Can Indian democracy survive Modi’s assault on liberalism?

The re-elected prime minster's embrace of Hindu nationalism rejects liberalism and leaves democracy hanging in the balance.

Suvolaxmi Dutta Choudhury
5 August 2019, 4.08pm
BJP supporters wave masks of the prime minister Narendra Modi at a rally, 2019.
PA Images

Narendra Modi’s election win in May, which secured his second term as India’s prime minister, was defined above all by its naked appeals to Hindu majoritarianism. In 2014, Modi ran on a platform promising “development for all”, but vicious identity politics set the tone for his re-election campaign.

During his first term, Modi’s government demonstrated a clear disregard for tenets of liberalism such as religious pluralism and protection of minorities; attacks on academic freedom, independent media, and minority citizens have also risen. The ostensible abandonment of India’s secular values has arguably found greater ground with Modi’s landslide victory. The beginning of his second term has already coincided with the lynching of a Muslim youth in a purported case of religious violence, one of hundreds of religious, caste or tribal-identity-based hate crimes reported in the last few years. Is Modi’s new mandate the clearest signs yet of a rupture between liberalism and Indian democracy?

One could argue that democracy as an idea ultimately boils down to the will of the majority, which need not be conflated with liberalism at all. At its most minimum, democracy entails that the executive and legislative branches of government should be elected, there be an alternation of power, the presence of an opposition, and non-interference in government from the armed forces. The majority forged in a democracy is presumed to be a shifting one. In this regard, liberal ideas and institutions ensure that in societies with deep social cleavages, majoritarian proclivities are checked. But they are not a precondition for democracy. The phrases illiberal democracy, electoral authoritarianism, majoritarian democracy, are now well-recorded and believed to be in practice in countries such as Turkey, Hungary, Russia, among others. And there are now widespread anxieties in liberal circles that India has joined this club. To assess how cogent such concerns are, we should begin with tracing how deeply rooted liberal democracy has been in India.

India inaugurated its democratic journey with its first general elections between 1951 and 1952. Its constitution guided the way with carefully crafted and curated liberal values of individual liberty, secularism, freedom of thought, speech and religion, and minority rights. One must note that the liberalism of the Indian constitution did not espouse classical liberal individualism but integrated ideals of liberty and equality with social justice. An intricate web of institutions, such as separation of powers, independence of the judiciary, federalism, free and fair elections, sought to protect and uphold liberal democracy in India. This framework of liberal constitutionalism has for long prevented Indian democracy from degenerating into majoritarianism despite its occasional deviations. Although India’s political establishment has continually faltered in fulfilling its constitutional commitment to liberalism, until now no one with legitimate political authority has brazenly questioned this obligation. Currently, however, the liberal idea of secularism has come to be openly challenged by the highest echelons of political authority and constitutional institutions that are meant to countervail political power are being undermined.

India is succumbing to a larger global trend: the belief that electoral democracy is enough in and of itself.

So, are we now witnessing an abandonment of the commitment to liberal constitutionalism in India? One certainly hopes that the proverbial Rubicon is not crossed, though a more definite answer is for posterity to uncover. However, there are indications, and here India is succumbing to a larger global trend: the belief that electoral democracy is enough in and of itself; that democracy should be relieved of the burden of liberalism; that a mandate from the people is enough to offset criticism against illiberal ideas and practices. Erosion of democracy, as talked about in the rest of the world when scrutinised closely, often reveals an erosion of liberal values. The rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe and the United States, the urge to close down borders, and the fear of the other are symptomatic of this worldwide malaise. A plausible explanation for this is that a new generation – untainted and unperturbed by the collective memory of mid-twentieth century fascism in Europe and the massive communal violence of the Partition in the Indian sub-continent – has come of age. For this generation perhaps, liberalism is an idea that has outlived its historical relevance.

To be perfectly pragmatic, majoritarianism could survive even within the confines of the legal and constitutional realm without much regard for liberal pluralism. And if the need shall arise (at the cost of sounding alarmist), the constitution is merely a document, not set in stone so to speak. A majority in both houses of Parliament (not implausible given the current historic mandate) would make it amenable to alterations suiting the will of the majority. Such is the tragedy of democracy stripped of liberalism. Whether others find it acceptable is a question meant for liberals; one that majoritarian interests need not lose sleep over, especially in a scenario where voices in independent media are enfeebled. Take for instance, the amendment to the Citizenship of India Act promised in the BJP manifesto of 2019 which seeks to make it possible for religiously persecuted non-Muslims from neighbouring countries currently living as illegal immigrants in India to obtain Indian citizenship. Now see this in context of another of the BJP’s promises: the preparation of the National Register of Citizens throughout India in an effort to identify and expel illegal immigrants (“termites” in the words of BJP President Amit Shah). Obviously, expulsion is reserved for the Muslim illegal immigrant only and this transposes to suspicion for every Muslim citizen of India who would now bear a greater burden than their Hindu counterparts to prove bona fide citizenship.

Majoritarianism could survive even within the confines of the legal and constitutional realm.

For any recent or future possible transgressions from liberal constitutionalism, it is thus crucial to demystify the historic mandate of 2019. One explanation (call it cynical) is that people seem to have lost their faith in liberalism and that they want to pursue different values. Another could be that the mandate should not be read as an abandonment of liberalism but as the clamour for a strong leader who can ensure national security more robustly, and who rouses the passion for nationalism and national pride; liberalism could be reserved for another day once our nationalistic priorities are met.

Before we accept the second explanation and re-immerse ourselves in the complacency that democracy and liberal constitutionalism have been inextricable for more than 70 years of India’s independent history, one must take stock of the fact that the dominant discourse of nationalism has changed, as has the imagination of the Indian nation. Nationalism in India today is not the nationalism of the Gandhian freedom movement, nor does it seem to place the liberal-secular vision of the constitution in high regard. This nationalism is aggressive, divisive and looks at secularism and liberalism with enormous mistrust. So, to answer the question posed in the heading, practice suggests that we can take away liberalism from democracy all we want, though the more pressing question of the hour is: what are we replacing it with?

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