Photograph of a crowd of BHP supporters during the 2024 Indian elections

BJP supporters at a roadshow held by Indian prime minister Narendra Modi canvassing votes for the Chennai Lok Sabha BJP candidates (April 09, 2024) | Srinivasa-Krishnan / Shutterstock

During election season in India every five years, a predictable yet peculiar kind of discourse gains prominence. Politicians and public intellectuals around the world invariably produce a series of statements proclaiming the “mammoth” size of India’s democracy: the number of voters, the number of voting days, the number of voting booths, the number of candidates, and the sheer number of political parties. The numbers alone seem to prove it: India is the world’s largest democracy!

Is it really?

Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been governing India since 2014. BJP has retained its electoral strength throughout this period, and the political opposition to BJP has been relatively weak and powerless. The main challenger of the BJP in the 2024 general elections is a coalition of almost all major opposition parties under the banner of the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA). The INDIA alliance is fragile and plagued by ideological conflicts and personality clashes. The opposition cannot compete with BJP’s organizational resources and capacity. It has also been subject to both state repression and media hostility. In all likelihood, Modi’s BJP will return for a third term in office.

During Modi’s 10-year tenure, international liberal institutions that measure democracy, like the V-Dem Democracy Index and Freedom House, have noted a decline in civil and political liberties in India, especially for minoritized Muslims, and have diagnosed what some scholars call “democratic backsliding.” Liberal critics worry about the ongoing threats in India to free speech, freedom of association, and the rule of law.

At the same time, the Modi government has maintained a high level of electoral support, consistently winning state assembly elections and even increasing its parliamentary majority in the last general election of 2019. Modi himself has unprecedented approval ratings. BJP’s absolute electoral majority in Parliament allows pro–BJP actors to push back against critiques of “democratic backsliding.” Foreign Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar recently accused the independent institutions that measure democracy of “hypocrisy.”

After all, since the 1970s, no political party and leader in postcolonial India has managed to sustain majority electoral support like Mr. Modi. The numbers tell an impressive story. But they can’t prove that India is even a true democracy anymore—never mind whether it is the world’s “largest.”

Defining democracy is a contentious undertaking. From the standpoint of a minimal modern conception focused on multi-party elections, India has been and continues to be a democracy. Except for the Emergency period, from 1975–1977, and some questionable state-level elections, the general elections in India have been mostly “free” and “fair.” However, a slightly more expanded conception of democracy would consider the state of civil liberties, the independence of political institutions, the rule of law, and freedom of expression and association.

By these standards, India has been, for most of its postcolonial history, only a partial democracy. Still, under Modi, India has experienced even more extreme forms of illiberalism and de-democratization.

Journalists, students, and activists have been arrested on multiple occasions and charged under stringent anti-terrorism laws with sedition. The Indian judicial machinery is much less likely to antagonize the government—specifically when it comes to constitutional matters and protecting civil liberties—and its autonomy has been subject to question. The BJP’s comprehensive control over the parliament has also led to the corrosion of parliamentary procedures for passing laws. During both terms of the Modi government, bills have been subject to far less discussion and review by select committees with opposition members. Members of parliament from opposition parties have been suspended on flimsy grounds.

Equally alarming is the regime’s hegemonic control over the news media, especially the vernacular press and TV. Most media houses are owned by a handful of billionaires with close ties to the ruling party. Even the digital media space, which has thus far been the only consistent media sphere where government-critical voices are expressed, is increasingly coming under state control. The IT rules of 2021 gave the government the ability to suppress social media content on grounds of “national security.” More recently, a proposed broadcasting services bill aims to bring almost all forms of digital media under the regulation of the government’s as yet unformulated “programme code.”

Most profoundly, the BJP government has become more and more explicit in pursuing a Hindu nationalist project that socially marginalizes and politically disempowers the Muslim minority in India.

So far, the 2024 elections are more unfree and unfair than any other recent election in India. Executive agencies—the police, Central Bureau of Investigation and the Enforcement Directorate (ED)—have been regularly used by the government to attack and arrest opposition politicians. The ED, in particular, has been used against opposition politicians accused of corruption. On many occasions, these corruption-accused opposition politicians simply joined the BJP and magically acquired a clean chit.

Direct coercion aside, the BJP is much better endowed than all other national parties. The BJP government had introduced an electoral bond scheme (India’s “dark money” equivalent) in 2018 to allow for anonymous donations to political parties. The goal of the scheme was to eliminate dark money donations to parties in cash. However, the guidelines allowed for secrecy. The lack of disclosure requirements for donors and the confidentiality surrounding electoral bonds undermined the principle of transparency in electoral finance and raised concerns over the direct influence of crony capital on government. In a remarkable rare break with the government, the Supreme Court recently declared the electoral bonds scheme unconstitutional. This has done little to create a level playing field; the BJP has already been the recipient of half of all the electoral bond donations (more than USD $700 million).

For the first time since Modi became Prime Minister in 2014, he is now himself using anti-Muslim dog whistles in electoral campaigning. Modi has falsely claimed that the opposition’s INDIA alliance, if it comes to power, will take wealth from Hindus and give it to Muslims. He has also claimed that the opposition is organizing a “vote jihad” against him. During a rally, Modi stunningly declared, “India is at a turning point in history; you have to decide if vote jihad will work or Ram Rajya.” Ram Rajya is a controversial concept that the Hindu right wing has appropriated from Gandhian political discourse and re-signified to indicate the political and social supremacy of Hindus.

Some have interpreted such speeches by Modi as a sign of anxiety and desperation. They claim that Modi is playing the Hindu card strongly because he is worried about the election result. On the contrary, I believe, Modi’s anti-Muslim rhetoric is a sign of his strength. In the 2014 and 2019 elections, Modi had to rely on populist developmental discourse to win electoral majorities. Now, he does not even need to anchor his project with a veneer of populism. This is a sign of the hegemonic victory of the Hindu nationalist project. Modi’s BJP winning a parliamentary majority with him using anti-Muslim discourse is an index of the consolidation of the Hindu voting bloc; citizens who primarily understand their political subjectivity as “Hindu” and their interests as “Hindu” interests organized against “Muslim” or “secular” interests.

The Modi regime’s great achievement in the last 10 years has been to erode the foundations for a liberal civil society and a truly democratic form of life. It has done this by successfully promoting a corrosive form of ethno-nationalism that perceives Muslims and “liberals” as existential enemies. “National security,” administered by the state, has progressively become the paramount political value commitment, undermining India’s commitments to equality and freedom. Unsurprisingly, tendencies at the federal level to repress dissent have trickled down to local state and police officials deploying the same tactics. The regime is becoming ever more reliant on Hindu nationalist vigilantism to police society.

At the same time, Modi’s regime has completely reconfigured how welfare is organized in India. First, the regime has rebranded many existing schemes with the prefix “PM” for Pradhan Mantri (Prime Minister) to underline Modi’s personal magnanimity. Sometimes, Modi personally hands out goods to people at an election rally: bags of grain and other “gifts” display his image and name. Modi’s style of welfarism has disassociated the concept of welfare from the framework of social rights, wealth redistribution, social development, and public goods such as health, education, and nutrition.

Instead, these schemes are highly personalized and rely exclusively on digital direct benefit cash and kind transfer (DBT) mechanisms. The recipients of welfare, mostly the poor, are increasingly framed—and understand themselves—not as citizens with social rights but as beneficiaries (labharthi). The Modi regime, through its “techno-patrimonial” practices, is developing in poor recipients of welfare a “monarchic” consciousness: an internalized sensibility that they are mere beneficiaries who receive the charity of the benevolent PM Modi. This “monarchic” form of popular consciousness generates passivity and subdues in citizens the capacity to make demands on the state.

The two tendencies—corrosive nationalism and monarchic consciousness—have become so normalized that other political forces, including the opposition, are now mimicking Modi’s practices.

In other words, de-democratization under the Modi regime has been so comprehensive that even an improbable electoral defeat of BJP would likely not be sufficient to alter and reverse the illiberal foundations that have been laid over the past decade. India’s democratic way of life is drying up, and the rudimentary institutional support for its promotion are under assault as never before.

As the “world’s biggest elections” unfold, truly democratic norms and convictions will be on life support in India—whatever the pundits assert about “the world’s biggest democracy.”