For the better part of the last eighty years, the Republic of India has been, as Seymour Martin Lipset wrote in these pages, “the great exception to most empirical generalizations about the social conditions for democracy.” Aside from a brief authoritarian interregnum between 1975 and 1977, India’s politics have been far more open, competitive, and democratic than one would expect from a country with its low level of socioeconomic development and its high degree of ethnolinguistic diversity. Today, however, what the scholar Ashutosh Varshney labeled India’s “improbable democracy” is being sorely tested by an ethnonationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and its leader Narendra Modi, who since capturing the government in 2014 have engaged in what is by some accounts a wholesale dismantling of the democratic institutions, norms, and practices that made India such a miracle. According to Freedom House, which downgraded India from Free to Partly Free in 2021, Modi and the BJP have presided over “a multiyear pattern of . . . rising violence and discriminatory policies affecting the Muslim population and . . . a crackdown on expressions of dissent by the media, academics, civil society groups, and protesters.”
In this symposium, the Journal of Democracy brings together leading scholars of India to perform a biopsy on the state of that country’s fragile democracy, and to offer us a prognosis for its future. Though the authors are united in believing that India’s political condition warrants concern, they differ in their assessments of the depth and causes of the crisis. For some, what we are observing today is nothing less than a frontal assault on the world’s largest democracy, in the service of a majoritarian, ethnonationalist project that seeks to root out all forms of difference and impose a stultifying conformity on India’s hitherto-vibrant political and social fabric. For others, current events are the continuation of a doleful status quo ante that had evaded our notice. In this telling, India’s democracy was always deeply flawed, particularly with respect to its imperfect guarantees of civil liberties. And while this view is perhaps not comforting to some, it suggests that, as long as India continues to hold free and fair elections, its future is not in dire jeopardy.
The potential failure of India’s democracy is important not just for its impact on the lives of 1.4 billion Indians, but also for its impact on democracy movements around the world. The country’s status as the principal living rejoinder to structurally deterministic theories of democracy’s emergence and survival has been a constant inspiration to activists and intellectuals who are working to get and keep democracy in similarly unpromising terrains. At a time when the world’s autocrats are increasingly assertive, and the world’s democrats increasingly diffident and inward looking, the cause of democracy can ill afford a loss of India’s magnitude. It is our hope that the essays which follow will help to focus attention on what might be this century’s most consequential fight for decent, representative, and accountable government.