In This Review

To Kill a Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism
To Kill a Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism
By Debasish Roy Chowdhury and John Keane
336 pp, Oxford University Press, 2021

A combination of investigative reporting and political theory, this probing book argues that “social death” is the reason for the decline of democracy, with India offered as a case study. The authors detail India’s broken health-care system, chronic hunger, land grabs, air and water pollution, dysfunctional public transport networks, religious bigotry, pervasive illiteracy, debt bondage, child slavery, and mistreatment of women. As people come to accept deep social and economic inequality, the system erodes the dignity of its citizens—the principle on which democracy depends. That social breakdown produces hordes of cynical young people ready to join authoritarian militias and political movements, dynastic parties run by corrupt politicians, captive media, dysfunctional legislatures, subservient security agencies, and partisan courts. Elections, marred by violence and money politics, become exercises in “voluntary servitude.” Chowdhury and Keane say these problems started long before Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014 and have grown worse under his leadership. One wonders, however, whether to blame social ills for democratic decline or the reverse.