This article examines the challenges faced by India’s democracy, commonly referred to as the largest in the world, and its future at a time of increased political polarization.
Indian political system
India’s government is loosely modelled on the British Westminster system. It consists of a president as head of state; an executive headed by the prime minister; a legislature consisting of a parliament with an upper and lower house (the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha); and a judiciary with a supreme court at its head.
543 members are elected to the Lok Sabha through a first-past-the-post general election, held every five years. State representatives are indirectly elected to the Rajya Sabha on staggered six–year terms, so every two years around one-third are changed, elected by state legislatures.
India’s constitution sets out the country’s political code, federal structure, powers of government and guarantees Indians’ rights, including to equality before the law and freedoms of speech, assembly, movement and others.
The system is complicated by India’s caste system, a hierarchical social structure that divides the Hindu majority into groups, with ‘Brahmins’ at the top and ‘Dalits’ at the bottom of society. Last names often indicate to which caste a person belongs.
India’s constitution banned caste discrimination and early governments introduced quotas to provide fairer allocation of jobs and education, but caste remains a powerful factor in politics. In some regions political parties still court voters according to castes, who tend to vote as a block.
Secularism and democracy in India
India’s constitution was adjusted to describe it as a secular state during the 1975 emergency, and a later court ruling found that India has been secular since independence. But India is understood to be a deeply religious country, with diverse religions represented in its population.
The constitution is secular in that it prohibits the persecution of individuals for their religious beliefs, but it does not specifically separate church and state in the fashion of the United States constitution.
Religion is an important factor in Indian politics with politicians courting votes by caste or religious affiliation.
For more than a century, Hindu nationalists have called for the country to be redefined as a Hindu homeland.
History of democracy in India
After gaining independence from Britain in 1947, the government was initially dominated by the Indian National Congress Party (‘Congress’). The party was heavily identified with independence leader, Mahatma Gandhi, who was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist in 1948.
Jawaharlal Nehru was prime minister from independence and served for 17 years. Congress’ electoral dominance would last for the next four decades.
India is an incredibly diverse nation with many regional variations, religions and languages. Some external observers of India expected the country would break up as a result. In fact, Congress managed these differences effectively, redrawing state boundaries along linguistic lines and forming a coalition of regional powerbrokers, rather than attempting to impose a centralized state run out of Delhi.
In the 1970s Indira Gandhi broke with this successful formula and attempted to concentrate power in the central government. When these efforts were resisted, she declared a state of emergency in 1975, arresting journalists, politicians and other opponents. In 1977 she lifted the emergency, held elections, and was defeated by a coalition, giving India its first non-Congress government.
Though that government quickly failed, the election fractured the Congress coalition that had held since independence, creating regional Congress breakaway parties. It also empowered parties like the communists, whose Left Front would go on to rule the state of West Bengal, bordering Bangladesh, for three decades.
Support for Congress gradually eroded over the decades, but the party has remained reliant on the Gandhi dynasty – Indira and her descendants. (It is worth noting that Indira was Nehru’s daughter and was not related to Mahatma Gandhi. She was married to Feroze Gandhi – who was not related to Mahatma either).
Rajiv Gandhi led Congress to power again in the 1985 election, which followed the assassination of his mother Indira in 1984. But this proved a one-off rather than a return to the dominance of old.
25 years of coalition governments followed, sometimes led by Congress and some by other parties, from 1989 up until 2014. The 2009-2014 Congress-led coalition, led by Manmohan Singh, was increasingly portrayed by political opponents as representing a decadent, English-speaking elite lacking vision for India.
India grew relatively strongly during the period, but the sense that a more authoritarian form of government might deliver more was common, particularly among the urban middle class.
2014 saw Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of Gujarat from 2001, elected prime minister. Modi had cultivated an image as an efficient governor who had transformed Gujarat’s economy, attracting investment from various Indian industrialists.
He was also known for his Hindu nationalist beliefs and for the Gujarat riots of 2002. Months of communal violence spread across the state that year, after Modi blamed Islamic terrorists for a fire on a train of Hindu pilgrims.
The riots resulted in more than a thousand, mostly Muslim, deaths. Modi’s administration was accused of both inciting the violence and then failing to bring it under control but was cleared of complicity in 2012.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Modi’s party, won 31% of the vote in 2014’s general election, enough to gain 282 seats – an outright majority. In 2019 the BJP increased its majority, winning 37% of the popular vote and securing 303 seats.
Most of the BJP’s support is from the most populous and generally poorer Hindi ‘heartland’ states in the north of India like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar, though it would like to grow support in other states.
Challenges of democracy in India
Perhaps the greatest challenge democracy faces in India is that is has failed to deliver the kind of sustained economic development enjoyed by neighbours like China over the last four decades. It has also failed to eliminate extreme poverty.
Educated elites in more globalized cities like Delhi and Mumbai live completely different lives from India’s poorest citizens.
Low-wage, low-skilled jobs remain the probable form of employment for millions of young Indians, particularly in poorer, populous states such as Uttar Pradesh, creating a large population of poor disenchanted voters.
Indian nationalism and populism have fed off this discontent by scapegoating religious minorities – notably Muslims and Dalits – while increasing pride for many Hindus.
Prime Minister Modi and the BJP party represent the Hindu nationalist movement, whose ideology – Hindutva - has remained consistent for a century. Since before independence nationalists have argued that India should be the homeland for South Asia’s Hindus, as Pakistan was for its Muslims.
The contemporary BJP hopes to consolidate the Hindu community – arguing, not without merit, that caste divisions were artificially exaggerated during the colonial period as part of a divide and rule strategy by the British.