The Illiberal Tide
Why the International Order Is Tilting Toward Autocracy
Two recent reports on the health of global democracy make for dismal reading about India’s political trajectory. For the first time since the late 1990s, the pro-democracy nonprofit Freedom House downgraded India’s status from “Free” to “Partly Free,” on account of the country’s weakening protection of civil liberties. A second report by the Varieties of Democracy Institute reported that India no longer qualifies as an “Electoral Democracy,” relegating it to the ranks of “Electoral Autocracies”—a grouping that includes noted backsliders such as Hungary and Turkey.
India’s drop in the democracy league tables has less to do with the nature of its elections—which are largely free and fair—than with the shrinking democratic space between them. These grim assessments point to several troubling political developments in the country: the consolidation of a Hindu-majoritarian brand of politics, the excessive concentration of power in the hands of the executive, and the clampdown on political dissent and on the media. Much of that change is bound up in the figure of the prime minister, whose electoral appeal rests on his stated ambition to break with politics as usual. But despite numerous controversies, Prime Minister Narendra Modi remains immensely popular. His hold over the public imagination has not waned—and for Indian democracy, the implications are momentous.
Many other postcolonial states that won their independence in the twentieth century lapsed into dictatorship or military rule, but India has long trumpeted the abiding virtues of its model of pluralist liberal democracy. That model, which seeks to find unity by embracing India’s unprecedented religious, linguistic, and ethnic diversity, is now under pressure on several fronts. Emboldened by a second consecutive parliamentary majority in 2019, Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have moved in an avowedly majoritarian direction. In the summer of 2019, the government unilaterally nullified the constitutional semiautonomy of the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir (a move that involved cutting off the Internet and detaining leaders of the political opposition in Kashmir). It passed a law that offers an expedited pathway to citizenship for migrants from neighboring countries provided they don’t practice Islam, suggesting that citizenship and belonging in supposedly secular India can turn on religious identity. And in countless instances, Muslims have been victimized in communal riots or mob lynchings. The steady drumbeat of anti-minority rhetoric from the ruling party and its allies—and the absence of unequivocal condemnation from the authorities—has fueled the belief that such extralegal violence is implicitly condoned.
Alongside its predilection for majoritarian politics, the government has also centralized power to an extent not seen in India since Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s tenure, more than three decades earlier. This centralization has multiple dimensions. Within the central government, power is increasingly concentrated in the prime minister’s office at the expense of cabinet ministries. The executive has also come to dominate Parliament, while the judiciary has carefully skirted politically inconvenient cases. Outside of New Delhi, the central government has involved itself with greater alacrity in domains constitutionally under the jurisdiction of India’s states. Institutions meant to guarantee accountability have not lived up to their responsibility to check the government. The BJP swept to power in 2014 on the back of widespread anticorruption protests across India in 2012 and 2013. Yet, in office, the BJP has worked to marginalize a new corruption ombudsman and defang an information commission overseeing India’s sweeping right to information law. The country’s top auditor issues fewer reports scrutinizing the central government’s activities. Even the hallowed Election Commission of India—one of the world’s most widely respected electoral agencies—has faced credible accusations of deferring to the government’s whims.
Under Modi, the Indian state has repeatedly demonstrated contempt for dissent.
Democratic erosion is most powerfully visible in the government’s treatment of its opponents. Under Modi, the Indian state has repeatedly demonstrated contempt for dissent and sought to paint vocal critics of the government as “anti-national.” The federal government and numerous state governments have cracked down on academics, activists, and journalists who challenge the powers that be. A new database by the nonprofit Article14 finds that cases of sedition—a grave offense that officials routinely trot out to silence critics—have soared in recent years, especially in BJP-ruled states. Most recently, authorities controversially arrested a young student climate activist on charges of sharing social media talking points that allegedly provoke disaffection toward the government.
Many of the frailties plaguing India’s democratic institutions are not new. Independent India inherited illiberal laws—from sedition to criminal defamation—from the British colonial-era penal code, and the once dominant Indian National Congress (also known as the Congress party) deployed them with aplomb. In fact, there are few tactics the present government has deployed that its predecessors did not pioneer. What has changed, however, is the political balance of power and the ideological moorings of the ruling party. The prevalence of coalition rule in Indian politics from the late 1980s to 2014 kept some of government’s worst excesses in check, but the reemergence of a dominant political party—in this case, one that is ideologically committed to a more narrowly pitched vision of the nation—has tested the country’s democratic guardrails.
Modi sits at the heart of this transformation. Although his government has not fully delivered on its central promise of getting the Indian economy back on track—a task further complicated by the coronavirus pandemic—he remains incredibly popular. Many leaders struggle with the ordeals of governance but retain tremendous appeal—former U.S. President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro come to mind. But even among this group, Modi is an outlier. According to a Morning Consult weekly survey, since the poll’s inception in 2020, Modi has consistently enjoyed the highest net approval rating—a whopping 52 percent—of any of the 13 world leaders tracked.
Several factors explain Modi’s unique popularity. First and foremost, he embodies a Hindu-majoritarian backlash to decades of inconsistent secular politics. By the time the British exited India in 1947, secular politicians and ardent Hindu nationalists were engaged in an ideological battle over the future state’s relationship to religion. The secularists, including India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru of the Congress party, triumphed, and their vision laid the foundation for the new Republic of India.
India’s secularists championed an approach in which the state would maintain a principled distance from religious affairs. The government could intervene in matters of faith—such as aiding educational institutions run by religious orders or subsidizing pilgrimages—but only if it did so in an evenhanded manner. Over time, however, the Congress party and other secular parties came to portray themselves as neutral arbiters even while cynically treating religious communities as “vote banks,” the term of art for supposedly uniform blocs of voters that politicians harness to win elections. Modi came to power by rejecting this brand of politics, stoked by the deeply held conviction that the secular order relegated India’s Hindus (according to the 2011 census, Hindus account for roughly 80 percent of India’s population) to a minority position in their own country. Many Indians—and Hindu nationalists in particular—came to disparage secularism (“pseudo-secularism,” they called it) as a euphemism for what they termed “minority appeasement,” the notion that political elites pander to Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, and other religious minorities to the detriment of the majority community.
Many Indians further look to Modi to centralize control of the country after decades of fissiparous coalition rule. During the 1970s and 1980s, the Congress party’s political dominance slowly unraveled, ushering in a period in which governments rested on often shaky alliances among competing parties. Political fragmentation, combined with economic liberalization and greater devolution of power in favor of state capitals, intensified the perception that New Delhi was not fully in control. Effecting large-scale policy change from the center became increasingly onerous. By virtue of his party’s current ironclad majority in Parliament, Modi has used his historic mandate to recentralize power. On issues from taxation to agriculture to elections, Modi has championed the idea of “One Nation, One India” as the solution to India’s fractiousness.
Modi projects a similar impression of purposeful, muscular leadership in his foreign policy. For decades, India has perceived itself to be a big, but not necessarily important, global actor. Foreign policy has rarely been a mass electoral issue, crowded out by more quotidian concerns, including jobs, inflation, and welfare. But voters have rallied behind Modi’s claims that he has finally put India on the map. Modi has signaled that in today’s multipolar world, India can be both big and important. On matters ranging from containing China to combating climate change to delivering COVID-19 vaccines to other countries, Modi has embraced a larger role for India on the world stage. As a case in point, just consider last week’s leaders’ summit of the so-called Quad countries in which four Asia-Pacific nations—Australia, India, Japan, and the United States—signaled their resolve to band together to counteract Chinese revanchism.
The central axis of popular politics in India has undergone a significant shift under Modi. As the political scientist Neelanjan Sircar has argued, in 2014 Modi campaigned on a pledge to get India’s wayward economy back on track; in 2019, however, the BJP’s campaign rested on an appeal to the image of Modi as a tough, nationalist leader. According to this logic, voters didn’t necessarily judge Modi on his record in office. Instead, the force of Modi’s character inspired them to look forward and imagine what transformations he might engender.
Would the BJP’s dominance be as comprehensive if Modi were not in the picture? The answer is likely no. Modi has a unique hold on the country’s political imagination. His life story—a boy born to a poor, lower-caste family catapults over veteran BJP leaders to wrest control of the party and then the nation—is an underdog narrative that inspires many Indians. And his charisma makes him a compelling messenger for change. In American terms, Modi combines the retail political instincts of former President Bill Clinton with the oratorical skills of former President Barack Obama. Modi has saturated the political space like few before him. Detailed choreography accompanies ever aspect of politicking, from chasing votes in a minor municipal election to addressing the nation from the ramparts of Delhi’s Red Fort. Furthermore, Modi’s take-no-prisoners approach to governance—whether ramming through recent agricultural reform bills without parliamentary debate or consultation with India’s states or invalidating nearly 90 percent of India’s currency in an effort to stamp out hidden, untaxed commercial transactions—resonates with citizens disenchanted with an unresponsive political class. Modi’s personal popularity has paved the way for a new political style in which mass support justifies any means used toward the end that the leader embraces.
The United States and other powers will struggle to steer Modi’s India back onto a more democratic course. Leaving aside the United States’ own damaged democratic credentials, outside powers have always had limited leverage over India’s domestic policies. During the Trump administration, human rights and democratic freedoms took a back seat in the making of U.S. foreign policy—in February 2020, President Donald Trump visited India and attended convivial events with Modi in New Delhi even as grisly communal riots took place a few miles away. The Biden administration has signaled a reversal of course—its March 2021 Interim National Security Strategic Guidance starts from the assumption that an embrace of democracy at home and abroad is essential to meeting U.S. foreign policy objectives—but it is unlikely to elevate shared values above its primary interest of enlisting India in its larger strategic positioning against China. India serves as the lynchpin of Washington’s Asia strategy, and the new administration will not want to complicate the relationship.
India’s democratic renewal, therefore, must ultimately come from within. But the infirmities plaguing India’s political opposition are legion. The Congress party is a shadow of its former self, beset by crises of leadership, ideology, and organization. Rahul Gandhi, the erratic heir to the Congress throne, has lost the confidence of many of his party’s supporters. After leading the party to not one but two national election routs, Gandhi’s political credibility has suffered massively. Ordinary voters are unsure what the party stands for, with secularism on the ropes and Modi appropriating the Congress’s traditional pro-welfare ethos. Meanwhile, the party’s organization has atrophied as its finances have dried up and numerous second-tier leaders have quit—often defecting to the BJP.
The BJP does face a number of credible regional opponents at the state level, where it has lost several major elections in recent years. Campaigning is currently underway for regional polls in five states, and it is possible that the BJP and its allies will fall short in several of these contests. But these setbacks will not threaten the party’s grip on power. In the national theater of politics, the opposition has failed to understand why Modi continues to prevail. He is a grassroots leader who has climbed his way to the country’s top job on his own merit—without the aid of a politically connected family. He has tapped into the aspirations of a restless country impatient for change and frustrated with political convention. And he has infused political discourse with a fierce nationalism that conveys a newfound assuredness. As long as Modi’s opponents live in denial about their own shortcomings and Modi’s immense strengths, his political supremacy will go unchallenged—and questions about Indian democracy will continue to mount.