India’s geopolitical heft will trump concerns over the state of democracy as it goes to the polls

As Modi heads towards a third term, concerns about India’s imperfect democracy will matter less to the West than its potential as a bulwark against China.

Expert comment Updated 13 May 2024 Published 11 April 2024 4 minute READ

India’s 18th general election will be the world’s largest electoral exercise and is likely to be the most expensive election ever, with estimates the cost will exceed that of the 2020 US presidential vote.

It is also extraordinary from a political perspective as it will likely entail a third consecutive term for Prime Minister Narendra Modi – a feat only achieved by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

Modi’s success can be attributed to a combination of his brand, a weak and divided opposition, and creeping authoritarianism which has allowed his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to consolidate its position.

Democratically elected vs democratic backsliding

Analysis outside India on Indian politics tends to focus on concerns about democratic backsliding under the Modi government, but this overlooks the fact that Modi remains a democratically elected leader whose hold on power largely reflects the will of the people.

Modi’s popularity is rooted in four factors. The first is the government’s welfare and development-driven agenda, transplanted from the so-called ‘Gujarat model’ from Modi’s time as chief minister of Gujarat state from 2001 to 2014.

Modi remains a democratically elected leader whose hold on power largely reflects the will of the people.

The model’s emphasis on infrastructure development and policies aimed at attracting investment into strategically important sectors has been emulated by other states, resulting in competition for foreign investment (competitive federalism), and contributing to India’s emergence as the world’s fastest growing major economy (notwithstanding challenges facing the Indian economy, including growing inequality and generating employment to leverage the country’s demographic dividend).

The second factor is the BJP’s Hindutva or Hindu nationalist ideology. This has been evident in several government policies, from the decision to rescind the special autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019, to the Citizenship Amendment Act that fast-tracks citizenship for persecuted religious minorities from several neighbouring countries – but notably not Muslims. The most recent of example of the Hindutva agenda at work came in January with the consecration of the Ram temple in Ayodhya on the site of a mosque that was demolished by Hindu mobs in 1992.

The third factor that explains Modi’s hold on power is the promotion of a more assertive and muscular foreign policy. India has repeatedly demonstrated itself to be a more consequential geopolitical actor under the Modi government: retaliating to terrorist attacks by Pakistan-based militants in 2019, the country’s 2023 G20 presidency, its successful space programme, as well as recent anti-piracy naval deployments in the Indian Ocean, and countering attacks by Houthi rebels targeting commercial shipping.

The final factor is Modi’s personal popularity, which no Indian politician or party has been able to emulate. A recent poll revealed a 78 per cent approval rating for Modi, making him the most popular among several democratically-elected world leaders. This reflects Modi’s strong skills as an orator and his man of the people persona.

However, it also alludes to the presence of a weak and divided opposition that has failed to successfully challenge the government on some of its key policy failures. These include the botched response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021 and demonetization that entailed the sudden withdrawal of most banknotes in 2016.

Efforts to forge a grand opposition coalition going by the acronym INDIA (India National Developmental and Inclusive Alliance), comprising over two dozen political parties, has also struggled to gain traction amid a string of defections and challenges in securing consensus on seat-sharing arrangements for the upcoming polls.

The main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, which has led post-colonial India for over two-thirds of the country’s history, has become a shell of its former self: the party was reduced to 52 seats after the last election, controls only three of India’s 28 states, and has not been re-elected at state level since 2014.

The Aam Admi Party (Common Man’s Party), which has emerged as the third most important national political party in recent years, has also been crippled by the recent arrest of its leader, Arvind Kejriwal, on charges of money laundering.

This last development highlights concerns about democratic backsliding in India. There are signs of the government pursuing authoritarianism by stealth by employing key levers of power – including the judiciary, media, and security services – to mount a witch-hunt against opposition politicians and civil society.  

Institutions such as the Enforcement Directorate have been used to mount investigations against members of the opposition including Kejriwal, while tax raids have targeted several NGOs and media organizations. This has led to a narrowing civic space amid a climate of growing self-censorship in the media, civil society, and academia.

The government’s Hindutva agenda has also put India’s secular credentials under strain, seeking as it does to demolish the divide between state and religion and enabling the BJP to give a louder voice to the country’s illiberal proclivities, as noted by instances of vigilantism targeting religious minorities.

A third term Modi government with a strengthened mandate will be empowered to double down on its agenda of transforming India into a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ (Hindu nation). This could include such policies as the implementation of a uniform civil code that seeks to enforce a single set of rules on marriage, divorce, and inheritance across religious communities and the centralization of power through proposed constitutional changes and a revision of parliamentary constituencies that would exacerbate a growing north-south divide.

Geopolitical considerations

While the West has expressed growing concern about the trajectory of India’s democracy, when framed through the prism of a geopolitical rivalry between the US and China, India’s imperfect democracy trumps China’s one-party state.

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This means that as long as India continues to be seen as a bulwark against the rise of China, concerns about democratic backsliding will continue be downplayed, at least at an official level. This became evident during allegations of Indian complicity in the killing and attempted killing of an ethnic Sikh Canadian and US national respectively in 2023. The largely muted response to these allegations demonstrated that deepening relations with India remains a strategic priority for most Western countries.

However, this also highlights a potential fault line in transatlantic perspectives of India. At present, the US and Europe are broadly aligned on engaging India but if concerns continue to grow about democratic backsliding in India, it is possible to envision a growing divergence.

The US is more likely to overlook or downplay concerns about the status of India’s polity than are European countries.

This comes from the fact that there is a stronger consensus on viewing China as a long-term strategic rival in the US compared to Europe so the perception of India as a bulwark against the rise of China is stronger in Washington than in Brussels.

This means that the US is more likely to overlook or downplay concerns about the status of India’s polity than are European countries, where human rights considerations have historically been more prominent in guiding foreign policy decisions. It will be within this context that India’s relations with the West must be examined under a potential third term Modi government.