Symposium | Democracy's Future: Abroad and at Home

The Challenge of India’s Democratic Backsliding

By Milan Vaishnav

Tagged DemocracyIndia

Since the end of the Cold War, once-frosty relations between the United States and India have blossomed into a wide-ranging, multifaceted strategic partnership. Although the two countries are not formal treaty allies, their diplomatic, defense, and developmental interests show signs of profound convergence.To quote former U.S. Envoy to India Robert Blackwill and former President Barack Obama, respectively, bilateral ties were transformed from being as “flat as a chapatti” to one of the “defining partnerships of the twenty-first century.”

There were three principal drivers of this shift. First, the collapse of the communist model and India’s embrace of globalization and market economics in 1991 reoriented India’s focus westward. Second, India’s emergence as a nuclear-armed power and America’s willingness to incorporate India into the global civil nuclear regime, despite the fact it is not a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), brought the countries closer together. Third, China’s rise as a regional power with global aspirations convinced recalcitrant leaders in New Delhi and Washington, D.C. that they could either hang together or they would ultimately hang separately.

Consequently, over a three-decade period, the United States and India overcame the hesitations of history to develop one of the most wide-ranging bilateral partnerships in the world. The two countries currently operate more than two-dozen joint working groups, traversing issues from higher education to space exploration. As officials on both sides are fond of reminding us, the Indian military now conducts more joint exercises with the United States than with any other partner. Total bilateral trade (in goods and services) between the two countries grew from $20 billion in 2000 to $150 billion in 2019.

The bilateral relationship has rested on four mutually reinforcing pillars. First, both countries espouse a shared commitment to democracy and liberal values. Second, the two partners are mutually invested in a rules-based global and regional security architecture, in stark contrast to the alternative advanced by their common Chinese rival. Third, thanks to healthy two-way flows of capital, labor, goods, and services, India and the United States have a significant stake in each other’s economic success. Fourth, the relationship rests on robust people-to-people ties. The Indian diaspora may account for just 1 percent of the American population, but it grew at a rate of 150 percent between 2000 and 2018.

Unfortunately for the two nations, there is an accumulating body of evidence that suggests that at least one of the aforementioned pillars—shared liberal democratic commitments—can no longer be taken for granted. Recent anxieties about democratic backsliding across the globe have not left India untouched. This is not to deny that American democracy too is at a nadir. The last 12 months have seen an outgoing U.S. President refuse to accept the results of a democratic election, an insurrection targeting the seat of the national legislature, and state-level measures to politicize elections administration. These threats to American democracy are real and visceral. But America’s struggles are arguably of a lesser magnitude than India’s given the relative strength of its institutions, elevated per capita income, and democratic longevity.

In 2021, Freedom House demoted India’s position on its annual “Freedom in the World” report, moving it from the rank of “Free” to “Partly Free.” The V-Dem Institute of Sweden echoed this analysis in its annual democracy league tables, declaring that India now exhibited hallmarks not of an “electoral democracy” but an “electoral autocracy.” As the terminology suggests, India’s democratic backsliding largely pertains to developments between elections, rather than during them. Despite the twin threats of illicit money and criminality in electoral politics, Indian elections are widely perceived to be free and fair. It is the shrinking democratic space between them that has sounded alarm bells, both at home and abroad. This backsliding, if left unaddressed, poses a difficult dilemma for the United States, whose reliance on India to preserve a “free and open Indo-Pacific” has grown in leaps and bounds.

Understanding India’s Backsliding

When it comes to India’s democratic regression, there are three principal areas of concern: the consolidation of a Hindu-majoritarian brand of politics; the excessive concentration of power in the hands of the executive and decay in independent institutions; and a clampdown on political dissent and freedom of the press. Each is significant in its own right. Taken together, they constitute a major hazard to Indian democracy.

Hindu Majoritarianism

To understand the rise of Hindu nationalism, one must first understand its foremost political avatar, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Most Americans lack the vocabulary to understand the BJP because it does not resemble common political forms seen in the West. The BJP is the political arm representing a constellation of at least three-dozen Hindu nationalist organizations. This coalition is led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)—a national volunteer corps comprising more than five million Indians—which serves as the ideological wellspring for the Hindu revivalist movement.

The RSS and its allies argue that Hindu culture is broadly synonymous with Indian culture, which is arguably the central tenet of the doctrine of Hindutva (literally, “Hindu-ness”). They assert that because Hindus make up roughly 80 percent of India’s population, they constitute a dominant majority that deserves to be treated as first among equals. The logical extension of this argument, one that is voiced by ideologues associated with the movement, including Prime Minister Modi (who spent his formative years as a member of the RSS), is that India—and its Hindu population, specifically— has been a victim of 12 centuries of slavery. The Mughal Empire, the British Raj, even the liberal mores of the 1950 Constitution—largely penned by British-educated, English-speaking urban elites—all represent, to a different degree, foreign impositions.

The power of today’s majoritarian push stems from the fact that the BJP, by dint of its unique structure and organizational embeddedness, can marshal both official, state power and unofficial, street power to pursue its core objectives. In recent years, for instance, religion has been increasingly used as a filter for determining citizenship, both in a formal legal sense as well as in an informal vein. In 2019, Parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act, providing an expedited pathway to citizenship for undocumented migrants from three of India’s neighbors (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan) provided they do not belong to the Muslim faith. RSS affiliates like the Bajrang Dal reinforce the “othering” of Muslims through a mix of vigilante activities and the promotion of harmful conspiracy theories. According to one such narrative, known as “love jihad,” Muslim men are said to seduce Hindu women in order to convert them to Islam. Quite often, the BJP’s leadership does not immediately condemn extra-judicial violence aimed at Muslims; on the contrary, the fact that perpetrators are often celebrated rather than prosecuted creates the impression that such vigilantism receives official sanction. Indeed, there has been a rise in state-sanctioned, extrajudicial violence in states like Uttar Pradesh, where the incumbent BJP government reports that there were 8,500 “police encounters” between 2017 and 2021; nearly 40 percent of police targets were Muslim (twice their share of the state’s population).

In the absence of a pan-Indian party that articulates a coherent and responsible form of secularism—a void left by the organizationally anemic, intellectually compromised, and badly weakened Indian National Congress Party secularism has taken on the reputation of an unprintable four-letter word. Indeed, it is telling that the Congress, once the champion of secular values, failed to utter the word even once in its 2019 general election manifesto. Whether as a cause or consequence of the Congress’ failures (perhaps both), Indian society at large has also appeared to grow more comfortable with overtly Hindu idioms.

Weakening Checks and Balances

In addition to its penchant for majoritarian politics, India’s government has also centralized power under Prime Minister Modi to an astonishing degree. After a series of weak coalition governments between 1989 and 2014, the authority of the prime minister’s office and the nation’s chief executive undoubtedly needed to be reasserted. However, under Modi and his colleagues, the pendulum has swung wildly in the opposite direction. In the corridors of New Delhi today, Cabinet government exists largely on paper. It is the prime minister’s office that takes all major decisions, often leaving Cabinet ministers to learn of their agency’s priorities through central diktat or from the media.

The all-powerful executive has also come to dominate nominally coequal branches of government, namely parliament and the judiciary. Executive control of parliament is more understandable given the prime minister and his council of ministers are selected from the ranks of the party (or coalition) which commands a working majority of the legislature. Modi’s dominance of his own party, coupled with a decades-old constitutional amendment that disqualifies individual parliamentarians from serving in the legislature if they defy a party whip, has turned Parliament into something of a rubber stamp. In the recent Monsoon session of Parliament, which ended in August 2021, only one of 18 bills that passed by parliament’s lower house was discussed for more than 15 minutes.

Subordination of the judiciary, on the other hand, is harder to explain. Just over a decade ago, Indian scholars wrote about the rise of “judicial sovereignty” and the concomitant increase in judicial activism, which often substituted for action by a feckless executive. Today, the workings of India’s apex judicial body, the Supreme Court, are more subdued. Unlike other countries where the executive has packed the courts with pliant cronies or the legislature has shrunk the jurisdiction of courts, in India many judges have simply chosen to avoid confronting the government of the day—either for careerist motivations, ideological solidarity, or a desire for self-preservation.

Outside of the nation’s capital, the central government exhibits an officious assertiveness in its relations with India’s federal states. Bodies meant to coordinate policies between New Delhi and the state capitals have gone silent while parliament has passed laws on subjects that have traditionally been under the constitutional jurisdiction of India’s states. In the city-state of Delhi, as well as in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, the federal government has unilaterally reduced the jurisdictional scope of regional authorities.

Clampdown on Dissent

The third and final element of backsliding in India is the crackdown on free expression. Freedom of speech has a checkered history in post-independence India. Many outmoded sections of the colonial-era Indian Penal Code, drafted by Lord Macaulay nearly 200 years ago, remain in force today. For instance, a colonial-era sedition law—enacted to quash Indian subjects from voicing their anti-imperial opinions—has long been used to punish political opponents. Similarly, defamation in India invites not only civil penalties, but criminal ones as well. Even if libel suits rarely succeed, they ensnare defendants in tortuous legal proceedings that can take decades to resolve. In India, it is commonly said that the “process is the punishment.”

Yet, if these tools of oppression have been used by all parties for two centuries, what exactly is new about the constrictions that exist today? Arguably, it is the intensity with which these tools have been deployed. According to an assessment by the news organization Article 14, more than 3,500 individuals were charged with sedition between 2010 and 2014, when the previous Congress government was in power. In the first six years of the Modi-led BJP government (2014-2020), more than 7,100 individuals were similarly charged.

From a macro-perspective, two additional factors have reduced the space for dissent and free speech: the political balance of power and the ideological moorings of the ruling party. When the Congress   Party dominated Indian politics from independence until the late 1980s, the fragmentation of political opposition and diminished levels of political competition meant that there were few checks that could contain the regime’s worst excesses. During the two and half decades of coalition rule thereafter, no single party could dominate the political landscape, leading to the emergence of “referee” institutions that could rein in the country’s politicians to ensure a level playing field. In some sense, India has reverted to a dominant party system in which the identity of the hegemonic party has switched from the Congress to the BJP.

This partisan identity, however, is a key part of “what’s new.” The Congress was often opportunistic in its attacks on free speech, using legal and regulatory action to make life inconvenient for those that crossed its path. The BJP’s machinations, on the other hand, are organized around a coherent ideological commitment to a more narrowly tailored vision of the nation. Criticism of it and of its ideological project, therefore, is regularly criticized as “anti-national.” This term of art equates support of BJP policies with loyalty to the sovereign Indian nation.

America’s Bind

Although the Biden Administration has placed a much more pointed emphasis—in word, if not always in deed—on the importance of democracy and human rights, its foreign policy aims limit its willingness to spotlight India’s democratic lapses. The “China factor” looms large in geostrategic discussions in Washington today, evidenced by the Administration’s decision to abruptly withdraw troops from Afghanistan to prioritize foreign policy objectives further east, elevate the role of the “Quad,” and work afresh with the United Kingdom and Australia to develop the latter’s arsenal of nuclear submarines. Thus, the United States deems it more important to cooperate with India rather than criticize its domestic policies.

However, even if the United States were so inclined, it is not obvious what tools it has to counter India’s democratic backsliding. India has been notoriously allergic to criticism from Western governments and civil societies who seek to highlight perceived shortcomings on its “internal matters.” But, if conditions deteriorate to such an extent that the Biden Administration is compelled to act, what principles might guide its actions?

First, backsliding that enters the electoral domain should be an obvious redline for the Biden Administration. Threats to electoral democracy and the sanctity of free and fair elections would represent an escalation that the U.S. Administration would be wise not to overlook. While threats to electoral integrity loom on the horizon, none of them seriously call into question the quality of India’s democratic elections at the national or state levels. In fact, the administration of elections is one area where the United States could learn from India. However, India’s chief elections agency has shown signs of creeping partisan bias, sowing new doubts about the impartiality of election regulation.

Second, the United States must stand up for U.S. companies, civil society organizations, and individuals should their rights to conduct business, assemble, or express their opinions be called into question. For instance, WhatsApp has filed suit in the Delhi High Court to contest a government order requiring the peer-to-peer messaging company to break its privacy protections, undermining its business model. Similarly, numerous U.S.-affiliated non-governmental organizations operating in India are beholden to the Indian government for licenses authorizing them to receive foreign contributions. In the past, this authorization has been a useful cudgel to control controversial voices. The U.S. government should stand up for the principle of free expression across the board, including (though not limited to) when American-linked organizations are attempting to be silenced.

Third, the United States should also make clear—in public statements and in private diplomacy—that its partnership with India transcends any one government and is, ultimately, a compact with the Indian people. In a political climate in which Republicans and Democrats rarely agree on anything, U.S. policy toward India has been a rare source of bipartisan comity. The consistency in U.S.-India policy has straddled administrations in the United States as well as parties of different hues in India. This even-handedness has served America’s interests well.


The scholar Francis Fukuyama argues that liberal democracy operates like a tripod, built on the rule of law, democratic accountability, and an effective state apparatus. While India has long struggled with enforcing the rule of law and establishing robust state capacity, its framework of democratic accountability has been rarely called into question. In recent years, however, India’s democratic credentials have suffered a significant setback.

Further backsliding in the world’s largest democracy will not only imperil social stability and prosperity for more than a billion Indians, but it will also erode the foundations of the U.S.-India strategic partnership, America’s interests in the Indo-Pacific more broadly, and global pro-democracy efforts. The United States, itself no stranger to democratic decay, has limited tools with which to nudge India, and even less moral authority to do so after the events of January 6. For that reason, it must choose its battles wisely.

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Milan Vaishnav is senior fellow and director of the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. He is the author of When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics (Yale University Press, 2017) and the host of "Grand Tamasha," a weekly podcast on Indian politics and policy. (Important Note: Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.)

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