Maverick Citizen


How do we explain India’s descent into religious majoritarianism and empty promises of prosperity?

How do we explain India’s descent into religious majoritarianism and empty promises of prosperity?

The authoritarian populism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party is about more than anti-elitism and promises of development. Modi’s authoritarian populism draws a line between the true Indian people, defined as the country’s Hindu majority, and its Muslim minority.

Two years into Narendra Modi’s second term as prime minister, India is no longer the world’s largest democracy in any meaningful sense of the term. For sure, the key procedural trappings of an electoral democracy are still intact, and the country’s general elections are still the biggest exercises of universal franchise anywhere in the world. 

However, in substantive terms, India has been experiencing a rapid descent from democracy under the rule of Modi and the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

This descent is writ large across a number of global ranking systems. 

For example, in February 2021, The Economist Intelligence Unit downgraded India from 51st to 53rd place on its 2020 Democracy Index, citing “democratic backsliding” and “crackdowns” on civil liberties. 

Just a month later, the US democracy advocacy NGO Freedom House downgraded India to the status of a “partially free democracy” and claimed that the Modi regime is driving the country toward authoritarianism. 

At the same time, the V-Dem Institute’s 2021 report labelled India an “electoral autocracy” as a result of how the BJP government imposes “restrictions on multiple facets of democracy” such as civil society activism and free speech.

Increasing authoritarianism is just one dimension of India’s descent from democracy. Another equally worrying trend is the intensification of religious majoritarianism that has occurred on Modi’s watch. Since 2014, when Modi first took power in India, violent attacks on India’s Muslim community by Hindu nationalist vigilante groups have escalated sharply — often with deadly consequences. 

And since Modi’s re-election in 2019, the ideological dictates of Hindu nationalism have begun to shape legislation in ways that threaten to make Indian Muslims second-class citizens. 

How can we explain this descent into majoritarian autocracy? 

Patterns of political change

My chapter in Destroying Democracy answers this question by unpacking patterns of political change in India since the early 2000s. 

At this point in time, the Congress Party — which had led India to independence in 1947 and dominated the country’s political landscape for the next 25 years — was trying to regain lost ground. No longer a hegemonic force in Indian politics, the party, which had implemented and spearheaded the liberalisation of the Indian economy since the early 1990s, needed to rebuild its image. 

Leading Congress politicians decided to do this by appealing to India’s poor majority — those who were languishing in the underbelly of the country’s growing economy. 

The party did relatively well in the 2004 elections. At the helm of a new coalition called the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), Congress took over the reins of power from the incumbent BJP government. The UPA went to work on the basis of the Common Minimum Programme, purportedly to address inequality and injustice in India’s economy and society. 

Crucially, this didn’t entail a departure from the market-friendly economic policies that the party had promoted for a decade and a half. Rather, Congress attempted to reconcile a neoliberal economic policy regime with what political scientist Sanjay Ruparelia has called a “new rights agenda” for India. 

This rights agenda essentially established civil liberties and socioeconomic entitlements as legally enforceable rights. 

For example, the National Rural Employment Guarantee, which was passed into law in 2006, secured 100 days of work every year for households in India’s crisis-stricken rural areas. And the Forest Rights Act, also passed into law in 2006, granted land rights in forest areas to marginalised indigenous communities. 

In my contribution to Destroying Democracy, I argue that this project can be thought of as a form of “inclusive neoliberalism” that concedes to some long-standing claims and demands from the movements of marginalised communities, but without departing fundamentally from market-driven economic growth. 

This strategy worked for the Congress and the UPA for some time. The coalition was re-elected in 2009, albeit not with an overwhelming mandate. However, by the early 2010s the UPA was running out of steam, and the 2014 election saw the coalition swept aside by the BJP, which won 31% of the votes and an absolute majority of 282 seats in India’s parliament.   

Unequal economic growth

Why, though, did the UPA lose popular support in such a drastic way? 

True, there were signs of economic stagnation, but the growth performance of the 2000s was overall very impressive. The UPA was tarnished by corruption scandals, but hardly to such an extent that it would cost the coalition an election. What was more significant was the fact that the economic growth that took place was both unequal and jobless. This generated widespread frustration among poor and marginalised groups in the country. 

The authoritarian populism of Modi’s BJP tapped into this frustration very effectively. Posturing as an opponent of the dynastic elites of the Congress party, Modi promised to bring development and “good days” to common people in India by unleashing entrepreneurial energies. As a strongman who had risen from a humble social background, he was well placed, of course, to play the part of a leader who stands in a direct relationship to the Indian people. 

However, the authoritarian populism of Modi and the BJP is about more than simply anti-elitism and promises of development. It is also about a distinctive way of constructing the Indian people and its Others. In short, Modi’s authoritarian populism draws a line between the “true” Indian people, defined as the country’s Hindu majority, and its anti-national enemies within — corrupt elites, dissenters and, above all, India’s Muslim minority.

This majoritarian dividing line reflects the ideology of the Hindu nationalist movement that the BJP is a part of, and for which it serves as a parliamentary front. Founded in the 1920s, the Hindu nationalist movement seeks to unite all Hindus across caste and class lines, and works to make India a Hindu nation. This specifically Indian form of ethnic nationalism is promoted through a dense network of organisations deeply embedded in Indian society. 

With the Modi regime, this movement has advanced from civil society to seize hold of the state. It is using that hold to transform India’s political system in very significant ways, through vigilantism and legislation that assert the supremacy of the country’s Hindu majority. 

Transcending the social base

The 2019 elections turned out to be a major vote of confidence in Modi and his government, which won more than 37% of the vote and 303 parliamentary seats. The 2019 general election results also reveal the one major achievement that has enabled this decisive advance of the BJP and the wider Hindu nationalist movement — that they have managed to transcend the narrow social base of Hindu nationalism, which has traditionally consisted mainly of upper-caste and middle-class groups, and attract support from lower castes, Dalits and the poor. 

To be sure, the BJP still draws most of its support from the upper rungs of India’s social pyramid — 61% of upper-caste Indians and 44% of the upper middle classes and the rich voted for Modi in 2019. But the party has significantly increased its share of the non-elite vote, to such an extent that 44% of all Hindus cast their ballot for the BJP. In other words, the Hindu vote has been consolidated across caste and class lines. 

Will this hegemony hold? 

After all, Modi has presided over deepening economic stagnation, with higher unemployment figures and worsening inequality. What is more, the BJP’s mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic has left as many as five million Indians dead and caused widespread impoverishment. Nevertheless, recent surveys suggest that Modi enjoys an approval rating of 70%. This is lower, of course, than the 82% approval rating from a year ago. 

But it still speaks volumes about the disturbing hold of an authoritarian populism that has little to offer most ordinary Indians other than empty promises of prosperity and the gratification of religious majoritarianism. DM/MC

Alf Gunvald Nilsen is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Pretoria. He is the author, most recently, of Adivasis and the State: Subalternity and Citizenship in India’s Bhil Heartland (2018). He is also co-editor of Indian Democracy: Origins, Trajectories, Contestations (2019).

This is the fourth in a series of 10 essays by authors of chapters in Destroying Democracy, neoliberal capitalism and the rise of authoritarian politics, Volume 6 in the Democratic Marxism series recently published by Wits University Press and edited by Michelle Williams and Vishwas Satgar. The sixth volume centres on how the global democratic project is being eroded by decades of neoliberal capitalism and how authoritarian politics are gaining ground. The essays focus on four country cases — India, Brazil, South Africa and the US — in which the Covid-19 pandemic has fuelled the pre-existing crisis. They interrogate issues of politics, ecology, state security, media, access to information and political parties, and affirm the need to reclaim and rebuild an expansive and inclusive democracy.

Destroying Democracy is an invaluable resource for the general public, activists, scholars and students who are interested in understanding the threats to democracy and the rising tide of authoritarianism in the Global South and Global North. It is freely available here as open access.


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