Indian democracy was dying before PM Modi

Far from helping to reverse the global tide of illiberal figures and movements, voters in the world’s largest democracy have advanced it.

Published: 25th May 2019 08:47 PM  |   Last Updated: 25th May 2019 08:47 PM   |  A+A-

Prime Minister Narendra Modi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (File Photo | PTI)


Narendra Modi’s emphatic re-election victory makes inevitable something that was long feared: the transformation of India from secular democracy to Hindu majoritarian state.

Far from helping to reverse the global tide of illiberal figures and movements, voters in the world’s largest democracy have advanced it. Modi won with a landslide despite having failed miserably in his central mission: to create jobs for India’s young population.

It also did not matter to his supporters that during his first five years in power India’s social fabric was systematically shredded and the credibility of virtually every major institution, from the Supreme Court to India’s statistical organizations and the media, was undermined. It seemed more important that Modi could claim to have punished Pakistan for its support of terrorism with air strikes deep into the country.


Much will be written about how Indians succumbed to a leader with a proven record of economic incompetence, social disunity and xenophobic nationalism. But those who express great shock over this moral and political calamity will be exposing their own intellectual naivete. The fact is that their understanding of democracy, especially its Indian variant, has not kept up with reality.

The great theorists of democracy, from Tom Paine to John Stuart Mill, insisted that democracy expresses the rational choices of its citizens. But India’s experience tells us otherwise. Fake news, hate-speech and corporate money can easily compromiserational choices. The ostensibly benign rule of the majority can quickly degenerate into belligerent majoritarianism.

And institutions, however unimpeachable, can be subverted by dedicated ideological cadres of the kind Modi commands.  Certainly, Modi has amply clarified that while democracies may choose their rulers, they cannot dictate the sort of power their rulers wield – which may be as despotic and arbitrary as in an authoritarian state.

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Many detractors of Donald Trump, Modi, and other elected demagogues have set great store by democracy’s impersonal institutions, and their checks and balances. But such faith was always a form of complacency at best, and blindness at worst.

Many unexamined platitudes about democracy derive from the Cold War. The system obviously seemed ethically sound and politically efficient when compared to the authoritarian dictatorships, often communist, of Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America.

Surrounded by despotisms, India, in particular, drew much political and moral prestige from its status as a democratic nation-state. Photographs of destitute Indians lining up to vote symbolized their exceptional ability to change their rulers.

The rapid rise of authoritarian China in the 2000s made democratic India look even more virtuous in contrast. In actuality, however, if we regard democracy as a promise of equality and dignity, underpinned by rule of law and impartial institutions, rather than just periodic elections, then democracy in India has been under continuous pressure and periodic assault.

Devising India’s radically democratic constitution in the late 1940s, the Dalit leader B.R. Ambedkar was already pointing to a fatal contradiction - that though the principle of one man one vote seemed to confer political equality on Indian citizens, it left untouched the grotesque social and economies inequalities of Indian society.

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Ambedkar’s warning resonates even more after Modi’s victory: “We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy.”

One clear sign of this innate precariousness of Indian democracy was the “Emergency” in the mid-1970s. Faced with mass agitation against her, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suspended fundamental rights and detained opposition leaders and critics. The media surrendered to her as cravenly as it has to Modi.

Conventional accounts of the Emergency have a happy ending: Mrs. Gandhi lost elections in 1977 and Indian democracy was vindicated.  But her spell of authoritarian rule responded to a fundamental crisis resulting from the unfulfilled promises of Indian democracy. With India’s cruel inequalities intensifying, as they have in recent years, authoritarianism was always likely to become the rule rather than an exception.

It is also worth remembering today that Hindu majoritarianism, another expedient of a cynical ruling class, was originally forged by India’s avowedly secular rulers. Mrs. Gandhi and her son Rajiv, prime minister from 1984 to 1989, unleashed it in India long before anyone had heard of Modi.

Secular as well as Hindu nationalist governments presided from the late 1980s onwards over a brutal counter-insurgency in Kashmir, which helped corrode many Indian institutions – from the judiciary to the media and the military – while mainstreaming anti-Muslim sentiment in Indian politics and society.

Modi has undoubtedly accelerated the decay of India’s political and civil life. But any honest reckoning with India’s election results must begin with this admission: The country’s secular democracy was dying well before Modi gave it a terminal blow. 

(The views, thoughts and opinions expressed in the article belong solely to the author)

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