In 1947 India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru spoke of freedom and democracy, marking the transition away from English colonialism. Three years later India’s constitution was created. India has from then on been a longstanding democracy whose free elections, independent judiciary, and peaceful transitions of power have stood the test of time. However, recently, the nonprofit Freedom House downgraded India from a free democracy to “partially free,” while the V-Dem institute labeled India an “electoral autocracy.”
So, what’s changed?
This democratic backsliding in India can largely be attributed to the 2014 election of Prime Minister Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP for short). Following this election, and his subsequent reelection in 2019, India has undergone widespread democratic backsliding. This includes assaults on freedom of speech and the press, attacks on political opponents and civil society, illegitimate elections, and most importantly, discrimination and Hindu nationalism.
Modi’s election and consequent action while in power make clear the connection between populism and democratic backsliding. During his campaign, Modi ran on the narrative that he was a “self-made man” in contrast to the opposing Congress party president Rahul Gandhi whom he labeled as an “out of touch elite.” He also presented himself as a defender and “chowkidar” or “watchman” of India. He presented this narrative at the perfect time when India was facing lessening economic growth and corruption of the Congress party. The conditions in combination with Modi’s populist rhetoric led to the BJP winning almost 31 percent of the national vote in 2014, and 38 percent five years later in 2019. From these elections, he has become the first prime minister in 50 years to win in Parliament in two consecutive elections.
So Modi’s anti-elitist, anti-pluralist campaign which takes form in his presentation as a sort of “self-made man” of the people in contrast to the “elitist” opposition seems to resonate with the people. However, in Muller’s What Is Populism he explains how this narrative should be taken as a warning sign of a populist leader, rather than as something to be admired and supported.
Modi’s populism takes form not only in his image and presentation but also in the actions he’s taken while in power. His use of discriminatory legalism and suppression of civil society mirror Muller’s warnings of the consequences of populism.
Most notably, Modi and the BJP have run on a Hindu nationalist agenda and have turned rhetoric into action while in power. The enactment of the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Bill extended citizenship to Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Parsis, and Sikhs who fled Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan because of religious persecution before 2015. However, the bill excludes Muslims from receiving citizenship. This exclusionary bill has also accompanied an increase in anti-muslim sentiment and hate crimes.
They have also targeted the predominately Muslim region of India Kashmir by revoking their special status allotted in article 370 of the Indian constitution. From this status, the state has a right to its own constitution and policy-making on all issues except defense, communications, and foreign affairs. Not only will these rights be revoked but Indians from outside the region are from then on allowed to permanently settle in Kashmir. This is believed to be an effort by the BJP to infringe on Muslim independence and harm the community. Further harm was caused when communication was cut off in the area and troops were deployed in an effort to stop any opposition or uprisings. In these ways, the BJP uses discriminatory legalism, or the targeting of groups for political gain using legal mechanisms, in order to further their Hindu-nationalist agenda and prevent the speech of the opposition.
These attacks on free speech have extended further as protests in India have led to arrests and even internet shutdowns. What is even more surprising is the BJP’s alleged use of spyware to gain access to the devices of various journalists, activists, and political opponents. These measures demonstrate a clear effort to quell the threat of opposition, something which also motivates Modi’s stance on civil society organizations.
National Security Advisor and Modi aide Ajit Doval described the civil society as being “the new frontiers of war.” Consequently, close to seventeen-thousand civil society organizations have been denied registration or renewal, and many of their leaders are under arrest.
In his opposition to civil society, suppression of free speech, and targeted attacks against the Muslim community in India, Prime Minister Modi presents a clear case for the dangers of populism that Muller warns against. This is because Modi gained widespread support as a result of his anti-elitist and anti-pluralist campaign strategy which resonated with citizens who were disheartened by the struggles of the nation at the time. Modi demonstrates how leaders who reject democratic norms and promote a racist and nationalist agenda but still manage to play into the dissatisfaction of the people can gain popular support despite the consequences that inevitably follow.