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Is India Turning Authoritarian?

Published 01 Sep 2023

On Tuesday 22 August 2023, Professor Rahul Mukherji, head of the Department of Political Science at the South Asia Institute at Heidelberg University, addressed the Institute on the democratic backsliding India has experienced under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Professor Mukherji believes that Indian democracy has devolved into a ‘competitive-authoritarian’ hybrid; ‘competitive’ in that the opposition can win elections, but ‘authoritarian’ in respect to the balance of power favouring the incumbent. Professor Mukherji also focused on the suppression of public dissent through the institutional crackdown on civic organisations in India. Professor Mukherji’s sombre viewpoints raise a confronting question: can the world’s biggest democracy survive or has it already died?

Professor Mukherji commenced with a comparative analysis of India’s democratic regression in relation to other countries. According to the V-Dem Democracy Report, Indian democracy declined from 70th in the world in 2016 to 93rd in 2020. Professor Mukherji highlighted that India’s democratic backsliding was much worse than the ‘illiberal democracies’ of Hungary and Poland during the same period. In comparison, the democratic rankings of some of India’s neighbours, such as Bhutan and Nepal, had improved.

Professor Mukherji maintained that this comparative analysis illustrated India’s descent into a ‘competitive-authoritarian’ regime: a state between democracy and authoritarianism. He highlighted the three main foundations of this form of governance:

  1. The institutionalised repression of civil society organisations;
  2. Sectarianism over social pluralism; and
  3. Governance by cronyism over governance by meritocracy.

The main proponent of this transformation is Prime Minister Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which adheres to Hindutva, a Hindu nationalist ideology that advocates for the establishment of a Hindu nation-state in India. Professor Mukherji argued that India’s descent into a ‘competitive-authoritarian’ system is transforming India from a secular state – outlined in the Preamble of the Indian Constitution – to a Hindu nationalist state. This is important because India’s 1.4 billion population – with its multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and multi-lingual composition – has been defined by its social pluralism since the dawn of the Indus Valley civilisation in 3000 BCE. India, despite being a Hindu-majority nation, has the world’s largest Sikh and Jain populations, third largest Muslim population, and fourth largest Buddhist population.

Professor Mukherji expanded upon specific laws approved by the Indian Parliament that were symptomatic of the repression of civil society organisations (foundation 1 above). He cited the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (2010) which forbids foreign funding to individuals and organisations whose work is detrimental to Indian ‘national interests’.  Similar to Russia’s ‘Foreign Agents Law’ (2012), the law has been slammed by critics as a means of suppressing public dissent by Modi’s ruling coalition, although it is important to note that the Act was introduced during the progressive premiership of Manmohan Singh who ruled India through a National Congress Party-led coalition from 2004-2014. Nonetheless, the most high-profile uses of the law have been under Modi’s premiership since 2014. For example, Greenpeace India has had its foreign funding cancelled in 2015 due to its alleged adverse impact on Indian economic interests, and Amnesty International had to close its India bureau in 2020 due to lack of finance after its foreign funding was discontinued

Professor Mukherji addressed the second foundation of a ‘competitive-authoritarian’ regime: the promotion of sectarianism over social pluralism. He referenced the abrogation in 2019 of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution which had granted special status to the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region. The Article bestowed Jammu and Kashmir – the only Muslim-majority state in India – its own constitution and autonomous administration. The Article was criticised by nationalists as a Faustian bargain with Islamic separatists while lauded by liberals as a means to pacify Islamic separatism. Nonetheless, India revoked the special status in August 2019. Consequently, Muslim protests – fuelled by border skirmishes between India and Pakistan earlier in the year – broke out. New Delhi responded by enforcing a ‘security lockdown’ – reminiscent of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s 1975-1977 nation-wide state of emergency – in order to curb the unrest and prevent terrorist attacks in the region. Thousands of Muslim Kashmiris were later extra-judicially detained while New Delhi implemented a curfew and telecommunications blackout. The lockdown was lifted in February 2021.

Professor Mukherji expanded on the last foundation of a ‘competitive-authoritarian’ hybrid: governance by cronyism over governance by meritocracy. He maintained that the ruling BJP has much influence over domestic law enforcement organisations such as the Enforcement Directorate and Central Bureau of Investigation. He asserted that Prime Minister Modi is using these organisations to persecute his political rivals, mostly on trumped-up corruption charges. The best known case of alleged political inference in a criminal process is the trial of Rahul Gandhi, the current leader of the Indian National Congress (INC). This year, Gandhi was sentenced to a maximum two years imprisonment on the charge of defaming Prime Minister Modi’s surname. Due to his conviction, Gandhi was automatically disqualified as a Member of Parliament. The Supreme Court of India later suspended Gandhi’s conviction which allowed him to be reinstated into Parliament. Gandhi’s supporters insist that the prosecution was politically motivated.

Professor Mukherji claimed that the anti-corruption Prevention of Money Laundering Act (2002) – similar to Russia’s anti-corruption Investigative Committee – was being used to persecute political dissidents on fictitious corruption charges. He asserted that the BJP even has degrees of influence over the Election Commission of India, which oversees Indian elections, and the Supreme Court. He argued that this influence is eroding the checks and balances that uphold Indian democracy.

Responding to a question from the audience concerning a possible timeframe for the end of Hindu-Muslim conflict in India, Professor Mukherji expressed his dissatisfaction over the tribalisation of Indian society into ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ camps. Social pluralism won when the INC defeated the BJP in the recent Karnataka legislative elections, but he issued an ominous warning that, unless the INC believes in multiculturalism, fascism will dominate India.

Asked how the hypothetical demise of Indian democracy will affect India’s foreign relations, Professor Mukherji argued that India’s Western partners – irrespective of India’s democratic decline – will continue to maintain a security-focussed relationship with New Delhi, for example through the QUAD, casting India as a counterbalance against China. He expressed his frustration that India had lost its influence in Afghanistan and Iran. He further expressed his disapproval over the complacent response by New Delhi in regards to Chinese-leased ports in Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Professor Mukherji concluded with the sombre observation that India’s relationship with Bangladesh is the only strong relationship India has with its immediate neighbours.

Responding to a question concerning how India’s ‘competitive-authoritarian’ decline will impact New Delhi’s relationship with Moscow, Professor Mukherji contended that Indian-Russian relations are founded on realist principles. He stated that mutual interests were the greatest reason why India has maintained a neutral response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. India’s purchase of discounted Russian petroleum was an added bonus of India’s neutral stance on the conflict.

Regarding his predictions of the 2024 Indian general election, Professor Mukherji asserted that the BJP-led coalition government has a 50/50 chance of retaining power due to the uneven playing field which favours the incumbent in India’s ‘competitive-authoritarian’ system. He maintained that in the scenario that the BJP-led coalition government is re-elected with a reduced majority, Prime Minister Modi may be compelled to step down by his coalition allies. Professor Mukherji concluded that the best outcome for Indian democracy would be an opposition victory.

Asked whether international pressure can forestall India’s democratic decline, Professor Mukherji stated that the impact of international pressure will be too little, too late. He considered that the international community had wasted its chance to stop India’s democratic backsliding by not voicing concern over the introduction of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act in 2010.

In response to a question concerning the importance of India in Australian foreign policy, Professor Mukherji suggested that Australia – on the basis of realpolitik – values any country that can counterbalance China. He argued that the recent Australia-India Free Trade Agreement will further enhance relations. He saw the trade agreement as a political victory for the BJP in the lead-up to the 2024 general elections.


Summary by AIIA NSW intern Matthew Vasic, a fifth-year undergraduate student studying law and international relations at Western Sydney University.


From left to right:  Matthew Vasic, intern, Prof Rahul Mukherji and AIIA NSW president, Ian Lincoln