Democracy in India is certainly at risk, if not already subverted, a demise that has been turbocharged under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. That such a state of affairs is unfolding in India is particularly unfortunate given the country’s unique position in the world. As Martin Luther King Jr. noted in July 1959, “Today India is a tremendous force for peace and non-violence, at home and abroad…We should want to help India preserve her soul and thus help to save our own.”
Following her independence, India had the potential to be a paragon of democracy, diversity, and inclusiveness for the rest of the world. But given her disappointing history ever since, one might be forgiven for calling India the most disappointing experiment of the modern era. The important question is: why did democracy erode in India? And what can we learn from it? Besides the cult of communalism that has precipitated the erosion of democracy, I think there are structural factors in India that ought to serve as a warning.
In terms of income, India is one of the most unequal countries in the world. As Oxfam finds, the top 10% of the population own 77% of the total national wealth, a statistic which shows no signs of abatement. In fact, in 2017, the top 1% received 73% of the generated wealth. Moreover, unlike countries like China, one cannot make the argument that everyone has received a larger piece of the pie. Veteran journalist Palagummi Sainath writes that the wealth of the bottom 10% of the population has become negative due to indebtedness, indicating a direct upward redistribution.
Unsurprisingly, India has one of the most opaque systems of campaign finance, which was further loosened by Modi in 2017, when he passed a law allowing essentially anonymous contributions to political parties through ‘electoral bonds.’ For a country whose income per capita is nearly one-sixtieth of the United States, the 2019 election in India’s expenditure was greater than the 2016 American presidential and congressional races, underscoring the grip extreme wealth has on the country’s political system.
In 1959, sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset observed that high levels of inequality doesn’t portend well for democracy, because among other reasons, it only accentuates the appeal of authoritarian demagogues, a prediction that has certainly come true for India .
In 2020, out of 180 countries ranked in press freedoms, India stood at 142, according to a report by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). While the media’s operations after Modi’s election in 2014, as articulated by one observer, amounted to “licking the floor” in subservience, the Indian media had significant problems even before 2014. As Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze write in An Uncertain Glory, the Indian media even before Modi “comprehensively left behind” issues concerning the welfare and survival of the majority of the population .
Although unfortunate, this fact ought not to be surprising, because the ownership of the Indian media is highly concentrated, and mostly controlled either by the very wealthy, or directly by politicians. Since the rich have only gotten richer under Modi, there understandably exists no incentive to deviate from any kind of sycophancy. The importance of a common “epistemic foundation” for any democracy has been well understood by several scholars, which has been severely undermined in India. The population has little access to information about the policies which most affect their lives.
The “effectiveness” of a political order was defined by Lipset as the “actual performance of a political system”  and its efficacy in meeting the hopes and expectations of its subjects. In this regard, India has been a dismal failure, a trend which has only accelerated under the present Prime Minister. The country continues to lag behind on key metrics of human welfare, such as poverty, employment, health and education.
For example, Sen and Dreze find that India has one of the worst performances in elementary metrics of education – such as literacy – among South Asian countries, and is virtually incomparable to countries in Southeast Asia that were once its peers. Similarly, on the topic of health, they find that India has one of the worst rates of immunization in the world, woefully low public expenditure, and one of the lowest life expectancies in South Asia. One can easily go on about poverty and unemployment.
Little surprise that Sen and Dreze describe India as “islands of California in a sea of sub-Saharan Africa.”
As Arlie Russel Hochschild points out in Strangers in Their Own Land , crude statistical indicators can never properly capture the anguish of ordinary citizens. Perhaps more significant than the facts I’ve laid out so far, studies suggest that the Indian population has entirely lost hope in the political process. While not a structural or institutional factor per se, it is perhaps the most important one.
For example, a 2019 study found that actually policies are mostly irrelevant in Indian elections. When important political processes such as elections are reduced to matters of entertainment and feeling, a vibrant democracy is virtually impossible. India is also ranked as the most depressed country in the world.
This combination – lurid inequality, a largely concentrated and subservient media apparatus, little effectiveness, and a despair among the population – are significant threats to the sustenance of democracy, if not symptoms of its death. Some of these, such as effectiveness, are harder to measure than others, like inequality. However, we can follow the lead of Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, who implicitly operationalised effectiveness by asking whether the average American citizen can affect the formulation of policy, the sine qua non of any form of democracy.
Regardless of the precise measures we use and statistical methods we apply, perhaps it’s best to conclude by reminding ourselves of the end of the film The Great Dictator, where on saying that he will not be able to speak, Charlie Chaplin’s character is told: “You must, it is our only hope.”
- Lipset, Martin Seymour. Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy. American Political Science Review. Vol. 53, No. 1, March 1959
- Dréze, Jean, and Amartya Sen. An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2013.
- See note 1, p.86
- Hochschild, Arlie Russell, and Arlie Russell Hochschild. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning On the American Right. New York: The New Press, 2016.