Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 22 December 2023


Modi’s Sledgehammer Politics Are Battering Indian Democracy

The fact that frustrated Indians have given up on opposition politicians is a sign of the ruling party’s strength — and its shame. 

Modi is unopposed, literally 
Modi is unopposed, literally  Photographer: Prakash Singh/Bloomberg


When India goes to the polls in early 2024, it is hard to imagine voters kicking Prime Minister Narendra Modi out of power. In fact, Modi is probably more personally popular now than when he was first elected 10 years ago. But a closer look at the last few weeks of Indian politics reveals how deeply this dominance relies on a calculated use of state power — as well as what it may be costing Indian democracy.

Earlier this month, two young men — who had been granted entry to the visitor’s gallery of India’s parliament by a ruling-party legislator — jumped into the area with members’ seats and set off smoke bombs. Nobody was injured, nor did it seem that violence was their intention.

Investigators looking at their online activity suggest the pair were concerned about unemployment — and that they looked up to the early 20th-century revolutionary Bhagat Singh. In India, a Bhagat Singh fixation is usually an excellent marker of someone who has lost faith in formal processes and institutional change. Unlike the non-violent activists led by Mohandas K. “Mahatma” Gandhi, who dominated India’s freedom struggle, Singh and his fellow revolutionaries believed the British would not leave India unless forced to do so.

Yet these two protesters seemed to want something well short of revolution. According to investigators, they “thought that raising [their] issues in front of Modi would attract enough attention and force the government to act.” Even those who idolize militant revolutionaries can’t seem to imagine an India where Modi doesn’t make the decisions.

What is even more worrying is that, apparently, the young protesters never seemed to consider that opposition parties might be capable of listening to their concerns and championing them in parliament. If you want to talk about violence in India’s northeast or a lack of jobs, then surely you should expect a sympathetic hearing from politicians eager to criticize the government?

Put another way, if concerns about such issues are now so general that twentysomethings are setting off smoke bombs in the parliament, why aren’t they being addressed by the natural, self-correcting mechanisms built into all democracies: popular organizing and electoral politics?

While some of this no doubt has to do with the opposition’s general disunity and fecklessness, the bigger problem is that the dominance of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party — at the federal level, if not in all of India’s states — is now so complete that the normal safety valves that keep democracies functioning are breaking down. The notion that the parliamentary opposition could raise concerns and somehow sway the government would make most Indian politicians laugh.

And the government’s own attitude to democratic debate — even at the highest, parliamentary level — has been cavalier to say the least. Parliament meets for fewer and fewer days, and many bills are passed with less than 30 minutes of debate.

Just this week, more than 140 opposition lawmakers — two-thirds of the opposition’s entire contingent — were suspended, supposedly for the crime of raising placards demanding the government explain the source of the security breach. Only a few BJP-friendly regional parties remained to close out the parliament’s winter session: a variation of the managed, in-house “opposition” common in countries such as Russia.

India’s rulers have long viewed the very existence of an opposition as a bit of an inconvenience. When Modi was chief minister of the state of Gujarat, the entire opposition contingent in the state assembly would routinely be suspended, and the state’s budget passed with only yes-men in the house.

This is the first time, however, that similar tactics have been tried in New Delhi since Modi took power. It led to vital bills being passed by the lower house with minimal scrutiny, including an overhaul of India’s criminal code and a change to how India’s independent election commission is chosen that should favor the incumbent.

Modi ran in 2014 promising to “free” India from the unpopular and discredited Indian National Congress party, which had governed the country for most of its decades since independence. But it looks as likely that India could soon be free of an organized political opposition of any kind.

Blinded by its political dominance, the BJP seems to have forgotten that fair and independent election management and protections for the parliamentary opposition are crucial to keeping a country as vast and as diverse as ours stable. What does a country without an opposition look like? Well, most likely, like one whose young people will smuggle smoke bombs into parliament because they can’t conceive of any more productive form of political action.

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