citizens of India but simply do not have the papers to prove it due to infrastructural shortcomings and a lack of time to spend days in line at government offices, sacrificing the hourly wages that are the only means of preventing their families from going hungry. The BJP’s use of power to further a racist agenda is a clear lack of a trait that has been characterized by Ziblatt and Levitsky as one of two prerequisites for democratic governance: institutional forbearance. In their book, How Democracies Die, they explain that a resilient democracy is only possible when a government consciously avoids abuse of power for party gain. The Indian government’s failure to care for its citizens has now devolved to outright and unjust ostracisation. Even worse, this blatant discrimination is being exercised through legislation, something that is supposed to prevent injustice. Unfortunately, structural discrimination is only the tip of the iceberg for Modi’s campaign against Muslims.
The February 2020 North East Delhi riots began after the escalation of protests against the CAA, leaving over forty dead and hundreds injured. Modi sat idly when members of his government made racist statements in the media, displaying his disregard for democratic norms long before the violence erupted. Modi Rewrites the Populist Playbook by Charu Sudan Kasturi describes how Modi uses policies like social welfare as means of reeling in impoverished voters while also uniting them under an umbrella of Hindu nationalism through more subtle means. For example, the article explains how Modi and the BJP use silence against injustice as a tool to encourage aggression by their nationalist supporters. When an alleged member of the mob of Hindu extremists that lynched a Muslim man died months after the incident, a member of the BJP attended his funeral. When the deadly anti-Muslim riots broke out in February, Modi waited three days to issue a statement. In Paul Howe’s paper, Eroding Norms and Democratic Deconsolidation, Howe explains that the tolerance of violence is a hallmark of democratic deconsolidation. Encouraging violence defies the very purpose of a government, that is, to maintain peace and civility within society. Furthermore, Howe argues that disregard for the rule of law, too, erodes democratic norms. Since explicit incitement of violence against Muslim Indians has not yet become a characteristic of Modi’s rule, his apathy with regard to instances of violence against them is most reasonably interpreted as silent approval.
As stated in Intolerant India, Modi’s government aims to continue this cycle of ramping up ethnic tensions to strengthen Hindu nationalist sentiment and then tamping them down before things get too out of hand. The Economist’s article hits the nail on the head with its analysis of Modi’s use of racism, violence and a lack of institutional intolerance to consolidate power. The article is also correct to assume that although it may be in Modi’s best interests to avoid the nation descending into chaos, that he and his party will “have no such compunction”. Modi will continue to rule, as do Suu Kyi, Duterte and Erdogan. Unfortunately, it seems that it will take much more than stern looks of disapproval from the international community to put an end to Modi’s regime.