India’s March Toward Autocracy

Indian Democracy in Peril: Slide into Autocracy Likely to Continue


Japan has courted India as a strategic partner, stressing such “shared values” as democracy and freedom. But India’s commitment to those values has come into question since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took power in 2014. The author spotlights the rise of autocracy and Hindu nationalism in “the world’s largest democracy.”

The Japanese government has worked hard in recent years to strengthen economic and strategic ties with India, justifying its courtship of New Delhi in ideological terms. The Abe-Modi Vision Statement of 2018 states that “the partnership is based on the shared values of freedom, humanism, democracy, tolerance, and non-violence,” and the two countries’ leaders have echoed those sentiments on other occasions. Similarly, participants in the Quad, a strategic dialogue encompassing Australia and the United States along with Japan and India, have stressed the group’s commitment to democratic principles and inclusiveness in a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”

But the values and mechanisms underpinning Indian democracy have been under sustained attack since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in 2014, and the trend has accelerated since his reelection in 2019. The changes that have swept India during Modi’s two terms in office are turning phrases like “shared commitment to universal values” into diplomatic bromides devoid of substance.

Harsh Verdict

In recent years, a growing number of area scholars and political scientists have concluded that India no longer qualifies as a truly democratic country. This grim assessment is finding its way into some of the world’s most respected democracy indices.

In the Executive Summary of its Democracy Report 2020, the Sweden-based V-Dem Institute reported that India was “on the verge of losing its status as a democracy” because of the severe “shrinking of space for the media, civil society, and the opposition under Prime Minister Modi’s government.” Freedom in the World 2020, produced by the US-based Freedom House, warned that “the Indian government’s alarming departures from democratic norms” under Prime Minister Modi’s government “could blur the values-based distinction between Beijing and New Delhi,“ even as the United States and its allies (such as Japan) court India as a democratic counterweight to China. In the 2020 Democracy Index published by the Economist Intelligence Unit, India’s score continued its slide.

V-Dem and Freedom House delivered even harsher verdicts the following year. In its 2021 report, V-Dem downgraded India from an electoral democracy to an electoral autocracy. In Freedom in the World 2021, India’s rating slipped from “free” to “partly free.”

The Modi administration has fiercely rejected any suggestion that India’s democracy is backsliding. In March 2021, responding to the just-published Freedom House report, the government issued a formal rebuttal calling the assessment “misleading, incorrect, and misplaced.” In November 2022, the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister published a working paper titled “Why India Does Poorly on Global Perception Indices.” After criticizing the “arbitrary” methodology and conclusions of the three above-mentioned indices, the authors recommend that independent Indian think tanks be encouraged to “do similar perception based indices for the world in order to break the monopoly of a handful of Western institutions.”

In June 2023, The Guardian reported that senior officials in the Modi administration had been meeting in secret to discuss these low ratings and ways to improve India’s standing, with particular emphasis on the EIU’s Democracy Index (which calls India a “flawed democracy”). The article’s sources cited administration concerns that such rankings could hurt India’s international reputation and impact investment.

Among the Modi government’s more conspicuous countermeasures is an information campaign focused on democracy in ancient India, launched after India assumed the Group of 20 presidency in December 2022. During the G20 New Delhi summit in September 2023, the government mounted an exhibition and distributed a pamphlet on the theme of “the world’s oldest democracy.” For many observers, this rather far-fetched notion of India as the cradle of democracy merely bespeaks the Modi government’s desperation to salvage its international reputation.

Of course, this is not the first time experts have suggested that “the world’s largest democracy” may not be all that democratic. But recent trends seem to augur a fundamental shift from democracy to autocracy.

Eviscerating Democratic Safeguards

Two basic developments have cast doubt on the strength of India’s democracy since Narendra Modi’s nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party rose to power in 2014, and especially since Modi secured a second term in 2019.

One is the erosion of the mechanisms of accountability essential to a functioning democracy. The BJP-controlled legislature has become perfunctory in its deliberations and lax in its adherence to parliamentary procedure. The judiciary’s rulings are increasingly apt to rubber-stamp government decisions. Investigative agencies have been used to “legally” crack down on opposition politicians and dissidents. The independence of such oversight bodies as the Election Commission and the Comptroller and Auditor General has been compromised. At the same time, the government has made clever use of sticks and carrots to control major media outlets, including television and newspapers, while reining in civil society groups, such as nongovernmental organizations, with tougher laws and regulations. In this way, institutions designed to check government power have been eviscerated even while remaining superficially intact.

For almost two decades now, democracy has been faltering globally, and recent trends have added to concerns that autocracy is on the rise. Russia, Venezuela, Turkey, Hungary, and Poland are perhaps the most frequently cited cases of democracy gradually giving way to authoritarianism. Now India is drawing attention as another prime example.

The second alarming development in India is the retreat of secularism—long regarded as a fundamental tenet of national policy—in the face of a surge in Hindu nationalism, which has ensconced itself at the very heart of Indian politics.

Hindu nationalism (also referred to as Hindutva) is a highly exclusionary, intolerant political ideology that views India’s Hindu majority (comprising 80% of the population as of the 2011 census) as inseparable from the Indian nation and seeks to redefine India as a country “by Hindus and for Hindus.”

The RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), a vast Hindu nationalist umbrella organization, forms the ruling BJP’s political base. Founded in 1925, the RSS allegedly has close historical links with fascism, and its alumni include the killer of Mahatma Gandhi, the father of Indian independence. Prime Minister Modi, a longtime RSS member, rose to political prominence and eventually the nation’s top office. Today RSS figures occupy many key government and party positions.

In the 10 years since Modi first took office, India’s national and state governments have enacted a flurry of laws eroding the civil rights of religious minorities. The main focus of this campaign is Muslims, the country’s largest religious minority, accounting for 14.2% of the population. On top of such discriminatory laws, Hindu nationalist leaders, including BJP politicians, have encouraged anti-Muslim boycotts, hate speech, and even direct violence as part of a systematic effort to marginalize the country’s Muslims.

For example, in October 2022, at a public event in Delhi, a BJP member of Parliament (MP) called for a total boycott against “them,” in an obvious reference to Muslims. “Say after me!” he cried. “We will boycott them! We will not buy anything from their shops! We will not give them any work!”(*1) At other events, speakers have gone further, implicitly advocating ethnic cleansing and even genocide. Yet such speech has gone virtually unchecked by the police.(*2) In certain BJP-controlled states, the authorities have summarily ordered Muslim-owned homes and businesses demolished in the wake of religious clashes. Some BJP supporters have even embraced the bulldozer as a symbol of “justice.”(*3)

Dark Clouds on the Political Horizon

In the realm of politics, the BJP’s rise has eroded Muslim representation. In July 2022, the Parliament found itself without a single Muslim member of the ruling party for the first time in history.

Prime Minister Modi has called the Indian Constitution the nation’s “greatest and most sacred text.” Yet in the past 10 years, the Modi administration has run roughshod over the Constitution’s basic principles while progressively dismantling the institutional safeguards designed to prevent their erosion. Bulldozer justice is displacing the ideals of fairness and equity embodied in the Constitution.

Unfortunately, the trend seems likely to continue. India’s political parties are gearing up for the 2024 general elections (probably in April and May), and the BJP is expected to dominate on the strength of Prime Minister Modi’s popularity. This will mean a third term for Modi and another five years under a regime that has already made alarming progress toward normalizing Hindu nationalism and degrading Indian democracy.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks at a political rally in Hyderabad, India, on November 11, 2023. © AFP/Jiji.)

(*1) ^ See NDTV, “After BJP MP’s ‘Community Boycott’ Call, A Case Filed but Not over Speech,” October 10, 2022.

(*2) ^ See The Wire, “Hindutva Leaders at Haridwar Event Call for Muslim Genocide,” December 22, 2022.

(*3) ^ See Human Rights Watch, “India: Surge in Summary Punishments of Muslims,” October 7, 2022.

India Indo-Pacific Narendra Modi