This week, President Joe Biden will host Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a state dinner — only the third foreign leader to receive such an honor at the Biden White House, the other two being the presidents of France and South Korea. They have a lot to talk about: A White House statement on the meeting has a long list of discussion topics, including climate change and security in the Indo-Pacific region (read: countering China).
But there’s a word missing from the agenda that is, arguably, the most important of all: democracy.
Since Modi took office in 2014, and especially after winning reelection in 2019, he has systematically taken a hammer to the core institutions of Indian democracy. The prime minister’s government has undermined the independence of the election supervision authority, manipulated judges into ruling in his favor, used law enforcement against his enemies, and increased its control over the Indian press.
The prime minister’s anti-democratic behavior has accelerated over time. In the past year alone, Modi’s government has:
- Expelled the leader of the opposition party, Rahul Gandhi, from parliament after he was sentenced to two years of prison for allegedly defaming the prime minister with a joke.
- Taken over one of the few remaining independent television stations through a crooked billionaire ally.
- Created an official panel empowered to take down social media posts critical of the government.
- Sent tax officials to raid the BBC’s offices in New Delhi and Mumbai, a move widely seen as retaliation for a documentary critical of Modi.
Being in power has become self-reinforcing for Modi. His Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has used its electoral dominance to silence critics and stack the electoral deck against his opponents, making the upcoming 2024 parliamentary election a significant uphill climb for other parties. That vote is shaping up to be critical for India’s democratic future.
“With every major election loss, the window might be closing” for the opposition, warns Pavithra Suryanarayan, a political scientist at the London School of Economics.
This assault on democracy is a deeply ideological project. The BJP is the electoral offshoot of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a radical Hindu nationalist organization to which Modi has belonged since he was 8 years old. Christophe Jaffrelot, a leading India scholar at France’s Sciences Po, told me that its ideology amounts to “an Indian version of fascism.”
You would think that a pseudo-fascist assault on democracy in the world’s largest country (by population) would merit an international outcry — certainly as much as the attention given to other prominent democratic backsliders like Hungary. But perhaps because of India’s geopolitical significance, criticism from the world’s leading democracies has been largely muted — left off the agenda as Washington and its Pacific allies court New Delhi in their effort to balance a rising China.
“There’s been a conscious policy decision to downplay Indian democratic backsliding because it’s awkward,” says Sadanand Dhume, a senior fellow at the center-right American Enterprise Institute. “We need India as a potential bulwark against China, and the Indians have been very skillful in exploiting the tendency in Washington toward tunnel vision.”
In 2005, Narendra Modi was banned from traveling to the United States on allegations of complicity in an anti-Muslim pogrom. Now he’s the White House’s guest of honor — while, at his direction, a country poised to be one of the greatest powers of the 21st century slides toward tyranny.
The ideological roots of India’s democratic decline
To understand the current crisis of Indian democracy, you need to understand the BJP’s roots in the RSS — an organization that, in many ways, functioned as an opposing force to Gandhi’s pro-independence Indian National Congress. Unlike the Congress, which believed in secular liberal democracy, the RSS advocated for a future Indian nation defined in purely ethno-religious terms — a “Hindu Rashtra” (Hindu nation). Its ideology, called Hindutva, held that post-colonial India should be a country ruled by and for Hindus.
In 1939, RSS leader M.S. Golwalkar published a book — titled We, or our Nationhood Defined — that codified this thinking in especially stark terms.
“The foreign races in Hindusthan ... must lose their separate existence to merge in the Hindu race, or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu Nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment — not even citizen’s rights,” he argued.
In another passage of We, a book one contemporary observer referred to as the RSS’s “Bible,” Golwalkar explicitly praises the Nazi treatment of Jews as a model.
“Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for Races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindusthan to learn and profit by,” he writes.
Such ideas were marginal in post-independence India. The country’s 1949 constitution was written on secular-egalitarian lines, declaring that “the State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them.”
The RSS, meanwhile, had mostly managed to discredit its political vision. In 1948, an RSS devotee named Nathuram Godse assassinated Mahatma Gandhi — a killing that Godse himself credited to his Hindu nationalist ideology. The Indian government subsequently banned the RSS for a year.
Even after the RSS’s return from the shadows, the Congress party and its secular ideology remained dominant. Until 1977, Congress won every Indian election; the RSS’s political arm, called the BJS, never reached 10 percent of the national popular vote.
The rise of the BJP, explained
The BJP, founded in 1980 as a second attempt at an RSS electoral wing, initially found success by campaigning in the mid-to-late 1980s for the demolition of a mosque in the city of Ayodhya — one located on a site that many Hindus believed to be the birthplace of the Hindu holy figure Rama, the seventh avatar of the god Vishnu.
The issue, BJP leadership believed, could be used to inflame politically useful Hindu nationalist sentiment by making it seem as if the current Indian system prioritized the interests of the Muslim minority over the Hindu majority.
This divisive campaign worked. In the 1984 election, the BJP won two seats in Parliament; in 1989, it won 85 (out of a total of 543).
But when the BJP managed to form its first-ever coalition government, in 1998, it ruled in a relatively moderate fashion. This perhaps surprising result, according to Brown University’s Ashutosh Varshney, reflected what was thought at the time to be an iron law of Indian politics: that no matter which party was in power, it would have to moderate its ideological agenda.
There were two reasons, according to Varshney, for this so-called “persistent centrism.“
First, India is staggeringly diverse: It has 22 official languages, 705 officially recognized ethnic groups, six large religious minorities, and a complex caste system that divides the population into thousands of different groups. Putting together a winning coalition in such a deeply divided society seemed to necessarily require compromise.
Second, the Indian political system places multiple checks on the ability of governing coalitions to make major changes. A set of institutions — the court system, independent agencies, oversight bodies, a vibrant free press — force governments to play within certain legal and normative limits. Thus, even the most hardline BJP government would find itself unable to take radical action to change the nature of the Indian state.
And make no mistake: much of the BJP leadership cadre remained dedicated to Hindutva ideals. While the RSS formally repudiated Golwalkar’s writing in 2006, this seemed more like a branding exercise than anything else. His basic idea of a Hindu Rashtra remains at the center of BJP-RSS ideology.
“The ideology has not changed,” Jaffrelot says. “They [really] believe in ... the sense of superiority of the Hindu people, in this dehumanization of the other.”
Narendra Modi is chief among these true believers.
In 2002, when he was serving as chief minister of the state of Gujarat, a train carrying Hindu pilgrims in Godhra, a Muslim-dominated part of the state, went up in flames, killing 59 people. The fire was blamed on Muslims, setting off mass communal rioting, primarily pogroms by Hindu mobs against the Muslim minority. (An Indian government investigation later concluded that the fire had been an accident.) Human rights groups put the total death toll at more than 2,000. The raw brutality of the assault was chilling. Amnesty International reports that between 250 and 330 Muslim girls and women were raped and tortured during the violence; most of them were subsequently executed by the mob.
Modi allegedly intervened personally on the side of these anti-Muslim rioters, ordering police to stand aside and allow Hindu mobs to rampage across Muslim-majority areas. Modi’s behavior was so egregious that, in 2005, the US denied him an entry visa on grounds of “severe violations of religious freedom.” This ban would only be lifted after the BJP won India’s parliamentary election in 2014, an election where the charismatic Modi defeated an increasingly ineffectual and corrupt Congress led by dynast Rahul Gandhi.
After becoming prime minister, Modi faced a fundamental challenge: How to implement his hardline Hindutva social agenda given the constraints militating toward persistent centrism?
The answer was ... to eliminate those constraints. And his plan of attack would strike at the heart of Indian democracy.
Modi has undermined Indian secularism — and its democracy
The easiest way to understand what Modi has done to India is to see it as kind of a mutually reinforcing cycle of two different agendas.
The first is using the powers of the premiership to spread Hindutva ideology and polarize the electorate along Hindu-versus-Muslim lines. The second is consolidating power in his hands and weakening countervailing authorities — including the judiciary, oversight commissions, the free press, and opposition parties.
The more the Hindu public is converted to his ideology, the more popular Modi becomes, providing him political cover to pursue attacks on judges, bureaucrats, and reporters. The more he controls India’s government and the press, the easier it is for him to spread Hindutva propaganda.
This effect of this cycle has been both the shattering of the “persistent centrism” that constrained previous leaders and, increasingly, elections taking place on a playing field tilted against the opposition.
Prior to Modi’s rise, the BJP’s electoral success was limited by an elite base that supported the party’s economic reforms and social agenda. Many upper-caste Indians cared deeply about blocking a long-running effort to expand India’s caste-based affirmative action program for university admissions and government jobs, seeing the BJP as a party that would oppose this and other efforts to undermine the caste hierarchy.
Under Modi, the party has managed to significantly expand its demographic base among both lower-caste and poor Hindus (two groups that overlap to some degree but not fully) without losing its base. By 2019, poor Hindu voters were as likely as rich ones to vote for the BJP.
The party’s success at selling its Hindutva narrative since Modi’s ascension is not the only part of this story, but it has been an essential one. Modi and state-level BJP leaders have relentlessly hammered Hindutva themes in their speeches and pursued policies undermining Muslim rights and inflaming Hindu anxieties about their Muslim neighbors.
“All the big achievements of the BJP thus far are ideological ones,” says Suryanarayan. “The Citizenship Amendment Act, the revocation of special status to Kashmir, the way in which they are very carefully transforming textbooks and textbook representations of what the founding fathers of India were about and the role of Muslims in Indian history — every one of these is clues to what commitments of the BJP are.”
(The Citizenship Amendment Act creates a special pathway to citizenship for non-Muslims living in nearby countries. Meanwhile, Jammu and Kashmir is India’s only majority-Muslim state and the subject of a territorial dispute with Pakistan; it enjoyed a special autonomous status until Modi revoked it in 2019.)
In effect, the BJP has used the power of the state to convince Hindus that what unites them against Muslims is more important than what divides them among each other.
One especially egregious example is the so-called “love jihad,” a conspiracy theory that Muslim men are seeking to marry Hindu women as part of an organized plot to convert them to Islam and erode India’s Hindu majority — a pernicious myth that has led to the arrest of Muslim men. Modi and other BJP officials have even promoted a film spreading this idea.
Research suggests these anti-Muslim efforts have deeply affected public attitudes and, even more ominously, behavior. A 2022 paper by Varshney shows a spike in lynchings of Muslims that coincides almost exactly with Modi taking power.
“Lynchings cannot become widespread without an atmosphere of impunity in which those who have a mind to commit lynchings know that they are unlikely to be punished by the state,” Varshney writes.
Stoking anti-Muslim sentiment has been politically profitable. Modi’s approval ratings have been quite high in recent years, most recently clocking in around 75 percent — a level of support that experts say is bound up with his ability to use the politics of fear to consolidate support among Hindus.
“In different sectors of society, in all kinds of provinces across the country, [Muslims’] image has been so badly portrayed. That is the main impact [the BJP] has made,” Jaffrelot says. “They have demolished something that will be very difficult to rebuild, and that is secularism.”
Modi’s multi-pronged attack on Indian democracy, explained
There’s no doubt that Modi’s agenda is illiberal, in the sense that it involves asserting the legal and social dominance of the Hindu at the expense of Muslims and other minorities. Modi insists that he is merely acting on behalf of the majority — that he and his government are honoring India’s historic status as “the mother of democracy.”
His long record of anti-democratic policy says otherwise.
Some of Modi’s tactics involve clever legislation. Take campaign finance: Under Modi, Parliament set up a new system that allows for unlimited donations through the purchasing of electoral bonds — a system that all but announces to wealthy donors that the government knows which party you gave money to.
Another tactic has been the manipulation of appointment powers. Modi has seized control over the judicial “collegium” system of appointments, simply refusing to appoint judges he doesn’t approve of. Similarly, Modi has refused to appoint commissioners to the Central Information Commission, which handles freedom of information requests from the public, grinding its work to a halt.
A third set of tactics has been outright intimidation and abuse of legal powers. India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the country’s FBI equivalent, has a longstanding problem of being unduly influenced by political considerations — a problem that has gotten far worse since 2014. Under the prior Congress government, 60 percent of CBI investigations into politicians targeted opposition leaders. Under Modi, that figure has jumped to 95 percent.
The recent state-level conviction of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and his subsequent expulsion from Parliament speak to the way that both law enforcement and the legal system have been politicized across the board.
Tax enforcement plays a similar role. When a leader of the independent Election Commission voted to penalize Modi for hate speech on the campaign trail in 2019, he swiftly came under tax investigations — as did his sister, wife, and son. This year, the tax police raided the BBC’s India offices after the broadcaster had released a documentary on Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots.
The BBC raid speaks to yet another area of democratic backsliding: a clampdown on the independent press and freedom of speech more broadly through new rules, like the creation of an agency empowered to take down social media posts, and harassment of journalists and human rights organizations. But it has also happened more subtly, through consolidation of media ownership in the hands of ultra-rich moguls friendly to Modi and the BJP like Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani.
The weaker checks on Modi’s authority get, the more he is empowered to infuse the Indian state with Hindu nationalist ideals — and the harder it will be for the divided Indian opposition to unseat the BJP through electoral means.
Can Indian democracy be saved?
This is not the first time India’s democracy has been in crisis.
In June 1975, in the midst of an episode of civil unrest, Congress Prime Minister Indira Gandhi — a charismatic populist not entirely dissimilar from Modi — announced the beginning of a so-called “Emergency,” which in effect suspended basic rights and freedoms.
For nearly two years, the Indian state was a functional autocracy. News outlets were placed under a strict censorship regime; police rounded up Gandhi’s political opponents, including RSS leaders, and imprisoned them.
In March 1977, the Emergency suddenly ended. Indira Gandhi announced new elections, which Congress lost. She left power voluntarily (only to return after the next round of elections), and Indian democracy moved away from a system dominated by the Congress party to a healthier multi-party system.
Does this provide reason for optimism that Modi might fall in a similarly surprising fashion? The experts I spoke with were skeptical.
While the Emergency was a blatant suspension of democracy in response to immediate events, Modi’s power grabs have involved a more subtle and durable corruption of institutions unfolding over the course of years.
“The way that they control information ... the way they can amass funding — part of that, of course, is by changing funding laws — is pretty impressive,” says Milan Vaishnav, the director of the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
However grim an unfavorable comparison to the Emergency might make the situation appear, it is also important to note that Indian democracy is not dead yet. There are upcoming scheduled elections in 2024, and there is a chance — unlikely, but a real one — that Modi may go the way of Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.
That the BJP can still lose elections has been demonstrated by recent state-level defeats, like in the fiercely contested 2021 West Bengal election. India’s federal system means that state governments have a reasonable amount of power.
And even at the national level, opposition parties still retain some capacity to get their message out.
Between September 2022 and January 2023, Rahul Gandhi embarked on a pilgrimage — called the Bharat Jodo (“Unite India”) Yatra — across 2,200 miles of Indian territory. The demonstration, which evoked a tradition of political yatras in India, was designed as an explicit act of protest against Modi’s politics of division. It seems to have done real work in rehabilitating Gandhi and Congress in general.
“He acquired charisma because of his lifestyle [on the march] and the way he related to people. ... In a society where the stigma of caste is so strong, he had no problem shaking hands with any of the people passing by,” says Jaffrelot.
For all of these reasons, the 2024 national elections are shaping up to be absolutely critical for India’s future — not that you can tell from the US government’s public response.
In October 2021, President Biden declared that “defending human rights and demonstrating that democracies deliver for their people” is “at the center of my administration’s foreign policy.” This has not been the case when it comes to its India policy, which has focused overwhelmingly on courting the Modi government as an ally against China rather than challenging its anti-democratic practices.
“I don’t detect any willingness, any serious efforts, on the part of this administration to hold India to a higher democratic standard,” Vaishnav says.
A White House spokesperson suggested to me that this is something that top American officials bring up in high-level meetings, presumably privately. “In these engagements we address policy differences constructively and in an atmosphere of mutual respect,” the spokesperson said.
One should hope so. A slide toward Hindu nationalist authoritarianism in India doesn’t serve America’s interests, especially given the ever-present risk of conflict with nuclear-armed Pakistan. And the contradiction between the administration’s soaring rhetoric about democracy and its relative quiet about the world’s most important instance of democratic backsliding is glaring.
There are some actions the administration could take that could matter at the margins — at the very least, by suggesting during the upcoming state dinner and future engagements that there might be some cost if Modi takes things too far.
But at the same time, the United States’s ability to change the course of Indian domestic politics should not be overstated. What happens in India will ultimately be determined by what Indians decide to do in 2024 and beyond — choices that, given India’s size and rising influence, will have profound consequences for the future of democracy around the world.