Inside the world’s largest democracy
More than 600 million people voted in India’s most recent election, but that does not mean all is well with democracy there. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP recently won re-election on a platform based on Hindu nationalism. As we’ve seen with other countries experiencing democratic erosion, the people and parties coming to power do not value the liberalism that’s essential to liberal democracy.
But, as our guest this week argues, what’s happening in India is not exactly the same as what we see in places like Hungary and Brazil — or even the United States. Vineeta Yadav is an associate professor of political science and affiliate faculty in the School of International Affairs at Penn State. She studies politics and democracy in India.
Vineeta visited India over the summer and talks about what she saw when Modi and the BJP eliminated Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which granted special status to the Muslim-majority state. She also discusses India’s strong civil society and how it’s pushing back against the BJP’s illiberal tendencies.
[6:40] How did India come to be a democracy and how do Indians view democracy?
India didn’t really exist as a country before 1947. The British colonized that part of Asia for about 200 years. And when they left that territory was divided up into India and Pakistan. Their leaders gained experience with elections and a Parliamentary system under British colonial rule. And so that was adopted in India in 1950 and India has kept the same constitution and Parliamentary system through its entire post-independence period. One of the unique things about India is that voter turnout is actually higher in rural areas and not just in urban areas. And that tells you something about how deeply democratic values, norms, and practices have really sunk into ordinary citizenry.
[8:50] What does India’s commitment to democracy look like today?
I think it’s definitely part of this larger global trend where democratically elected regimes are undoing a lot of the liberal protections and liberal rights, and weakening institutions. In the last I would say five or six years, India has become part of that unfortunate trend. If you look back at history, it’s not the first time this has happened in India. We had a period like this in the 1970s, through the early 80s, but it’s definitely, I would say, declining as a democracy right now.
[10:22] How does Narendra Modi view democracy?
So I would say that Norendra Modi, the BJP, and the organizations and the movements associated with them, have a very different vision of what a democratic society should look like in India. They are committed to the processes and procedures of democracy, but not to the values of liberal democracy. Because they don’t think Indians want liberal democracy. They don’t think liberal democracy is appropriate given India’s values. And again, this is their concept of what Indian values are. The BJP’s envisions Indian society and Indian government as being based on Hindu values.
[14:54] What is the BJP’s appeal?
What is I think unique about the BJP is they were so effective in projecting this image of competence and being corruption-free and having this coherent agenda. Their support also crossed caste lines. They had people from lower class supporting them and they had people who were highly educated supporting them. They had people from different religious groups supporting them. They had urban and rural groups supporting them. So, they are one of the very few parties in maybe the last three decades, maybe one of two parties, that has been able to develop that kind of coalition that cuts across class and religion and cost in India.
[19:02] Is anyone pushing back against the BJP?
India has a very vibrant civil society that’s been its saving grace so far. You have groups organizing on every issue under the sun and from very different angles. These civil society groups really have been the key force of opposition. There are also political parties that exist at the regional level that have defeated the BJP.
[31:33] Where do things go from here?
The floor of my expectations would be that India will continue as an electoral democracy. Elections will be held, they’ll be reasonably fair, and people will continue to participate. But I think, unless there is either a single party or a set of parties that really emerges that has the same organizational capacity as the BJP has to mobilize people, we’ll see the what we will see is the BJP remain power and they’ll continue weakening rights and liberties.