Many would characterize India as the world’s largest democracy. Even the current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has called India “The mother of all democracies.” However, it seems as though that the world’s largest democracy has become one of the largest examples of democratic erosion thanks to its current leadership.
Prime Minister Modi is the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) what Prabhash Ranjan, Professor of Law at Southern Asian University, would call “India’s extreme right-wing party.” There is a lot of evidence of extreme right-wing parties undermining democratic institutions and norms; however, it should be noted that a right-wing party in power does not equate to the process of democratic backsliding. Nevertheless, much like many other right-wing leaders, Modi is utilizing populist tactics to rule the country.
In order to determine how Modi’s actions as Prime Minister are populist and therefore lead to the erosion of democracy, it is important to go back to Jan-Werner Muller to define what populists do. According to Muller, a “populist authentically identifies and represents this real or true people” who are a subsection from the actual citizenship or public (Muller 22-23). While populists say the are for the people, they will also disregard another portion of the population. For populists, “what will always need to be present is some distinction between the morally pure people and their opponents” (Muller 25).
This type of response is evident in Modi’s administration. In the first idea of Muller’s populism definition, the leader has to be for “the people.” Many supporters of the BLP and Modi, have called the Prime Minister “a god’s gift for India” as well as “the messiah of the poor.” And as soon as he took office, “Modi set about canonizing himself as the father of what his admirers call the ‘New India.’” It is evident that he fits the characteristic of being for “the people” yet it is important to understand who and how those who aren’t considered the “true” people are treated.
While the Indian Constitution recognized “India as a country where people belonging to multiple religions and ethnicity can live together as equal, rights-bearing citizens,” the BJP and Modi had different ideas. Muslim citizens in India were targeted. For example, in three cities where Hindu processions occurred and riots ensued, the “ones arrested were primarily Muslims” and “riots were followed up with official orders to demolish houses.” These orders for demolition also “under Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.” Muslims are the ones being set out from “the people” and are being attacked instead of protected by the government. Thus, “the ‘pure people’ in Prime Minister Modi’s India are Hindus and the dominant narrative is as follows” states Professor Ranjan.
Not only do we see the discrimination of Muslim citizens and people as an antidemocratic practice, but also Modi’s administration has been seen suppressing free speech. In a recent instance, Indian lawmaker, Jignesh Mevani, was arrested after publishing a tweet criticizing Modi and accused the Prime Minister of “idolizing Nathuram Godse” – the man who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. He was arrested on charges of disturbing “public tranquility and peace.” Yet, this is a clear instance of suppressing speech in order to maintain a positive image of the leader.
All of India in the past couple years has seemed to fall under one party. In fact, India’s “institutions – its courts, much of its media, its investigative agencies, its election commission – have been pressured to fall in line with Modi’s policies.” This becomes detrimental to liberal democracy as “political opposition is withered and infirm” which means the persecution of Muslim’s would continue.
To bring this back to the idea of populism undermining Democracy, it is clear that these deviations in the constitution and institutions is a populist strategy. Muller states that populist leaders may be elected fairly, yet “they quickly start tampering with the institutional machinery of democracy in the name of the so-called real people” which in this case are the Hindu’s (Muller 57).
If this continues in the country of India, there will be no more democracy and there will be a push towards a single party authoritarian government. What can happen to stop this democratic backsliding and help preserve the institutions and norms that the country of India was founded on? Muller, unfortunately, does not have an answer to this idea when populists are engaging in violence as the BLP is. I would argue, in my own opinion, that support for the opposition party would need to grow in order to take down this growing authoritarian movement.
I really like the consideration you put towards the importance of historical background on a country when evaluating democratic backsliding. How do you see religion and politics as working hand in hand in India in the future, if at all?
I enjoyed reading your post. I agree with your argument that a conservative leader does not necessarily indicate democratic backsliding, but that the phenomenon may happen more often while a conservative is in power. Prime Minister Modi is undoubtedly undermining democracy through populist means. Other past actions of his can also be classified as stealth authoritarianism, as, in 2019, he attempted to use technically legal mechanisms to exclude Muslims from citizenship. This demonstrates his belief in anti-pluralism, which is inherently anti-democratic.