Over the past six years India has seen the rise of the BJP, India’s center-right party. In the 2014 elections, the BJP’s coalition won the majority of seats in the Lok Sabha (India’s lower chamber), and in 2019, it won an outright majority of seats without the support of any of its coalition partners. Over this time, we have seen a number of legislative assemblies in India fall from Congress (the BJP’s main opposition party) to the BJP. In 2014, the Congress Party held 12 Chief Ministerships, more than any other party in India. Now, it is the BJP that hold 12 Chief Ministerships. Throughout this time, we have seen a larger consolidation of northern and northeastern India into BJP hands, but the one region that has remained elusive to the BJP is south India. If the BJP were to win south India and consolidate the entire country, Indian democracy as a whole could descend down a slippery slope away from democracy.
For a long time, the southern state of Tamil Nadu has been dominated by Dravidian politics – which champions non-Brahmins and their right to equality in society. Originally, Dravidian politics was about fighting for social equality, but after Indian independence, it meant ending the perception of northern domination of politics and the economy. Attempts like making Hindi mandatory in all Indian schools galvanized Dravidian politicians and led them to take control of Tamil Nadu from the Congress Party. In the 1960s and 70s, the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) ruled Tamil Nadu. In the late 70s, however, a split emerged between two leaders of the party and the AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam or ADMK for short) was formed as a separate party led by popular film star M.G.R. Since this split, the DMK and ADMK have become the two main parties vying for power in the state. With the BJP and the Congress party constantly switching allegiances in the state. Since the late 2000s, the Congress Party has aligned itself with the DMK and the BJP has mostly aligned with the ADMK. Although both the DMK and ADMK state they are center parties.
Recently, it was reported that the BJP wanted to lead the alliance into the upcoming 2021 elections, with the BJP state leader going as far as to say that his party would win 60 seats in the Legislative Assembly, when it currently has zero. This was robustly denied by ADMK party leader and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Eddappadi K. Palaniswami, who confirmed that as usual his party would lead the alliance. In addition, since the Coronavirus pandemic began, BJP party-workers have been going out in the city of Salem and giving people Idlis, a steamed rice bun, they call “Modi Idlis” which is exactly what the ADMK does with its program of “Amma Idlis,” Amma referring to their former leader J. Jayalalitha. While these may be just two of many unimportant stories in Tamil Nadu politics, it begs a national question: what does the BJP want in Tamil Nadu?
To the BJP, Tamil Nadu is a physical representation that they do not control India completely. If the BJP were to ever win Tamil Nadu it would be a major coup, because one of the hardest states for national parties to penetrate would be unlocked. These aspirations may be the harbinger of a mission the BJP is on to bring India under its control. While this is important to political scientists and election observers in India, it is also important for others to pay attention to the politics of Tamil Nadu as it can function as a bell-weather for Indian democracy as a whole, in a way no other state can. The UPA (Congress Party Alliance) and the NDA (BJP Alliance) have for the most part written off Kerala as a communist state and have written off Telangana and Andhra Pradesh as being in turmoil since their partition. Tamil Nadu is the only viable test for Congress and the BJP in south India. This can have important consequences for Indian democracy; unified control of the entire government is just one of many ways a person or political party can begin to dismantle the institutions and norms of a democracy.
While PM Modi does not have all the characteristics of an authoritarian, there is no doubt he is a populist. The political scientist Jan-Werner Müller writes in his book, What is Populism, that populism is not just anti-elitism, but it is also anti-pluralism. Something Narendra Modi has parroted since his time as Chief Minister of Gujarat when there were large anti-Muslim riots and he failed to address the concerns of Muslims whose family members were killed. In addition to these populist tendencies, the Prime Minister also displays some anti-democratic tendencies.
PM Modi head of government has curtailed certain rights and privileges key to democracy. One of which is the suppression of freedom of the press. In India, many news outlets including TV stations and newspapers rely on government- based advertisement as a source of revenue. Newspapers have been actively targeted by the BJP government. For example, in July 2019, it was revealed that the Modi government had frozen all ad-purchases from The Times of India, the Hindu, and others. He blacklisted these news organizations to force them to tow the editorial line for the BJP government. Political Scientists like Dahl assert that a free and fair press is essential to a healthy democracy and these attempts to silence free press goes directly against democracy.
In addition, the highly controversial move to remove the state of Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy under the Indian constitution was another concerning sign of anti-democratic tendencies. In his published work Stealth Authoritarianism, Ozan Varol writes how stealth authoritarians use constitutional retrogression, particular to this case, the weakening of the authority of the legislature. When the Indian parliament abrogated Article 370 of the constitution, they effectively stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its ability to manage its own internal affairs, in addition since then, the state has been under President’s Rule meaning the central government control’s its affairs temporarily, but there is no fixed time before power returns to the state, thus the central government can run Jammu and Kashmir indefinitely, making it a de facto union territory. This was done for two main reasons: one, to intimidate Jammu and Kashmir’s Muslim-majority citizens, and two, to begin a process to resettle Hindu Indians into the region and dilute the political power Muslims hold in the state. While these two instances are some of the more high-profile warning signs, there are also smaller examples such as the stripping of 1.9M people of their citizenship, and the rebranding of some Bengalis as refugees.
These smaller examples, including the BJP’s attempt to
lead their Tamil Nadu Alliance add to the case of Indian democratic erosion. Dravidian
domination of Tamil Nadu can prove to also be beneficial to the BJP. The
entrenched voting habits of voters makes it highly unlikely that the BJP can
win the state for the foreseeable future. Preventing this dominance safeguards
Indian democracy in a way no other state can, Tamil Nadu’s unique situation allows
it to act as a barrier to BJP dominance and could potentially allow the BJP to
introspect and remove some of its authoritarian tendencies.
 Müller Jan-Werner, and Müller Jan-Werner. What Is Populism? UK: Penguin Books, 2017.
 Dahl, Robert A. 1971. Polyarchy; participation and opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press