On May 16, 2014, a watershed moment occurred in the political history of India. The crushing general election victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the main Hindu nationalist party, did not only end the reign of the Congress Party but marked the rise to power of Narendra Modi. The former Gujarat Chief Minister and BJP's leader became Prime Minister of India. Introducing himself as the “voice of the people,” Modi kicked off a national-populist era, raising major concerns about the future of the “largest democracy in the world.” In spite of the controversy surrounding his persona, the Prime Minister enjoys massive popular support, and the BJP was reelected for another five-year term in 2019, “attaining a second consecutive single–party majority in the Lok Sabha (lower house of Parliament)” (Vaishnav & Balloch). Even though Modi's actions are dangerously close to the limits of constitutionality and often disrespect personal freedoms, democracy is still alive, and India cannot be considered an authoritarian state. This paper explores the correlation between some of the populist measures initiated by Narendra Modi's government and the apparent decline of the liberal democracy in India. Such initiatives include the centralization of power in the executive branch by attempting to weaken democratic institutions, the muzzling of the press, and the domestic abuse of religious minorities.
Since he came to power six years ago, Prime Minister Modi has endeavored to concentrate power in the executive branch by subverting institutions like the Indian Parliament, the bicameral legislative body. Under Modi's government, the Parliament is no longer a key place for debate. For instance, in March 2018, three weeks before the end of the annual budget session of Parliament, the Speaker of Lok Sabha and BJP controlled, Sumitra Mahajan, applied the “guillotine,” a procedure empowering her to pass outstanding budgetary allocations. In doing so, PM Modi's party denied the opposition the opportunity to have a say concerning the Budget, demonstrating the government's disregard for parliamentary procedure. In response, “the livid Opposition… [justly] raised cries of ‘murder of democracy’” (“Shocking how government passed the Union budget”). Undermining liberal institutions is a common feature of populism leading to the creation of a democratic illusion. Alas, the Indian Parliament is not the only institution permeable to such corrosion.
The judiciary seems under governmental influence too. This is the case for the Supreme Court of India, the country's apex court. Supreme Court cases are decided by at least two justices assigned by the Chief Justice, India's highest-ranking judge. Nonetheless, doubts on the integrity of the Court were casted in January 2018, when four senior justices calling for an exceptional press conference, accused Chief Justice Dipak Misra of procedure violation. Appointed by the President of India on the recommendation of Prime Minister Modi, Chief Justice Misra was “fiercely criticized… for repeatedly intervening to ensure only judges of his choice could hear the matter” (Safi). “The Chief Justice is clearly manipulating and misusing the judiciary in the interest of the government,” declared Prashant Bhushan, a prominent Indian public interest lawyer. During the news conference, the four justices made crystal-clear that the preservation of the Supreme Court's independence was vital for the protection of Indian democracy.
Additionally, Narendra Modi is leading a war against journalists who do not act as cheerleaders for his government. These journalists are labelled as “anti-nationals.” Since the country's independence from Britain in 1947, “India's free press has played a crucial role in protecting [the] democracy” (Goal & Gettleman). However, many media owners now faced pressure from the government to dismiss journalists criticizing the BJP or governmental reforms. Prime Minister Modi is also widely supported by an army of online trolls practicing cyber-bullying against protesters. In 2017, Bangalore journalist Gauri Lankesh, a fierce critique of Modi's government, was shot by Hindu nationalists while she was returning to her home. The persecutions in the media sphere generate a climate of fear and many journalists tend to censor themselves, fearing reprisals. The media is a vehicle of democracy and is often referred as a fourth power, counterbalancing the three others (executive, legislative, judiciary) and ensuring transparency. By extension, an attack against the freedom of the press is an attack against democracy. Unfortunately, oppression does not only target journalists.
Similarly, to most right-wing populist leaders, Prime Minister Modi is eager to create an “organic” nation where Hinduism prevails. Hence, since the rise of the BJP, religious minorities and Muslims in particular have been abused. Hindu nationalist mobs as well as anti-Muslims pogroms multiplied, and the government has been accused of fanning hatred. Furthermore, in December 2019, Modi government passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) making “persecuted religious minorities who belong to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian… communities… eligible for citizenship” (Findlay). However, this law does not include Islam. The CAA constitutes a significant step in the creation of Modi's Hindu nationalist Utopia.
For a state leader pretending to speak on behalf of the “people,” Narendra Modi is acting in a way that is rather harmful to individuals' interests. Indian government's grasp over liberal institutions and the hindrance of the free press demonstrate that Prime Minister Modi has been stifling the pillars of democracy during the last six years. While the future of India democracy is impossible to predict, the political system does not carry any term limits and a majority of the population still says, “Howdy Modi.” Under these circumstances, Modi will unsurprisingly continue to turn the country into an even more illiberal democracy, but the question remains: to what extent?
Nathan Martins is a sophomore at Santa Monica College, California, majoring in political science. His interests include comparative politics, U.S Foreign policy, and international relations in general. After graduating from college, Mr. Martins intends to pursue a law degree.
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