For the past 15 years, democracy has been on the decline around the world. The Covid-19 pandemic only exacerbated existing issues as authoritarian leaders used the economic and physical insecurity of the past two years to further their own agendas. India was not spared the heavy blows from the pandemic; in fact, according to International IDEA, India has the most democratic violations among democracies considered to be “backsliding.” India’s status as given by Freedom House dropped four points—71 to 67—and went from “Free” to “Partly Free” just in the past year. Why did this happen? And what does it mean for the future of the world’s largest democracy?
The landslide election of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014 marks the beginning of the modern democratic decline in India. There was a previous instance of democratic erosion in 1975 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi instated a twenty-one-month long state of emergency, but that was more an unwarranted action on her part than a reaction to threats against national security. Having the BJP as the ruling party as well as the election of Narenda Modi to Prime Minister started a snowball effect with the previously fringe group of Hindu nationalists, turning them into the major voice in the country.
The state of India’s democracy is definitely a topic of high concern and needs to be monitored, but the following analysis of the signs of erosion is not meant to signal an approaching autocratic regime by any means. Even though it is currently under threat, India’s commitment to pluralism is still likely to hold in place, ensuring that democracy will not die any time soon. There is a clear path to beating back the recent violent wave of Hindu nationalism. In order for the country to move past this governmental promotion of Hindutva, a functional alternative to the BJP will need to arise; one that promises development and competent governance without the ethno-religious ideological core.
Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt discuss the guardrails of democracy in their book, How Democracies Die, stating that a well-designed constitution does not guarantee a secure democracy (Levitsky, Ziblatt 2018, 98). India had been faring well since its independence from Britain in 1947 and the establishment of its constitutional democracy in 1950. The Western champions of democracy were hopeful, as the constitution was fairly liberal with strong democratic institutions compared to most other former British colonies. India differs in relation to its neighbors in that it did not have to go through a civil war or a coup d’etat when it was transitioning to a democracy. A significant fact that highlights just how far the framework of the country’s democracy is being threatened by the current ruling party, however, is the fact that the primary drafter of the constitution, Bhimrao Ambedkar, was an Untouchable. And yet, today the main reason for the recent democratic backslide in India is the belief that not everyone is equal; a belief that is antithetical to the foundations of democracy. This idea is promoted by Modi and supporters of the BJP through all the discriminatory legislation and disenfranchisement of Muslims and other minorities, pushing the concept of a “pure” India being a solely Hindu state.
Religious-based conflict has always been an issue prevalent in the region, but the rise of populism and nationalist ideology has heightened tensions to lethal levels. In 2019, the Citizenship Amendment Act was passed, which provides a fast track to Indian citizenship for non-Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Massive protests broke out in response to this piece of legislation, since it helped every minority except for Muslims. It was dubbed the “anti-Muslim act” as the government instituted violent crackdowns on protestors. This act, in conjunction with the institution of the National Register of Citizens, spread fear that the government was working towards complete disenfranchisement of Muslims in India. Because of the unexpectedly widespread backlash against these acts, the NRC has not been instituted nationwide as originally intended and is still being debated over today.
Even though the constitution guarantees civil liberties like freedom of speech and freedom of religion, the Modi and BJP-led government has harassed journalists, NGOs, and other outspoken government critics, as well as systematically marginalized Muslims, Dalits, and other “undesirable” minorities. Modi has also weakened democratic institutions, particularly the judiciary. It is technically independent from the political structure of the country, but in recent years, the lower and middle courts have been showing signs of corruption and increased politicization, leaning into the BJP agenda. Freedom House notes that “the unusual appointment of a recently retired chief justice to the upper house of Parliament, a pattern of more pro-government decisions by the Supreme Court, and the high-profile transfer of a judge after he ruled against the government’s political interests all suggest a closer alignment between the judicial leadership and the ruling party.”
Corruption, violence, and weakened democratic institutions are all alarming signs of democratic erosion, but they are not undefeatable roadblocks. India still has fully functional elections that allow for parties other than the BJP to gain power, providing hope for a change in the national discourse surrounding religion and the rights of minorities and immigrants in the country once a competent rival party gains traction.