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15 December 2021

India reveres its democracy, but the room for dissent is shrinking

Democracy is a strategic asset for India, but Narendra Modi's hyper-nationalism is reconfiguring the nation's politics.

By Ravinder Kaur

When Narendra Modi entered the Indian parliament for the first time on 20 May 2014, he bowed down at the steps leading to what he called the “temple of democracy”. Four days previously, his BJP party and its allies had confirmed a thumping electoral victory. This gesture not only acknowledged the will of the people, but was also a ritualised celebration of India’s established democratic institutions. India as the “mother of democracy” would become a recurrent political motif that made political capital out of India’s democratic credentials even as it bolstered nationalist pride.

The most recent iteration of this theme unfolded at Joe Biden’s flagship Summit for Democracy, to which India was invited as an “indispensable partner”. Prime Minister Modi pitched Indian democracy as more than a mere political practice: it was a “civilisational ethos”, a spirit ingrained in Indians at home and in the diaspora.

This upbeat, fulsome picture is in sharp contrast to what some have called the crisis of “democratic decline” across the world. India, the world’s largest democracy, has featured prominently in several global surveys, for all the wrong reasons. In 2021 the Freedom House survey downgraded India from a free to a “partially free” democracy. The V-Dem Institute report this year classified India as an “electoral autocracy”, and since 2014 India has fallen 26 places in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index – from 27 to 53 – to join the “flawed democracies” grouping.

The trend reflects a steady erosion of media freedoms, a crackdown on human rights organisations, and the weakening of democratic institutions. It reveals a shrinking space for dissent, as civil society becomes the “new frontier of war” and techniques of “fourth-generation warfare” (war against non-state actors) are deployed against those citizens who oppose the government.

The contradictions are all too striking: democracy is a celebrated cultural essence and yet India is falling in world rankings of democratic credentials. The ongoing push towards a majoritarian vision of Hindu nationalism is ever more visibly in conflict with the liberal-democratic values forged in the postcolonial state, with wider implications for the future.

[See also: Is India still a democracy]

Democracy has long been central to the life of the Indian republic. It became a core part of modern national identity, a cultural difference that marked out India and Indian-ness in the postcolonial world. This was especially evident as India transformed into Brand India, a lucrative investment destination for global capital. It was turned into a sales pitch: the world’s fastest-growing free-market democracy. This dynamic has secured India a place at the high table of global democratic politics, and a role in the post-pandemic realignments now taking place.

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This includes the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), the strategic mobilisation of the Indian Ocean as an alliance of democracies and a counterweight to rising Chinese power; a potential trade deal with the European Union; and a free trade agreement with post-Brexit Britain among others. Democracy, India’s trump card, has been especially advantageous in the time of pandemics as the world seeks to decouple from the Chinese economy. In this unsettling landscape, democracy is more than a set of moral-political values. It is a strategic asset in the global marketplace, especially while the geopolitical map is being redrawn. 

Democracy’s place in its politics has long marked India’s place in the world. In the 1990s, as it liberalised economically, democratic values became a kind of currency. India’s debut as a rising star in the world of free markets was deemed a global event, with excitement generated by the size of the Indian market and its political credentials.

That democracy was a strategic advantage was well understood by the branding experts who set out to position India as an investment destination. The pitch was simple: it was a democratic alternative to an authoritarian China. At the turn of the millennium, China had already become a dominant actor of the “Asian century”, overshadowing the south-east Asian “tiger economies” as well as the East Asian miracles in Japan and South Korea. When India opened its markets in the early 1990s, China had a new rival that was comparable in more ways than one. They were the two most populous nations in the world; both claimed a civilisational culture and offered vast markets to global investors. But India possessed what China did not: liberal democracy.

The post-Cold War world of endless freedoms put a premium on India’s political structures. When the rise of China seemed inevitable, even threatening to the liberal world order, India was put forward as a counter-force to its authoritarian neighbour. There was a sense of urgency in boosting India. But this could happen only if it opened its markets. This frustration often framed commentaries in the 1990s.

Consider the Caged Tiger report published in the Economist in May 1991, when India was on the verge of a financial crisis. The paper praised India’s democracy as “a proper cause for pride” but noted its wasted potential due to economic protectionism. The country was rich in natural resources, possessed cheap skilled labour and an educated middle class, but all those advantages had been lost because India’s entrepreneurial spirit had been repressed. “Nowhere else, not even in communist China or the Soviet Union, is the gap between what might have been achieved and what has been achieved as great as in India,” the report said.

The tiger was soon uncaged, and India was ready to join the world of free markets. Months after it had narrowly avoided defaulting on its debt, India announced a series of measures to liberalise its economy. This was the start of the fabled “India Story” – the transformation of a democratic India into an economic powerhouse.

Democracy in India has been a source of both national pride and anxiety. Ironically, this impatience with democracy emerged in what is now called the “dream run” of its economy. In the first decade of the millennium, growth rates were rising, and at one point were even about to eclipse the Chinese economic miracle of double-digit growth. At this stage, the India-China comparisons were commonplace. The Indian middle class was gaining prosperity but resented what it perceived as obstructively slow growth. India was being held back, the common refrain went, by a political system that slowed down decision-making.

The fear of the middle-class elite was that India would be left behind by the fickle global capital that is always ready to move to another profitable territory. This set the stage for the hyper-nationalist shift in Indian politics, and the longing for a strong leader who meant business in more ways than one. Frictions will become apparent as the will of the majority, with a government duly elected to represent them within a democratic framework, begins turning into majoritarianism. 

The Summit for Democracy has brought these tensions and India’s increasingly transactional form of democracy to the surface. That the strategic deployment of democracy makes for somewhat uncertain alliances was evident both in the list of invitees (Pakistan was invited but Bangladesh and Sri Lanka were not, for example) and in its outcomes. A case in point is the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. While the US indicated it would enact a diplomatic boycott to protest against human rights violations in China, India joined Russia to support the Games. Mostly symbolic, the US boycott was meant to make visible an alignment against authoritarian rule and the suppression of rights and freedoms in China. Instead, it ended up highlighting the challenges ahead in the project to restore democracies.

The biggest challenge is the unabated tide of hyper-nationalism – the nation-first politics crystallised by Donald Trump’s presidency. Trump strengthened a trend that has survived in his absence, simply because the nexus between global capital and nationalism that spawned it remains intact. The lure of new markets, the unsated appetite for tapping into profitable opportunities, still shape strategic political alliances. In short, liberal markets continue to stoke illiberal politics.

On 10 December, the final day of the virtual summit, Modi’s remarks were made public. He reiterated India’s commitment to democracy and offered “to share (India’s) expertise in holding free and fair elections”. The same day, a different script was unfolding in Gurgaon, a new settlement with high-rise buildings on the outskirts of Delhi. For several weeks, a confrontation had been building up in the area. The Muslim community, mostly comprising poor workers, was threatened by Hindu vigilante groups that routinely interrupted Friday prayers in the public spaces previously agreed with the local administration.

There are few mosques in the new city, forcing Muslim workers to pray in public spaces. That Friday, the state chief minister declared that the five daily prayers mandated in Islam “will not be tolerated” in public spaces. A ban was introduced; the majoritarian will had prevailed. The day’s events showed the fractious nature of 21st-century democratic politics: the majoritarian will rearranging the nation, all within the framework of electoral democracy.

[See also: Joe Biden’s summit will not save democracy]

In a strange way, the virtual summit – dismissed by some as yet another “Zoom call for NGOs” – has brought attention to these low-key, simmering tensions that are reconfiguring the everyday life of the Indian republic. That democracy is more than a brand value to be used in international alliances was noted in an Indian Express editorial last summer: “Delhi should acknowledge that the problem is not merely a diplomatic one. It has to understand that only by doing what is right for India and renewing its commitment to constitutional values at home, can it boost its geopolitical gains.”

It seems that whenever democracy appears on the agenda, even as a mere “talking point”, it invites greater scrutiny and raises the political stakes. And herein lies the hope for the global future of democracy.   

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