When Narendra Modi became India’s prime minister in 2014, observers saw his ascent as a victory for authoritarian populism. Now, as Modi’s government reaches its two-year mark, a fresh round of regional elections has produced similar verdicts. In West Bengal, voters reelected the autocratic chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, with a spectacular margin. In Tamil Nadu, they reelected the controversial Jayalalitha Jayaram, who has cultivated a cult of personality that politicians and journalists have compared with the one around North Korea’s Kim Il Sung. In Assam, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) went from winning the fifth-largest number of seats in 2011 to winning the largest number, thanks primarily to a campaign based on Modi’s charismatic appeal.
The success of authoritarian leaders in India appears to be part of a global trend, encompassing Rodrigo Duterte’s recent presidential victory in the Philippines, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s 2014 presidential win in Turkey, and the unexpected success of Republican Party presidential candidate Donald Trump in the United States. Given that Indian states have larger populations than most other countries—West Bengal, with a population of 91 million, is almost as large as the Philippines; Tamil Nadu, with a population of 72 million, is about the size of Turkey—the spread of authoritarian leadership there is particularly indicative of a deepening relationship between authoritarianism and democracy.
The roots of authoritarianism in India stretch back to the 1970s, when then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suspended elections for a brief but momentous period between 1975 and 1977. Although voters initially punished Gandhi in the 1977 elections, they rewarded her handsomely in the years that followed: voters reelected her as prime minister in 1980. Since then, as democratic participation in India has expanded, so, paradoxically, has the trend toward authoritarian leadership.
The success of authoritarian leaders in India appears to be part of a global trend.
Today, more Indians vote than ever before, and voter turnout is increasing—a marked contrast to other established democracies, such as the United Kingdom and the United
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