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Increasing Authoritarianism in India under Narendra Modi

02 Aug 2023
By Professor Nitasha Kaul

Since 2014, under the rule of the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a new chapter has being authored in India’s history, whereby the country has come to deviate from the basic principles of democracy, minority rights, and executive accountability. This needs greater recognition and urgent action.

Democracy is under increasing threat from authoritarianism in India. While the trappings of procedural democracy exist, the mere holding of elections does not guarantee whether people will be able to exercise their rights without fear, whether constitutional bodies will be able to act without the need to show favour, or ensure an elected government will act in ways that respect the rights of minorities.

The 2014 elections in India brought the Modi-led BJP to power on the promise of delivering development and Hindu nationalism (Hindutva). The 2019 elections – where BJP election spending was at the time the highest in the world, and partly funded by a new, unique, and opaque instrument of party-financing called the electoral bonds – focused on nationalism and Hindu majoritarian appeals almost exclusively.

Over the last decade, India has gone through a series of spectacular upheavals resulting from centralised and divisive decisions; these include the sudden demonetisation of a majority of the country’s paper currency in 2016, the overnight abrogation of autonomy and change of statehood for the Indian administered region of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019, and the creation of a religious route to Indian citizenship with the Citizenship Amendment Act in 2021. Meanwhile, routine changes to rules, institutions, and processes that often don’t make the headlines but are radically transformative in how they seek to curb free expression, suppress political opposition, and narrow accountability have also occurred. At different times, academics and students at universities, farmers, media persons, human rights activists, tribal leaders, atheists, and sportswomen have all faced intimidation. Some have been beaten up. Others have faced charges of sedition and imprisonment for simply expressing dissent.

Insurgent and indigenous populations in the country have witnessed a growing repression in response to demands for political freedoms, and religious minorities, especially Muslims and increasingly Christians, have been constantly “Othered” and attacked on fabricated charges. Muslims have faced lynchings on the sole suspicion of possessing beef. Christians have been attacked on charges of allegedly seeking to carry out faith conversions.

Governing through a mix of what I have called postcolonial neoliberal nationalism,”  the BJP is supported, controversially, by large conglomerates (like Gautam Adani and Mukesh Dhirubhai Ambani from Modi’s home state of Gujarat) and a far-right, nation-wide paramilitary group called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) with its militant Hindu nationalist family of organisations (Sangh Parivar).

Hindutva adherents deploy a proliferating vocabulary of Jihad accusations as a way to attack Muslim fellow citizens; here, an insinuation of Jihad is made against different aspects of Muslim life and livelihood. The most prominent of these is the conspiracy theory of “Love Jihad,” which is the allegation that inter-faith marriages, particularly between Muslim men and Hindu women, are part of a sinister, planned conspiracy. Likewise, Muslims are blamed for spreading the coronavirus, for buying land, for selling vegetables (“Corona Jihad,” “Land Jihad,” “Vegetable Seller Jihad”) and much more, in turn exposing them to social ostracism or violent retaliation from the Hindu right-wing.

India’s ruling party does not have a single elected Muslim member of parliament, and textbooks in the country were recently revised to delete mentions of prominent Muslim forebears or eras. The zeitgeist of Islamophobia in India is multidimensional and pervasive; it manifests in various registers so that Muslim Indian citizens are seen as suspect, Kashmiri Muslims are constructed as latent terrorists, Muslim refugees such as the Rohingya are called pests, and neighbouring Pakistan is represented as an existential enemy as opposed to a rival.

Faced with growing violence, effective democracy requires functioning checks and balances, but the mechanisms for seeking accountability are often rusty and rare. Court appeals are notoriously slow and, in many significant cases, judicial quietude has been eminently on display. The television media in India is not polarised in the standard sense with different extreme perspectives on display, but uniformly disciplined through aggressive corporate takeovers and enforced political perception management. Oversight bodies, such as the Enforcement Directorate, have been selective in pursuit of cases against opposition politicians. The leader of the prominent opposition Congress Party, Rahul Gandhi, has appealed to the Supreme Court following a judgement by Gujarat High Court in which he was disqualified from parliament on the accusation of defaming the surname “Modi.”

Meanwhile, there is a critical and accelerating push towards digital authoritarianism through a mix of increased surveillance and changes to legal provisions. BJP “IT cells” (Information Technology cells) farm Hindutva trolls who have been known to resort to graphic misogyny, gender-trolling, and coordinated abuse. Whatsapp is a prime means of spreading misinformation and disinformation. Social media companies censor content at government requests, which are at unprecedented levels, and the rates of internet shutdowns across provinces have also increased.

The many faces of Modi

Modi’s face is plastered on every other billboard and it is well-nigh impossible to open a newspaper that does not carry his image every day. Reflecting unusual levels of narcissism in public, he once wore a suit with his own name stitched in gold all over it, and is known to crave the camera in staged settings. Meanwhile, he does not engage with serious allegations made by a governor-rank figure against his handling of Kashmir’s politics or the Pulwama attacks. Aside from courting diaspora Indians overseas through appeal to a nativist pride, and participating in choreographed spectacles with assorted far-right international leaders, he keeps to a teleprompter script, offers a highly curated and benign presence on his weekly radio program and on twitter, and touts women’s empowerment while maintaining a studious silence in the face of the most egregious violence in the country (whether it is anti-minority lynchings by Hindu mobs or savage gang-rapes such as that of the 8 year old Aasifa in Kathua in 2018 or the Kuki-Zo tribal Christian women in Manipur in 2023). The Modi myth proffers the idea of a paternal, ascetic, and efficient leader at the helm of a civilisational resurgence of India as a “Vishwa Guru” (world leader).

In parallel, Modi’s foreign policy is marked by notable Indian refusals to vote at the UN against Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine and the curious absence of any reference to China in his speech following the Galwan confrontation on the Indo-China border in Ladakh. Modi’s Home Minister, Amit Shah, refers to India as having its own non-Western version of human rights – “human rights with Indian characteristics” – which is a remarkable adaptation of China’s “democracy with Chinese characteristics.” Indian and Chinese attitudes share several similarities towards the populations of contiguous regions of Kashmir and Xinjiang respectively, and the rhetoric of anti-Western assertion is common to both countries. Modi’s External Affairs Minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, pushes back against international concerns of democratic erosion and escalating violence against minorities by calling for an end to colonial mentalities, thus weaponising Western history to restrict current critique.

Political projects inimical to democracy in multiple countries are led by “Electorally Legitimated Misogynist Authoritarian (ELMA)” leaders who claim a monopoly on nationalism. Further, they come to power challenging neoliberalism, while profiting from crony capitalism. Along with the “Modi-fication” of the county in the last decade, India has seen its global rankings for democracy, media freedom, religious freedom, poverty, and hunger slip. Strategic minilateral engagements and the needs of economic statecraft notwithstanding, any facile Western notion that a country rapidly turning to authoritarianism can offer a counter to an authoritarian China needs careful re-examination.

Professor Nitasha Kaul is a multidisciplinary academic, novelist, media commentator, and public intellectual. She is a Professor of Politics, International Relations, and Critical Interdisciplinary Studies, and the Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy (CSD) at the University of Westminster, London. Twitter @NitashaKaul

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.