India is the world’s largest democracy. And it is a functioning democracy in the sense that real elections are held, and the sitting government will step down if defeated. India is not a semi-democracy like Russia or Turkey; except for a brief period 40 years ago, regular elections have been held ever since independence in 1947. This is a considerably longer period than most countries in Eastern and Southern Europe, Latin America or Africa. In this sense, India is and continues to be a democratic beacon.
At the same time, the recently re-elected government under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is with good reason accused of autocratic tendencies. The charges concern an increasing use of political violence, manipulation of state institutions, demonization of opponents, and other developments that should be alien to the secular and liberal democracy that India has previously wanted to appear as.
In light of the parliamentary elections ending 23 May this year, we may ask whether there is anything in these charges, and if so, what they entail.
Popular support for democracy as a form of government is formidable in India. Two major surveys (State of Democracy in South Asia I and II – SDSA for short) conducted by the renowned Centre for Studies of Developing Societies in New Delhi showed that 90 percent of Indians preferred democracy over other forms of government. We also know that Indians participate enthusiastically in elections, that many consider voting a significant event in which they take pride, and that participation is higher than in U.S. presidential elections. The poor vote to a higher degree than do the middle classes, and India’s electoral democracy has undoubtedly contributed to a ‘silent revolution’ – the entry of formerly marginalised groups, such as the lowest castes, into the political mainstream. The Lok Sabha, India’s national assembly, is largely representative and reflects the diversity of Indian society.
In the narrow sense of support for electoral democracy, Indians are overwhelmingly pro. On the other hand, in a broader sense of what democracy is, the picture is not so clear. The SDSA surveys showed that most Indians were not so concerned with law and order, independent state institutions, or freedom of speech. There are also worrying signs globally. Recently, a survey from the U.S.-based Pew Research Center showed that support for democracy is declining in many countries. It also showed that among major countries, India registered the most dramatic decline. In the Democracy Index, published annually by The Economist, India is categorised as a ‘flawed democracy.’ Here India is in the company of countries like the U.S. and Argentina – which sounds not so bad. But it is the direction of the development that is worrisome. India has fallen from a 27th place to 41st place since Modi came to power in 2014. It is particularly the country’s political culture and the status of civil rights that is pulling it down in this index.
A useful starting point for assessing autocratic tendencies of democratically elected leaders is the study How Democracies Die by political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. They are mostly concerned with the United States, but the indicators they present for a democratic slide towards autocracy have general applicability. Here we will hold these indicators up and see how India fares.
The first indication is when a democratically elected government starts changing the democratic rules of the game, for example in the electoral system. In recent years, we have seen this happen in Hungary under Victor Orban and in Turkey under Erdogan. And we have seen it in many other countries. But we have not seen it in India under Modi. However, what we have seen in India is that the existing rules are broken – which is very similar. This is especially true of the Indian Election Commission’s Model Code of Conduct with its rules, for instance, on how much money individual candidates can spend for their campaigns or what candidates are permitted to say in speeches or interviews. These are rules and not laws. So, when candidates for BJP, for example, referred to the Indian army as ‘Modi’s army,’ they were criticised by the Election Commission and penalised. But such penalising is rare, the penalty is soft, and it is voluntary for parties to comply. The Commission’s power is based on a ‘gentlemen’s agreement,’ and political parties can violate the code with more or less impunity. In this year’s general election, there were more violations than ever before, and the BJP took a lead.
A second indication of when a democracy starts sliding is when political opponents are denied political legitimacy and demonised. This is evident in Modi’s India, particularly concerning issues of the country’s relationship with Pakistan. Political opponents are characterised as ‘anti-nationals’ or worse, and their voices are silenced. A sufficient number of cases of violence against individuals deemed ‘anti-national’ has led to a large degree of self-censorship. Moreover, at a local level and particularly in certain parts of the country, anyone disagreeing with the view that the cow is a sacred symbol of the nation are at risk. In recent years, Muslims suspected of selling cows for slaughter have been targeted by so-called cow vigilantes. The worrying thing is that the perpetrators often escape punishment, and their actions are not condemned by the country’s political leadership. Lastly, trolling on social media is a new and effective weapon. A host of Hindu nationalist activists has proven extremely effective at silencing opponents. Both the violence and the trolling reveal a willingness to use methods that effectively prevent expressions of diverging viewpoints. Silencing opponents is a third indication that the U.S. state witnesses point to as signs of autocratic tendencies. In light of this, it is after all positive that no more people were killed in this year’s election than in previous elections. Silencing is more effective because it moves in the gray areas of harassment rather than outright illegal violence.
Limitations on freedom of speech
This refers to one last indication of autocratic tendencies: when civil rights such as freedom of speech and the press are weakened. Although India has not changed its legislation in this area, as Hungary, Turkey, and Russia have done, there has in fact been a powerful narrowing of criticism of the government in the form of self-censorship. This is largely a result of violent threats to individuals, such as publishers and cultural personalities, and the murder of a handful of individual critical journalists. It is not the murders, but the threats and the aggressiveness that constitute the new tools. Popular news programs entertain a very aggressive tone, and aggressive and populist news anchors are gaining more and more space in a highly competitive media landscape. There have also been instances of what seem to be politically motivated state harassment of media companies. This is not entirely new, but the extent and degree of rudeness is new.
Democracy rests on a set of formal rules of the game, but it also requires that unwritten rules are followed. In a properly functioning democracy, political opponents are not demonised but respected, and the democratic function of the opposition is recognised. It is also necessary that institutions function as intended rather than merely as stated in the written law. U.S. president Donald Trump is a master of breaking unwritten rules. In comparison, Prime Minister Modi looks much better. He comes across largely as a democratic leader with populist and nationalist traits. But his activists are less restrained. They break both written and unwritten rules, actively oppose free speech, bully opponents, and threaten violence. They have traded criminal offences such as murder for gray-zone crimes such as bullying and threats. That Modi and the ruling party allow this to happen is a worrying sign.
Now that Modi and BJP have been given a new and stronger mandate, there is good reason to expect these autocratic tendencies will be strengthened further. There is no reason to believe that India will not hold a largely free and fair election in five years. But there is a real reason to fear that, at the next election, India’s democratic culture will have fallen further in comparison to other democracies in the world.
Arild Engelsen Ruud is Professor of South Asia Studies at the University of Oslo, Norway. His research focuses on political culture in South Asia, popular perceptions of democracy, and political leadership and practices. He received his PhD from the London School of Economics.