India’s Despotic Election

Debasish Roy Chowdhury | 04 May 2024
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India is no longer the model free-market democracy that Westerners spent years imagining, encouraging, and touting. With Prime Minister Narendra Modi having bent the media, big business, and democratic institutions to his will, India's markets and politics are becoming less free – as the ongoing election is set to confirm.

A couple of months before India’s general election began on April 19 (voting will continue until June 1), the opposition Indian National Congress made a stunning disclosure at a press conference in New Delhi. Apparently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government had frozen some of the party’s main bank accounts and slapped it with an outsize bill for a minor tax-filing lapse five years earlier, leaving it with no money even to pay for electricity or salaries, let alone conduct an election campaign. The freeze was soon lifted, but the message was clear: this wasn’t going to be a regular election.

Though Congress had ruled India for most of the period since independence in 1947, Modi’s rise to national power in 2014 has left the party flailing. Congress officials decried the account freeze as a “deep assault on India’s democracy,” but this was merely the latest example in a longer-running saga. Modi’s government has spent a decade eroding civil liberties and minority rights, curtailing dissent, undermining democratic institutions, and building a cult of personality. While Western governments continue to pretend that India is the world’s largest democracy, the country is beginning to resemble a Central Asian dictatorship.


Those monitoring the health of democracy around the world are unanimous in their bleak prognosis of India under Modi. Freedom House describes India as only “partly free,” and the V-Dem Institute in Sweden has, since 2018, categorized it as an “electoral autocracy.” In its 2024 Democracy Report, V-Dem singles India out as “one of the worst autocratizers lately.”

From Russia and Hungary to Turkey and (until recently) Poland, a common pattern of the twenty-first-century autocratizers is that, unlike textbook authoritarians, the new despots cunningly stop short of destroying or fully dismantling democracy. Recognizing the legitimizing power of democracy, they use its processes to rise to power, often through polarizing identity politics. Once in office, they then move to capture or hollow out democratic institutions – including the judiciary and independent media – that otherwise might serve as a check on their majoritarianism. Modi’s decade in power has offered a masterclass in this process.

It is often said that democracy’s greatest advantage over other forms of government is its built-in capacity to self-correct. In theory, regularly scheduled elections ensure accountability for incompetence, corruption, and misrule; and in the meantime, the force of public opinion restrains the arbitrary exercise of power. But in the real world, the vulnerability of democratic institutions means that elections can be reduced to raucous rituals that merely reaffirm the power of the incumbent ruler. Voting choices can be manipulated through the force of money. Opposition candidates can be subdued through state organs (like tax-enforcement authorities). And citizens can be deprived of the independent, objective information that they need to evaluate the government to decide whom to vote for. When this happens, elections no longer serve as a check on creeping despotism; they enable it.

Indians tend to fetishize elections, which now wholly define their self-imagination as a democratic society, obscuring other institutional necessities. The carnivalesque quality of the world’s biggest electoral process hides a bitter truth: this year’s elaborate exercise in offering the franchise to 970 million people has all the hallmarks of a despotic election. The voting is not overtly rigged (as in Russia’s farcical polls), but the playing field is tilted decisively in favor of the ruling party. The chances of an electoral upset have not been eliminated, just sharply minimized.


The Modi government’s targeting of opposition bank accounts and funding is an efficient way of doing just that. Indian electoral outcomes have become almost entirely a function of money. The last parliamentary election, in 2019, was estimated to have been the most expensive ever held anywhere. Total spending exceeded $7 billion, which was more than the $6.5 billion spent in the 2016 US presidential and congressional elections (even though America’s per capita GDP is 32 times greater).

India’s campaign finance system has always lacked transparency and accountability, but it has grown even more opaque under Modi. In 2017, the government opened the floodgates for dark money by introducing electoral bonds that allowed for unlimited, undisclosed campaign donations to parties. Dark money distorts democracy by making it easier to hijack elections, and by privileging secretive special-interest groups over voters in policymaking. After years of civil-society groups challenging the legality of electoral bonds, India’s Supreme Court finally ruled against this financing instrument in February.

Since then, court-ordered disclosures of previously private donations have revealed just how closely corporate capital has become intertwined with politics. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – which reportedly spent around $3 billion in the 2019 campaign – had cornered 84% of all electoral-bond funding. Policies have been regularly made and unmade on the basis of donations. In a blatant conflict of interest, the BJP has accepted millions of rupees from government contractors that depend on public procurement (such as tenders to build tunnels and rail lines). Companies facing regulatory scrutiny from government agencies have magically found relief after buying BJP bonds. Modi clearly has had no qualms about using the state’s power to bend big business to his will, and to press firms into underwriting despotism.

The money trails also confirm that India’s historically apolitical bureaucracy now unabashedly works for the ruling party, having abandoned any pretense of neutrality. Neither does the party feel compelled to hide its strong arm. This became abundantly clear just before the election, when Modi handpicked two commissioners to stack the three-member Election Commission in his favor. That move followed from a new law, enacted last year, that changed the process by which commission members are appointed (a seat previously reserved for the neutral chief justice now goes to a government minister).


Predictably, the Election Commission has since turned a blind eye to even the most obvious violations by the BJP, which is openly deploying vile, “othering” tropes against Muslims to mobilize Hindu votes. One of its promotional videos was so replete with hate speech that Instagram removed it. And Modi himself is giving speeches calling Muslims “infiltrators” who produce more children than Hindus, and claiming that if Congress comes to power, it will seize Hindus’ wealth and distribute it to Muslims.

Even though these statements violate election rules that clearly prohibit using religion in electoral campaigns, the commission is simply ignoring them along with hate-speech complaints that have been lodged against the prime minister. At the same time, a submissive judiciary says there is nothing that can be done about it.

The Election Commission has also ignored repeated complaints by opposition parties and civil-society groups about the reliability of electronic voting machines and the absence of a matching paper trail to cross-check votes. Precisely because they are not considered fully secure, no other major democracy relies solely on electronic voting.

As the seven-phase election proceeds, the commission’s actions have continued to raise questions. The BJP has already won two seats without a vote, because the opposition candidates left the race. One simply dropped out, and while it is widely assumed that pressure had been brought to bear, the commission has made no inquiry into the matter. There are also widespread reports of Muslim voters being removed from electoral rolls, as happened in the 2019 elections. And adding to the fears of vote rigging, the commission has been inexplicably slow in releasing voter turnout data; and even when it does issue figures, they are incomplete and suspiciously incongruous.

An election watchdog manifestly beholden to the incumbent government raises serious questions about the validity of the process, especially when seen in conjunction with the flagrant use of other governing institutions to fortify executive power. Federal agencies have been routinely harassing opposition figures with raids, detentions, and interrogations until they fall into line, leaving opposition parties splintered and their leaders silenced or forced to switch allegiances. Two opposition chief ministers have even been thrown in jail over unproven charges, making elections in these two states not too different from the sham elections seen in countries like Bangladesh.

In a functioning democracy, the media would have shone a spotlight on such grievous violations of democratic governance. But the media is among the institutions that Modi has tamed the most. Once a riotous lot that aimed to outdo one another in exposing government failures, much of the mainstream media – especially national-level news channels – now compete for the government’s affections.

Known collectively as the godi (“lapdog”) media, these outlets have ceased to be a watchdog, and instead dutifully churn out pro-government messages. The smallest of Modi’s events are broadcast live, while the biggest opposition rallies sometimes receive no coverage at all. Mainstream outlets also enthusiastically spread hate against Modi’s chosen enemies – Muslims, the opposition, and liberals. They mock opposition figures, heap praise on Modi’s every act and utterance, and cheer whenever non-violent dissenters are thrown in jail.

As in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, this comprehensive transformation of India’s media landscape has been achieved partly by having cronies and sympathetic tycoons buy up the big publishers, whose newsrooms are duly purged. The government also uses its status as a major source of advertising revenues and business favors to keep media companies in line. Indeed, some of the biggest buyers of electoral bonds were media companies with other business interests.

Bombarded by the media’s pro-Modi spin, and high on public incitement against minorities, a sizeable share of India’s electorate has come to see Modi as a national savior. Modi’s control over this base of voters is as complete as his grip on big business and democratic institutions.

With many of the institutional checks and balances that one associates with democracy fundamentally weakened, India has become what Thomas Jefferson would call an “elective despotism.” Power is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the (technically) elected political executive. While some of India’s democratic shortcomings predate Modi’s rule, they have worsened significantly under the BJP. For example, there is effectively no internal democracy within the political parties, because anti-defection laws allow parties to exercise absolute control over legislators. As a result, a ruling party with enough seats – like the BJP – can ram any law through parliament without debate or deliberation, making the legislature redundant. Last December, BJP-nominated House speakers suspended 141 opposition lawmakers from both chambers of Parliament and then legislated unopposed for the remainder of the session.

While oversight institutions – such as the higher-level bureaucracy and investigative and regulatory agencies – never had very much autonomy, they no longer even pretend to respect democratic norms and conventions. A regime bent on transforming the very nature of the Indian state has no time for gentlemen’s agreements. Even the relatively independent judiciary has been forced to take the path of least resistance.

The concentration of political power under the BJP coincides with a concentration of economic power, with each feeding off the other. The market share of the five biggest conglomerates has doubled since the 1990s, while the share of the next five big business groups has halved. Like Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the Indian market is evolving into an oligopoly as Modi’s government showers favors on select firms.

India is no longer the model free-market democracy that Westerners spent years imagining, encouraging, and touting. Both its markets and its politics are becoming less free – and ever more entwined. This election is yet another manifestation of this drift. Free and fair elections are the most basic criterion of democracy. Modi’s India falls far short of meeting it.

Debasish Roy Chowdhury is the co-author (with John Keane) of To Kill A Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism (Oxford University Press, 2021).

This article was originally published on Project Syndicate.Views
 in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.