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Is Indian democracy turning into an electoral autocracy?

Recent reports by global agencies downgrade the country’s political status

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Published: March 21, 2021 05:00 PM GMT

Updated: March 22, 2021 11:23 AM GMT

Is Indian democracy turning into an electoral autocracy?

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures as he addresses a public meeting ahead of the Assam Assembly elections, in Bokakhat on March 21. (Photo: AFP)

Two international reports recently have left Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government in India grieving and complaining that global organizations probably have an agenda against it. The complaining started after reputed agencies doubted if India is indeed a democracy.

V-Dem Institute in Sweden has downgraded India’s status from a ‘democracy’ to ‘an electoral autocracy,' while another NGO, US-based Freedom House said "India’s status declined from 'Free' to 'Partly Free' as a nation due to a multiyear pattern in which the Hindu nationalist government and its allies have presided over rising violence and discriminatory policies affecting the Muslim population."

The Freedom House report made caustic and vitriolic comments on the status of Muslims in India under Modi, whose government led by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is wedded to pro-Hindu political ideology of Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism.

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"The political rights of India’s Muslims continue to be threatened," it said and referred to Indian government and parliament enacting a new law, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which grants 'special access to Indian citizenship to non-Muslim immigrants and refugees from neighboring Muslim-majority countries – Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

It also said Muslim candidates notably won 27 of 545 seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, up from 22 five years before in 2014. However, this amounted to just five percent of the seats in the Lower House of Parliament even when Muslims make up over 14 percent of the population.

These reports have obviously triggered political reactions.

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has dismissed the reports as acts of hypocrisy. "I am self-assured about my country, I don't need certificates from other countries, who clearly have some agenda," he said.

"Do you want a truthful answer? It is hypocrisy. We have a set of self-appointed custodians of the world who find it very difficult to stomach that somebody in India is not looking for their approval," Jaishankar told a TV journalist.

He also accused these organizations of inventing “their rules, their parameters, pass their judgements and make it look as though it is some kind of global exercise.”

But Congress lawmaker Rahul Gandhi, great-grandson of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, also said "India is no longer a democratic country.” Gandhi now represents in parliament the Muslim-majority Wayanad constituency in communist-ruled Kerala.

The value judgement from an opposition leader who lost two consecutive polls to Modi could be little far-fetched. But it is also true that over the years due to a plethora of reasons, electoral mandate being one of them, India is generally being pushed towards a pro-Hindu majoritarianism.

Even Kerala state’s communist Chief Minister P. Vijayan and Mamata Banerjee, who leads a regional party in eastern state of West Bengal, have tried to run extra mile to be on the right side of the majority Hindu voters.

Banerjee has visited more than half a dozen Hindu temples and chanted Hindu mantras in public places and election rallies on the day she filed her nomination for the March-April state elections. She has an image of a Muslim appeaser and has in the past kept herself away from Hindu rituals.

In Kerala, detractors of Marxist leader Vijayan say he tinted the red flag of the communists with the hues of saffron, the color of the pro-Hindu BJP flag.

Aiming not to offend Hindus in Kerala, which goes to the polls in April, Vijayan’s Marxist-led government dropped the idea of pressing for the entry of women of reproductive age into a popular temple against Hindu tradition.

It is argued that the communist regime is feeling the pressure of BJP's growing acceptability in Kerala, and antagonizing the Hindus may become politically detrimental to the communist parties.

One of the BJP's most chauvinistic leaders, Yogi Adityanath, a monk-turned-Chief Minister of India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh, said it bluntly: "It is our success that Mamata Banerjee is now forced to chant Hindu Mantras. This is the change we talk about. This is New India."

A "new India" was the electoral promise of BJP and its leader Modi in 2014 and also five years later in 2019.

Many say the negative commentary made in Freedom House and V-Dem Institute precisely reflects the “new India” Modi and other leaders in his party envisioned.

But this pro-Hindu India has electoral sanctity, goes another argument.

While many could find such a description an odd phenomenon and path breaking, it is worth mentioning that in the 1990s itself when Indian politics entered an era of coalition regimes, veteran BJP leader L.K. Advani had floated the idea of a presidential form of government against the parliamentary democracy that India took up since its independence in 1947.

But there is another interpretation to the entire plot. Columnist Rana Ayyub, a Muslim, wrote in the Washington Post: "I see the Freedom House report as an important historical document. I hope it provides solace to the young and the restless and the disillusioned, even while our own people, our media, our popular figures decide to ignore the truth. Some seem to be reveling in the criticism like a badge of honor.

But the world is indeed watching".

Minorities including Christians have been feeling the heat of a Hindu majoritarianism. Naga Christian leader K. Therie of Congress party said the BJP and its electoral success have pushed India towards “religious polarization.”

Federal Home Minister Amit Shah, a trusted lieutenant of Modi, said in 2019 that if his party returned to power in the general elections, it would be in office for the next 50 years.
In 2019, the BJP made its pro-Hindu stance clear when it fielded Sadhvi Pragya Thakur who was accused of terrorism over a deadly bomb blast targeting Muslims in 2008.

Another hardline BJP leader Sakshi Maharaj, who has been re-elected from Uttar Pradesh, said after the 2019 polls he believed there would be “no elections in 2024.”

However, what is of more importance in terms of getting India's polity corrected is not mere criticism of the Prime Minister and his governance.

The two general elections – 2014 and 2019 – and numerous state polls, including in Christian-dominated states like Nagaland, show the strengthening of Hindu majoritarianism or single-party domination.

A serious concern for most is the ineffectiveness of opposition parties like the Congress party. "Opposition parties do not have any concrete political issues and so they try to target us over non-issues,” said BJP leader in West Bengal, Dilip Ghosh.

Many blame Congress leader Rahul Gandhi's consistent failure to strike the right chord with Indian voters.

"Rahul is a leader who often tries to sell fridges to Eskimos. My point is that mere glib talk does not help. Indian politics is getting more complex by the day,” said Ramakanta Shanyal, a political scientist in West Bengal. He said Congress should reform itself to fight a politician like Modi.

It is electorally true, the world's largest democracy is on the highway to Hindu nationalism, accelerated by Modi. His brand of politics synthesizes Hindu ideology, development and possible use of money and state power effectively.

In other words, Indian political history has certainly shed its democratic status quo under BJP rule. How soon will India a political mechanism to challenge the situation?

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