Voice

Modi’s Slide Toward Autocracy

Using Hindutva ideology, India’s leader is restyling the country as one with only the trappings of democracy.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks at a rally for the upcoming state elections in New Delhi on Feb. 3.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks at a rally for the upcoming state elections in New Delhi on Feb. 3. MONEY SHARMA/AFP via Getty Images

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks at a rally for the upcoming state elections in New Delhi on Feb. 3. MONEY SHARMA/AFP via Getty Images

When Narendra Modi was elected prime minister in 2014, India reached a crucial milestone for a postcolonial democracy: Modi became the first leader since independence to command a lower house parliamentary majority that did not belong to the Congress party of India’s founders Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. After 65 years, a dynastic founding party was subsumed by new blood. But in the six years since Modi won his first election, it has become clear that his style of leadership poses an existential threat to the world’s largest democracy. Through his wildly successful promotion of Hindutva ideology, Modi is poised to remake India into a Russian-style “managed democracy”—one retaining all the trappings of democracy while operating as a de facto autocracy.

To understand how far Modi has bent the system, it’s critical to trace its origins as a reaction against British colonialism and an attempt to create a new, unified nation. The democracy was founded along secular lines that set aside both India’s historical caste system and religious divisions to create a state in which all citizens would hold equal legal standing. India would be equally the home of the low-caste Dalit Hindu, the high-caste Brahmin Hindu, the Buddhist, the Bengali, the Punjabi, the Tamil, the white Englishman who had been born and raised there, the Muslim, the Sikh, or, indeed, the atheist.

Each would be respected as an individual, but also each community would be given a degree of guaranteed representation at the state and federal level. This social contract would be underpinned by a mixed-economy social democratic model where all levels and corners of society would gain from the social order and have a stake in it.

The idealistic framing descended from the Congress party’s liberal critique of the economic and political injustices of the imperial administration of the British Raj, with its discriminatory practices, high-handed administration, and violent suppression of dissent. British power had been based on divide and rule to the extent that ethnicities were classified as “martial” or “non-martial” depending on their perceived loyalty in the 1857 uprising. Indian power thus had to be based on unity. It was not a typical form of nationalism. But what other kind of nationalism could possibly appeal across such a large and diverse country?

Modi waves to a crowd in Varanasi, India, on March 4, 2017, while paying tribute to the Hindutva ideologue Madan Mohan Malaviya.

Modi waves to a crowd in Varanasi, India, on March 4, 2017, while paying tribute to the Hindutva ideologue Madan Mohan Malaviya. Adarsh Gupta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

For the purposes of bureaucratic administration, the British offered their own construction of “Hindu” as an overarching religious category. Any Indian who was not a Muslim or one of the other readily identifiable religious traditions was labeled as part of the same “indigenous” group. The “Hindus” included ethnic identities such as aboriginal Adivasi woodlands dwellers who could draw their descent in the land for tens of thousands of years, earlier than Homo sapiens had even arrived in Europe; Indo-European Vedic peoples who migrated to the region some 3,000-3,500 years ago; and even Zoroastrian Parsis and old communities of Jews. As the British sought to create a single box to hold most of the inhabitants of a landmass the size of Europe, they developed a frame that would have consequences. Islam was a religion that had originated outside India. So for an Indian who opposed foreign imperial administration, and yearned for an independent government of local Indians, the British unintentionally provided a label: Hinduism.

As the Indian independence movement progressed, it developed two models of an independent India. The Congress party believed it would be possible to unify India only if religious differences were set aside and the new economy sought to improve the lot of the poorest. At the same time, some strands of Hindu nationalism began taking a sectarian approach. India could be unified only when all foreign influences were removed. This saw the development of the Arya Samaj, a new syncretic religious tradition that introduced European-style monotheism and proselytizing to Hinduism in the 1870s. The Arya Samaj laid the foundations for attempts to define “Hindu-ness” by a cadre of nationalist thinkers through the following decades. And the movement came into its own with the explicit articulation of an exclusionary notion of Hindu-ness and Hindu nationalism in a 1923 pamphlet called “Essentials of Hindutva” (later retitled “Hindutva: Who Is a Hindu?”) by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. This duly formed the ideological basis for the right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), founded two years later, arguing that an independent India should be a state for Hindus (and Buddhists).

This split within the independence movement would lead to the young democracy’s original sin, one whose aftershocks are felt to this day. Less than half a year after India won its independence from the British, Gandhi was assassinated by a member of the RSS who was angry that the constitution of the Indian state was to be inclusive of Muslims and Anglo-Indians.


Modi (center), at the time chief minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat, flashes a victory sign during a march in the village of Faghval, India, on Sept. 8, 2002.

Modi (center), at the time chief minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat, flashes a victory sign during a march in the village of Faghval, India, on Sept. 8, 2002. Amit Dave/JSG/CP/REUTERS

Today, the RSS is more powerful than ever. Modi cut his teeth in sectarian politics as a member of the RSS, and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is one of a number of RSS offshoot organizations. Ideology is critical to its success. When the BJP stands for elections, it does not merely stand against other parties on policy grounds. It stands to challenge the secular constitutional order on which the Indian Republic was founded.

Earlier iterations of the party found a small foothold, briefly ruling in the 1970s and slowly gaining some support nationally and in individual states during the 1980s, but it wasn’t until the emergence of Modi in the 2000s that the party became a national political force.

Before coming to power nationally, Modi was chief minister of Gujarat state, which had a history of intercommunal violence that was often exploited for political gains by local politicians. Modi was no exception. In February 2002, Modi declared that an attack on a train at Godhra was not related to communal violence but instead was an act of terrorism—implying that it had been carried out by Pakistani intelligence services. A pogrom followed, with Hindu mobs killing hundreds of Muslims in well-organized and exceptionally brutal campaigns. The Gujarat administration did little to help those affected by the violence or forced to flee to refugee camps.

The Indian Supreme Court eventually determined Modi was not responsible for directly instigating the violence (though lawyers have argued that evidence was suppressed). But for many years Modi and other BJP politicians have boasted about taming “the enemy within” and taunted Muslims for their supposed involvement in terrorism and sympathy for Pakistan. His words were so strong that he was briefly subject to travel bans from the United States, Britain, and some European nations and was refused a U.S. travel visa in 2005.

The intervening years have only seen Modi strengthen his anti-Islam stance, helping to entrench Islamophobia among an eager audience. In effect, he has taken the underlying ideology of the RSS and folded it into the government through laws that adversely affect Muslims.

Such efforts reached an apex in advance of the 2019 elections, when Modi engaged in large-scale voter suppression, removing an estimated 120 million eligible voters from the electoral roll by demanding documentation to prove residency. The aim was to erase religious groups that are seen as non-Indian in the Hindutva ideology, leading to the removal of some 70 million Muslims and Dalits. In clearing the rolls, Modi played the odds, gambling that a combination of voter suppression of minorities and gaining the votes of the Hindu majority would be enough to guarantee electoral success.

This represented an expansion of the voter suppression in Assam in the 2016 state elections. There, the BJP tried to bar Muslim immigrants who had arrived from neighboring Bangladesh between 1951 and 1971, rebranding them as refugees. Modi has called for those who arrived after 1971 to have their “bags packed” and be ready to go “back home.” After its national election victory in 2019, the BJP continued to expel what it called “illegal infiltrators” while placing others in detention camps. Close to 2 million Muslim Indians are now subject to the whims of the state and federal executives, and at least some of them can probably look forward to forced deportations in the future.

A young girl holds an Indian flag and a placard as Muslim demonstrators condemn Modi and the country’s new citizenship law in Bengaluru, India, on Jan. 20.

A young girl holds an Indian flag and a placard as demonstrators condemn Modi and the country’s new citizenship law targeting Muslims in Bengaluru, India, on Jan. 20. MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP via Getty Images

Elsewhere, Modi has taken even more extreme steps to control Muslim populations. Last August, he revoked the autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir, the only region in India that has a majority of Muslims. Within India, Kashmir had the unique right to define who was entitled to live there. This status mattered as only those registered could own land and it gave privileged access to education and employment—something that allowed it to maintain a measure of protection for its Muslim population—an autonomy the BJP had long opposed. Today, it remains under a state of intense control and occupation.

Modi has chosen this moment to inflame tensions in part for ideological reasons but also knowing he has the tacit (if not active) support of the United States, which has been silent on Kashmir. Modi has linked his moves to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the Trump administration’s support for Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, as, in his view, all he is doing is integrating a core part of India into the wider polity.

Modi’s linkage of his actions in Kashmir to other authoritarian regimes and those where democracy is slipping away is no accident. If in the 1930s his predecessors courted Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, Modi today has the support of the new global far-right. His insistence that there is a difference between real Indians and others has gained the support of former White House strategist Steve Bannon, who sees his approach as part of the wider far-right movement. In particular, his linkage of being part of the acceptable polity to being part of an identifiable religious group is a common feature to many of the emerging authoritarian regimes. In this, it does not matter if the preferred group is Russian Orthodox or Hungarian Catholic Christians or Myanmar’s Buddhists. In India, the social contract underlying the very state is cracking up, and this is by design. Modi and the BJP are waging a full-frontal assault on the Indian Constitution and the ideal of liberal, secular democracy that underpins it. Flare-ups of tension and violence will continue to be a feature of Indian political life until some kind of resolution is arrived at.

Limiting democracy in this manner is a hallmark of the new wave of nationalist populist regimes. But as Modi’s fellow travelers in Hungary, Brazil, Russia, the United States, and the U.K. are finding, even a “managed,” constricted democracy can be difficult to control. At the moment, Modi’s popularity remains extremely high, with polls like Morning Consult putting him above 75 percent approval rating. But such polls can be unreliable, and dissatisfaction among India’s growing pool of young voters is rising. The BJP has started to face sustained domestic pressure over its poor economic record and its poor handling of the coronavirus crisis (a failing the BJP shares with the other authoritarian nationalist governments). And while a significant portion of the Hindu majority has come along for the ride with the BJP, a large number are concerned by its all-too-blatant attacks on India’s secular values. The recent Hindu-dominated large-scale protests against the new citizenship laws and citizen registers targeting Muslims hint at how the political tide could turn against the Hindu Rashtra, or nation. It is too early to say where this will go, but the battleground for this conflict is the very soul of India. And the stake is the future of democracy in the country.

This presents Modi with a problem. He can accept an ebbing of his electoral support as part of the dynamics of a functioning democracy. But that assumes the BJP is a normal political party, able to share the same democratic space as contending movements. It is not—its goals exclude different conceptions of what India is about. At the moment, as in other states, the wider structures of a democratic system still exist and limit the prime minister’s scope to move in a more openly authoritarian direction. However, most likely he will still try, drawing inspiration from how Viktor Orban has been able to create what is in effect a dictatorship in Hungary. To achieve this, Modi will need an apparent crisis that justifies a shift to open authoritarianism. This should worry everyone—the traditional source of major crises for India is either internal ethnic unrest or war with its neighbors.

Azeem Ibrahim  is a director at the Center for Global Policy in Washington. Twitter: @azeemibrahim