The Demise of Indian Democracy Was Greatly Exaggerated

The Demise of Indian Democracy Was Greatly Exaggerated

The coverage of India’s parliamentary elections forgot that the electorate likes to remind the powerful where the real power lies.

 

The greatest electoral show on earth—India’s elections—concluded not long ago, with over 640 million people casting votes over six weeks. More Indians voted than the combined total of eligible voters in Europe (373 million) and the United States (233.5 million). Prime Minister Narendra Modi was sworn to a third consecutive term. No other Indian prime minister, except its first, has achieved that distinction. Yet, Modi’s victory was substantially and unexpectedly below expectations, necessitating his Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) to rely on coalition partners to constitute a majority and form the government.

The 2024 elections reaffirm the robust foundations of the Indian democracy. In recent years, there has been much talk of Modi’s majority imperiling Indian democracy—a notion that smacks of hyperbole and impugns the well-honed instincts of the Indian electorate. While the Modi majority has prevailed at the federal level over the last decade, the BJP lost several critical state and local elections in 2022 and 2023. The Indian electorate has, time and again, rendered a divided mandate. New Delhi, the country’s capital, presents a solid example of this trend. Residents bestowed overwhelming majorities to the opposition in the state legislative election in 2020 and the BJP at the federal level this year. Contrary to cataclysmic coverage in the Western media, India’s electorate boasts a strong, sustained record of cutting the mighty down to size. The resilience and strength of Indian democracy stem from its electoral integrity and its vibrant press.

 

Early indications from the new coalition government suggest that India is likely to stay the course on the world stage. The previous ministers for external affairs, defense, home affairs, and finance will return to their portfolios, in addition to the national security advisor. The new government’s three priorities remain the same. First, to achieve and leverage its projected ascension to become the world’s third-largest economy by the end of the decade. Second, to assiduously close the economic and military gap with its primary adversary—China. Third, it needs to bolster its standing in competition with China to lead the Global South.

India’s emerging great power partnership with the United States is indispensable to accomplishing all three of its global priorities. American investments in technology, defense, energy, infrastructure, and pharmaceuticals can boost Indian economic growth rates. U.S.-Indian defense cooperation is critical to India closing the gap with China. Both the U.S. and India substantially reinforce each other’s individual and collective engagement with the Global South.

India’s booming stock indices tumbled after the BJP’s failure to secure a parliamentary majority became clear. Much of the losses were recovered by the swift formation of the third Modi government. For India to optimize its latent entrepreneurial energy and become a preferred destination for foreign investment, it requires a steady dose of policy reforms for its lagging labor, land, and banking sectors, among others. The BJP’s “Modi majority” over the last two parliamentary terms resulted in substantial gains in infrastructure development, social welfare, and the advancement of the country’s digital economy. But much more remains to be done. For example, in 2021, Modi withdrew legislation liberalizing the agricultural sector following a year of protests. The margin for such organized protests on economic reforms that challenge entrenched special interests will substantially expand in a coalition government.

On the societal level, caste and communal associations remain deeply entrenched in India’s polity. Modi undertook an audacious project to project a stronger sense of Hindu identity in Indian politics alongside economic development for all. In a nation where over 80 percent of the population identifies as Hindus and poverty is widespread and visible, this formula made good politics. In the United States, the “Reagan Revolution” attempted a similar endeavor to combine conservative cultural values with government deregulation. Leading up to the recent elections, pundits remarked on the rapid evolution of the Indian electorate: from communal voters to issue voters, with welfare recipients of all backgrounds projected to have a pronounced voice. 

Prognostications notwithstanding, early assessments point toward caste and communal preferences reasserting themselves in handing the BJP a stinging defeat in the country’s most populous and prominent state, Uttar Pradesh. This signals that the Modi project to modernize India’s polity under uniform national laws may be fast disappearing in the rear-view mirror. Ironically, the opposition, which claims to champion national unity and secularism, called for a national census based on caste that would inform the distribution of national welfare benefits. 

As for Modi and his party, the recent election provides an opportunity to reflect upon misreading the electorate. The Modi brand, throughout the previous two elections, eclipsed that of his own party. Accordingly, the BJP’s high command appeared insensitive to local input in its choice of candidates; the only face that mattered was Modi’s. The future of both the BJP and Modi’s legacy depends on the party’s collective ability to learn from this and strive for a more inclusive and delegatory party organization. Otherwise, the BJP runs the risk of becoming an impervious, rigid, and obsolete organization, overly dependent on one name. Ironically, the very traits it so volubly disdains in the opposition. 

No strong Indian prime minister—whether Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, or Narendra Modi—has escaped allegations of authoritarianism and arrogance. It is par for the course in running such a large and unwieldy democracy. Critics of European Commission president Ursula van der Leyen and French president Emmanuel Macron frequently fling similar sobriquets. The deep-rooted characteristics of Indian polity—the most complex, rich, and varied in the world—are often projected in the persons of its noteworthy prime ministers. They then subside but do not disappear in the absence of one. This only goes to show that Indian democracy—rich, resilient, varied, and imbued with its own unique flaws—continues to flow like the mighty Ganges. It was neither gravely imperiled by the Modi majority nor substantially saved by Modi having to form a coalition government. But, in as much as a strong opposition makes for a stronger democracy, Indian democracy is strengthened by the 2024 results.

For U.S. interests, a third Modi term offers an unprecedented opportunity to lock in and institutionalize the U.S.-India great power partnership. This endeavor has made extraordinary progress under Modi’s two terms thus far, and both nations should double down on making deeper inroads across military, economic, and diplomatic fronts over the next five years. India and the United States are each other’s indispensable partners in deterring China’s hegemonic designs across the Indo-Pacific region. The two also need each other to restructure the rules-based international order and institutions therein to reflect better the twenty-first-century economic, political, and security landscape. The winds are strong and steady for greater convergence and great power partnership between the world’s oldest and largest democracies.

Kaush Arha is president of the Free & Open Indo-Pacific Forum and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Krach Institute for Tech Diplomacy at Purdue.

Image: Pradeep Gaurs / Shutterstock.com.