Modi’s India has become less liberal but better governed

Political freedoms have eroded under the BJP’s Hindu nationalism. But as the election looms, Indian democracy is in better shape than widely assumed, argues Chietigj Bajpaee.

The World Today Updated 18 March 2024 Published 1 December 2023 3 minute READ

India goes to the polls this spring in what will be the world’s largest electoral exercise – with more than 900 million registered voters in the world’s most populous country of 1.4 billion people.

The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has defied the norms of Indian politics by staying in power for almost a decade. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the BJP has won two consecutive elections under four key pillars: the BJP’s Hindu nationalist ideology known as Hindutva; a welfare and development-driven agenda; hyper-nationalism; and the Modi brand. The party’s rule has coincided, however, with the country acquiring the label of an illiberal democracy.

An illiberal democracy

Sweden’s V-Dem Institute referred to India as an electoral autocracy as democratic principles, including the freedom of expression, have come under strain. The country’s secular credentials have also been called into question as minority rights have been squeezed.

India has fallen 11 places on the World Press Freedom Index to 161 out of 180 countries amid claims of growing ‘violence against journalists, the politically partisan media and the concentration of media ownership’. Freedom House has also dropped its ranking from ‘Free’ to ‘Partly Free’ amid a deterioration in internet freedom.

While India has become less liberal, governance has arguably improved. The best example of this is the domain of digital public infrastructure, which has helped to streamline welfare payments while reducing space for corruption.

Narendra Modi’s government has been accused of pursuing authoritarianism by stealth.

India’s status as the largest democracy also shapes its role as an increasingly important geopolitical actor on the world stage. This comes as the West holds up India’s democratic credentials as one of the pillars of engagement with the country alongside its role as a bulwark against the rise of China.

India offers a different model of democracy from what is seen in the West. A Westminster-style parliamentary democracy co-exists side by side with more indigenous systems of governance.

Democracy remains well entrenched in Indian society as noted by the Panchayat Raj system of village governance that dates back over three millennia. Dynastic politics is a key component, rooted in a system of patronage that can be traced to India’s caste system and the era of princely states. Most of India’s political parties are dominated by a single family or leader.

Recent years have seen growing concerns amid allegations of democratic backsliding. The government has been accused of pursuing authoritarianism by stealth.

During a recent visit to the country, local think tanks reported government pressure, for example, after being subject to tax raids. Others have changed their research agendas to focus on issues such as tech policy that are more palatable to the government. Some have adopted business models that make them less vulnerable to government scrutiny, such as registering as a corporate entity, which avoids regulations that restrict foreign funding.

‘One Nation, One Election’

The government has also unveiled a ‘One Nation, One Election’ agenda, whereby national and state elections would be held simultaneously. While ostensibly about improving the efficiency of the electoral process, it offers an unfair advantage to the political party ruling at the centre over regional parties.

Yet Indian democracy is more robust than commonly perceived. It has come a long way since 1975 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imposed a state of emergency and suspended democratic rule for almost two years.

India maintains a vibrant opposition, particularly at the state level where the BJP has lost a string of recent elections. This shows that voters maintain a high degree of democratic autonomy while elections remain relatively free and fair, although the erosion of a free and independent press raises questions about their ability to make informed decisions.

The plethora of political parties at the state level also reflects India’s federal structure, which like the United States grants a high degree of autonomy to states over key economic and social policies.Even at the national level, there is a renewed vigour in the opposition with the establishment of a grand coalition – the India National Developmental Inclusive Alliance – comprising more than two dozen political parties, although there are concerns about the viability of such an unwieldy coalition given the lack of consensus on key issues.

The flavour of Indian democracy has also changed with the growth of the country. Good governance has become a vote winner and not just among the urban middle class. A good example of this is Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI).

Foreign policy has become an increasingly prominent election issue.

Comprising a triad of identity, payments and data management, DPI has empowered citizens who previously lacked access to formal healthcare, education and banking systems, while reducing facilitation payments that encourage corruption. According to the government, between 2013 and 2021 this saved the equivalent of 1.1 per cent of India’s GDP.

As India’s status in the world has grown, foreign policy has become an increasingly prominent electoral issue. Historically, elections were dominated by day-to-day livelihood issues. The current government has changed this in two ways: first, by promoting its credentials as being tough on security and, second, by drawing attention to India’s elevated status on the world stage.

The former includes a more assertive approach towards countries challenging India’s sovereignty, evident in the 2019 election in the aftermath of Indian military operations against Pakistan following a terrorist attack on the country. This created a rally-around-the-flag effect, which strengthened the BJP’s election performance.

In the run-up to the 2024 election the government is again likely to seek votes by promoting the country’s muscular foreign policy. This could range from drawing attention to New Delhi’s response to border skirmishes with China in 2020, to challenging allegations of Indian complicity in the assassination of a Canadian national on Canadian soil in June.

Government efforts to exploit India’s growing global status for electoral purposes are reflected in the decision to delay India’s G20 presidency by bringing it closer to the election, in promoting India’s space programme, in managing the Cricket World Cup and in India’s bid to host the 2036 Olympics.

A ‘lesser evil’

While the West has expressed concerns about India’s political trajectory, ultimately India’s imperfect democracy is regarded as the ‘lesser evil’ to China’s one-party dictatorship.

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Framed in the context of the growing polarization and potential bifurcation of the international system marked by the strategic rivalry between America and China, India’s democratic credentials continue to trump backsliding on its liberal credentials. For this to change there would need to be a significant escalation of communal unrest within India or signs that the BJP’s Hindutva agenda is spilling on to the world stage.

Until then, the West, and the US in particular, will continue to throw its weight behind India as a means of diluting China’s leadership of the Global South.