Since its independence in 1947, India has grown dramatically in terms of its population and economy, and therefore also in its importance on the global stage. As the country with the second-largest population, India is the world’s largest democracy. Although India is a relatively new country, it has managed to uphold its democratic principles throughout its 73 years of independence. Nevertheless, in recent years, there is a clear trend of India’s democracy backsliding. The backsliding has been facilitated and highlighted especially during the current Modi administration as they continuously infringe upon the civil rights and liberties guaranteed by the Indian Constitution.
Classification of India’s Political Regime
India can be formally classified as a democracy. Dahl’s requisites for polyarchy include having officials elected in free, fair, and frequent elections, protection for the freedoms of expression and association, inclusive citizenship, and the availability of alternative sources of information (Dahl 1998:85). India’s constitution, like many others in liberal democracies, guarantees the protection of these principles (Government of India 1950: §3).
According to the Varieties of Democracy Institute (V-Dem), democracy in a country can be evaluated based on five principles: the levels of liberal, electoral, egalitarian, deliberative, and participatory democracy (Mechkova and Lindberg 2016: 4). Democracy in India improved dramatically in terms of all five aspects following its independence from the United Kingdom colonial rule in 1947 and the application of a new constitution in 1950 (Figure 1). According to the V-Dem institute, of the five aspects of democracy, India performs the best in ‘electoral democracy’, which indicates the degree to which elections are fair and free from fraud, irregularities, and intimidation of opposition (Mechkova and Lindberg 2016: 6).
The current ruling party in India is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which translates to the Indian People’s Party. The BJP is a Hindu-nationalist party. Narendra Modi, the leader of the party, was first elected in 2014 and re-elected in 2019.
Recent trends in Indian democracy
Although India can still be formally classified as a democracy, it has experienced democratic backsliding since its peak in the early 2000’s, and most notably since 2010, as shown through various indicators in Figure 2.
Since the election of Prime Minister Modi in 2014, India has experienced rapid democratic backsliding following major infringements upon civil liberties and Indian democratic institutions. One recently introduced legislative act, for example — the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act — facilitates the citizenship process for various religious minorities from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh, but deliberately excludes Muslims, thereby threatening citizens’ freedom of religion.
Since 2000, India’s democracy has seen backsliding according to many different indicators (Figure 2), including respect for civil liberties, free and fair elections, respect for freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and government restriction of the internet. For example, during the 2019 Citizenship Act Bill (CAB) protests, many cities saw major protests. In order to control the widespread protests, the Indian government shut down the internet in certain regions. Since the start of 2019, the internet has been shut down a total of 95 times (Nazmi 2019). This is an example of government infringements upon civil liberties and freedom of expression, a restriction on the internet, and the Citizenship Amendment Act works in practice as a restriction on the freedom of religion.
The aspect in which India has seen the most severe backsliding is that of deliberative democracy (Figure 3), which includes the requirement that decisions are made through a reasonable process of deliberation and discussion, and that they are guided by public, rather than individual, interests (Mechkova and Lindberg 2016: 9). The particularly severe backsliding in this aspect can be explained by Prime Minister Modi’s weakening of institutions that perform checks and balances on executive power (Chandra 2019).
Overall, despite its continued classification as a democracy, India is in danger of falling into authoritarianism if recent trends continue. The events unfolding in India are important to observe as it plays an important role in the global stage and is the biggest democracy. Throughout its history as a free country, it has at times struggled to maintain its democratic principles; however, since the rise of the nationalist party, the BJP, in the 2010s, the threat to democracy has become ever more pressing. If these trends continue, India’s status as a liberal democracy could be at risk in the future.
Chandra, A. (2019). “Hindu Nationalism and Authoritarianism: Narendra Modi’s Second — And Third –Term”, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/religionglobalsociety/2019/06/hindu-nationalism-and-authoritarianism-narendra-modis-second-and-third-term/. Consulted on December 12, 2020.
Dahl, R. (1998). On Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Government of India (1950). The Constitution of India. Retrieved from: https://www.india.gov.in/my-government/constitution-india/constitution-india-full-text.
Mechkova, V. and Lindberg, S. (2016). Country Brief: India . Varieties of Democracy Institute: Gothenburg.
Nazmi, S. (2019). “Why India shuts down the internet more than any other democracy”, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-50819905. Consulted on December 12, 2020.
Regan, H., Gupta, S., and Khan, O. (2019). “India passes controversial citizenship bill that excludes Muslims”, https://www.cnn.com/2019/12/11/asia/india-citizenship-amendment-bill-intl-hnk/index.html. Consulted on December 12, 2020.