Election Watch

Why This Election Is India’s Most Important

Voters are choosing more than the parties and politicians who will represent them. It is something more basic: The future of India’s secular democracy is on the ballot.

By Šumit Ganguly

April 2024

Last week, citizens of India, the world’s largest democracy, began voting in the world’s largest general election. The balloting will stretch over several weeks for both security reasons and the remoteness of many polling stations. By the time the last polls close on June 1, a large share of the country’s 969 million eligible voters will have cast their ballots for the 543-seat Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament. The stakes could not be higher: The future of India as a plural, secular democracy could be on the line if Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) win a third consecutive term.

Indian democracy, while imperfect, has thrived for most of the country’s postindependence history. The only time it has ever faced a threat as dire as today’s was under the “state of emergency” declared by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975. For 21 months, her Indian National Congress–led government squelched civil liberties, gagged the press, and stifled judicial independence. Gandhi decided to call elections in 1977. Not only were she and Congress routed at the polls that year, but India also saw its first alternation in power.

Unlike Indira Gandhi, Modi has not formally suspended civil rights or personal liberties. But since his second term began in 2019, democratic governance has been steadily eroding. The BJP has attacked civil society, muzzled India’s historically feisty press, and harassed and marginalized minorities. It has also attempted to undermine the opposition and coopt the judiciary. Given the BJP’s toxic brew of authoritarianism and Hindu majoritarianism, things will likely get worse if the party retains its clear-cut majority.

Institutions Under Fire

Over the last five years, a number of civil society organizations have been caught in the BJP’s crosshairs and forced to cease operations. Recently, the prominent Centre for Policy Research (CPR) had to close after its foreign funding was suspended for allegedly violating the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act. Activists, meanwhile, protest at their peril. Father Stan Swamy, an elderly Jesuit priest suffering from Parkinson’s disease, was incarcerated early in the covid-19 pandemic on grounds of abetting terrorism at a rally years before. For eight months, he was repeatedly denied bail. When his health took a sharp turn for the worse, he was moved to a private hospital where he tested positive for covid and died of cardiac arrest.

The opposition, already suffering from its own disarray, is also facing unprecedented pressure from the BJP. Delhi’s popular chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, a Modi critic who leads the Aam Admi Party, was recently jailed on corruption charges related to the allocation of liquor licenses. Whether or not these allegations turn out to be true, the timing of the arrest — on the eve of the general election — raises questions about its motivations. Kejriwal isn’t the only state leader to suffer this fate; Hemant Soren, chief minister of Jharkhand, was arrested and jailed in February, also on corruption charges.

Finally, in a move that attracted national and even global attention, the Income Tax Department froze the Congress party’s bank accounts in mid-February for filing their 2018–19 returns 45 days late. Following an appeal, the Income Tax Tribunal granted Congress additional time to pay its taxes, but the charge now dangles over the country’s main opposition party as it heads into the electoral fray. Largely bereft of leadership, however, it was Congress’s own ineptitude and fecklessness that allowed these circumstances to arise in the first place.

Beyond these obvious attempts to undermine the opposition, the BJP has shown scant regard — and sometimes malice — for minority rights, especially those of Muslims, who make up 14 percent of the population. The BJP has subjected the country’s largest minority to troubles too numerous to catalog. Most recent among them was Modi’s announcement in March that the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), whose implementation was long delayed due to unrest, would finally go into force. Under the law, a number of “at-risk” religious minorities from neighboring countries will be granted accelerated Indian citizenship. Conspicuously absent from the list, however, are Muslims.

The National Register of Citizens, mandated by an earlier amendment to the Citizenship Act, could also prove especially harmful to Muslim communities. So far, only the state of Assam has implemented the register. But the BJP plans to roll it out across the country, requiring all Indian residents to submit legal documentation of citizenship. Since Muslims in India are disproportionately poor, sometimes nearly destitute, many may not possess the requisite documents and could thus end up being interned or becoming stateless.

Independent media in India have also suffered under the BJP. Numerous international organizations have highlighted the dramatic decline of press freedom in the country, even if the government unequivocally denies it. India’s once noisy and vigorous press has become dull and supine. It’s no wonder, given the raids on news organizations, widespread arrests of journalists on dubious charges, and even the murder of some reporters. Also concerning is the BJP’s decision to create its own alternative democracy index to rebut such claims from its critics.

Finally, although India’s Supreme Court, under the leadership of Chief Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, has at times proven its independence, its future autonomy remains uncertain. The constitutional separation of powers, for example, has come into question since the government nominated former justice Ranjan Gogoi to the upper house of Parliament in March. Gogoi, who is widely seen as sympathetic to the BJP, had left the bench just four months earlier. Moreover, because the Court’s two most senior judges also hold views that largely conform with those of the BJP, the party may be able to count on sympathetic hearings on key issues.

If Modi’s second term is anything to go by, a third one will not bode well for the long-term health of India’s democracy. The country’s institutions, which have weathered challenges from their very founding, are now confronting existential threats that could unravel their democratic core. If the BJP does win again, as is widely expected, civil society activists, political leaders, and even ordinary citizens will have to carefully weigh their options before challenging the government. In these elections, it is fair to say India’s future as a secular democracy is on the ballot.

Šumit Ganguly is Distinguished Professor of Political Science and holds the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington, and is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He is the author (with Larry Diamond and Dinsha Mistree) of The Troubling State of India’s Democracy (forthcoming).


Copyright © 2024 National Endowment for Democracy

Image credit: Samir Jana/Hindustan Times via Getty Images



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