The Recent Elections Demonstrate India’s Growing Democratic Deficit

Premier Modi’s control of the media, vast campaign funds and open demagoguery have left him free to ignore voters’ real concerns

The Recent Elections Demonstrate India’s Growing Democratic Deficit
Supporters of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi gather for his election campaign roadshow in Varanasi in May 2024. (Ritesh Shukla/Getty Images)

In India’s financial capital of Mumbai, party slogans and chants of “Modi, Modi” rent the air as the campaign roadshow for the Indian prime minister got underway one sweaty evening earlier in May. An ocean of people lined the streets, jiving to drum rolls and folk dances. The indefatigable 74-year-old Narendra Modi, who is asking for a third term, waved at the milling crowds from an open jeep as his cavalcade crawled through the Ghatkopar area in the northeastern part of the city.

This was the second time in three days that Ghatkopar was in the national news. Just 48 hours before Modi’s march, a thunderstorm that paralyzed the city had brought down a giant billboard on a gas station, killing 16 people and leaving 75 injured. Even as Modi’s roadshow was ongoing, rescuers were extracting corpses from cars flattened by the billboard not far from the festivities. The prime minister’s 1.5-mile campaign route carefully avoided the scene of destruction. Modi did not mention the tragic accident on his daylong Mumbai trip, nor did he visit the injured in the hospital. His party’s social media department, meanwhile, got #ModiMagicInMumbai trending as the city mourned its dead.

The billboard tragedy was not a freak accident, however. It was caused by government failure: The 120-by-120-foot billboard was “illegal,” the municipality said soon afterward. Its absence from the election coverage was thus all the more striking. The owner of the company was arrested, but who approved its construction three years ago, why the government allowed it to exist even though it was three times the permissible size and why there was no structural audit are questions that remain unanswered. The role in the tragedy played by Maharashtra’s state government — which is a coalition controlled by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — was never even touched on by his campaign or the reports by television channels owned by tycoons close to Modi.

Reports focused instead on the effusive support Modi was receiving in Mumbai. They did not mention the inconvenience for angry commuters in peak evening hours as a result of roadblocks and the shutting down of some metro services for the event. For the live telecast of the roadshow (every Modi event gets wall-to-wall coverage in India’s servile mainstream media), the reporters came up with talking points to underline the central theme: Modi’s raging popularity. One of these points was the huge presence of youth voters at the event, which reporters said was a sign of their gratitude for the employment opportunities created by the prime minister. Such large numbers of young people at that time on a working day pointed to the exact opposite, however. A countrywide job crisis is one of the biggest voter concerns in this election but, like the billboard tragedy, Modi does not acknowledge it.

This is part of a pattern whereby pressing issues do not get much mention in Modi’s campaign. Moreover, his control of the narrative through the government, a captured media and his vast army of social media warriors; his party’s unlimited resources, accumulated on the back of executive power, which allow it to outspend everybody; and the emotive appeal of his polarizing identity politics, crowding out substantive issues of survival and sustenance, combine to give Modi the ability to set the agenda to his advantage, irrespective of the most dominant popular concerns.

Modi’s party is up against a grand alliance of regional parties and the Indian National Congress. The latter has governed India for much of the period since independence in 1947, but has looked feckless since Modi’s rise to national power in 2014. This big-tent opposition bloc — called the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance, or INDIA — is putting up a spirited fight, focusing on jobs, inflation and welfare. But it has repeatedly found its message overwhelmed by Modi’s scaremongering regarding India’s 200 million Muslims and his atrocious allegations against his political opponents, ably amplified by a captured media.

His central campaign theme has been that if the opposition comes to power it will seize the wealth of the Hindus and give it to the Muslims. Relentless attacks like these on the opposition parties insulate Modi’s own track record against electoral scrutiny.

With the campaign devoid of the democratic accountability that should be at the heart of any election, what is left in Modi’s India is a hollow shell, an elaborate ritual. Indian elections are the largest in the world. Some 970 million people registered this year to vote over a period of six weeks. It’s an exercise that stirs up both excitement and pride among Indians and is commonly referred to as the “festival of democracy” in the country. The dancing party cadres leading Modi’s motorcade, the music and the drums offer a glimpse of the carnivalesque nature of Indian elections. But they also camouflage the distance between the voters and the campaign priorities.

Preelection surveys revealed employment and inflation as the two main voter concerns. Unfilled government jobs and a new short-term military recruitment scheme that denies youths full-fledged defense jobs are sore points for voters. But Modi has spoken little about his plans to create jobs or bring down prices. Even when he talks about jobs and the economy, he speaks in abstract terms about his government’s success in generating employment and throws around empty rhetoric about turning India into a developed nation by 2047. “Your Modi is your servant, your dreams are my resolve, for which I work 24/7 for 2047. This is Modi’s guarantee,” he said at a recent public rally. Occasionally he surpasses his own grandiloquence by lauding his government for laying down the blueprint for a “brighter 1,000 years” for India.

Surveys before the last general election, in 2019, also showed that unemployment was the biggest issue for voters and that Modi’s alliance might fall short of a majority. Yet when a government report leaked to the media and revealed the highest unemployment in 45 years, Modi suppressed it and created a diversion. Following an attack on an Indian paramilitary convoy in Kashmir that killed 40 of its personnel and was claimed by the Pakistan-based group Jaish-e-Mohammad, Modi instigated war hysteria regarding a supposed need to conduct aerial strikes across the border — and thereby swept the election. His party leaders went about telling voters that “Modi’s soldiers” showed Pakistan its place by conducting an airstrike on a supposed training camp in the group’s territory. The usual rules of accountability in government were simply set aside as Modi was reelected with a thumping majority, winning 303 of the 543 directly elected seats in Parliament.

In the current election, Modi’s party claims he is making India a global power. At his rallies, Modi is telling voters, “Today, India has a reputation in the world and this election is to increase the prestige of the country.” He is bragging that India now sends its secret agents abroad to kill its enemies, referring to recent allegations about the Indian government’s involvement in targeted attacks in Canada, the U.S. and Pakistan. The subtext of most of his speeches is that under his rule, India has emerged as a global leader with the kind of clout it’s never had on the world stage. One party advertisement makes the fantastical claim that Modi forced Russia and Ukraine to pause their war to allow India to evacuate its students who were trapped there. In a recent interview, Modi claimed he had even asked Israel to stop bombing Gaza during Ramadan. His wild claims are pumped up by the media and lapped up by his supporters, but are of little relevance to the daily struggles of most Indians.

Perhaps this is why India is one of the countries in which people think the least of representative democracy. A Pew survey of 24 countries last year showed that enthusiasm for democracy has slipped in many nations since 2017, with nearly 75% saying elected officials do not care about what ordinary people think. In India, these sentiments are particularly strong. Only 36% of Indians now think democracy is a good idea, down from 44% six years ago, and an astonishing 72% of Indians — the highest among all countries surveyed — believe military rule would be a good idea.

The grievous disconnect between people and politics that produces such apathy points to a yawning democratic deficit and could be considered a measure of India’s democratic decline under Modi. Global democracy trackers highlight India as one of the fastest-declining democracies. Washington-based Freedom House has rated it “partly free,” while Sweden’s Varieties of Democracy Institute (or V-Dem) calls it an “electoral autocracy.” In its (latest) “Democracy Report 2024,” V-Dem termed India “one of the worst autocratizers.” These global trackers have noted how Modi’s 10 years as prime minister have seen unprecedented curbs on civil liberties, a shrinking of the civic space, capture of democratic institutions and oppression of India’s minorities, especially its 200 million Muslims, who constitute about 14% of the population.

In “Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy,” Suzanne Mettler and Robert Lieberman point out that past periods of crisis in American democracy — such as the divisions over slavery in the 1850s and 1860s, the desire for strongman rule during the Great Depression in the 1930s and the unrest and constitutional crisis at the time of the Watergate scandal in the 1970s — were caused by one or more of four specific factors: political polarization, conflict over who belongs in the political community, high economic inequality and excessive executive power. Mettler and Lieberman argue that democracy tends to flourish at times when these conditions are absent, and decay when they are present. For the first time in its history, they argue, the U.S. faced all four threats at the same time in Donald Trump’s ascent and rule.

These threats seem to be facing India under Modi. The country’s minorities face an existential threat, constantly being othered and humiliated. Modi has openly called Muslims “infiltrators” in the ongoing election campaign, mainstreaming the idea of their undesirability in the polity. A state-driven mass radicalization program — through social media, mainstream media, curricula, government words and actions, and nongovernment actors such as vigilante groups — has polarized society. India’s democratic institutions are systematically being suffused with Hindu nationalist ideology and stuffed with its adherents.

This extreme concentration of executive power is parallelled by a concentration of economic power, as Modi’s government bestows tax breaks and policy favors on big business, which in turn reciprocates by underwriting his budding autocracy with fat checks. A court-directed report of the details of an anonymous campaign finance instrument called electoral bonds shows how his party corners most of the corporate contributions, often in return for government favors or by using coercion. A small section of the population has prospered with these flourishing corporate entities, but inequality has deepened.

The latest “World Inequality Report” finds India’s inequality to be worse now than under British rule. According to Oxfam, 5% of the population now owns more than 60% of the country’s wealth, while the bottom 50% possesses only 3%. As Indian millionaires have raced up the global league charts of riches, India now figures below North Korea and Sudan in the Global Hunger Index.

One would think a reassessment of India’s economic policies and fundamental reforms would consume much of the campaign oxygen. But inequality has merited only a fleeting mention as one of Modi’s many nonissues in this campaign.

In fact, he has almost criminalized the whole notion of equitable distribution of wealth. The Indian National Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, the scion of India’s most prominent political family (which has given it three prime ministers), said while launching his manifesto that a Congress government would undertake surveys to determine the population size and status of various castes and communities, and design welfare and affirmative action programs accordingly in order to redistribute wealth. Modi latched on to this and claimed that, if the Congress came to power, it would seize the wealth of Hindus and distribute it among Muslims. For the next couple of days he went around telling his supporters that the Congress would take away their buffaloes and family jewelry. In a recent TV interview, when asked about India’s growing inequality, his comeback was “Should everybody be poor?” Not only does he not address inequality but, just like unemployment, he doesn’t even see it as a problem.

When Modi first rose to national power in 2014, he ran on inclusive growth. As chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, he had cut his teeth on violent sectarian politics with riots against Muslims on his watch in 2002, which made him an icon of the Hindu far right. In the 14 years that he ruled Gujarat with an iron fist, he earned unimpeachable Hindu nationalist credentials by turning the state into a laboratory of Hindutva (or the politics of Hindu nationalism). He did this by establishing the political and cultural dominance of Hindus by capturing and bending secular state structures to his will and his party’s ideology. But he also refashioned himself as a business-friendly economic reformer, and was seen as ushering in prosperity and good governance in his state. His campaign promise while challenging the previous Congress-led federal government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a former economist, was that he would turn India into an economic powerhouse along the lines of what the BJP then touted as the “Gujarat model” of economic development, which could be the blueprint for India.

Ten years later, not much has come of that promise. Despite his claims at home and abroad about India’s stellar growth under his leadership, Modi’s India is no economic miracle. The economy has actually grown more slowly in the decade under Modi than under his predecessor. Banks are battling the worst deposit crunch in two decades, given that household savings are at a 47-year low, while household debt levels are at a record high. Consumption remains sluggish, and foreign investment levels are the lowest in nearly two decades.

One of Modi’s key initiatives after he came to power was boosting India’s manufacturing sector to create jobs for the young. However, unemployment is endemic. Manufacturing’s share of gross domestic product has in fact fallen from around 17% two decades ago to 13% (compared to about 27% in China and South Korea), while more and more distressed workers turn to agriculture. Labor was meant to flow in the opposite direction, to power India’s march toward economic stardom.

With not much to show for his promise of an economic resurgence, Modi has doubled down on his Hindu nationalist brand. This campaign has witnessed unprecedented levels of nakedly anti-Muslim rhetoric from senior BJP figures, who have been riling up voters by promising to turn mosques into temples and warning that the opposition will impose sharia law if it comes to power.

BJP leaders, including Modi, usually use dog whistles like “jihadis,” “Pakistanis,” “Bangladeshis” and “infiltrators” to refer to Indian Muslims. It’s not that Modi as prime minister hasn’t made vile references to Muslims in the past, but they used to be coded. At a rally during the last election, in 2019, he told the crowd that people who create violence could be identified by their clothes, hinting at the Muslim community.

Five years on, Modi has pushed the envelope even further and crossed a Rubicon of sorts. At a rally in the northern state of Rajasthan, he falsely criticized the previous Congress government for declaring that Muslims have first right to the country’s resources — a piece of disinformation that has been repeatedly fact-checked and disproved. And then in his signature style, he rhetorically asked the audience, “Who will the Congress distribute the country’s wealth to if they come to power?” He supplied his own answer: “They will give it to those who have more children.” The crowd immediately understood the allusion to the Hindu right’s trope that Muslims procreate more as part of a plan to outrun the Hindus and take over the country; they broke out in a cheer. Seeing that his bait was working, Modi, now more carried away than the crowd he was trying to work, shouted: “They will give it to the infiltrators. Should your hard-earned money be given to infiltrators? Do you approve of it?” The crowd roared back in the negative.

Modi’s current campaign may be a marked escalation from the usual levels of anti-Muslim messages from representatives of the state. But it also seems to be the natural progression of political vocabulary that has become increasingly polarized in the past decade, along with discriminatory state policies that target Muslims in order to galvanize the majority Hindu vote. Modi’s party has managed to convince its voters that the existence of the 80% Hindu population is threatened by the 14% Muslim population, which is one of the most marginalized and disempowered communities in India. “Hindu khatre mein hain” (Hindus are in danger) is a right-wing refrain that resonates deeply today.

Before Modi took over in 2014, Indians’ primary complaints were poverty, the poor economy and social infrastructure, and corruption. Modi’s 10 years hasn’t lessened any of that but has conditioned his support base to believe that Muslims are the cause of all their woes. Many of their problems would go away if the Muslims went away to wherever they came from, since they are all “infiltrators” — all 200 million of them.

The no-holds-barred campaign has stoked fears among a section of Indian society that India’s governing party is preparing the final goal of establishing a Hindu state by dismantling India’s secular republic, and that a third term for Modi will see a decisive push in that direction. Critics feel that the polarizing nature of Modi’s campaign is a preview of what is to come.

The silence of India’s Election Commission reflects the extent of Modi’s capture of governing institutions. It would be impossible to tell from the conduct of the governing party, but using religion to canvas for votes is strictly illegal in India. The commission is supposedly an autonomous body, yet under Modi it has been increasingly bent to the regime’s will. Just before the election, Modi handpicked two commissioners to stack the three-member Election Commission in his favor. That move followed a new law, pushed by his government last year, that changed the process by which commission members are appointed, giving more control over the selection process to the government.

The commission has not weighed in on some of the most blatant instances of voter suppression in Muslim-majority areas in BJP-ruled states, which reported a problem with violence against voters at polling booths. Another report revealed a large-scale deletion of voters’ names from the electoral rolls. In the southern city of Hyderabad alone, which has a significant number of Muslim residents, more than half a million voters’ names have reportedly been deleted from revised electoral rolls. A similar trend was observed in the last election as well.

And, alarmingly, the Election Commission has been refusing to provide complete data on something as basic as the absolute voter turnout numbers, adding to fears of rigging. It has already been inexplicably slow-rolling the release of election data. Its behavior has aggravated preexisting fears of the hacking of electronic voting machines to manipulate results.

But it is Modi’s hacking of the voters’ minds, rather than governing institutions such as the Election Commission, that has raised most concern over India’s democracy. Modi’s Mumbai campaign, for example, demonstrates the polarization and vigilantism seeping into everyday life as a result of his dispensation’s elaborate program of mass radicalization.

In the state of Maharashtra, his party’s strategy in the past year has been to organize mass movements calling for an economic boycott of Muslims and targeting them over interfaith relationships based on the Hindutva conspiracy theory of “love jihad.” According to this theory, Muslim men supposedly seduce Hindu women as part of a wider plot to convert them to Islam and increase the Muslim population. The party has worked assiduously to consolidate diverse Hindu groups, encourage them to work together and mobilize them to propagate hate speech and violence against Muslims. This includes attacking mosques and lynching cattle traders.

The culture war has penetrated deep into even the traditionally cosmopolitan city of Mumbai. A school in Mumbai recently sacked its Muslim principal after Op India, a far-right news website known for spreading disinformation, targeted her as a “Hamas sympathizer” and “anti-Hindu,” based on the posts she “liked” on X (formerly Twitter). The Hindu right has found common cause with Israel and considers any Palestine sympathizer to be pro-Muslim and, by extension, anti-Hindu. After Op India’s report on her “disturbing social media behavior,” the school demanded an explanation from her and said it would ensure that its “ethos of unity and inclusivity is not compromised.” Finally, the school unceremoniously terminated her services, ending her 12-year association with the institution over what the principal described as a “vitriolic public vilification campaign” against her.

Harnessing social divisions like these allows Modi to gloss over pressing bread-and-butter issues such as the agrarian crisis that is raging in Maharashtra. Nearly 3,000 farmers committed suicide in the state last year as a last resort to escape debt. Across India, more than 112,000 farmers have committed suicide in the past decade, according to the National Crime Record Bureau, nearly 40% of them from Maharashtra. So severe is the agrarian distress and the lack of employment opportunities in the state’s drought-prone heartland that young people are killing themselves as part of the raging agitation for affirmative action in government jobs.

Modi had promised to generate 20 million jobs a year when he pitched for national power in 2014. Because he hasn’t been able to deliver on that promise, he doesn’t talk about job creation specifically anymore. In 2016 he promised to double farmers’ incomes by 2022, but this failed to occur, not least because the government has not increased the minimum government procurement price of crops enough to achieve that target. Government bans on agricultural exports in order to contain domestic prices have also limited farmers’ incomes.

Not only has Modi not mentioned the farming crisis at all in his Maharashtra campaigns, police even preempted a planned protest by onion farmers during his recent visit by arresting the farmers. Maharashtra generates more than 40% of the country’s onions, and onion farmers have been hit particularly hard by the government ban on exports to control food inflation. The farmers were kept in custody for 12 hours, until Modi left the state.

In this year’s election, we can see how one can have all the song and dance about democracy — quite literally, in India’s case — without the most elementary norms of electoral accountability. Modi neither feels obliged to defend his performance or clearly state his goals if he is reelected, nor does the media compel him to do so.

The pliant mainstream media, mostly owned by cronies or beholden to the government for business favors and advertisements, has not only become a BJP echo chamber; it is now a willing partner in its ideological war of spreading hate and incitement. Almost all of the reportage critical of the government now comes from a new crop of online media outlets, with relatively less reach than the dominant mainstream media. Modi’s egregious lies about the opposition, laced with unrestrained hate and his lofty generalities about his government’s programs, thus remain unchallenged.

Modi has famously not done a single press conference in his 10 years in power, preferring to stick to highly scripted interviews instead. His “interviews” with India’s mainstream media this election have followed a similar pattern: softball questions, no cross-questioning or fact-checking and a complete lack of substance. Some of the questions he has faced so far are: “Are you emotional?” “Why are you always ahead of your opposition?” “How does it feel to have the likes of Elon Musk as your fan?”

When one of the regime’s favorite anchors recently asked him, “How do you stay fit?” Modi replied that he has come to the conclusion that his was not a “biological” birth and that his inexhaustible energy can come only from divine sources, which have sent him to earth for a special purpose. This god complex is an extension of the elaborate spectacle of his January inauguration of the Ram Temple, which was built on a disputed site where Hindutva foot soldiers razed a 16th-century mosque, the Babri Masjid, in 1992. The construction of the temple has long been a rallying cry for the Hindu right.

A celestial leader stopping global wars, a superpower on the rise and transnational repression — to the army of unemployed youths who have stopped looking for a job and gone back to farmwork, or India’s 800 million people subsisting on free rations, or the 55 million people who fall back into poverty every year because of paying for hospital bills in the family, this election campaign is so far removed from their lived realities that it might as well be happening in a parallel universe.

Authoritarians like Modi thrive on manufactured realities. This election is a test of the limits of such tactics.

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