Is India’s democracy in danger?
WITH Home Minister Amit Shah sitting in front of him, corporate magnate Rahul Bajaj bravely stated, ‘You are doing good work, but if we want to openly criticize you, there is no confidence you will appreciate that.’ While Shah himself deflected the response, government ministers and those supportive of the government were quick to attack Bajaj for his question.
There is a perception that this sort of stifling and intimidation of voices critical of the government has become increasingly commonplace in India. When one juxtaposes this reticence to criticize the government with the extraordinary ability of the BJP machinery and Narendra Modi to present their narrative, a public space that is often lacking in diversity of opinion or debate becomes apparent. Furthermore, the ruling BJP’s hold over media and sources of political funding raise serious questions about whether political opposition is given enough opportunity to express itself.
Whether it be effectively locking down of Kashmir for months on end or promulgating a citizen registration system (the National Register of Citizens or NRC) and a naturalization process (the Citizen Amendment Bill or CAB) that would render many members of India’s Muslim community stateless, this government has shown a willingness to use the might of the state to deprive certain citizens of basic civil rights for its own political purposes.
But documented civil and human rights violations, as such, are insufficient to make claims about democracy. Civil and human rights standards have changed over the years, and many early democracies do not have great records on this count. And just because the BJP’s narrative is most prominent does not mean that democracy has been subverted. Its positions may just be overwhelmingly popular and its political skill as a party may just be greater.
How should we assess whether we are seeing an erosion of democratic practice – what political scientists call ‘democratic backsliding’ – in India? If one is to argue that India’s democracy is under threat, a minimal case needs to be established – one which shows the central government has infringed upon the core principles of democracy.
Let me put my argument up front. Every plausible definition of democracy implies a basic set of principles that structures political competition – what we may think of as rules of engagement in a democratic system. These rules are breached when the state’s institutions, which should be impartial across democratic political actors, can be used in service of the ruling party. The use of state institutions to weaken or stifle opposition is in direct contravention to these principles – constituting a fundamental threat to democracy. Under the guise of Hindu nationalism, India has seen a rapid increase in anti-democratic preferences among its population. This confluence of mass opinion and a governing party willing to use state institutions for its own ends has raised the specter of serious democratic backsliding in India.
What is Democracy? India has regular elections and a government that is highly popular with the people. But even China can make that claim, even though it is not democratic in any genuine sense. The litmus test for a democracy is not whether policy decisions have popular support; it is whether the policy decisions themselves are made through democratic processes.
Robert Dahl, the great democracy theorist of the past century, laid down a simple set of processes to characterize genuine democracy, chief among them inclusiveness and public contestation.1 Inclusiveness means that every citizen should have full access to all information, freedom of expression, and equal voting rights. Public contestation means that all political organizations and parties should be able to compete in elections and express their opinions on an equal footing.
Dahl realized no political system could fully live up to this ideal, but that there were a number of countries conducted reasonably free and fair elections – the closest one could find to democracy. He termed these countries as ‘polyarchies’ because they were characterized by multiple political interests freely competing in the public sphere and multiple actors who could genuinely exert political power. It is only in this situation that the positive benefits of democracy – reasoned debate, informed decision-making, inclusive policy – would accrue to a polity.
In Dahl’s conception, the proximate threat to this imperfect form of democracy was the centralization of political power in a single party or a few individuals. A political leader with strong central powers can manipulate the system to weaken or subvert political opposition so that the will of all citizens cannot truly be expressed. Dahl was particularly concerned about poorer democracies with lower levels of education, like India, which he believed was comprised of citizens who were more susceptible to anti-democratic ideas. Indeed, as Przeworski et al.2 has shown, poorer countries are highly susceptible to democratic breakdown.
At the time of Indian independence, the Constitution had the twin challenges of creating a functional ‘administrative state apparatus and a mass democracy’3 – made significantly harder due to the need to accommodate across princely states and those areas under colonial rule and ameliorate rivalries across religion and caste. In the study of democratic transitions in the West, it is well understood that, for the most part, the administrative state was consolidated and suffused with significant capacity before extension of mass voting rights and competitive party systems. This means that, in the West, the administrative state had developed an independence and reputation of its own that made it less susceptible to political capture. With mass poverty and a weak state apparatus, many analysts 70 years ago believed that Indian democracy would soon crumble (like it did for its neighbours). India was the democracy that was never expected to survive.
But India has long been an outlier; it is by far the poorest of long-standing democracies around the world. In perhaps the closest investigation of why India remains a democracy, Alfred Stepan et al.4 argued that the persistence of India’s democracy results from the very idea of India – a federal structure that respects and allows compromise between multiple ethnic and religious identities – which prevents the centralization of power that constitutes democratic breakdown. The compromises between regional and national identities, across religions and castes, enshrined in federalism are often seen as necessary for the persistence of Indian democracy.
Naturally, this democratic procedure of generating agreement among various stakeholders and competing interests can be slow and requires painful compromises, especially with the plethora of caste, religious, linguistic and ethnic interests in India. When groups that are larger in number, or with more money, or with more social status refuse to engage in compromise with those with lesser social or political power, democracy is in trouble. One of the great ironies of democracy is that it contains the seeds of its own destruction. History is replete with examples of authoritarian or military leaders coming to power or extending their power through elections and popular support, especially in the post-colonial period, whether it be our South Asian neighbours or Africa or Latin America.
Samuel Huntington5 presciently understood that after the end of the Cold War economic or ideological conflict would eventually give way to ‘cultural’ conflict across the world – that a single, national identity would come into conflict with ideas of ‘multi-culturalism’. His work is troubling due to its open racism, but it presages, for instance, the rise of Donald Trump and Brexit. These frustrations find resonance in Hindu nationalism. Indeed, India’s federal structure has consistently been under attack from those aligned with Hindu nationalism.6
The World Values Survey (WVS), which has collected data across the world in five-year waves since the 1980s, documents the recent rise in religiosity in India. Figure I displays the percentage of the Indian population that views religion as important in personal life, as well as the importance of religious faith as a quality encouraged in children. In the latter question, respondents were asked, ‘Here is a list of qualities that children can be encouraged to learn at home. Which, if any, do you consider to be especially important? (choose up to 5)’ If ‘religious faith’ was mentioned by the respondent, then he or she was coded as viewing religion to be important as a quality encouraged in children. The dramatic rise in religiosity in the most recent rounds of the WVS (before the 2014 election) is noticeable, particularly among the upbringing of children, suggesting a concurrent rise in religious polarization – a precursor to the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Narendra Modi at the national level.
But a rise in nationalism or religious identity need not accompany democratic backsliding. In the West, with consolidated nation-states around a particular ethnic or religious identity, cultural conflict typically takes the form of aggressive anti-immigration policies. In India, this cultural conflict has the taken the form of defining a Hindi-speaking Hindu nationalist identity at the expense of other regional, linguistic, or religious identities within its own borders – particularly the Muslim community. This obliges those supporting this form of nationalism to centralize power in a leader who can effectively stifle opposition from these competing identities. This is also borne out by the data.
In India, the WVS has asked the following question since the early 1990s: ‘I’m going to describe various types of political systems and ask what you think about each as a way of governing this country. For each one, would you say it is a very good, fairly good, fairly bad or very bad way of governing this country?’ Of particular interest is when the survey respondent is asked about ‘having a strong leader’ and ‘having the army rule’. Preferences for these forms of political rule are straightforwardly related to centralization of political power and democratic breakdown.
Respondents are said to support the type of political rule if they answered that it would be ‘very good’ or ‘fairly good’ to have it. Figure II and III show the support of having a strong leader and army rule, respectively, in India, Spain and the United States since the 1990s (the data are collected in 5 year waves). As discussed above, India will always be the poorest of the long-standing democracies, but the comparisons across countries are meaningful. The United States is a country that has seen a rightward shift in politics recently with a strong military culture. And Spain is a country that has faced dictatorship in the recent past and is battling a secessionist movement like that of Kashmir (in Catalonia).
While Spain has seen a worrying increase in the preference for a strong leader, India has by far the highest level – with the preference for a strong leader spiking in the most recent survey at 56%. The results for military rule are more worrying. Support for military rule in India has risen to 38% (almost 2 out of every 5 respondents) in the most recent survey, again the highest among the countries, although preference for military rule is also growing in the United States. I remind the reader that the last wave of the survey was actually conducted before Narendra Modi was elected. Whether it be frustrations with the erstwhile Congress government or corruption scandals or something else, the selection of Narendra Modi as prime minister in 2014 coincided with an electorate that displayed increasingly anti-democratic preferences.
Since the BJP’s re-election in 2019, we have seen a bevy of policies from the suspension of political rights and arrest of all major leaders in Kashmir to a series of policy proposals to render members of the Muslim community stateless. The fact that the majority of Indians likely support these policies is of little consequence. If the tenants of the ground and first floor of a three-story building decide to evict tenants on the second floor and take over the flat, is that defensible? If the majority can dispossess a minority of the right to express themselves in the future, the outcome of this process cannot be said to uphold democracy – since inclusiveness requires that all citizens have equal opportunity to express themselves. (This was, indeed, Dahl’s response to the majoritarian claim.)
Hindu nationalism as a political force is not something that materialized in 2014, when the BJP government first came to power; it has a long history in India. What were the proximate causes of a rise in religious identity and preferences for centralization of power under Narendra Modi?
The popularity of a leader is not created in a vacuum. It requires a significant amount of image control. Concurrent with the rise of right wing populism across the world in the recent years, stark changes in the media environment, particularly in the form of social media like Facebook and Twitter as well as peer-to-peer forms of communication like Whatsapp, generated a far more decentralized media environment. While this means that the citizen has more choice, it also implies that citizens may choose media that aligns more closely with underlying biases, irrespective of the truth content. Thus, an individual with anti-Muslim beliefs can choose only to consume media from sources that explicitly espouse anti-Muslim positions. This is often referred to as the ‘echo chamber’ problem.7
This allows political actors to craft narratives and even promulgate ‘fake news’ among its supporters. The extraordinary penetration of Narendra Modi into all means of communication – whether it is television, print media, social media, or Whatsapp – is an important tool. While data cannot fully capture Prime Minister Modi’s dominance in communication, a suggestive data point is the prevalence of Google searches about a politician. Although users of Google are likely to be different from the overall population in important ways (younger, wealthier, more educated), the penetration of various political leaders on Google is a reasonable indicator of the extent to which politicians are able to reach citizens – even in rural India which is rapidly becoming more connected to social media and Whatsapp. When one looks at Google searches about politicians over the 2019 election period, a whopping 75% of searches were about Narendra Modi, compared to just 12% about Rahul Gandhi.8
However, the BJP’s most noticeable advantage is in its party organization.9 With Amit Shah as party president, the BJP has built a well oiled, highly efficient machine which effectively melds quantitative data with a dedicated party cadre. This ‘last mile’ efficiency and advantage of the BJP in reaching the voter guarantees the control over communication between Narendra Modi and the citizen. During the 2019 election, the BJP had workers in the position of panna pramukh (page chief), who were responsible for the voters listed on a single page of the published voter list (a single contains approximately 30 voters although in practice panna pramukhs may have handled up to 60 voters).10 While the BJP did not field a panna pramukh for each polling booth across the country, the fact that such a position was held across large swathes of the country speaks to the size and organization of the BJP machinery.
Even with a population that expresses increasingly anti-democratic preferences, dominant political machinery and democratic norms need not be threatened. A line is crossed when state institutions can be used in the service of the party in power to stifle opposition. Returning to Rahul Bajaj’s comments, the problem is not that a section of supporters of this government were critical, but the use of state actors, in this case government ministers, to stifle critical comments. While the BJP may have come to power on its own popularity, there is a concern that it can will state institutions to do its political bidding – this is all the more disturbing because India’s state institutions tend to be weaker than those in most established democracies.
In order to grapple with what we see today, one needs more institutional context. Unlike previous iterations of the BJP, the party seems to be more centralized than ever. In the recent negotiations over state formation in Haryana and Maharashtra, there was no doubt that parties and politicians were negotiating with BJP at the Centre, not with the party’s state units. This is testament to the popularity of Narendra Modi and the juggernaut that Amit Shah has helped build. But it also speaks of a certain centralization of function in the party, and a hollowing out of its state units to strengthen the position of its leaders at the Centre. Because the chief opposition to the BJP is now at the state level (given that Narendra Modi is by far the most popular national leader in India), this constellation of factors generates incentives for the central party to use its institutional heft to intimidate its rivals at the state level.
Scholars of India’s political history will see strong similarities between the position of the BJP today and the Congress Party of the late 1960s and early 1970s. At that time, while Indira Gandhi remained by far the most popular national leader, her Congress Party faced a breakaway faction – ‘the syndicate’. This turn of events suddenly made state politics more electorally competitive for the Congress (while the national election remained the domain of Indira Gandhi). As political scientist Steven Wilkinson chronicles, the rise in competition triggered a significant increase in money in politics. Gandhi tried to block the funding for rival political parties by banning corporate donations and sought to bypass the electoral appeal of various state leaders by announcing a series of centrally sponsored schemes to generate a connection between Indira Gandhi and the voter. (The parallels with politics today should be clear to the reader.)
As we now know, this period would eventually give way to the explicit suspension of democracy in India. Certain current developments in India should make us worry whether India is headed down the same path again. The governor of the state, which should be a non-political position, has been explicitly used by the BJP at the centre to frustrate its rivals at the state level and aid it in forming government at the state level. More worryingly, recent work by journalist Nitin Sethi points to the manipulation of government banks and bureaucrats for political financing through India’s controversial ‘electoral bond’ scheme.11
As India seeks to re-imagine itself with Hindu nationalism, our neighbours in South Asia are warning us. Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka have each seen extraordinary bloodshed and economic stunting due to the folly of trying to define a single national identity over the complex terrain of identities in South Asia. It is the idea of India, with its chaotic and creaky modes of compromise across identities, that has been the most successful of all.
There are a number of worrying factors, but I remain hopeful. India was the democracy that was never expected to survive, but it has continued to persist. The story of India shows that its people will always fight to have their voices heard.
1. Robert Dahl, A Preface to Democratic Theory. University of Chicago Press, 1956.
2. Adam Przeworski, Michael E. Alvarez, Jose Antonio Cheibub and Fernando Limongi, Democracy and Development: Political Institutions and Well-Being in the World, 1950-1990. Cambridge University Press, New York, 2000.
3. Sandipto Dasgupta, ‘India’s Constitution and the Missing Revolution’, in Alf Gunvald Nilsen, Kenneth Bo Nielsen and Anand Vaidya (eds.), Indian Democracy: Origins, Trajectories, Contestations. Pluto Books, London, 2019.
4. Alfred Stepan, Juan J. Linz and Yogendra Yadav, Crafting State-Nations: India and Other Multinational Democracies. John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland, 2011.
5. Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Simon & Schuster, New York, 2011.
6. See for instance, Christophe Jaffrelot, Hindu Nationalism: A Reader. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2007.
7. Sneha Alexander, ‘On Google, Narendra Modi’s Stock Continues to Rise’, Live Mint, 20 May 2019. See https://www.livemint. com/elections/lok-sabha-elections/on- google-narendra-modi-s-stock-continues-to-rise-1558328736570.html. Accessed 7 July 2019.
8. Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Joseph N. Cappella, Echo Chamber: Rush Limbaugh and the Conservative Media Establishment. Oxford University Press, London, 2008.
9. Prashant Jha, How the BJP Wins: Inside India’s Greatest Election Machine. Juggernaut Books, New Delhi, 2017.
10. This was widely reported during and after the election. See, for instance, the following newspaper report: https://scroll.in/ article/666344/bjps-panna-pramukh-strategy-in-up-yields-the-ultimate-dividend
11. Nitin Sethi, ‘Electoral Bonds: Seeking Secretive Funds, Modi Govt Overruled RBI’, Huffington Post India, 18 November 2019. See https://www.huffingtonpost.in/ entry/rbi-warned-electoral-bonds-arun-jaitley-black-money-modi-government_in_5dcbde68e4b0d43931ccd200. Accessed 11 December 2019. This is the first part in a 6-part series exploring the manipulation of state institutions in the electoral bond scheme proposed and executed by the ruling BJP government.