With the rise of Narendra Modi to power, the world’s biggest democracy has entered a manifestly shaky period. But how should we conceptually map the shakiness? India after 2014 is not a case of democratic collapse but one of democratic erosion or democratic backsliding.
For most democratic theorists, competitive elections are a necessary condition for the functioning of a democracy. “No elections, no democracy” is a theoretical dictum of widespread acceptability. Since independence in 1947, India has held 17 national and 389 state elections. Other than a twenty-one-month period of nationwide authoritarianism (June 1975–March 1977) and a few electoral suspensions in areas of unrest and insurgency, elections have decided who will rule India and its states and, after 1992–93, its local governments as well. This has been true even in the period of democratic backsliding since 2014.
It is hard to predict whether the electoral core of democracy will remain unimpaired in the coming years, but as of now, despite the ongoing democratic erosion, the electoral principle remains intact. Modi may not have lost nationally since 2014, but he has lost a number of state elections. A Donald Trump-like campaign, questioning election integrity in the face of defeat, has not been launched.
What the statistics say
The V-Dem Institute’s dataset (Coppedge et al. 2021) has five democracy indices: electoral, liberal, participatory, deliberative, and egalitarian. Of these, following standard democratic theory, I stick to the first two: the electoral (for V-Dem, that means free and fair elections, freedom of expression, and freedom of association), and the liberal (which covers, in addition to electoral democracy, individual and minority rights, and constraints on the executive, both legislative and judicial).
Figure 2.1 presents India’s electoral and liberal indices since 1950. The electoral index hovers around 0.7 for most of the period since then, with the exception of the 1975–77 Emergency and the recent decline. The liberal index is consistently below the electoral index, mostly staying between 0.5 and 0.6, with a lowering in the two periods noted above: 1975–77 and in recent years.
There are some typical patterns that have repeatedly emerged in post-British India.
Political parties are remarkably free at the time of elections. They are, of course, prohibited from inciting violence. Short of that, they can make virtually any argument in election campaigns.
The election-time freedoms, however, coexist with their curtailments between elections. Once the winning party or coalition forms the government, restrictions are often placed on civil liberties, especially on freedom of expression. Governments generally make two kinds of arguments against free speech: that it offends the sentiments and honour of certain groups, or it hurts national interest. On these two grounds, writers, artists, students, and nongovernmental organisations have often been legally or administratively harassed, even jailed.
These problems are common to all kinds of governments and parties. But there is no doubt that the gulf between the electoral and liberal aspects of Indian democracy becomes especially wide when Hindu nationalists are in power. This was true between 1998 and 2004 and has been especially glaring since 2014.
The explanations for India’s democratic persistence can be divided up into two blocs: structural and elite-centered.
Inadequacy of structural explanations
A very large body of democratic theory has primarily pointed to structural factors that make it easier, or harder, for countries to institutionalise democracy: level of income, level of inequality, class structure, and degree of ethnic diversity. Some other scholars locate the explanation in the properties of political or societal culture.
There is no doubt that, generally speaking, the structural factors have some validity. The correlation, for example, between high incomes and democratic survival is considerable. Adam Przeworski et al argue that income correctly predicted the type of regime in 77.5 percent of the cases. But it also means that in 22.5 percent of the cases, the relationship did not hold. India clearly belongs to this latter, smaller category. It had been a low-income country until roughly 2007, graduating to a middle-income category after that, but a low per capita income did not undermine its democracy.
Similarly, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson may well be correct in stating that “democracy has the best chance to emerge in societies with middle levels of inequality”. In Britain or Latin America, class realities might have made universal franchise a means of obtaining the “right to a good coat . . . a good hat . . . a good roof . . . [and] a good dinner”, but in India, securing dignity from the daily insults of the caste system might well have been a larger impulse, as some have argued.
In conditions like this, lasting for centuries, the struggle of lower castes in India has been, first, for dignity and for being treated as human beings, and only later for higher income equality (Chakrabarti 2019). Indeed, lower castes, given their large numbers, have used India’s democracy to press somewhat successfully for conditions of dignity; their success at income improvements have not been as great (Chauchard 2017; Jensenius 2017; Varshney 2000).
Bringing political elites in
If structural accounts are not fully adequate, we go next to agent-centric explanations. The agents that carry democratic politics include elites and political organisations, especially political parties, and those related to movements. These are also often—and rightly—labeled as political, as opposed to structural, factors.
Mainwaring and Pérez-Liñán (2013) write: Political actors, not structures or cultures, determine outcomes, even though structures and cultures affect the formation and preferences of actors.
Ziblatt (2017) also points to the importance of elites and favours the elite-centric account of O’Donnell and Schmitter (1986): If elites can be made secure with regard to their future wealth, status, and power as democratisation unfolds, . . . critical portions of the elite will become reluctant but essential democrats. On the other hand, if elites remain insecure, politically fragmented, and fearful of major losses in their future, then they will support and even lead counterrevolution, creating a historic record of unsettled democratisation. (Ziblatt 2017, 16)
Central to this argument is the idea of a clash between incumbent elites and emerging elites, and a compromise between the two as the foundation of democratic stability.
After independence, when the Congress enacted a land reform programme, aimed at crushing landlord power, the landlords began to operate at a regional, vernacular level. As Weiner (1967) showed, the landlords penetrated the district and provincial levels of the Congress Party as party members, and managed to block land reforms with varying degrees of success in different states. In an India which was 83 percent rural at the time of independence, the Congress Party needed the landlords to expand its organisational presence in the countryside. Basically, there emerged a contradiction between the political imperatives of party building and the economic policy goals of land redistribution and tenancy reforms (Varshney 1995). And once the landlords were inside the party, they could begin to impede the implementation of land reforms. Thus, conservative parties representing landlord interests might not have risen in a big way, as in Western Europe, but a functionally equivalent political form—penetration of the ruling party at lower levels—emerged to protect landlord interests.
But these messy equations emerged later, not at the time of India’s democratic commencement. Moreover, they affected the lower political levels. The decision to democratise was taken at the summit of the polity, which was firmly in the hands of the emerging, not incumbent, elites. It is the emerging elites who devised India’s democratic constitution. And in the vigorous debates of the Constituent Assembly (CA), lasting nearly three years, one sees enough evidence of arguments based on values, not any recognisable display of interests.
Interests attached to democracy did emerge later at higher levels of polity. But at its inception, the tenor of debates about democracy do not provide evidence of interests. That is why it is important to draw a distinction between the origins of democracy in India, and its persistence. The former was heavily based in elite values, and the latter in a combination of values as well as interests.
New elite values and democratic decline
In its 2021 report, Freedom House announced: “India, the world’s most populous democracy, dropped from Free to Partly Free status.” And putting its finger on the heart of the matter, it attributed the decline to the Hindu nationalist ideology of Narendra Modi. “Under Modi, India appears to have abandoned its potential to serve as a global democratic leader, elevating narrow Hindu nationalist interests at the expense of its founding values of inclusion and equal rights for all.”
V-Dem Institute’s 2021 report went further. It concluded that India in 2020 had become an “electoral autocracy” (V-Dem Institute 2021, 6).
To say that India is not an electoral democracy is an overstretched claim. Instead, the best description would be that the electoral aspects of democracy notwithstanding, the basic structure of a liberal democracy, comprising freedom of expression, independence of civil society, and minority rights, is under severe erosion. The liberal deficits, though always present in India’s democratic record, have widened to an alarming degree.And that is because of the nature of the ideology that animates the Modi regime. The ideology of Hindu nationalism departs from India’s constitutional values in two significant ways, each hurting the liberal aspects of democracy.
First, for Hindu nationalists, India is a Hindu nation, an idea the Constitution does not endorse. In its conception of the post-independence political order, India’s Constituent Assembly (1947–50) did not even come close to the notion of Hindu primacy.
Second, a muscular form of nationalism also accompanies the rise of Hindu nationalists in power. This kind of nationalism threatens not only the minorities but also the dissenting citizenry in general. According to Hindu nationalists, liberal freedoms can’t build a strong nation; only national discipline and obedience to the state can. Modi has argued that citizen duties must be accorded preference over citizen rights. According to a popular Hindu nationalist discursive trope, heavily promoted by the Modi government, many liberals are “anti-nationals,” who should be punished by the coercive arm of the state. Unrestrained argumentative freedoms cannot be granted to citizens and civil society groups, except perhaps at the time of elections. Nation-building ought to replace the idea of citizen freedoms, once elections are over. Aimed at taming citizen dissent, such state-supported discourse leads to an explicit or implicit attack on the institutions that cannot perform their legitimate roles without political and intellectual freedoms—courts, universities, civil society, and the press. It also privileges vigilante action if the vigilante groups seek to implement the governmental vision and harass dissenters.
India’s great political paradox is that although the constitution does not permit abridgement of the rights of religious minorities, the push against civil liberties does have a constitutional anchorage that Hindu nationalists can, and do, exploit. While universal adult franchise attracted near consensus among the political elites in the Constituent Assembly, civil liberties—a cornerstone of liberal if not electoral democracy—did not. Most of the early independence elites did not want unconstrained civil freedoms for the citizenry. According to Article 19 of the Constitution, “libel, slander, contempt of court, . . . decency or morality . . . [and] security” specified limits on freedom of speech. And the First Amendment, going further, stated that civil liberties should not prevent the government from making any laws that restrict such liberties “in the interests of the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, etc.” Suspension of civil liberties at a time of emergency was also constitutionally allowed.
In other words, the idea of liberal deficits was written into the Constitution. Some governments have interpreted the restrictions on freedoms more liberally than others; others have simply viewed them more restrictively, including a use of such restrictions for targeting critics on grounds of public order or national security. Courts have intervened, but not always in defense of citizens. Courts cannot violate the constitutionally enshrined restrictions; they can only interpret whether governments have applied them properly in a given case, if the violation is brought to litigation. For all practical purposes, the extent of permissible freedom in India has depended on the nature of the ruling party/governments. Since the Hindu nationalist construction of freedoms is highly restrictive and courts have only occasionally nullified the abridgement of freedoms, India’s liberal deficits have increased under Modi. The kind of power and independence the courts exercised during 1977–2014 has been on the wane.
By way of conclusion, let me recapitulate the main arguments. First, India’s record as an electoral democracy is far better than its record as a liberal democracy. Electoral vitality coexists with liberal deficits. This is in part due to a founding ambiguity in India’s Constitution. The Constitution vigorously supports the idea of universal franchise, but by making citizen freedoms subject to considerations of public order, not simply national security, the Constitution has installed a weaker notion of civil liberties. The ruling governmental regimes have basically determined how liberally, or restrictively, the idea of civil liberties would be interpreted and executed. The courts have not been a consistently strong exponent of civil freedoms.
Second, my argument about India’s democratic longevity has centered on elite choices, not structural conditions. Elite choices, in turn, are a composite of two different aspects: values and interests. Reflected in the Constitution, values of the first generation of political elites accounted for the early institutionalisation of democracy. However, elite values alone do not explain India’s democratic longevity, as substantial elite interests over the last few decades have come to be associated with democracy. Power is no longer the monopoly of one party, and a variety of parties hold power at different levels of the polity. The multiplicity of parties and elites with a stake in power contribute to democratic perseverance. Those parties and political actors who would be hurt by the suspension of democracy have tended to fight for their interests.
Third, the electoral–liberal gap widens when Hindu nationalists come to power, as is true today. This happens because Hindu nationalists privilege Hindu supremacy over the protection of minority rights and liberal freedoms. The longer the Hindu nationalists remain in power, the weaker will India become as a liberal democracy. But whether it will also cease to be an electoral democracy remains uncertain.
Ashutosh Varshney is Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences and Director of the Saxena Center for Contemporary South Asia at Brown University. He tweets @ProfVarshney.
This is an edited excerpt from Ashutosh Varshney’s chapter “India’s Democratic Longevity and Its Troubled Trajectory”, published in Oxford University Press’ book Democracy in Hard Places, edited by Scott Mainwaring and Tarek Masoud. Read the full paper here.