Narendra Modi’s emphatic re-election victory makes inevitable something that was long feared: The transformation of India from secular democracy to a majoritarian state.
Far from helping to reverse the global tide of illiberal figures and movements, voters in the world’s largest democracy have advanced it. Modi won with a landslide despite failing in his central mission: To create jobs for India’s young population.
It also did not matter to his supporters that during his first five years in power, India’s social fabric was systematically shredded and the credibility of virtually every major institution, from the Supreme Court to India’s statistical organisations and the media, was undermined. It seemed more important that Modi could claim to have punished Pakistan for its alleged support of terrorism with air strikes deep into the country.
Those who express great shock over the results will be exposing their own intellectual naiveties. The fact is that their understanding of democracy, especially its Indian variant, has not kept up with reality.
The great theorists of democracy, from Tom Paine to John Stuart Mill, insisted that democracy expresses the rational choices of its citizens. But India’s experience tells us this: Fake news, hate-speech and corporate money can easily compromise rational choices. The ostensibly benign rule of the majority can quickly degenerate into belligerent majoritarianism. And institutions, however unimpeachable, can be subverted by dedicated ideological cadres.
Certainly, Modi has amply clarified that while democracies may choose their rulers, they cannot dictate the sort of power their rulers wield.
Many detractors of United States President Donald Trump, Modi and other elected leaders have set great store by democracy’s impersonal institutions, and their checks and balances. But such faith was always a form of complacency at best and blindness at worst.
If we regard democracy as a promise of equality and dignity, underpinned by rule of law and impartial institutions, rather than just periodic elections, then democracy in India has been under continuous pressure and periodic assault.
Many unexamined platitudes about democracy derive from the Cold War. The system obviously seemed ethically sound and politically efficient when compared to other systems in Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America.
Surrounded by despotisms, India, in particular, drew much political and moral prestige from its status as a democratic nation-state. Photographs of destitute Indians lining up to vote symbolised their exceptional ability to change their rulers.
Compared to its neighbours, India looked more virtuous. In actuality, however, if we regard democracy as a promise of equality and dignity, underpinned by rule of law and impartial institutions, rather than just periodic elections, then democracy in India has been under continuous pressure and periodic assault.
Devising India’s radically democratic constitution in the late 1940s, the Dalit (backward caste) leader B.R. Ambedkar was already pointing to a fatal contradiction — that though the principle of one-man-one-vote seemed to confer political equality on Indian citizens, it left untouched the grotesque social and economies inequalities of Indian society.
Ambedkar’s warning resonates even more after Bharatiya Janata Party’s victory: “We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy.”
One clear sign of this innate precariousness of Indian democracy was the “Emergency” in the mid-1970s. Faced with mass agitation against her, the then prime minister Indira Gandhi suspended fundamental rights and detained Opposition leaders and critics. The media surrendered to her as cravenly as it has to Modi.
Conventional accounts of the Emergency have a happy ending: Indira lost the elections in 1977 and Indian democracy was vindicated. But her spell of authoritarian rule responded to a fundamental crisis resulting from the unfulfilled promises of Indian democracy. With India’s cruel inequalities intensifying, authoritarianism was always likely to become the rule rather than an exception.
It is also worth remembering today that majoritarianism, another expedient of a cynical ruling class, was originally forged by India’s avowedly secular rulers. Indira and her son Rajiv, prime minister from 1984 to 1989, unleashed it in India long before anyone had heard of Modi.
Secular as well as nationalist governments presided from the late 1980s onwards over a counter-insurgency in Kashmir, which helped corrode many Indian institutions from the judiciary to the media and the military while mainstreaming anti-Muslim sentiment in Indian politics and society.
BJP has undoubtedly accelerated the decay of India’s political and civil life. But any honest reckoning with India’s election results must begin with this admission: The country’s secular democracy was dying well before Modi gave it a terminal blow.
Pankaj Mishra is a renowned columnist and author. His books include Age of Anger: A History of the Present, From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia.