The growing contradictions of India's democracy

Themed article

With elections for the next Central government taking place, India’s twice-a-decade ‘festival of democracy’ is currently in full swing. Over the months of April and May 2019, almost 900 million people will be able to vote for representatives to the lower house of the Indian parliament, the Lok Sabha. 

In many ways, India’s democratic credentials are impressive. With the exception of a 21-month period between 1975 and 1977, the country has seen regular elections and peaceful transitions of political power since 1952. Polls are overseen by an independent Election Commission and are regarded as being free and fair. For a country where voting is not compulsory, turnout is reasonably high - 66% of eligible voters participated in the last Union government election.[1] And surveys suggest widespread support among Indians for democracy even though, somewhat confusingly, more than half of the population is also not averse to military rule or a ‘strong leader’ without parliamentary or judicial checks.[2]

However, this success of India’s democratic institutions at a procedural level masks the significant challenges the country faces in achieving a more substantive social and cultural democracy. Even after more than 70 years of independence, poverty and deeply entrenched social inequalities persist. Caste, ethnicity and religion remain important markers of political allegiance and support. Politicians are widely regarded as corrupt and beholden to the rich and powerful. But perhaps most crucially, strongly entrenched ideals of secularism and social equity which had come to characterize India’s post-independence politics are being threatened by the steady rise of majoritarian Hindu nationalism. In that sense, there are strong reasons to see the current elections as a referendum on key ideals underlying India’s democracy.

...the current elections [are] a referendum on key ideals underlying India's demcracy.

How did we end up here? While a nuanced understanding requires a much deeper examination of Indian politics, a brief recap of the period since the previous Central government election in 2014 is instructive. That election resulted in a comprehensive win for the right-wing, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies. While this was not the first time that a BJP-led coalition had come to power, the scale of its 2014 mandate was unprecedented and relied significantly on the personal popularity of its Prime Ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi.[3] In his previous position as Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat, Modi had consciously styled himself as a decisive and efficient administrator who could deliver ‘development’ to the people. Many voters saw him as an alternative to the Congress party-led Central government which, in its last years, was mired in policy paralysis and corruption scandals. However, the BJP’s victory also reflected the political ascendancy of its Hindu nationalist ideology. Modi and other BJP leaders frequently invoked Hindu identity and majoritarian rhetoric in their election campaign, portraying India’s ‘Hindu culture’ as being threatened by religious minorities – in particular Muslims – and their appeasement by other political parties. As Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi himself oversaw one of India’s worst instances of communal violence against the minority Muslim community in 2002.

Yet hopes for a move to a more politically centrist position as the BJP and its allies went about the actual business of governing were quickly dashed. Violence by vigilante groups against religious minorities, lower-caste Dalits and other marginalized communities, often with the active support of politicians, has sharply increased over the past few years.[4] Unsurprisingly, most of these incidents have been poorly investigated and the record of prosecuting those involved is woeful. At the same time, there has been a strong crackdown on popular protest, and on journalists, activists and public intellectuals opposing the government and its policies.[5] During this period, the government and its supporters have been very successful in pushing forward a hyper-nationalist discourse which equates dissenting and non-majoritarian opinions to an ‘anti-national’ or ‘anti-Hindu’ position, and justifies the use of repression and violence against those who express them. Such efforts have been aided by a weak political opposition which has failed to hold the government accountable and, in fact, has increasingly attempted to co-opt elements of Hindu nationalism into its own political strategy.[6]

…ideals of secularism and social equity … are being threatened by the steady rise of majoritarian Hindu nationalism.

Crucially, the government’s mobilization of right-wing nationalism has also helped to blunt opposition to its economic policies. A decision to demonetize high-value currency notes in order to tackle ‘black money’ severely hurt India’s large informal sector, causing large job losses and a significant economic slowdown.[7] This was followed by the poorly implemented introduction of a unified Goods and Services Tax which also disproportionately impacted the informal economy. The government has also been largely unsuccessful in tackling a deep and sustained agrarian crisis. In fact, it has steadily rolled back redistributive social justice programmes arguing that these are inefficient and prone to corruption. The focus has been on financial inclusion, entrepreneurship and technology-driven solutions to generate jobs and tackle poverty.

While the above discussion presents a gloomy picture of the current state of Indian democracy, it is important to acknowledge the crucial role that social movements have played in holding the government accountable for its actions. Dalit, Muslims and other marginalized communities, as well as citizen groups, have mobilized in large numbers to call for strong action against rising vigilante violence and majoritarianism. Similarly, strong protests by farmers’ groups have brought attention to a deep and ongoing agrarian crisis in rural India. The prospect of losing a huge support base pushed the government to repeal changes to laws around land acquisition in favour of industrial projects in its early years, and more recently, to introduce a basic income support for farmers. Democratic institutions like the judiciary have also stepped in to overrule attempts to increase surveillance and reduce privacy protections.

...the crucial role social movements have played in holding the government accountable for its actions.

Nevertheless, the last five years have proved to be a sobering experience for India’s seemingly robust democracy. They have seen increasingly successful attempts by the government to undermine key democratic ideals and institutions. And while economic growth and social justice have been casualties of this process,[8] the extent to which voters in the coming election are willing to reject the BJP’s nationalist agenda and hold it accountable for its actions remains unclear. The signs so far are not very encouraging. It is increasingly evident that the BJP and its allies are attempting to come back to power through majoritarian nationalist rhetoric and claims that the country needs a strong leader like Narendra Modi to tackle the internal and external threats it faces. This was highlighted in the aftermath of a recent attack on Indian security forces in Kashmir, which the government successfully used to its political advantage by highlighting its nationalist credentials and strong response to terrorism.[9] In essence, the outcome of the upcoming elections thus hinges on the extent to which the political opposition and progressive social movements can shift the national political conversation back to substantive issues of socially inclusive development and the growing contradictions of India’s democracy.

Acknowledgements: I thank Birendra Singh and Sunil Tankha for their helpful comments and suggestions for the article.


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