The Slatest

Can Anything Stop the Destruction of Indian Democracy?

Narendra Modi waves.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves to supporters at the Trade Facilitation Center and Craft Museum after offering prayers at Kashi Vishwanath temple, in Varanasi, India, on Monday.
Sanjay Kanojia/Getty Images

It wasn’t so long ago that Narendra Modi was cautiously welcomed by the world as a dynamic, big-chested insurgent, primed to upend India’s crooked, “elites”-dominated government and usher in a brave new era. Despite his Hindu nationalist bona fides and alleged role in the mass murder of hundreds of Muslims in the 2002 Gujarat riots, Modi’s notoriety was generally papered over in wide anticipation of his proposed political transformations, with praise hailing from not only influential Indians of all political persuasions but also leaders like U.S. President Barack Obama. In 2014, as he ascended to international power, glistening expectations were foisted not only upon his proposed anti-corruption measures, socio-economic agenda, and deregulatory reforms, but also upon India’s institutions—the media, the judiciary, the ballot box—to keep his more bellicose attitudes regarding pro-Hindu sentiment and bold executive power in check.

It should be clearer than ever how misplaced all of that faith was. Over the past five years, Modi and his allies in the far-right Bharatiya Janata Party have bent India’s institutions toward their will: The nominally independent Supreme Court has allegedly received undue pressure from BJP officials, and state judiciaries have been tampered with similarly; the legislative processes that undergird Parliament have been weakened; media outlets have seen journalists targeted and investigative stories killed; university faculty members have been infiltrated by nationalists and history textbooks rewritten to favor a Hindu-centric slant; election cycles at both the state and national level are clogged with corporate money and opaque financial practices; internet shutdowns are imposed harshly. The core of India’s democratic processes is now in the pocket of a party that would like to see them sweepingly remodeled. With India’s recent elections, which saw Modi return as prime minister and the BJP gain even larger influence within the lower house of the Parliament, known as the Lok Sabha, it’s apparent that the lasting power India’s Hindutva coalition seems to have achieved—a first for the ideological group—is the result of not only mass resentment politics, but also a hollowing out of the Indian political system, still known, for now, as the world’s largest democracy.

It would be a mistake to see this election referendum as a pure, unsullied expression of the will of the Indian people. The result certainly reflects the desires of many of India’s Hindus, but it was nevertheless deeply informed by the BJP’s power grab. A significant portion of the fake news and trolling that jammed social networks during the election is purported to have come from BJP-affiliated trolls. Protests were consistently cracked down upon. Tens of millions of Muslims, women, and lower-caste populations were allegedly targeted and purged from voter rolls. Violence at polls was prevalent, with multiple deaths reported at clashes in states across the country during the voting cycle. Local newspapers and TV stations transformed themselves into partisan PR for right-wing politicians and gleefully attacked liberals without a hint of fairness. Obscure black money was a large source of funding for one of the world’s most expensive elections.

It wasn’t Modi’s reelection in and of itself that was so surprising—despite a dip in approval ratings earlier this year due to a still-shaky economy and social discontent, he’s still the country’s most popular political figure. Rather, it was the absolute landslide both he and his party obtained: Never has a political party outside of the historically dominant Congress Party held such singular power for so long. Part of what helped the BJP in the past two national elections was the sustained weakness of Congress, still thought of as the primary national opposition: It proved the halcyon days of the party that led the country for most of its post-independence history are not going to return anytime soon, with the memory of its earlier policy failures and criminal scandals still resonating within the minds of many Indians.

But there’s more to it: The steps the BJP has taken to consolidate its grip on power have paid off. Indian politics as usual, dependent on name recognition and historical favor, is no match for unprecedented new conservative forces. An opposition that can properly face up to the BJP’s chicanery has to take into account that it has to face down not just mass xenophobic anger, but all sorts of new governmental mandates designed to keep the ruling party in power. This task is especially urgent because there are certainly more tricks to come. The government may now feel prepared to impose its proposed internet censorship rules, often compared to those of China. Politicians have switched sides arbitrarily, and more could now feel increasingly empowered to do so. The few dissenting jurists of the Supreme Court and statehouses could be cleaned out as soon as possible. And there’s no telling what sort of further legislative tricks within Parliament an emboldened BJP could get up to.

The next few years look grim. What little the remaining institutions have done to push back against Modi’s power is likely to further diminish over the next half-decade, likely through means not dissimilar to what the Republican Party has been pursuing in America to entrench its power. If a formidable resistance movement is to take place against the BJP and take India back from the illiberal brink, it must contend, first and foremost, with the democratic pillars that have been increasingly whittled. Hopefully, it isn’t too late.