Under Modi Govt, a Two-Pronged Attack on India's Democracy

While it may not actively be promoting autocratisation, the current BJP government is allowing it to happen.

This is the second article in a two-part series on the decline of India’s democracy. Read the first here.

One question that comes to mind upon seeing the indicators of democracy falling under the Modi government is whether the said government may not after all have some redeeming qualities.

When Narendra Modi won the election in 2014, for example, the business community welcomed him, since he had promised to implement the ‘Gujarat model’ from his home state. The claim has often been made that Modi ‘gets things done’, and that he provides a good climate for business and investment.

If he keeps things in order, then, might it be said that he promotes clean governance and the rule of law? After all, democracy depends on a well-governed state that can keep corruption levels down. Also, reducing corruption and enhancing the rule of law lowers transaction costs and attracts investment. Democracy needs this too. It thus behoves us to ask about the record of the Modi government and corruption.

Modi government and corruption

Corruption in India, 2004 – 2017

The Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) measures the levels of “perceived levels of public sector corruption.” This measurement works in the reverse direction from the democracy variables taken into consideration. The higher the value, the worse the corruption. And since 2014, this index has definitely gotten higher.

India was already performing badly in this area, but the problems in this regard have worsened since Modi came to power. The Executive corruption index (ECI), on the other hand, is designed to capture high-level corruption and the extent to which ‘members of the executive’ take bribes, engage in embezzlement and misappropriate public funds.

Also read: Is India’s Democracy Really in Decline?

The ECI works in the same way as the CPI – the higher the value, the worse the corruption. Here, the verdict is quite different. Since Modi came to power, corruption among the members of the executive has substantially declined. However, it should be noted that these results refer to events up until 2017, before the Rafale deal became the big controversy it is now.  

It seems, however, that Modi is strengthening parts of the state and its capacity to govern, although some parts of the state are actually becoming less well-governed. Is there a new Indian state model emerging from these indicators of varying performance of governance?

Attempts to build a ‘Hindu Rashtra’?

In this section, finally, we consider only data on whether the Hindu nationalists are building a ‘Hindu Rashtra’. A Hindu Rashtra implies a religious state, which in an extreme form implies restrictions on civil liberties. But we can do more than just consider the conceptual arguments in this area; we can also inspect the empirical evidence in connection with freedom of religion.

Are attacks by the gau rakshaks isolated events? Take the consultations that Prime Minister Modi has held with Sangh parivar organisations, with the spiritual leader Baba Ramdev, or with chief minister Yogi Adityanath. Are they signs of a Hindutvisation of India that suppresses freedom of religion?

Religious organisations, political violence and freedom of religion (2004-2017)

In the above figure, we consider variables on a scale ranging from 0 to 1. First, we consider ‘Freedom of religion’, which has been quite high in India for a long time. The question here is whether public authorities formally restrict any religious practices or limit the freedom to change one’s religion.

The good news, from a democratic perspective, is that perhaps only a slight decline has occurred in this area under the Modi government – one no greater, in fact, than that which occurred when Singh took office in 2004. The religious organisation consultation variable is of special interest here. It shows the Indian government has consulted more often with religious organisations in recent years than it did before.

Under the second Singh government, such consultations became less frequent. This indicator is tricky to interpret, however. When it was devised, the assumption was most likely that religious organisation consultation could be regarded as a form of deliberation or a way for communitarian ideals to be realised in a society. However, the measurement takes no account of which religious organisations are consulted. And it would appear that in recent years, it is mainly Sangh parivar organisations that have been consulted. If consultations with religious organisations are frequent, then, there is no reason to assume that this serves democratic ideals or upholds secular values. The opposite may be the case here.

Now let us consider the other two variables: Religious organisation repression and freedom from political killings. Here the picture is quite worrying. The first variable concerns how much the government harasses religious groups or otherwise takes measures to curb their activities. Here the graph shows a slight decline (indicating a declining democratic performance) from 2011 to 2012, and then a quite sharp one from 2014 onwards. The overall decline since 2011 comes to a full point on the scale. In other words, religious repression has increased by 25%. The question is how far this kind of repression goes.

Also read: BJP Has Insulted My Hinduism

No definite answer can be given here. But let us consider the other variable: Freedom from political killings. This refers to the frequency of deaths resulting from the ‘deliberate use of lethal force by the police, security forces, prison officials, or other agents of the state (including paramilitary groups)’. The scale, like all other ones in this figure, runs from 0 to 1, with lower values meaning more political killings.

This variable too is quite crude, since it admits of no clear differentiation between, say, violence in Kashmir by government forces and attacks on journalists and religious minorities by extremist groups associated with the government. On the other hand, if the frequency of political killings is increasing at the same time that religious repression is rising, this could indicate that the Hindu Rashtra has a very dangerous side. A pattern of this kind may reflect, namely, a two-pronged attack on democracy. The graph shows a slight fall in the figure for freedom from political killings in 2010, and then a very steep and worrisome drop in 2014.


A large part of India’s democratic decline can be explained by the actions of the current Modi government. But of course, there is more to the story. A global decline in democracy has been occurring, whereby anti-democratic behaviour is promoted by governments that often are engaged in corrupt and clientelistic dealings. The Visegrád countries in the EU are an example. Here it is important to recall that India is squeezed in – geographically, politically and economically – by China and Pakistan.

It is also worth noting that the decline of democracy in India coincides with the emergence of Xi Jinping as the general secretary of the Communist Party of China, as well as with an increase in violence in Jammu and Kashmir. However, since the fortunes of democracy in India have far from always co-varied closely with the changing character of China’s government or with the many conflicts connected with Pakistan, there is a good reason to look at domestic Indian factors.

The negative domestic factors are many: the politicisation of education, the increased pressure on governmental institutions that should be independent of the Central government, the targeting of NGOs through the removal of their support structures, violent attacks on journalists, academics, Muslims and Dalits and lately the open declaration by actors connected with Sangh parivar that they mean to make India an ethnic state.

It is encouraging that the level of corruption has decreased among members of the executive. However, public sector corruption in other parts of the public administration has increased lately. These troubling trends suggest that the Modi government is not, at any rate, a strong supporter of democracy. If it is not actively promoting autocratisation, it is at least allowing it to happen. It would appear most likely to be the case, however, that the Modi government – together with other elements in society – is pushing in a politically illiberal direction.

Also read: Forty Two Years After the Emergency, India’s Democracy is Once Again in Danger

But does the Congress not bear some of the responsibility here? It would seem that it does. The first Singh government was undoubtedly a great success, politically speaking. It offered something which trumped the BJP’s attempt to pave the way for Vajpayee in the ‘India Shining’ campaign. The success of the leadership of Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi was so great that it led to a new victory in the election of 2009.

Then, however, the Singh government quickly ran out of steam. Both Singh and Gandhi lost their energy – in part due to health problems and perhaps old age, and in part perhaps from having been in the power game too long. In any case, the policy of economic reform lost its focus, and a number of corruption scandals dragged down the executive. It was then that the Anna Hazare movement gained strength as did the Aam Aadmi Party.

In retrospect, it is evident that the second Singh government did more than just lose the political initiative to its opponents. Worse, it allowed institutional decline to occur, damaging Indian democracy. It sent a message to both its allies and its adversaries that safeguarding democratic institutions was no longer a priority. Moreover, its inability to respond to increasing discontent and disillusionment helped pave the way for Modi’s victory. In the election of 2014, the Congress vote fell by almost ten percentage points. However, not all of the new votes for the BJP were motivated by discontent.

The BJP campaign capitalised strongly on an anti-Congress message, and by targeting Sonia Gandhi and the fact she was a ‘foreigner.’ However, it put a stronger emphasis on themes of honour, pride, nationalism and Hindu identity – and it combined these with a very well-coordinated campaign using both direct and electronic channels for communication. Above all, the BJP leadership campaigned in tandem with the most important Sangh parivar organisations – the Vishva Hindu Parishad and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

Together these created a formidable force, securing a majority for the BJP in the Lok Sabha. The BJP and its sibling organisations are essentially religious and strongly nationalist, and the policies they have promulgated – and the space they have opened up for extremist forces – are coarsening the political culture of India and corroding its democracy.

As the declining measures of democratic performance demonstrate, this is happening quickly and it is dividing the country. And indeed, the Congress may have opened the door to this. The global political climate, in which populists and extremists of various kinds have gained strength, also appears to have something to do with the developments described here.

It is clear, however, that the most rapid decline in India’s democracy since the Emergency is taking place under the current BJP government, working in alliance with Hindutva-oriented organisations – from actors in civil society through governance structures at the panchayat level, all the way to Raisina Hill.

This article has been written as part of the TOLEDO project at the Department of Government, Uppsala University. The author would like to thank Jan Teorell at the V-Dem project, Peter Mayers, Ingrid Forsberg and generous Indian readers who helped in the process of completing this text.

Sten Widmalm is professor in political science at Uppsala University, Sweden, and the author of Political Tolerance in the Global South – Images of India, Pakistan and Uganda (Routledge, 2017) and Kashmir in Comparative Perspective (Oxford University Press, 2006).

Sources and appendices to this article are published at the author’s homepage. All data used can be downloaded from V-Dem