Modi’s decade and democracy in India: Backsliding or Thriving?

Indian elections also create great excitement within the Indian diaspora worldwide.

By Avatans Kumar

As America winds down its primary season for the 2024 presidential elections in November, India gears up to elect its 18th Lok Sabha (People’s House) in May. Pradhan Mantri (Prime Minister) Narendra Modi and the National Democratic Alliance, headed by Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, or the BJP, are expected to win a clear majority in the 543-member strong Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Parliament (Sansad). 

Modi’s Decade

According to Morning Consults, Mr. Modi enjoys the highest approval rating, 78%, among over 20 democratically elected world leaders. Within his two terms of prime ministership, he has transformed India from what the Nobel Laureate V.S. Naipaul once called (India: a Million Mutinies Now), a country “full of pietistic Gandhian gloom” to an India full of youthful aspiration. India isn’t only the most populous nation, but it is now also the third-largest economy (based on PPP). 

- Advertisement -

Modi’s decade has also sparked a Hindu renaissance in India. For Mr Modi and his supporters, “[i]t isn’t enough to send the British packing,” Walter Russell Mead writes in his Wall Street Journal column, “the liberation of India means placing Hindu civilisation back at the centre of Indian cultural and political life.”

However, this transformation hasn’t come without criticism in the form of an “agenda-driven” bogey of backsliding democracy, suppression of minorities, and restrictions on freedom of speech. 

The Festival of Democracy

Indian elections have often been called the ‘festival of democracy.’ They are loud, chaotic, varied, and vibrant, with a fair amount of fun and gaiety. If India is, to paraphrase Judy Dench’s character in the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, an onslaught on the senses, Indian elections are a prime example of that onslaught. Unsurprisingly, they draw considerable attention across the globe.

Indian elections also create great excitement within the Indian diaspora worldwide. Like any diaspora group, most Indians’ personal and collective identity conflation is closely linked to a shared sense of vulnerabilities and anxieties concerning India’s political, social, and economic well-being.

A Chemical Engineer Learns New Lessons From The Bhagavad Gita

A Chemical Engineer Learns New Lessons From The Bhagavad Gita

India is the largest democracy in the world, with over 900 million eligible voters. To put this into perspective, the number of eligible voters in India is three times the size of the U.S. population. In over one million polling stations, these voters will exercise their franchise using 1.7 million Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs; paper ballots are not used for in-person voting). The country is divided into 543 electoral districts, with over 8 thousand candidates in the fray. 

India holds national elections every five years as mandated by the constitution. The only time India did not hold elections within the stipulated period was when PM Indira Gandhi imposed the national Emergency (1975-1977).

- Advertisement -

Over 600 political parties participate in Indian elections. Most of these outfits operate as political pressure groups affiliated with regional, linguistic, religious, and jati (“caste”) identities. Even Maoists, Marxists, and Leninist communists have their political outfits. However, currently, only the BJP and the Indian National Congress (INC) have a pan-India footprint. 

India’s election rules mandate the presence of a polling booth within two kilometres (1.2 miles) of every dwelling. This means that the solitary resident of Gir National Park in Gujarat must get his personal polling booth. 

The Election Commission of India (ECI), an independent constitutional body, runs the entire election process. The Commission presses eleven million poll workers into service for elections. For logistical purposes—to move the equipment and human resources, including security—India holds national elections in a rolling, phase-wise manner that stretches over several (eight to ten) weeks. 

However, all polling in the stipulated areas is conducted in one day. There is no multiple-day voting, and mail-in ballots are rare. The ECI issues I.D. cards to all voters who must verify their identity when voting. Voters can also have a “protest” NOTA (None of the Above) vote. Most results are declared within a matter of a few hours. 

Is There a Universal Definition of Democracy?

The concept of democracy involves people’s participation in their own governance. It is broadly actualized in terms of freedom and civil liberties. Free and fair elections, freedom of expression, etc., are defining elements of democracy. In most cases, when one defines the abstract notion of democracy, one thinks about those concrete democratic outcomes. 

However, democracy is a concept, according to Russell Dalton, Doh Shin, and Willy Jou (Understanding Democracy), that has “a variety of potential meanings, and it is not simple to grasp or define… [e]ven in advanced industrial democracies.” For example, many fail to recognize the difference between majoritarian (India) and republican (the U.S.) democracies. Similarly, the parliamentary form of democracy operates quite differently than the presidential one.

To many, democracy’s real meaning is in its deliverables. For some, democracy may mean ‘Rām Rājya‘ – a righteous state based on the ideals of Maryada Purushottam Bhagwan Ram, likened to King David in the Hebrew scriptures. It may also mean getting electricity from the government to someone’s village and house. For some others, it may mean getting access to a bank account, the right to pursue one’s faith, or the right to bear arms. Yet, for some others, it may simply mean having a toilet in the house, relatively inexpensive food prices, or a job in the government. 

Dharma-based Democracy

Democracy isn’t a uniquely Western concept, nor was the idea of universal adult suffrage, freedom of expression, etc., always part of our understanding of democracy. Many of the tenets of democracy we take for granted in the West aren’t even a century old. For example, women’s right to vote in the U.S. was established in 1920 by ratifying the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Mindful of its implications, it is not an exaggeration to state that India, at its core, is a civilizationally democratic society. Even though the picture of India presented in academic works and popular history is predominantly monarchical, it had layers of self-rule—the kind of cooperative self-government identified in the West with Greek republicanism. 

Though the Vedas provide a glimpse – words such as sabhasamitiparishadsabhapati, etc. – of self-governance, more concrete evidence is available from the time of Gautama, the Buddha, in 600 BCE (J.P Sharma; Republics in Ancient India c. 1500 B.C.-500 B.C.). Several sovereign republics operated in India during Alexander of Macedonia’s invasion. Greek accounts, such as Arrian’s Anabasis of Alexander, which details the Macedonian conqueror’s war campaign, mention chroniclers’ eyewitness accounts of Alexander meeting with “free and independent” Indian communities at almost every corner. 

Noted Sanskrit grammarian Panini’s Ashtadhyayi presents complex vocabularies – such as gana and sangha – that describe self-governing groups (V.S. Agrawala, India as Known to Panini). 

The Uthiramerur temple inscription in Tamil Nadu has one of the earliest (7th-9th century C.E.) descriptions of some essential elements of a democratic process, such as conducting an election. 

Indian democracy is uniquely Indian and thriving. Those who view democracy from a Western filter get tangled in anachronistic, one-side-fits-all supremacism. Indian culture, owing to its Dharmic roots, is naturally compatible with democracy. 

India is the land of ‘one truth, many names’ – ‘ekam sat vipra bahudhā vadanti.’ Pluralism, as the core of democracy, is inherent to Indic culture. According to Sri Aurobindo, “Dharma is the basis of democracy which Asia must recognize, for in this lies the distinction between the soul of Asia and the soul of Europe.” Through Dharma, he proclaimed, “the Asiatic evolution fulfils itself; this is her secret.”

Dharmic democracy promotes tolerance and mutual respect for others’ ideas and opinions. It is the Dharma of every human being to be truly free. Sri Aurobindo considers Swaraj (self-governance) freedom of mind, body, and spirit. He knew the inherent tension between European rights- and duties-based democracy. According to him, a Dharma-based system lacks this “artificial antagonism.

This article was first published in India Currents and has been republished with the kind permission of the author/editor.

Contributing Author: Avatans Kumar is a columnist, public speaker, and activist. A JNU, New Delhi, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign alumnus, Avatans holds graduate degrees in Linguistics. Avatans is a recipient of the 2021 San Francisco Press Club’s Bay Area Journalism award.

Support Our Journalism

Global Indian Diaspora needs fair, non-hyphenated, and questioning journalism, packed with on-ground reporting. The Australia Today – with exceptional reporters, columnists, and editors – is doing just that. Sustaining this needs support from wonderful readers like you.

Whether you live in Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States of America, or India you can take a paid subscription by clicking Patreon. Buy an annual ‘The Australia Today Membership’ to support independent journalism and get special benefits.