The Illiberal Tide
Why the International Order Is Tilting Toward Autocracy
The brutal second wave of COVID-19 that battered India over the spring pushed into the background another global concern about the country: Just how democratic is the world’s largest democracy?
Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rise to power in 2014, India’s rankings on global indexes that measure democratic health have plummeted. Over the past six years, India fell 26 places—from 27 to 53—on the Democracy Index, published by the Economist Intelligence Unit. In March, Freedom House downgraded India from “free” to “partly free,” a status it shares with countries such as Ecuador, Mozambique, and Serbia. The same month, Sweden’s V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy) Institute went even further, announcing that India had ceased to be an electoral democracy altogether. V-Dem now classifies India as an “electoral autocracy,” a notch above “closed autocracies,” such as China and Saudi Arabia, and two notches below “liberal democracies,” such as Japan and the United States. India ranks seventh on a V-Dem list of ten countries that have lost the most democratic ground over the past decade. By this measure, it has regressed less than Hungary and Turkey but more than Bolivia and Thailand.
In India, where more than 600 million people—about two-thirds of those eligible—voted in the 2019 general election, many people view allegations of democratic decline as a Western attempt to diminish the country. “You use the dichotomy of democracy and autocracy,” said Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar at a media conclave in March. “You want the truthful answer? It’s hypocrisy.”
Such pugilistic responses play well in a land awash with nationalist sentiment. Independent India has a hoary history of blaming the “foreign hand” for anything that goes wrong, a tradition that the Modi government has expertly revived. But the foreign minister’s deflection does not answer the central question: Why has India, long regarded as an outlier in the postcolonial world for preserving democracy amid poverty, suddenly lost its sheen?
The French scholar Christophe Jaffrelot’s new book on Modi and the rise of Hindu nationalism is a good place to seek an answer. Jaffrelot argues that under Modi, India has morphed into an “ethnic democracy” that equates the majority Hindu community (roughly four-fifths of the population) with the nation and relegates Christians and Muslims to second-class citizenship, excluding them from the national imagination and exposing them to the wrath of vigilante groups with ties to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
This ethnicization project has a number of aspects. First, at both the federal and the state level, BJP governments have passed laws to protect Hinduism and its symbols. For instance, several BJP-ruled states have enhanced punishments for killing cows, considered sacred by pious Hindus, and curbed religious freedom to stem conversions from the majority faith to Christianity or Islam. They have passed these laws without altering India’s formally secular constitution.
At the same time, the Modi government has assaulted bastions of leftist and secularist thought by appointing Hindu nationalist sympathizers to administer prestigious universities, such as New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, and by cracking down on troublesome foreign nongovernmental organizations. Last year, Amnesty International shuttered its office in India, citing “a concerted and vicious smear campaign of spurious allegations, raids by various investigative agencies, malicious media leaks, and intimidation.”
Why has India’s democracy suddenly lost its sheen?
The Modi government has also legitimized the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the nearly century-old Hindu nationalist volunteer group with paramilitary features that provides the BJP with its top leadership, its distinctive worldview, and its most committed cadres. Since 2014, the state broadcaster Doordarshan has telecast to the entire country the annual address of the RSS chief. Aided by BJP victories in state elections, RSS operatives have entered the government at multiple levels, eroding the ability of the permanent civil service to perform its functions impartially.
That creeping ideological movement has worked its way into the educational system, including in the teaching of history, as state authorities have encouraged the rewriting of textbooks. Hindu nationalists view India’s past through the prism of conflict with medieval Islamic rulers, rather than as a complex mosaic that included elements of both conflict and cooperation.
Finally, Jaffrelot argues that the joint venture between Hindu nationalist groups and the government has “restructured the public sphere to some extent.” In simple terms, this means that government and law enforcement agencies shield Hindu nationalist vigilante groups from prosecution, granting them license to attack those they deem “antinational.” On university campuses, right-wing youth groups, including the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the RSS, attack students who chant slogans praising Kashmiri separatists or refuse to sing the nationalist hymn “Vande Mataram.”
The RSS may not directly control the most violent vigilante groups, which sport names such as the Bhartiya Gau Raksha Dal (Indian Cow Protection Group) and the Hindu Yuva Vahini (Hindu Youth Force), but they operate with impunity in states such as Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP holds power. Since Modi’s election, mobs have lynched at least 37 Muslims accused—often without evidence—of killing cows or transporting cattle for slaughter. The vast majority of such incidents took place in BJP-ruled states. Anyone who has dipped a toe in Indian Twitter has likely witnessed the online version of this vigilantism: attacks on anyone deemed critical of Modi or even skeptical of any aspect of the BJP’s ascendant cultural project. The head of the BJP’s Information Technology Cell boasted in an interview of commanding an army of over 1.2 million volunteers dedicated to continually spreading the party’s message.
Like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Modi has hollowed out institutions that might have checked his power. Jaffrelot shows how the government uses federal law enforcement bodies such as the National Investigation Agency and the Central Bureau of Investigation to harass political opponents. (The legal troubles of opposition politicians have a way of miraculously disappearing if they choose to join the BJP.) The government has reduced the once proudly independent Supreme Court to either rubber-stamping or sidestepping controversial issues—such as the government’s sudden cancellation in 2019 of the autonomy of the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir. At times, the Supreme Court has refused to enforce habeas corpus, a cornerstone of the Anglo-Saxon law that India supposedly follows.
The government also keeps much of the media, once among the liveliest in Asia, on a tight leash. It intimidates the press through tax raids, temporary bans on TV channels, and pressure on media magnates to sack recalcitrant journalists or risk harm to their business interests. And it lures the media with its massive advertising budget, which it uses to influence political coverage. A new breed of pro-government propaganda channels work around the clock to smear opposition leaders and hail Modi’s virtues. Since 2016, India has fallen nine spots on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, where it now ranks 142 out of 180 countries.
No matter the travails of Indian civil society, institutions, and media, elections have long been the brightest spot in any assessment of Indian democracy. These gargantuan exercises of democratic choice have boasted high voter turnout and been guided by a historically impartial election commission. But Jaffrelot argues that India has now succumbed to “electoral authoritarianism.” It still conducts multiparty elections, but they lack “democratic substance.” The BJP has tilted the playing field against the opposition by appointing alleged partisans to the Election Commission and punishing dissenters within it. The ruling party also enjoys a massive funding advantage over its rivals, thanks in part to the introduction of a new form of campaign finance: electoral bonds, which donors deposit into the registered bank accounts of political parties. Unlike other forms of campaign finance, such as cash donations, these bonds can be traced by state-owned banks overseen by the government. This makes those who contribute large amounts to the opposition vulnerable to government retribution. According to one estimate, India’s 2019 election cost $8.6 billion, more than the estimated $6.6 billion spent on last year’s U.S. presidential election. And the Association for Democratic Reforms, an Indian watchdog group, reported that in 2017–18, the BJP accounted for nearly three-fourths of all income declared by national political parties, over five times as much as its closest rival, the Indian National Congress did.
The democratic backsliding may be recent, but the ideological contest Modi has sharpened stretches back nearly a century. The standard-bearer of traditional Indian nationalism, Mohandas Gandhi, known to his followers as Mahatma, led India’s struggle for independence. Gandhi was a publicly pious Hindu, but he attempted to rally Indians of all faiths against British colonial rule. “If the Hindus believe that India should be peopled only by Hindus, they are living in a dreamland,” he wrote in Hind Swaraj (Indian Home Rule) in 1909. Gandhi’s foremost disciple and India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, fostered a polity that broadly met the essential criteria of secularism: everyone was free to practice his or her religion, and the state regarded all religions as equal in the public sphere. However, unlike France, for instance, India made no attempt to separate faith and state or to secularize society. Indian secularism rests not on shunning religion but on striving to treat all religions equally.
Jaffrelot contrasts Gandhi’s approach to religious pluralism with Hindutva (Hindu nationalism), a form of ethnic nationalism similar to other “xenophobic ‘sons of the soil’ movements throughout the world.” He sees Hindu nationalism as rooted in a lack of self-esteem induced by the nineteenth-century colonial stereotype of Hindus as “puny.” And demographic changes in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century raised fears among early Hindu nationalists that Hindus were a “dying race.”
Modi has hollowed out institutions that might have checked his power.
The most important Hindu nationalist ideologue, Vinayak Savarkar, was an atheist who rose to prominence in the first half of the twentieth century. He listed four criteria for national belonging: race, territory, language, and culture. For Savarkarites, only those who view India as both their fatherland and their holy land are true patriots, a belief that automatically casts suspicion on Indian Christians and Muslims, whose sacred sites lie outside the subcontinent. Gandhi famously made nonviolence a centerpiece of his political philosophy. By contrast, Hindu nationalists such as Savarkar condemned this stance as a form of weakness.
For more than four decades, Hindu nationalism remained on the margins of national life. But starting in the late 1980s, the BJP emerged as a major force in politics. The party championed a movement to build a temple to the Hindu deity Ram in the northern Indian town of Ayodhya, on the site of a sixteenth-century mosque that Hindu nationalists claim Muslim invaders erected at the precise spot where Ram was allegedly born. In 1992, a Hindu nationalist mob razed the mosque, sparking Hindu-Muslim riots in many parts of the country but also boosting the BJP’s electoral prospects, particularly in the populous Hindi-speaking heartland. Still, many pundits regarded the party as too far outside the national mainstream to claim power.
In 1998, the BJP formed a coalition government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who ruled for six years in part by mothballing the party’s signature cultural issues—building the Ram temple; ending the autonomy enjoyed by the country’s only Muslim-majority state, Jammu and Kashmir; and formulating a uniform civil code to put an end to the application of sharia in matters such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance when the participants are Muslim. Jaffrelot calls the period between 1998 and 2014—from the election of Vajpayee to the advent of Modi—one of “forced moderation,” compelled by the party’s need to forge alliances with nearly two dozen regional and caste-based parties, many of which depended on Muslim voters.
In 2014, Modi trounced the left-of-center National Congress and led the BJP to India’s first single-party majority in 30 years. His rise has turned conventional political wisdom on its head. Modi has shown that the BJP can consolidate enough votes among the Hindu majority—cutting across caste differences—to offset the party’s weakness among Christians and Muslims and end its dependence at the federal level on alliances with other parties. Jaffrelot contends that Modi has also disproved the “moderation thesis” proposed by some political scientists, which holds that the compulsions of electoral politics and governance tend to transform “radical parties” into “more moderate political actors.” Modi first rose to national prominence after bloody Hindu-Muslim riots occurred on his watch as chief minister of Gujarat in 2002—riots that killed more than 1,000 people, a large majority of them Muslims.
What is the secret of Modi’s political success? For starters, he has benefited from a decades-long effort by the RSS and the BJP to expand the party’s support beyond its traditional upper-caste base. Modi belongs to one of the Other Backward Classes, a broad category of numerically dominant but historically disadvantaged castes in the Indian state’s complex taxonomy of social groups. His plebian background—he famously sold tea at a railway platform in his native Gujarat—contrasts favorably with the patrician Nehru-Gandhi family, which once dominated Indian politics. As Jaffrelot, quoting the populism scholar Pierre Ostiguy, puts it, a swath of underprivileged Indians, many of them young men, view Modi as “both like me . . . and an ego ideal,” that is, the person they aspire to be. Like them, Modi lacks a fancy family pedigree, prestigious degrees, and fluency in English. Yet he rubs shoulders with world leaders and wields power over those who regard themselves as his social superiors.
Modi communicates directly with his followers through a radio program called Mann Ki Baat, or “Heartfelt Thoughts,” an attempt to create what Jaffrelot calls an “intimate, trust-based relationship between the leader and his people.” He has also launched a slew of populist government initiatives to signal his concern for the poor. These include the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission), the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (Prime Minister’s People’s Wealth Scheme), and the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (Prime Minister’s Brightness Scheme). They share common features: an eye-popping scale and a focus on dignity. The Swacch Bharat Abhiyan has built 66 million household toilets. The Jan Dhan Yojana has opened 425.5 million bank accounts for the poor. The Ujjwala Yojana has supplied subsidized cooking gas cylinders—a replacement for dung, firewood, and charcoal—to 83 million households.
At the same time, Modi cultivates what Jaffrelot calls an air of “worldly asceticism.” By presenting himself as something akin to a mystic, Jaffrelot points out, “Modi tries to match a very prestigious repertoire of Indian politics,” one whose foremost practitioner was Gandhi. Modi’s biography and brand of populism have turbocharged Hindu nationalism’s electoral appeal.
For many in India’s 200-million-strong Muslim minority, the consequences of the country morphing from a secular democracy to an ethnic democracy have been profound. Several BJP-ruled states have passed laws to curb “love jihad,” an imaginary phenomenon of Muslim men wooing Hindu women as a form of social warfare. India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, is run by Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu monk who founded an anti-Muslim militia and whose bloodcurdling rhetoric against Muslims once placed him beyond the pale of high office. Adityanath has called Muslims “two-legged animals that [have] to be stopped.” In spite of—or perhaps because of—these divisive appeals, Adityanath has won a devoted following in Uttar Pradesh, where now “the functions of head of government, spiritual leader, and militia chief are all wrapped up in one person,” as Jaffrelot puts it.
In his second term, Modi summarily scrapped the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir and passed a citizenship law that pointedly excludes Muslims from three neighboring countries from the benefits of fast-track naturalization. Muslims have long been underrepresented in the ranks of the army, the police, and the civil service, and the BJP’s rise has witnessed the extension of this marginalization to politics. Between 1980 and 2019, Muslim representation in the directly elected lower house of Parliament fell by nearly half, to 26 members, or 4.6 percent of the body, while the Muslim share of India’s population rose by nearly three percentage points, to 14.4 percent. The BJP does not have a single Christian or Muslim among its 303 directly elected members of Parliament. Jaffrelot argues that “Muslims today may well be India’s new Untouchables.”
Jaffrelot’s book is a powerful indictment of the Modi government and the direction the BJP has taken on Modi’s watch. But like Indian democracy, it has its share of flaws, including misspelled names of several prominent people. At times, Jaffrelot veers into conspiratorial territory. One can legitimately argue that the Supreme Court has become largely toothless during Modi’s rule, but it’s a different matter to claim without evidence, as Jaffrelot does, that this may be because the government is blackmailing judges.
Jaffrelot’s contention that the BJP’s rise reflects “an Indian-style conservative revolution” by old elites is not as straightforward as he suggests. The BJP may have checked the power of caste-based parties in the Hindi-speaking heartland, but it did this by diversifying the caste background of its own leadership. The old political adage that the BJP is merely the party of Brahmins (priests) and Banias (traders) no longer holds. Moreover, the BJP has largely supplanted India’s old English-speaking elite. In that sense, it is a party of parvenus rather than privilege.
The declaration of a hard-line Hindu nationalist victory is still premature.
Jaffrelot seems to take the Hindi-speaking heartland as a proxy for all of India. In reality, Hindu nationalism’s footprint is more limited than he suggests. A Christian or a Muslim in Uttar Pradesh may live in fear of Hindu nationalist vigilantes. But it’s hard to argue that this captures the experience of religious minorities in the large swaths of eastern and southern India ruled by non-BJP governments. In May, the BJP suffered stinging defeats in state elections in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal, suggesting a geographic limit to Modi’s brand of Hindu nationalism.
Jaffrelot is not optimistic about India’s future, to put it mildly. He believes the country is already transitioning from a “de facto Hindu Rashtra” (Hindu nation) to an “authoritarian Hindu Raj” (Hindu nation-state). Modi has grasped that in India, “charisma is above accountability.” His brand of nationalist populism has not only made India an ethnic democracy but also prepared the ground for authoritarianism.
One way to think of Jaffrelot’s prognosis is as a plausible worst-case scenario. There is no doubt that over the past seven years, India has traveled down a markedly illiberal path. But Modi still faces massive challenges that make the declaration of a hard-line Hindu nationalist victory premature, including a sputtering economy, the ravages of the pandemic, uncooperative state governments, border tensions with China, and a U.S. administration likely to be more attentive to human rights than its predecessor was. Liberal democracy in India may be on the ropes. But it’s still too soon to say if it’s down for the count.
Why the International Order Is Tilting Toward Autocracy