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Autocratization of Indian Democracy

Shreeya Pillai and Staffan I. Lindberg

The world’s largest democracy has turned into an electoral autocracy. India’s autocratization process has largely followed the typical pattern for countries in the “Third Wave” over the past ten years: a gradual deterioration where freedom of the media, academia, and civil society were curtailed first and to the greatest extent (see the figure below in this box).

Narendra Modi led the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to victory in India’s 2014 elections (marked with a vertical dashed line in the figure above) and most of the decline occurred following BJP’s victory and their promotion of a Hindu-nationalist agenda.

India’s level of liberal democracy registered at 0.34 by the end of 2020 after a steep decline since its high at 0.57 in 2013. That represents a 23-percentage point drop on the 0 to 1 LDI scale, making it one of the most dramatic shifts among all countries in the world over the past 10 years, alongside autocratizing countries like Brazil, Hungary, and Turkey. The latter two became (electoral) autocracies in 2018 and 2014 respectively, and India now joins their ranks.

The figure to the right provides evidence of how far India’s autocratization has driven down various indicators that go into the LDI, between 2010 and 2020. The indicators typically range from “0” to “4” and a drop of two full points on that scale represents a dramatic shift towards autocracy. Notably, the autonomy of the election management body is found in the top group. This captures a severe depreciation since around 2013 and signals the decline in the quality of critical formal institutions. The overall freedom and fairness of elections (“Elections free and fair”) also was hard hit, with the last elections held under Prime Minister Modi’s reign in 2019, precipitating a downgrading to an electoral autocracy.

Yet, the diminishing of freedom of expression, the media, and civil society have gone the furthest. The Indian government rarely, if ever, used to exercise censorship as evidenced by its score of 3.5 out of 4 before Modi became Prime Minister. By 2020, this score is close to 1.5 meaning that censorship efforts are becoming routine and no longer even restricted to sensitive (to the government) issues. India is, in this aspect, now as autocratic as is Pakistan, and worse than both its neighbors Bangladesh and Nepal. In general, the Modi-led government in India has used laws on sedition, defamation, and counterterrorism to silence critics. For example, over 7,000 people have been charged with sedition after the BJP assumed power and most of the accused are critics of the ruling party.

The law on defamation, upheld in India’s Supreme Court on May 2016, has been used frequently to silence journalists and news outlets that take exception to policies of the BJP government. The punishments for critical messaging range from two years in prison to life imprisonment for “words, spoken or written, or signs or visible representation that can cause “hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection” toward the government.

Modi and his party have also placed constraints on civil society and have gone against the constitution’s commitment to secularism. Recently, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) from 1967 and amended in August 2019 is being used to harass, intimidate, and imprison political opponents, as well as people mobilizing to protest government policies.

 The UAPA has been used also to silence dissent in academia. Universities and authorities have also punished students and activists in universities engaging in protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The CAA was passed by India’s parliament in December 2019.9 It makes it possible for illegal immigrants that are Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian to become citizens while denying it to Muslims. Arguably, the bill violates the constitution, which prohibits discrimination by religion.

Civil society is also being muzzled in the autocratization process. The indicators gauging the level of repression of civil society organizations (CSO) and the government’s control of which organizations are allowed to exist (“CSO entry and exit”) capture that severe deterioration. Meanwhile, civil society organizations aligning themselves with the Hindutva movement have gained more freedom. The BJP have increasingly used the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA) to restrict the entry, exit and functioning of Civil Society Organisations (CSO). The FCRA was amended in September 2020 to further constrain the use of foreign contributions to NGOs within India.13 These developments are among the instances contributing to the descent into electoral authoritarianism in what used to be the world’s largest democracy.

This essay is originally published in V-Dem Institute’s report titled “Autocratization Turns Viral DEMOCRACY REPORT 2021

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