STR New / Reuters Indian policemen march near a poster of Jayalalitha in the southern Indian city of Madras, May 2004.   

Authoritarian India

The State of the World's Largest Democracy

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 States, where it has been declining. Yet India has also seen the emergence of authoritarian leaders across all levels of government. There are important differences in the style and degree of authoritarianism, of course. But what these leaders share is a personalistic leadership style, centralized control over their parties, a direct link with their publics, and a marked intolerance for dissent. 

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures while speaking at Madison Square Garden in New York, September 2014.
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures while speaking at Madison Square Garden in New York, September 2014.

This trend toward authoritarian leadership in India has emerged thanks to two related phenomena: the progressive weakening of the Indian state, and the meager economic and political opportunities for the country’s youth. As India’s democracy has become more participatory, the state has weakened. The bureaucracy and the police have become more partisan, corruption has spread, and tensions have risen between elected representatives and appointed state officials.

A weak state produces a natural tendency toward authoritarian populism. Those who know how to get things done—who know how to get a recalcitrant bureaucracy to snap to attention—have to be strongmen, or strongwomen, who have a direct and personal link to their constituencies. As one politician told the anthropologist Anastasia Piliavsky:

I am a gentle, god-fearing person. But I have this reputation, of a dabbang (strongman). Yes or no? A leader has to be strong. Yes or no? People expect this. They want big, strong leaders. If you want to do politics, you have to be big. You need strength. Then only will people believe in you. You have to be with the people too. That’s the sort of thing, this work of politics.

Modi, Banerjee, and Jayalalitha, among other popular heads of government, have become legendary for their ability to keep the bureaucracy in line. As one young man in Tamil Nadu put it to India’s Open magazine, foreshadowing Jayalalitha’s victory: “It does not matter who we vote for. Corruption will not end. But Amma [Jayalalitha] has the administrative muscle to ensure that when you bribe a partyman, your work gets done.”

Authoritarianism thrives when young people are excluded from politics and turn to violence. India is a democracy of the young and has been so from its inception. In 1950, just before India held its first elections, the median age was 21 (compared with the current median age of 27). But at the time, many of the young were illiterate and therefore politically unassertive. In 1970, as literacy rates rose and a new, post-independence generation came of age, young people began voting and seeking office in larger numbers. In 1989, the Indian National Congress government lowered the voting age in India from 21 to 18, propelling even more youth into politics. Then, after India’s economy began liberalizing in 1991, new aspirations spurred young people to become even more politically active.

The most assertive of these new voters are young men. (Women’s participation has traditionally been lower and less autonomous, although this is now changing.) They tend to be unemployed, a condition that economic liberalization in India has done little to alleviate. And when they have attempted to secure a voice in India’s political system, they have found it closed off to them. The dominant political parties have not made space for new blood. Parliament has remained relatively closed to the young, too. The average age of parliamentary members has been steadily increasing since India’s independence and is now 56—ten years older than the average age in India’s first Parliament, elected in 1951, and almost twice the average age of the population. The style and language of parliamentary politics have also favored entrenched elites, blocking new generations from effective participation. As young people find themselves without a political outlet, they have turned to violence, which authoritarian leaders are especially equipped to manage.

A weak state produces a natural tendency toward authoritarian populism.

Consider the case of Mamata Banerjee. Banerjee came of age in the 1970s as a student leader and became a first-time member of Parliament on a Congress party ticket in 1984. But she struggled to find a place for herself in a Congress party dominated by older men. Initially, she managed to find a mentor in another young leader, Rajiv Gandhi, the son of Indira Gandhi, who was then a newly anointed prime minister. Gandhi attempted to turn the party’s youth wing into his own power base and appointed Banerjee the general secretary of the All India Youth Congress. But Gandhi’s assassination in 1991 robbed Banerjee of a patron and protector, and without him, she found it difficult to survive the factional fighting within the Congress. By 1998, the old guard had forced her out, leading her to form her own party, the All India Trinamool Congress.

A cycle rickshaw puller sits near a wall painted with a picture of Mamata Banerjee in Kolkata, April 2011.
A cycle rickshaw puller sits near a wall painted with a picture of Mamata Banerjee in Kolkata, April 2011.

Participating in Parliament was an ordeal for her, too. In her memoirs, Banerjee writes of her discomfort entering Parliament for the first time. She had been to the regional legislature once or twice but had never set foot inside the national Parliament. In India, parliamentary sessions are conducted in English and Hindi, but Banerjee had always been more comfortable in her native Bengali. She kept trying to participate in parliamentary proceedings, without success, until she burst out at the Speaker in frustration: "Honorable Speaker Sir, everyday I am raising my hand why don’t you allow me to ask a question?"

Eventually, she gave up. Although she was elected MP many times, she was routinely absent from parliamentary sessions. As chief minister of West Bengal, she has also frequently skipped sessions of the regional legislature. Instead, she became a leader of street protests. These protests have become increasingly violent affairs, as rival gangs of young men affiliated with different political parties battle it out. In order to lead effectively, she has had to learn how to manage the violence. Here, she excels. In Parliament, she needed patrons. But street fights are the domain of the young. Here, Banerjee has needed nobody to smooth her path. She is outrageous, daring, and often physical, and she quickly amassed armies of young men who now form the backbone of her party.  

Banerjee has not been the only Indian leader to follow such a trajectory. Many politicians who began their careers in the 1970s could be said to be insurgent leaders, who emerged outside and in opposition to existing political institutions. They created new political parties and movements to incorporate their core following among young, unemployed, and literate young men. This was a process typically accompanied by violence.

A number of new parties created in this period sought to mobilize subordinate social groups, including the Bahujan Samaj Party, founded in 1984 to cater to India’s Dalits (outcastes), and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, created in 1972 as a regional party with support from backward castes and “Scheduled Tribes”—India’s indigenous people—in eastern India. New parties have also emerged to mobilize young men from dominant groups. The rise of the BJP and Modi’s ascent in Gujarat owe a great deal to the successful harnessing of the violent potential of young Hindu men. Effective leaders in India’s young democracy are increasingly leaders who are effective managers of violence in one form or another.

Ultimately, democracies whose institutions become incapable of absorbing new political participants—whether they are the young, as in India or the Philippines, or migrants, as in the United States or much of Europe—run the risk of producing authoritarian leaders. For too long, observers have assumed that democracies go hand in hand with democratic leaders. To truly understand democracy, one must grapple with its dark side.

CORRECTION APPENDED (June 17, 2016)

This article has been revised to clarify the dates Indira Gandhi was reelected.

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