Democracy in India

Explaining the history, structure and challenges of democracy in the Republic of India.

Published 7 April 2022 Updated 6 July 2023 8 minute READ

Dr Gareth Price

Former Senior Research Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme

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

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.

There has been considerable development in India since independence, but it has been uneven.

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.

Final section

Since taking power the BJP has been preoccupied with pursuing this agenda. Hindu nationalists are not concerned about other religions which originate in India, such as Sikhism and Jainism, but its attitude to religions which originate elsewhere, notably Islam and Christianity, is more hostile. The BJP argues that other parties have privileged the minority (Muslim) population, and that it is levelling up the status of Hindus.

Kashmir, the only Muslim-majority state in India, was put under lockdown from 2019-2021 and subjected to a communications blackout. The region’s autonomous status was revoked, and thousands were arrested, including Kashmiri politicians, activists and separatists.

In Assam, a north-eastern state, where illegal immigration is a significant problem and Muslims represent around the third of the population, detention camps have been created for those who cannot prove their Indian citizenship.

This followed the Citizenship Amendment Act passed in 2019, which eased citizenship requirements for various religions – but expressly omitted Muslims. 1.9 million Muslims had already been effectively stripped of their citizenship in Assam after being left off India’s National Register of Citizens.

But the BJP’s attempt to remake India has seen political discourse become increasingly polarized, while economic growth has slowed. It has also eroded trust in India’s institutions and in basic democratic foundations like the rule of law.

Trust in the law is further undermined by India’s dysfunctional legal system, which leaves many languishing in detention before trial for ‘crimes’ including peaceful protest. Meanwhile Amnesty International reports numerous uses of excessive force by India’s police and security forces.

India also faces several demographic challenges. Decades of selective abortion have led to a significant imbalance between males and females. India is currently undergoing a ‘demographic dividend’ – a rising working age population. However, it is struggling to generate jobs. Unemployment stands at a 40-year high.  Finally, population growth has been higher in poorer northern states than in generally better-educated southern states.

Indian democracy faces further challenges because of criminality in the political system. 43 per cent of those who won national parliament seats at the 2019 general election had been charged with a crime of some kind.

Democracy and corruption in India

Indian politics has been plagued by corruption for decades. A wave of scandals engulfed the Congress-led coalition government that assumed power in 2010.

Various accusations were made in relation to the 2010 Commonwealth Games. The Indian government formed a special committee to investigate allegations against the Games Organizing Committee, resulting in arrests of the Committee Chair and various other officials. As of March 2022, no convictions have occurred.

Another major ‘scandal’ saw India’s telecoms minister, Andimuthu Raja, imprisoned on corruption charges relating to India’s auction of 2G spectrum licences. The case damaged the coalition government’s support, though it was eventually dismissed.

As part of their winning 2014 electoral strategy the BJP promised to tackle corruption. High-profile arrests have taken place, including that of former finance minister and Congress party MP, Palaniappan

Chidambaram, who was charged in 2019 over allegations that he cleared foreign investments in exchange for bribes while minister in 2007.

However, the BJP has faced corruption allegations of its own. Congress accused the government of favouritism in the awarding of contracts relating to a €7.8 billion purchase of Rafael fighter jets and the privatization of six major airports, with Modi allies winning lucrative contracts. Again, nothing has so far been proved.

Future of democracy in India

The trajectory of Indian democracy is more uncertain after two terms of BJP rule, as key democratic institutions have proven themselves to be brittle. Opponents and critical journalists have been harassed, prosecuted, investigated for tax irregularities or put under surveillance, restricting critical voices.

Election campaign finance laws have become more opaque, making it easier for individuals to make unlimited anonymous donations, undermining the integrity of elections. Worst of all, religious division and resentment has intensified, challenging the constitutional right to religious freedom and undermining the rule of law.

Government measures against Muslims have stoked a more polarized politics reflected online and in communities.

In December 2021 BJP allies helped organize an event in the northern state of Uttarakhand at which Hindu leaders called for violence against Muslims. Public lynchings have taken place elsewhere and been shared on social media.

The BJP is accused of encouraging religious division in pursuit of its objective of a Hindu homeland, rowing back from the earlier secular consensus.

Whether such a monochrome vision can fit in a country as diverse as India is far from clear cut.

Will democracy survive in India?

Through its control of the media, monopolization of campaign finance and harassment of opponents, India seems set on a path to becoming an illiberal pseudo-democracy similar to Turkey or Russia.  However, when the BJP has faced a united opposition in recent state elections it has generally lost.

It has also failed to usher in a period of higher economic growth. While the pandemic had a significant negative impact, so too have some of the government’s policy choices.

Demonetization was a BJP initiative apparently intended to tackle widespread tax evasion. Around 90 per cent of all transactions in India take place in cash and few people pay income tax. In 2016 the government made 86 per cent of banknotes in India worthless in an effort to address the issue by surfacing untaxed cash.

There were some positive impacts – widening the tax base and encouraging digital payments for instance – but most economists agree the pain far outweighed the gains, particularly in rural India.

In 2020 the government proposed a series of reforms to the agriculture sector. India’s system of agriculture is in dire need of reform. Most farmers are poor, and while the country is self-sufficient in food, malnutrition is widespread. Around 40 per cent of India’s food production rots somewhere along inefficient supply chains.

While some economists suggested the reforms would benefit India, many did not. Thousands of farmers, mostly from Punjab and Haryana, demonstrated outside Delhi. After months of protests in 2021 the government was forced to back down.

While there is a disparity between the BJP’s campaign success and its record in government, many Indians may well believe that any alternative party would have fared worse.

Nonetheless, the most significant factor in determining recent elections, and likely to determine the outcome of the next general election, will be whether opposition parties can work together or compete, splitting the anti-BJP vote.