top of page

Indian democracy today: has the ruling BJP turned India into an electoral autocracy?

By Karl Singarvelan Raha


In this article, Karl challenges the growing influence of Hindutva – a political and cultural ideology that seeks to promote the idea of India as a Hindu nation, advocating the primacy of Hindu culture, traditions, and values. At the same time, he also aims to expose the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which is associated with Hindutva and which, he argues, has eroded the foundations of Indian democracy, including the principles of equality, liberty, fraternity, and secularism. Karl would like to thank Sweta Das for her help in formulating and writing this article.




In common with most Indian citizens, I was happy when the BJP formed a government after the 2014 general election. I was about fourteen years old at the time and too young to understand all of the implications. I simply thought that the previous United Progressive Alliance, led by the Indian National Congress, was mired in scandal and had presided over a period of high inflation. But with growing political awareness, I realised that the BJP is a bigger threat than the UPA.


The BJP is nominally a party of the centre-right party but it is becoming more of a far-right party which is endorsing Hindu nationalism and Hindutva to promote Hindu supremacy, as inspired by its parent organisation, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The RSS has a history of supporting the ideas of Mussolini and Hitler and theories of ethnic cleansing. The main leaders of the BJP are members of the RSS, including Narendra Modi, the current Prime Minister of India, Venkaiah Naidu, the former Vice President of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the former Prime Minister of India, and many more politicians. It is alleged that the RSS controls the BJP and its functionaries. For instance, when the BJP won the 2002 Gujarat elections Narendra Modi, who at the time did not hold any public office, became the Gujarat Chief Minister again. Similarly, after the 2017 Uttar Pradesh state elections, the radical Hindu monk Yogi Adityanath suddenly became the Chief Minister despite having had no previous presence in the region. Hindu radicals are turning to Yogi Adityanath to be a future prime minister of India.


Modi-Hynkel

Some critics and political commentators compare Narendra Modi to the fictional character Adenoid Hynkel from Charlie Chaplin’s film The Great Dictator. Hynkel is a satire of Adolf Hitler, the infamous dictator of Nazi Germany. In The Great Dictator, he is portrayed as a power-hungry and authoritarian ruler who uses propaganda, nationalism, and suppression of dissent to maintain control over his country. The film satirises Hitler’s leadership style, xenophobia, and aggressive militarism. Some critics draw parallels between certain aspects of Narendra Modi’s leadership style and policies with those of Hynkel and Hitler, particularly concerning issues such as nationalism, authoritarian tendencies, and handling of religious and ethnic minorities.


There are also some interesting parallels between Modi and the Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini, in terms of a personality cult. Modi is believed to have come from a poor background and sold tea in a railway station, though this claim has been disputed. It has also been alleged that his educational credentials are fake. Many supporters claim that he is a great orator and a model of Indian masculinity and fitness with a 56 inch chest who can survive on just three-and-a-half hours of sleep or less.


When he was Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi was accused of condoning violence against Muslims during the 2002 Gujarat riots. During these riots, eleven men gang-raped a pregnant woman called Bilkis Bano, killing numerous members of her family. In 2008, the rapists were sentenced to life imprisonment. However, in 2022, they were released from jail by the Gujarat government and members of the Vishva Hindu Parishad, a Hindu nationalist organisation, fêted and garlanded them. But in response to a petition signed by 6,000 activists, eminent writers, historians, filmmakers, journalists and others, the Supreme Court struck down the remission and ordered the men to surrender to the jail authorities.

 

A debate surrounds the assessment of Gujarat's economic development during Modi’s tenure as chief minister. He positioned himself as a keen supporter of investment in Gujarat's development. But critics argue that his focus leaned heavily towards benefitting big business. Despite notable GDP growth, the state suffered from underdeveloped infrastructure, a low Human Development Index (HDI) score, high poverty rates, malnutrition, and significant social inequalities.


Modi’s premiership has been characterised by a neo-liberal Hindutva agenda. While there have been some reforms of the economy, they have primarily benefitted big business rather than ordinary people. He has continued many of the reforms initiated by former prime minister Manmohan Singh, such as online transactions and economic liberalisation. Modi claimed credit for achieving a $1 trillion economy and for his government elevating India’s ranking from 11th to 5th largest economy in the world. But my question is this: how did India recover from economic devastation in 1947 to the rank of 11th before Modi? It seems obvious to me that the Indian National Congress (INC), one of the oldest and largest political parties in India, played a key role in its development. In contrast to the BJP, the INC describes itself as a centre-left party, advocating secularism, social justice, and inclusive economic development.


Key indicators of economic failure

Many people focus solely on GDP as a measure of economic well-being, but there are several other economic indicators that provide a more comprehensive view of a country's economic situation. These include factors such as GDP in terms of Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), the Gini Coefficient, Minimum Wages, Tax Revenues, Employment Rate, Ease of Doing Business, and the Index of Economic Freedom. Before delving into the myths surrounding GDP, it's important to consider India’s economic ranking according to these various indicators:

  • India’s GDP Per Capita is comparable to that of many other poor countries, with a current ranking of 127 out of 191. The average Indian’s annual income is close to $10,000, placing India two ranks above the economically troubled Venezuela. The average Indian earns around $1 per hour and according to a State of Inequality in India report, if you earn more than 25,000 rupees per month (around £250 or US$300) then your pay ranks in the top 10% of wages earned in India.

  • According to the Index of Economic Freedom, an annual index and ranking created in 1995 by The Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal, India is ranked at 131 out of 177. Economic freedom is defined as “the fundamental right of every human to control his or her own labour and property. In an economically free society, individuals are free to work, produce, consume, and invest in any way they please.”

  • The employment rate in India (that is, the proportion of working age adults who are employed) is around 49%, and according to the 2024 India Employment Report youth unemployment is a staggering 83%.

  • India’s innovation rank, despite having the world’s largest population and 77% literacy, is 48 out of 131 countries. Its “ease of doing business” rank is 63 out of 190 countries and its Global Competitiveness Report rank is 68 out of 141 countries. This is partly explained by the activities of large conglomerates such as the Reliance Group and the Adani Group which benefitted from privatisation. For example, if Disney wants to start in India it must secure a deal with Reliance. Many international companies are quitting India because of the harsh economic environment. India is increasingly known as a hazardous “graveyard for foreign companies”.

  • Incredibly, economic inequality is higher than in the days of the British Raj, with just 1% of the population now owning 40% of India’s wealth according to an Oxfam report. The Survival of the Richest report stated that a one-off tax on the unrealised gains from 2017-2021 of just one billionaire, Gautam Adani, could have raised enough to employ more than five million Indian primary school teachers for a year. And if India’s billionaires were taxed once at 2% on their entire wealth, this would alleviate malnutrition for the next three years. It added that a one-time tax of 5% on the 10 richest billionaires in the country would raise more than 1.5 times the funds needed for one year by the Health and Family Welfare Ministry and the Ministry of Ayush which is responsible for the development and regulation of traditional and alternative medicine systems.

  • According to the “Global Hunger Index” report released in 2023 by two European NGOs (Concern Worldwide and Welthungerhilfe), India is ranked at 111 out of 125 countries. The Indian government has rejected the report, claiming that its methodology is faulty.

  • According to the World Bank, India’s GDP annual growth rate is 7.2% (2022) but it is a myth that, in poor countries, GDP growth translates into improvements in household living standards. Being the world’s fifth largest economy may be impressive, but India's per capita income must also rise, as stated by former Reserve Bank of India Governor Chakravarthi Rangarajan.

Demonetisation

One policy that contributed to economic problems is demonetisation in 2016, which involved the abrupt withdrawal of 500 and 1000 Rupee notes from circulation. This policy aimed to curb corruption, eliminate black money, and hamper terrorism. According to a number of economic analyses, this policy did not meet its primary objectives and was widely regarded as a failure. Although it indirectly promoted the growth of digital transactions, its negative impact on the economy was profound. I agree with the economist Richard Thaler, who initially praised the demonetisation of larger currency notes as a first step towards a cashless society and a good start in reducing corruption. But the subsequent introduction of 2000 Rupee banknotes sent a contradictory signal. Many journalists share the view that the way demonetisation was executed hurt ordinary people the most. Former Indian Chief Election Commissioner, O. P. Rawat stated that “the note ban had absolutely no impact on black money”. Supreme Court judge Justice BV Nagarathna, who had opposed demonetisation, asked how was black money eradicated when 98 percent of the currency came back to the Reserve Bank of India during the process, suggesting that it was a process of making black money into white money. A Parliamentary panel report in April 2017 stated that rural households and “honest taxpayers” were the worst hit by demonetisation, and that the manufacturing sector was impacted as well. Demonetisation led to a surge in the price of gold, a spike in donations of demonetised banknotes in temples, and mass purchase of railway tickets to dispose of unaccounted cash. Following demonetisation, attacks by Maoist Naxalite groups initially decreased, attributed to lack of finance, but resumed after a few months. Demonetisation caused a loss of jobs and a decline in wages, particularly in the informal sectors of the economy and in small enterprises. And it was claimed that as many as 100 people died from standing in queues for hours to exchange their demonetised banknotes.


Covid-19 lockdown

The COVID-19 lockdown in India was disastrous, causing the sudden closure of most workplaces without prior notice. This had a huge impact on informal sector employees and economically marginalised workers. It forced many poor people to travel back to their home towns and villages. With all trains cancelled, some had to walk thousands of kilometres. Tragically, there were many deaths, but the government claimed to have no data on these fatalities. One heart-breaking incident involved 18 people sleeping on a railway track, unaware that a goods train would pass, resulting in all of them being killed. Some people even travelled home in cement and fuel containers. There was criticism of mismanagement under the Modi government, which resulted in shortages of essential drugs, oxygen, and healthcare workers. There was also a significant increase in COVID-19 cases during the Kumbh Mela festival, and a resurgence of cases due to election campaigning during the second wave.

“The rich will get all the help, getting rescued and brought home in planes from abroad. But we poor migrant labourers have been left to fend for ourselves. That is the worth of our lives.” A weeping migrant worker trapped in Delhi, who could not see his dying son in Bihar.

Manipulation of democratic processes

Many factors contribute to political failures, but my focus here is on those that significantly impact our democracy. A major concern is the manipulation of democratic processes, including the dismissal of state governments. Historically, national governments in India have dismissed state governments under pretexts such as state security or the alleged loss of a working majority in the assembly. Actions like these, often involving “horse-trading” and other undemocratic tactics, undermine the integrity of our democratic systems. “Horse-trading” refers to the negotiation process where political parties or representatives engage in the exchange of support or favours to achieve their respective goals, and this can sometimes extend to unethical behaviour, such as offering positions of power, policy concessions, or even monetary incentives to sway the votes of legislators or parties. The practice of dismissing state governments by means of horse-trading can be traced back to the 1952 Madras elections. This was the first legislative election in the influential state which then comprised Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and parts of Kerala and Karnataka. When the Indian National Congress failed to secure a majority, the non-Congress parties, with 166 seats, attempted to form the government. However, C. Rajagopalachari of the INC, known as the “Madras Fox”, influenced the governor and swayed other party and independent members to support him, securing his position as Chief Minister. This marked the beginning of a long history of political horse-trading in Indian elections.


The BJP itself had a good ethical record under Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1924-2018). His tenure as prime minister included a brief term in 1996, and then from 1998 to 2004. In 1996, when his minority government faced a no-confidence motion, Vajpayee, unlike the present leaders, was not involved in any horse-trading. He gave a memorable speech in which he said, “Governments come and go, but the democracy of India must be sustained and it must not wither”. A similar incident occurred in 1999 during another no-confidence motion, where he lost the prime ministership by one vote. Despite having the opportunity for horse-trading, he did not attempt it.


Since Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014, the Indian National Congress party has lost control of six state governments to the BJP. This indicates a shift in political power from Congress to the BJP in several states during Modi’s tenure. I witnessed the Karnataka elections in 2018, where the BJP won a large number of seats (104) whereas the INC received 80 seats and Janata Dal (Secular) around 37 seats. Sadly, none of the parties were able to form a government, and it was a hung assembly. Gradually, INC and Janata Dal (Secular) formed the government, but the BJP-nominated governor invited BJP leaders to form the government without referring to INC leaders. Then, with a lot of tension and accusations of horse-trading, the BJP government fell after three days, and the INC formed the government with Janata Dal. In 2019, I was in Bengaluru and it became apparent that 18 members of the Legislative Assembly had been bribed to shift from the other parties to the BJP, allowing it to form the government. It was alleged that the BJP had played a key role in this.


The government in Maharashtra fell apart because of a disagreement between political parties. The BJP and Shiv Sena (a rightwing Hindu nationalist party) were supposed to share power, but Shiv Sena teamed up with other parties instead. Then, a leader from the Nationalist Congress Party joined forces with the BJP without permission, causing chaos. Despite support from other parties, the governor invited the BJP to form the government. Later, Shiv Sena took charge but eventually lost power. There were similar dramatic incidents in other states too. In Chandigarh, there were suspicions of electoral tampering.


In 2000, George Bush (Republican) defeated Al Gore (Democrat) by a very slim margin after considerable disputes over the extremely close result in Florida. The result was eventually accepted by Gore, demonstrating the importance of robust political leadership and a stringent electoral system in ensuring the continuity of democratically elected governments. India could benefit from a similarly strong democratic framework to uphold the integrity of its electoral processes and sustain effective governance.


The Narendra Modi government has been accused of exploiting institutions such as the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Enforcement Directorate to target opposition leaders with fabricated charges, leading to their unjust arrests. These cases often lack substantial evidence and are perceived as politically motivated. Strikingly, when opposition figures align with or join the BJP, these cases mysteriously dissolve. For example, both Eknath Shinde and Ajit Pawar, upon joining the BJP, seemingly found their legal troubles disappear. In another notable instance, the Chief Minister of Delhi was incarcerated without sufficient evidence, further fuelling apprehensions about the impartiality and integrity of the justice system. Such occurrences raise concerns about the misuse of state power and the erosion of democratic principles.


Is India now an “electoral autocracy”?

On the Liberal Democracy Index, India is now ranked at 104, between Niger and Ivory Coast. The V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy) report finds India to be in the bottom 40-50% of the 179 countries reviewed. It notes that India is no longer termed a democracy, but an “electoral autocracy”. It’s very sad to see the foundations of modern India, which were laid by Jawaharlal Nehru, first prime minister, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, first law minister, Mahatma Gandhi, and many others, undermined by Hindutva forces.


Hindutva is Modi’s guiding philosophy and it means “Hindu-ness” over the whole of India. Arguably, Modi has made Hindutva more assertive, leading many young people to drift towards it, promoting attacks on minorities, opposition leaders, and the institutions of secularism, socialism and democracy. According to a recent Centre for the Study of Developing Societies survey, 77% of respondents believe in religious pluralism, suggesting that a significant minority believe in a strong Hindutva identity. According to a shocking Pew report, 67% of Indians endorse autocracy and 72% support military rule. Hindutva is playing a key role here. There has been troubling support for Nathuram Godse, the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi, alongside an aggressive campaign to elevate RSS veterans such as K.B. Hegdewar, Gowalkar, and Savarkar, often promoting divisive ideologies that seek to overshadow the legacies of Gandhi and Nehru. In a recent campaign, Modi made contentious remarks referring to Muslims as infiltrators, insinuating that they are a drain on India’s resources by having too many children.


Hindutva ideology is exerting a significant influence on the legislative landscape of the country, shaping policies such as the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) and citizenship laws that prioritise religion. Additionally, there are efforts to alter history textbooks, detain left wing activists, and produce films that promote a Hindutva agenda, both overtly and subtly. Furthermore, there are concerns about attempts to control dietary preferences and lifestyle habits, reflecting a broader agenda of asserting control over societal norms and values.


Meanwhile, it’s alarming to note the neglect of environmental concerns, with the removal of activists from influential positions, leaving little room for addressing climate change. Pollution levels have surged significantly, exacerbating environmental challenges. Moreover, foreign policy appears skewed towards favouring capitalists and upper-caste Non-Resident Indians and Indian-origin citizens who claim allegiance to Modi and Hindutva, despite residing in other countries and benefitting from their resources.


Conclusion

In conclusion, I offer this article as a small effort in challenging the growing influence of Hindutva, which seems to be steadily gaining strength. Since 2018, I have been vocal across various platforms about my concerns. While the world has come together in solidarity during the COVID-19 pandemic, Hindutva proponents have chosen to sow division by targeting Muslims and those on the political left. My aim is to shed light on the failures of the BJP and expose their shortcomings to an international audience in a manner that is accessible and understandable. I firmly believe in the principles of democracy, equality, liberty, fraternity, secularism, and republicanism on which India was founded. There is no place for the dominance of any majority religion, party, or organisation that claims ownership over India as their ancestral property.


Further information


15 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page