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India’s Distorted History: Was It Ever A Strong Democracy?

Image via Ritesh Shukla/Getty Images

India, the world’s largest democracy, seems to be slowly but surely falling into a state of restricted freedom under the control of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). While many Western publications have denounced Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his authoritarian brand of leadership that focuses on winning the support of the majority Hindu population, often at the expense of the Muslim minorities, these arguments fail to notice a key point: Has any other party provided a viable alternative? Certainly, there are some states that remain loyal to the Indian National Congress (INC), the party that had ruled India for almost 70 years since its independence, but it is becoming increasingly evident that its reign is in decline as BJP gains electoral dominance. Despite the lofty claims that India has always been an open, secular regime before Modi’s rise to power, a closer examination of India’s history presents a different story. India, as a relatively young democracy, never had the healthy opposition needed to strengthen its weak democratic institutions, and it is this historical weakness that paved the way for the rise of authoritarianism and nationalism.

India’s history is a complex one—for a long time, India was merely a concept, an ideal fought for under British rule. This freedom struggle was intimately linked with the INC’s rise to power and its influence, which was felt across India partly because of charismatic leaders like Mahatma Gandhi. Since the INC played a critical role in the birth of India, it is not surprising that it ruled India for as long as it did. Indeed, many opine that the longevity of its power was because of what people associated with the name of INC—a party they felt indebted to for independence and felt could give birth to a strong, independent nation of the kind Gandhi described in his theory of “swaraj,” or self-rule.

However, the trajectory of its leadership, which follows the line of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, is suggestive more of an elitist, hierarchical rule based on lineage claims rather than a product of robust democratic contestation. Soon after Nehru’s death, his daughter Indira Gandhi rose to power and found success in her effective leadership regarding the issues in then-East Pakistan (modern-day Bangladesh). However, her leadership soon veered towards authoritarianism when she declared emergency powers in India in 1975. Declaring a state of emergency gave Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister an unchecked amount of power that allowed her to suspend fundamental rights, control the press, and arrest opposition leaders.

Such an instance in India’s early history was already a sign that even if a country has a democratic constitution and popular elections, its leaders might still lack truly democratic values. While she faced much backlash from this, paving the way for the Janata Party to gain control for a brief time, Indira Gandhi again rose to power in the aftermath of the Janata Party’s political collapse—a surprising instance that was further proof of the tolerance India had for authoritarianism, especially from the descendents of its freedom fighters. 

Within the INC itself, power seemed to have remained mainly with the descendants of Nehru. After Indira Gandhi’s death, her son Rajiv Gandhi took the helm and later his wife, Sonia Gandhi. Part of the reason why this occurred is because of the structural changes Indira Gandhi made to the INC on an internal level, where she removed the regular elections of party positions her father upheld and centralized power with the intention of passing control to her son. Today, Nehru’s great-grandson Rahul Gandhi is at the forefront, although his resignation as party leader in 2019 and the defamation case against him hints at a possible end to the Nehru line in politics. Nevertheless, the fact that this dynasty was sustained in India for so long suggests a mode of governance that has little resemblance to true democracy. 

While political theorists agree that the degeneration of democratic norms in India has been accelerated by Modi’s government, the history of India’s post-colonial state was centered on a political system that restricts meaningful political participation to the elites. The Indian Constitution was created by a Constituent Assembly that represented about one-fourth of India’s population: the educated elite. The ideals of an Indian republic voiced in the Constitution were hence destined to become divorced from the reality of the Indian state and paved the way for the decline of the INC. When its internal scandals of corruption and its general incompetence proved too much for the Indian public, it could no longer win votes in the name of independence or secular ideals that the masses never really felt connected to. 

Moreover, the INC’s historical dominance and resultant complacency has also rendered them incapable of providing the strong political opposition that India needs. More so than the corruption, it was the INC’s lack of a clear political vision and effective leadership that contributed to their massive decline in the 2014 general election, when they won less than 50 seats out of the 543 and lost their position as the leading opposition party. Rahul Gandhi, the unofficial leader of the INC, has constantly criticized the BJP for its Hindu nationalist platform but failed to articulate an alternative secular vision of India. Therein lies the key problem of the INC—its lack of political identity in the wake of its fall from dominance. It never faced substantial opposition before the BJP and therefore is not structurally built to become the leading opposition party. Additionally, it continues its dynastic leadership of the Gandhi lineage; despite Rahul Gandhi’s clear political failures, the INC has clung to him for far too long as a leader, which is indicative of the lack of democratic process within the party—a feature that has lately caused several of its senior party members to leave. 

The decline of the INC is closely linked to the BJP’s rise, as Modi specifically exploited the Indian public’s discontent with the INC’s secularist narrative to promote his Hindutva vision. While it could be argued that BJP’s success as a party proves that opposition in India is possible, its ascension has little to do with democracy and more to do with the rise of a new dynasty. Modi’s success is attributed to his appeal to the large middle class population, his oratory skills, and the stark contrast he presents to the INC. His speeches are after all in Hindi, a language his target demographic prefers, and he uses simple words to connect to the general population while also demonizing elite intellectuals (a label he often evokes to describe the INC) who do not understand the common man. While all this is true, his cult of personality, censure of media, defamation of opponents like Rahul Gandhi, and anti-Muslim riots read as authoritarian.

Even though BJP does not have the loyalty of all Indian states, there is no viable opposition coalition capable of preventing its rise. The regional parties have limited political reach, and the INC is currently in decline and receives significantly less financial backing than the BJP. In 2019–20, the INC only received 133 crores in contrast to the BJP’s 720 crores. Modi has clearly filled the vacuum the INC left as the dominant party in India. To achieve this, all the BJP had to do was attract enough donors, have a strong personality as its leader to draw the loyalty of the voters (just as Nehru and his descendants did previously), and discredit an opposition already weakened by a series of scandals. India has always been prone to cult worship, and Modi is the latest idol who is also removing all possible constitutional counters (like free press) that would have kept a leader’s powers in check.

In this new era of the BJP, India’s democratic foundations, which were already weak, are crumbling. But this is caused not only by Modi’s actions, but also by India’s political heritage. When a country’s freedom fighters are idolized for too long with no viable opposition party, politics becomes less about winning elections and more about uprooting one regime to construct a new one. Sadly, while it is tempting to claim that Modi killed a vibrant democracy (as many publications put it), India in truth lacked strong democratic institutions, and Modi merely took advantage.