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ISSN 2816-1971

  • Neel Vanvari

India’s democracy ‘window-dressing’: Hidden dangers to a healthy future

India's claim as the world's largest democracy has been questioned as the Modi government has presided over India's democratic backsliding since 2014 and as the country goes through a period of democratic 'window-dressing', the erosion of norms that are swept under the carpet create serious risks for the democratic foundation of the state.

Photo credits: PTI

As India heads for its general election, questions about the state of India’s democracy are back in the spotlight. Critics argue that since Modi and the BJP came to power in 2014, democracy in India has taken an illiberal turn. These observers note that political opposition is being stifled, dissent is being discouraged, and criticism of Modi’s government by political and civil society actors is now resulting in these dissenters being labelled “anti-national” and “anti-India”. Since 2014, several scholars have noted that the world’s ‘largest democracy’ is being incrementally hollowed out.

India’s downgrade in the leading democracy indices further supports these claims. In 2021, India moved from being ‘Free’ to ‘Party Free’ in Freedom House’s democracy Index. In the same year, the Variants of Democracy (V-Dem) Index dropped India from being an ‘electoral democracy’ to an ‘electoral autocracy’. This was followed by The Economist Intelligence Unit downgrading India to the ‘flawed democracy’ category from its previously held classification of being a ‘full democracy’.

The Modi government has dismissed this downgrading of the country’s democracy and has criticised these indices as being “misleading”. Furthermore, the Indian government has now asked an Indian think tank, the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), to develop its own democracy index to counter rising criticism of the state of the country’s democracy and present an index that does not contain a ‘western bias’.

To be clear, this is not the first time that India has witnessed a period of democratic backsliding. India’s former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi briefly suspended formal institutions of state by declaring a constitutional ‘Emergency’ and effectively suppressing all political opposition from 1975 to 1977.

As one scholar notes, while the period of the Emergency was marked by the curtailing of the formal institutions of democracy, since 2014 it is the informal norms associated with democratic functioning which are being eroded. Since the Modi government’s period in office began in 2014, there has been a gradual erosion of democratic norms across all the parameters and principles commonly associated with democracy- accountability, participation, contestation, elected government, civil liberties, and, free and fair elections.

Of these, the decline in civil liberties and the weakening of checks and balances on the executive branch are most pronounced. In all major democracy indices, India has dropped significantly in the category that measures civil liberties and the clamping down of civil society actors critical of the government. This includes a crackdown on NGOs, the media, and think tanks.

Civil society organisations that are critical of the government are increasingly being subjected to tax audits and the reviewing of their operating licenses by agencies that fall within the central government’s control. In 2023, India was ranked 161 out of 180 countries in the Press Freedom Index, placing it below countries like Libya. In 2023, even the BBC’s India offices were raided by tax authorities after it released a documentary criticising PM Modi for his role in communal riots which broke out in the state of Gujarat in 2002.

As one observer notes, the use of draconian laws such as colonial-era sedition laws and the Unlawful Actions Prevention Act (UAPA) against civil society actors has also increased since 2014. These laws often have no provisions for judicial redress, with individuals charged under these laws spending long periods in prison without trial and with no provisions for seeking bail. In effect, while ‘de jure protections’ have eroded marginally, ‘de facto protections’ have eroded substantially since 2014.

Apart from the shrinking space for civil society, the centralisation of executive power and the weakening of checks and balances on the executive has been a key feature of India’s democratic backsliding. Parliament’s limited scrutiny of the executive has been further curtailed since 2014. This is represented in the fact that scrutiny of government bills by parliamentary standing committees, which are key veto actors, has reduced from 71% between 2009 and 2014 to only 25% of the bills since Modi’s government came to power in 2014. This figure has further been reduced to 13% after Modi won his second term in 2019.

Furthermore, in recent years political opposition in the legislature has been weakened in more overt ways. These include instances such as the simultaneous suspension of over 100 opposition MPs for demanding a debate on certain issues, the arrest of state-level ministers and leaders from opposition parties, and the passing of key laws without any debate in the legislature. This weakening of legislature’s ability to hold the executive to account is being complemented by a ‘quiescent’ judiciary which is reluctant to differ from the government’s stated position on contentious issues. India’s federal structure- designed to decentralise power and act as a check and balance- has also been weakened in India since 2014. In effect, ‘tolerance’ and ‘forbearance’ for political opposition are slowly disappearing in India.

Despite the Modi government criticising democracy indices as being a ‘Western ploy’ to curtail India’s rise, it is difficult to refute the fact that democracy in India stands on unsteady ground. Democracy in India is going through a phase of ‘window-dressing’ wherein the legal façade of democracy remains but the informal norms underpinning the functioning of those principles of democracy have been gradually eroded.

To be clear, democratic backsliding in India did not begin with Modi and the BJP in 2014. The principal opposition party, the Congress, has also resorted to undermining democratic norms to suit its electoral needs frequently during its time in government. However, the nature and the pace of democratic recession in India have certainly been acutely affected since the BJP came to power in 2014.

Moreover, as one scholar notes, political developments since Modi came to office in 2014 such as the changing nature of the party system, party realignment based on religion and extreme polarisation are resulting in a ‘majoritarian impulse’. This majoritarian impulse centres around Hindu nationalism and religion re-emerging as a crucial cleavage. This has led to the consolidation of the Hindu vote across caste lines for the BJP and the undermining of minorities, particularly India’s Muslims.  This, in itself, is being conflated with democratic backsliding.

Despite being distinct phenomena, this polarisation due changing dynamic of the party system and democratic backsliding have one strand in common- the opening up of cleavages concerning political rights. Since the 1990s, it was the cleavages over economic rights which were being institutionalised and politicised. This includes the politicisation and mobilisation of issues such as affirmative action and reservation quotas in jobs and educational institutions for certain ‘backward’ caste groups.

This backsliding process along with polarisation is again shifting the focus back to political rights, with religion and ideology occupying centre-stage. Due to policies such as the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), religion has become the determinant that decides citizenship. Both these policies allow Hindu individuals from neighbouring South Asian countries to apply for citizenship while simultaneously declaring Muslims living in the Indian Northeastern states as stateless on the grounds of not having adequate paperwork.

The resurgence of the church-state cleavage has come back into focus, notably highlighted by Modi's grand inauguration of a Hindu temple in Ayodhya, where a mosque was previously demolished by Hindu groups. This event has been interpreted as blurring the lines between religion and state, potentially deviating from India's secular constitutional framework.

For a system largely functioning under ‘majoritarian Westminster style institutions’, yet having a pluralist heterogenous society, this resurrection of cleavages concerning political rights may result in further cracks emerging in India’s democratic consolidation. This trend, if unchecked, may further undermine India's standing as a robust democracy and ultimately affect the political legitimacy of its institutions, particularly if minorities continue to be adversely affected due to the weakening of democratic norms.

DISCLAIMER: All views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of IIPA and this platform.


Neel Vanvari is research fellow at the Institute for Indo-Pacific Affairs, and PhD candidate in political science at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand



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