The popular decimation of India's democracy
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The popular decimation of India's democracy

Police stand near a display of Narendra Modi, India's prime minister, during a campaign rally in Mumbai. (Photo: Bloomberg)
Police stand near a display of Narendra Modi, India's prime minister, during a campaign rally in Mumbai. (Photo: Bloomberg)

India's ongoing parliamentary election, in which nearly a billion people casting their votes over a six-week period, should represent an extraordinary exercise of democracy. The bleak reality, however, is that the election appears poised to consolidate a decade-long process of democratic decay, which has included the decimation of liberal institutions and practices and weakening of political competition. After all, the leader who has presided over this process -- Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) -- remains wildly popular.

Apart from the dedicated and disciplined ground-level work by masses of volunteers for Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the fountainhead of the BJP, this popularity reflects factors sometimes similar to, but also quite different from, those fuelling support for right-wing demagogues elsewhere.

As I noted in my 2022 book A World of Insecurity: Democratic Disenchantment in Rich and Poor Countries, such forces tend to find support primarily among less-educated, rural, and older populations. Yet Mr Modi has the backing of educated, urban, aspirational youth. Whereas former US president Donald Trump, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have struggled to carry major cities in elections, Mr Modi had secured thumping victories in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore.

A key reason for this is that political liberalism -- including abiding faith in democratic institutions, checks and balances on government power and free expression -- never really took hold in India, outside of a small Westernised elite. A 2023 Pew Research Center survey showed that 67% of Indians have a positive view of rule by a "strong leader" who can make decisions without interference from courts or parliaments -- the highest rate of any of the surveyed countries. Populist demagogues always emphasise the participatory aspects of democracy; but in India, the procedural aspects are particularly weak, enabling vicious forms of majoritarianism and state-abetted persecution of dissenters and, particularly, of religious minorities.

Illiberalism thrives among India's radical left as well, for whom liberal institutions reek of "bourgeois" democracy, and among traditionalists, including Gandhians, as even Mahatma Gandhi, for all his tolerance and empathy, subscribed to the patriarchal and hierarchical values of traditional Indian society. The Hindu-supremacist ideology of the RSS -- which has been influential among the upper castes and classes, particularly in northern India -- certainly does not lend itself to liberalism.

Poorer Indians, who have traditionally favoured centre-left national or regional parties, have been attracted to the BJP by the party's strategy of Hindu consolidation, which includes bringing historical leaders (and even deities) of marginal groups under the broad tent of religious nationalism. Social welfare benefits -- often framed as "gifts" from Mr Modi (prominently bearing his photograph) -- have helped, as has the BJP's co-optation of sub-caste leaders with promises of official privileges.

Two key narratives further bolster support for the BJP, though neither withstands scrutiny. The first is that Mr Modi's government alone can slay the demon of corruption. But there is little evidence that his administration has made progress on this front. On the contrary, according to Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, India ranked 93rd for corruption last year (out of 180 countries), having fallen eight places since Mr Modi took power in 2014.

Petty corruption remains rampant in India. Demands for bribes by police officers, inspectors or contractors do not seem to have declined in recent years. Moreover, the disastrous demonetisation that Mr Modi oversaw in 2016 -- which was particularly harmful to small businesses and the poor -- unearthed hardly any of the "black money" it was supposed to flush out.

There is also little reason to believe that grand corruption has declined. Stories about officials collecting hefty "commissions" from contractors on large public projects abound, and government agencies' increasingly aggressive pursuit of "corrupt" opposition politicians reeks of disingenuousness.

In fact, getting corruption charges dropped or shelved can be as easy as joining the ruling party, even for opposition leaders who have long faced BJP accusations of corruption. These defections contribute to a decline in reported political corruption, but the actual extent of the problem is another story.

Meanwhile, the BJP -- which exerts near-total control over Indian media -- has ensured that the nexus between politics and business remains opaque. As we know, absolute power can corrupt absolutely. By blocking investigations of questionable business deals involving BJP leaders, the government effectively grants those it favours a kind of "sovereign guarantee" of impunity. These are often the same crony firms for which regulatory exemptions and other favours tend to be reserved.

It has long been suspected that large sums of money from favoured firms flow into the BJP's coffers. This process was facilitated by "electoral bonds" -- an opaque mechanism introduced by the Modi government in 2017, allowing businesses, individuals and organisations to anonymously donate unlimited amounts to political parties -- until the Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional in February. Subsequent disclosures have revealed that these donations were largely from sectors tending to have high levels of extractive rents, owing to dependence on links to the state, with the BJP being by far the largest beneficiary. According to The Economist, Indian billionaires derived nearly half (43%) of their wealth from such sectors in 2021, up from 29% in 2015. Crony capitalism is, after all, a corrupt form of capitalism.

Making matters worse, political donations might not always be entirely voluntary, as they sometimes follow raids or charges by investigative agencies. In any case, it is clear that electoral bonds were only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to political dark money in India.

The second BJP narrative that resonates most with voters can be summed up as Miga ("Make India Great Again"). With the BJP in charge, the propaganda proclaims, India will soon be a global superpower, with all the influence, advantages and prosperity this implies.

This narrative -- which the West, seeking an alternative market and geopolitical counterweight to China, has often echoed and reinforced -- has captured the imagination of India's huge number of young people, even those who are unemployed and underemployed. . But it is unlikely to become a reality any time soon: despite some achievements in digital and other infrastructure, and plenty of wealth accumulation by the richest decile of the population, India's economic performance has been middling, at best, over the last decade. By lending credence to BJP hype, Western business leaders, politicians, and media have become complicit in the hollowing out of India's democracy. ©2024 Project Syndicate

Pranab Bardhan, Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author, most recently, of 'A World of Insecurity: Democratic Disenchantment in Rich and Poor Countries (Harvard University Press, 2022)'.

Pranab Bardhan

Professor at the University of California

Pranab Bardhan is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent books are 'Globalisation, Democracy and Corruption: An Indian Perspective and Awakening Giants', 'Feet of Clay: Assessing the Economic Rise of China and India'.

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