Small, rich, homogenous nations do not offer stories of hope. Big, poor, diverse ones do.
Adam Maida / The Atlantic
When the G7 group of rich democracies assembles this weekend in southwest England, it will discuss issues including COVID-19, taxes, and climate change. One item overhanging the formal agenda, however, will be the global deterioration of democracy itself, and the nation on which this question may hinge won’t be any of the hosts, but a guest invited to this year’s confab: India. Democracy’s fate there may determine its fate throughout the world. At the moment, the signs aren’t looking good—and that should be a flashing-red warning beacon for the rest of us.
Why is India the hinge point? The most obvious answer is the optics: When propagandists in Beijing describe democracy as a Western ideal unsuited to non-Western peoples, having a standard-bearer from the formerly colonized rather than the former colonizers is vital. But India’s importance goes far beyond narrative.
The world’s most successful democracies are mostly small, wealthy, and homogenous. Any list you might consult will highlight nations such as Denmark, the Netherlands, and Norway. The Economist Intelligence Unit gives all of the top 10 spots in its annual Democracy Index to rich Western nations—most of which have populations smaller than that of Maryland. But these nations look nothing like the places where the mass of humanity lives.
Of the world’s 10 most populous nations, only the United States and India are long-established democracies. Two (China and Russia) are undisguised autocracies, and the other six can be charitably described as “democracies in progress.” That a political system works for Iceland—which has 341,000 residents, almost all of them practically relatives—means little to Brazil, Indonesia, or Nigeria. A real proof of concept can be found only in a nation that is big, low-income, and abundantly diverse—in ethnicity, language, religion, and every other way a society can be divided.
That’s India. If democracy can make it there, it can make it anywhere.
Until recently, democracy clearly could make it there. Upon gaining independence in 1947, India established a parliamentary system and enacted a liberal, far-reaching constitution. Its sole deviation from the democratic path was a period of “Emergency” (1975 to 1977), which stemmed more from then–Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s paranoia than any challenge to her party’s rule. With this and several other notable exceptions (periods of insurgency in Kashmir and Punjab, too-frequent local injustices against marginalized communities), rule of law has done better in India than in most other nations.
But India’s democracy has seen worrisome erosion. On The Economist’s list, the country has slid from No. 35 in 2006 to No. 53 today. And the ways in which democracy is being undermined there provide a wake-up call to those watching from afar—including in the United States.
At the root of the backsliding, in India as elsewhere, is a rejection of the core democratic principle that all citizens are equal. India’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) champions Hindutva, an ideology that privileges the Hindu majority over religious minorities. First articulated a century ago, Hindutva has grown from a fringe movement into the focus of national politics. Its immediate target has been the country’s Muslims, who represent 14 percent of the population. If India transforms itself from a secular democracy (as is mandated by its constitution) into an avowedly Hindu nation, 276 million non-Hindus will become second-class citizens.
Sectarian tensions flared throughout the BJP’s rise to power, and the flames were often fanned by the party itself. In 2014, Narendra Modi supplanted a generation of soft-edged figures and led the party to electoral victory. Although the only previous BJP prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had downplayed Hindutva in favor of less divisive center-right policies, Modi has made it the centerpiece of his governing strategy.
The first illiberal thrust was launched not against the hardware of democracy (the electoral system) but the software that enables it to operate—that is, an apolitical judiciary, a free press, and other elements of civil society.
India’s judicial system has bent to the wishes of politicians since 2014. In the early years of Modi’s premiership, Uttar Pradesh, India’s biggest state, whose population is larger than all but four of the world’s nations, saw dozens of murderous attacks on Muslims by Hindu mobs, who accused their victims (in almost all cases falsely) of cow slaughter. The BJP sided with the killers: When the party won state elections in 2017, it appointed as chief minister a firebrand Hindu cleric who had promoted this vigilante action. Since then, the state’s judicial system has declined to punish most of the offenders—and the nation’s Supreme Court has contented itself with issuing only tsk–tsks.
Likewise, attacks on India’s press have grown brazen. Of the past decade’s 405 cases filed against journalists under a colonial-era sedition law, all but a few have been registered since Modi took office. The Caravan, an outlet known for its dogged investigation of the BJP, has been singled out for special harassment. Less than a month ago, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram acceded to government demands to block some journalists’ posts. The bans are under review by the platforms, but they have achieved their purpose. Many feisty Indian journalists now choose their words carefully.
Weakening these civil-society foundations enabled the next stage of Modi’s program: the use of democracy’s mechanisms to undermine democracy’s core.
In 2019, Modi returned to office with an absolute parliamentary majority. Shortly after, he abrogated the special status written into the constitution for Jammu and Kashmir (India’s sole Muslim-majority state). Protests in Kashmir were met with a months-long clampdown. Modi followed up with actions that officially and unofficially advantaged Hindus over Muslims nationwide. Demonstrations against these moves peaked in December 2019, and were extinguished only by a COVID-19 lockdown three months later.
All of these moves would have been anathema to the drafters of India’s constitution. Yet all were within the technical limits of the law, and none has been seriously challenged in the nation’s now-quiescent courts. The fecklessness of opposition parties made the BJP’s task easier, but the tools were provided by the governing system itself: The BJP has never earned anything close to a majority of the popular vote, but because of India’s first-past-the-post electoral system, its lock on power is firm. In 2019, 37.4 percent of the vote (the BJP’s highest total ever) translated into 55.8 percent of the seats in Parliament.
Gyan Prakash, a scholar of the Emergency, sees the greatest threat to democracy in this “shadow legality”: the use of lawfare to subvert the foundation of constitutional government. And he sees India’s example as having global implications. “Modi is part of a much larger phenomenon,” he told me. “This is a project to mobilize all state institutions, and change India’s democratic and plural politics and culture.”
Do constitutional questions matter to a farmer scraping by on $4 a day (the national average)? They should. As the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen once noted, “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy.” India is now facing its most serious natural disaster since independence, in the coronavirus pandemic. Even by official figures (which significantly undercount the victims), India is the world’s coronavirus epicenter: 29 million sickened, more than 350,000 dead, and no end in sight. A great many of these cases were preventable. Modi’s response to the pandemic has swung from oppressive lockdown to maskless political rallies and the encouragement of a super-spreader Hindu pilgrimage with 9 million attendees. A political system in which the government could be held accountable might have yielded a different outcome.
All of this may sound familiar to American ears. President Donald Trump labeled the press the “enemy of the people” and attempted to intimidate sitting judges. A critical mass of the Republican Party is at least as motivated by white grievance as the BJP base is by Hindutva. And laws recently passed in Georgia and proposed elsewhere would let partisan state officials rather than voters determine elections. This might be technically in accord with the Constitution, but would be at odds with—well, democracy.
Perhaps the most dangerous threat of all is complacency. Whether doomscrolling Twitter or ignoring politics completely, most Americans share a baseline confidence that democracy will endure. But will it? American democracy isn’t nearly as deeply rooted as we like to believe. Half of the population (that is: the female half) weren’t generally permitted to vote until 1920. Black Americans in Jim Crow states (that is, most of them) had to wait nearly another half century. If measured by universal suffrage, how long has America been a true democracy? For less time than the Rolling Stones have been touring.
This is why Americans should be paying close attention to the politics of India. The U.S. is not Iceland; it’s huge, diverse, and tough to govern. Only one other country with comparable size and complexity has given democracy a sustained, multigenerational shot. If the system fails in India, it can certainly fail closer to home.