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India, A Path Away from Democracy?

Published 18 Jun 2024
Paris Fleury

In 1950, when India created and ratified its Constitution, greatly expanding political and social participation and granting universal suffrage, the nation demonstrated its commitment to promoting democratic ideals. Despite high levels of rural and poor communities, lingering cultural impacts of the caste system, and low rates of literacy and education, so-called ‘inhospitable conditions’ for democracy, India has, over the past seventy-plus years, been widely considered to have established a thriving democratic system; and economically India has gone from strength to strength. Now, it is forecast that the nation will become the third largest economy in the world by 2030, behind the United States and China, so this year’s general election presents an opportune moment to reflect on the state of India’s democracy and to consider how it is faring against the rise of global populism. Unfortunately, the signs are not good. At the time of writing, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s third term victory seems inevitable, and it appears the ‘world’s largest democracy’ is losing sight of the true importance of freedom and equality. Without those values, is it truly a democracy at all?

India’s democratic backsliding has been apparent since the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), critics of secularism and proponents of Hindu nationalism, gained political traction in the late 1990s. Their ascension to power in 2014, with the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, solidified the cracks forming in the nation’s democratic system. The party and Modi’s politics have consistently centered around Hindutva. Hindutva originates from V.D. Savarkar’s 1923 work Hindutva: Who Is a Hindu? It describes Hindus as the ‘sons of the soil’ and India as their sacred motherland and places minority demographics as ‘outsiders.’ When the nation established its political system, India’s leading figures, Gandhi and Nehru, and their party, the Indian National Congress (INC), rejected Hindutva, arguing the need for religious anti-discrimination and equality to achieve a successful democratic regime. Yet, Modi has decisively skewed from this mindset. His rhetoric and legislation position the rights and freedoms of Hindu citizens above others.

In 2017, an amendment to the 1960 Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act banned the sale of cattle for slaughter. It followed social and political attacks on beef consumption and violence from self-designated Hindu ‘cow protectors.’ By manipulating a law to further the Hindu belief of the cow being sacred, the BJP ensured that Muslim citizens trafficking the animals faced extreme discrimination and even violence. This Hindu bias became increasingly apparent with the recent plans to roll out a 2019 national citizenship law. It provides Hindus, Parsis, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, and Christians who fled to India from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan with a fast track to naturalization. It excludes Muslims even though they are the majority population in these three nations.

Legislation by Modi’s party is only the tip of the Hindu-nationalist iceberg, and discriminatory violence against Muslims has been met with silence. At the same time, media that pushes prejudicial stories of Muslim citizens is praised. ‘Love jihad,’ the conspiracy theory that alleges Muslim men seduce Hindi women into marriages with the ultimate goal of converting them to Islam forcefully, is becoming an increasingly popular trope in Bollywood. The movie ‘The Kerala Story’ showcases this theory as it centers around women from Kerala being forced into Islam and made to fight for ISIS. Not only did Modi commend the film’s artistic message,  but the BJP promoted its national release.

The BJP’s attacks on the Muslim community are only a tiny portion of the political developments that are de-democratizing the ‘world’s largest democracy.’ Viable political competition has virtually disappeared, and the media and courts are increasingly stacked in Modi and the BJP’s favor. Until these problems are resolved and  all of India’s ethnic groups are treated equally, it is difficult to defend any argument that boasts that India is  ‘the world’s largest democracy.’

PS- Since I wrote this article, the Indian Elections have concluded and the results were not quite as dire as anticipated. Modi and his party failed to win an overall Parliamentary majority and lost 63 seats. However, the spread of authoritarianism in India may not be over considering Modi has retained his Prime Ministerial power. Only time will tell whether India can regain its full status as the ‘world’s largest democracy.’

Paris Fleury is in her final semester at the University of Sydney, where she is studying for a Bachelor of Arts (Politics and International Relations, French). While undertaking her degree, Paris spent a semester abroad at the prestigious Sciences Po University, where she received a High Distinction certificate for her work. She is also a member of the Peace and Security Team for the United Nations Association of Australia NSW Division. In this role, she serves as the youth representative for the Peace and Security Agenda. Her research interests include gender equality and feminist foreign policy, global sustainable development, and the future of hegemonic succession.