India is the world’s largest democracy; in fact, it recently gained the title of being the world’s largest country by population, and fortunately such a nation happens to host a democratic system of government. However, like many democratic states, India has faced a number of challenges that have slowly eroded at its most important political institutions, both formal and informal. Among the most glaring of these, though, is India’s turn to Hindu nationalism under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that has alienated a considerable swath of India’s population – its Muslims.
In 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the de facto face of the BJP, led the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which streamlined the citizenship acquisition process for non-Muslim immigrants arriving from the South Asian region. The CAA led to protests erupting around the country with calls of bigotry, which the Modi-led government responded to by using law enforcement to crack down, a recurring strategy that would continue for the next few years. In 2022, the BJP sent bulldozers to destroy the homes of Muslims alleged to have engaged in violent protests against Modi’s government, a sign that it would use every instrument at its disposal to silence those it wished to.
In 2023, the Modi government brought the fight to schools by significantly altering the history syllabi that public schools operated under, removing hundreds of years worth of Mughal Empire, the largest Muslim kingdom in Indian history, history as well as several other important historical events like the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by a Hindu extremist, who unsurprisingly was a member of the parent organization to the BJP.
There is little controversy that Modi and the BJP are on a mission to exclude Indian Muslims from the country’s mainstream platforms, be that education or politics. However, there is a more nuanced look to be taken at the underpinnings of the BJP’s rise. At the core of the party is a populist appeal, especially since Hindus constitute a significant majority in the country. The BJP’s primary vote-garnering method has been to rely on its Hindu extremism, which many Indian Hindus have come to see value in.
In “Trumpism and American Democracy: History, Comparison, and the Predicament of Liberal Democracy in the United States,” Robert C. Lieberman et al. establish a framework for studying and identifying populist regimes. While their analysis pertains primarily to Trump in the United States, many of their ideas hold merit in an analysis of Modi in India. They write that in populist regimes, “popular will […] pays little heed to minority rights, and they endow a leader with the authority to divine that popular will and act on its behalf.” In India, these descriptors are obvious. The BJP has victimized Muslims into being a minority deprived of its rights to be able to protest and speak without fear of repercussions. Muslims have had their histories removed from textbooks and they have become subject to what is in essence religious tests for citizenship.
Furthermore, Modi has been endowed as the flagship leader to the party and has been entrusted by the party’s membership to carry out their message of putting Hindus at the forefront of Indian politics. However, the populist backing of the BJP in India is not merely of political convenience, but one of deep-seated prejudice and hatred. Like how Trump capitalized on the cultural unions of a large swath of Americans who had felt their hidden political desires to be unanswered for decades under the political status quo, Modi had done the same but in India.
Dankwart Rustow in his 1970 article “Transitions to Democracy: Toward a Dynamic Model” described a model of democratization that began with national unity as its first prerequisite. Rustow asserts that in order for democracy to flourish into its later stages of maturity, there must first be broad levels of unity between the constituents as well as mutual understandings of political boundaries that dictate its informal institutions. This model helps explain India’s undemocratization, since it has originated by virtue of the BJP from the dismantling of this first step. Modi has effectively rendered India’s Muslim population into an out-group, tearing away at the national unity that existed at least on religious lines prior to the rise of the BJP. By taking advantage of this religious divide, he has also reduced the citizenship and civic participatory rights of Muslims.
Rustow and Lieberman et al. not only help explain the recent erosions in the world’s largest democracy, but their ideas also help direct future areas for improvement in India. The factors outlined by Lieberman et al. for identifying and studying populist regimes inherently provide society the avenues for destroying these regimes as well by specifically calling attention to the most critical elements of populist regimes that can be targeted. For instance, if main characteristics of populist regimes as they argue include the desire to reduce minority rights by endowing a leader to carry out this majority will, then pushes in India to strengthen Muslims’ rights by codifying them as well as direct efforts to reduce the power of Modi in the political environment of India can both help reverse this democratic erosion.
Similarly, Rustow’s first stage of democratization – national unity – is a resolution to the crisis in India as it is an explanation for its democratic erosion. The reason that the BJP was able to attain power was because that its politicians were able to play into the religious fractures in Indian society. These cracks were then spread farther apart to create an intensely polarized country. However, the collapse of the BJP may rest on the ability of opposition parties and other anti-BJP groups to mobilize around unifying the country on these same dimensions. Cooperation between Muslim and Hindu civil societies, for instance, can help lead by example to India’s massive population. The country is also in dire need of other forms of cultural unification that stress the similarities in political ambitions between both Muslims and Hindus as opposed to their unique desires, which the BJP has weaponized by painting as inherently in conflict with one another.
The rise of the BJP and Modi demonstrates that even the largest democracies in the world, deeply institutionalized over years of continuity and with the popular mandate of more humans than any other democratic regime has seen, can be subject to intense erosion. The BJP emerged seemingly out of nowhere, as political outsiders. Unlike Trump, who rose through the ranks of a deeply established political entity in the Republican Party, Modi and the BJP were newcomers to Indian politics when they reverberated the voting booths. However, in their rapid succession to power as well as through the many techniques they have used to maintain this power on a message strong enough to keep millions of Indians invested, many lessons can be learned about democratic erosion. Their far-right populist beliefs are in no doubt a danger to India’s fragile democracy. The same elements that explain the rise of the BJP, though, can be looked at as the elements that the country is in need of to kickstart the downfall of the BJP. For the sake of defenders of democracy around the world, these changes may need to come sooner than later.