India is now widely considered to be drifting into the realm of “electoral autocracy,” steadily falling lower in democracy indices, with study after study seemingly confirming the erosion of the country’s democratic credentials since Narendra Modi took power in 2014. But this, this essay argues, is an ahistorical contention that rests on shaky political and constitutional foundations, and suffers from a high degree of temporal myopia. An historical perspective would suggest that Indian democracy remains within the broad continuum it has inhabited since 1950, and that there is little to indicate that this continuum is anything but intact.
This is one of five essays in a special package on the state of India’s democracy.
Upon returning from the first session of the Imperial War Cabinet in May 1917, Maharaja Ganga Singh of Bikaner, who had served there as representative of India’s hereditary princes, wrote a long and rather extraordinary note to Austen Chamberlain, the secretary of state for India. Candidly observing that “the desire for self-government in any educated people is a simple elementary fact of human nature” and arguing for the introduction of the franchise in India, the maharaja resolutely declared: “Self-government is government of the people; that is democracy, as opposed to autocracy.”
Years before the (very limited) franchise first became reality,1 Singh, despite being a hereditary autocrat committed to dynastic rule, could perceive with remarkably clear-eyed prescience the inevitability of some form of democracy in India given the structural conditions of British rule and direction of political events. His argument was simple. “Step after step has been taken and is being taken by the British Government which tends towards the same end,” he noted, observing that “the spread of the English language and Western education; the extension of railways and telegraphs; the creation of a sense of unity among the various peoples; and the steady admission of Indians to some of the highest offices of State, are all preparing the way for representative government.”2
My argument, with the benefit of hindsight, is simpler still. Step after step has been and is being taken that tends toward the opposite end: an inevitable authoritarianism interspersed with democracy.3 Even the founding figures of Indian democracy could see, given the burdens of history and the challenges of establishing the incipient republic, the necessity of some level of authoritarianism in the constitution (adopted in 1949) that would bring it into being.4
As Sunil Khilnani once remarked, “democracy is the most historical of political forms”5—and history has both facilitated and constrained Indian democracy in multiple ways, molding it into a distinctive, hybrid form in which a certain authoritarianism is a structural feature. This is not meant to minimize the serious contemporary challenges democracy faces in India, but to emphasize that many of them are rooted in its history—and that recent condemnations tend to either forget or ignore this history outright.
India, I assert, remains as much a democracy as it ever was. I offer four related contentions: that a certain authoritarianism is embedded in India’s political and constitutional structure; that a normative comparison with the West is thus futile; that the coalition era from 1989 to 2014 skews perceptions about the default nature of Indian democracy; and that much recent criticism can be explained by the “Tocqueville paradox.”6
India’s constitution, unlike its U.S. counterpart, is not animated by the impulse to limit political power and secure public freedom. On the contrary, it is dominated by the idea of constituting and enabling political power, and channeling it for socioeconomic reform.7 This is explained in part by the circumstances of India’s birth—the violence and upheaval of partition, the pressures of establishing political sovereignty, a largely uneducated and destitute population with limited knowledge or experience of democracy, deep-seated social divisions and hierarchies; and in part by the desires and predilections of its founding figures—their overriding concern with unity, their commitment to socialism and transformative social justice, and their need to bolster and secure their own power.
National unity and the “social revolution” thus form the key strands of the constitutional enterprise, creating a state that is explicitly committed to achieving social, economic and political justice.8 In the words of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, the founders were freeing India “through a new constitution to feed the starving people and clothe the naked masses.”9 And of course, that could not be done without securing the state that was to do it. One need not be a true believer in Hannah Arendt’s dictum—that attempts to solve social questions through political action are invariably antithetical to freedom10—to recognize that such social-revolutionary zeal inexorably required substantial restrictions of civic freedoms and the licensing of coercive state power to redress socioeconomic inequities (and arguably even to regulate social identities).
The constitution thus, right from the outset, enshrined centralization and executive supremacy, sanctioned the use of state power, and retained the “bureaucratic authoritarianism” of its colonial predecessor.11 It empowered the center vis-à-vis the states, enabling it to create and dismember provinces at will (Articles 2 and 3) or to impose its writ through president’s rule under Article 356. It empowered the executive vis-à-vis the legislature, allowing it to routinely usurp legislative functions through ordinances (Article 123) and to dictate when the legislature is summoned or prorogued, as long as more than six months do not elapse between two sessions (Article 86). It empowered the state vis-à-vis the citizen, hedging in and qualifying the fundamental rights guaranteed in Part III in the pursuit of state security and social uplift. Land reform and redistribution necessitated evading the right to private property; positive discrimination entailed constraining the right to freedom from discrimination; state security implied engirding the right to freedom of speech.12 With the passage of the Tenth Schedule (the antidefection law, which forces individual legislators to vote according to party diktats on pain of disqualification) in 1985, the constitution cemented the grip of party bosses on legislative parties and emasculated individual legislators.13
One could argue, as B.R. Ambedkar forcefully did in the Constituent Assembly, that this was inevitable, even desirable—that political freedom was incomplete without social and economic equality; that it was social and economic equality that would actually produce the conditions for democracy to flourish. One might even go so far as to say that centralization and concentration of power were needed to extricate state authority and social identities from local power structures founded on caste and community,14 or that an activist and capacious state demonstrated a constitutional commitment to the public, and that ignoring social inequities may have been inhumane or tantamount to condoning oppression in India’s setting. In other words, we needed a strong state to deliver what the constitution had promised, and that strong state needed protection for it to be able to deliver on its promises. That may indeed be the case, but it is also largely irrelevant.
The truth is that concentration of power and its use by the executive are thus, by design, baked into India’s constitutional order and institutional structure. The broadly defined social goals and nebulous criteria of “security of the state” do not really matter—they are vessels into which multiple contemporary ideas can be poured or removed, categories subject to creative interpretation given the flavor of the times. What matters are the facilitation of executive power, the generation of legitimacy for that executive power, and the harnessing of executive power—not the social questions being answered. These questions themselves can change, and rather rapidly at that, as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s stint in power is amply demonstrating. And the “interests of the security of the state” are perennially available as a constitutional base.
In effect, India’s constitution enables and underpins a vast armory of coercive laws that it places at the executive’s disposal, and creates a political structure dedicated to promoting executive power. Somnath Lahiri, a Communist member of the Constituent Assembly, described the fundamental-rights provisions as having “been framed from the point of view of a police constable” and taunted leaders of the Congress party in the Constituent Assembly, saying that they wanted even more power than the British government.15
Where the underlying plumbing was originally unavailable, it has been created through constitutional amendments. The first of these started the ball rolling in 1951 by clipping individual rights and providing for a vast array of repressive laws (including one against sedition) even before the inaugural general election. At that point, Prime Minister Nehru even argued that the government’s social agenda, backed by a legislative majority embodying the wishes of the people, must take precedence over constitutional provisions and civil liberties.16 Rather than enlarging civic freedom, governments have found ways of constraining it to widen the ambit of political power.
Every government, to the extent that it can command a substantive majority in the legislature, has ruthlessly used state force to push its agenda for social transformation and promote its version of state security. Yesterday it was Indira Gandhi, today it is Narendra Modi. Tomorrow may bring someone else. One may agree or disagree with the agenda being put into action; it does not really matter. The same concentration of power is available if a leader can muster a legislative majority. And given the Tenth Schedule, such a majority, once mustered, is relatively easy to shepherd along. Hardly surprising, then, that the political theorist Uday Mehta termed Hobbes “the largely unacknowledged mentor of Indian constitutionalism.”17 This kind of authoritarianism comes constitutionally sanctioned, even constitutionally mandated; antidemocratic tendencies operate through constitutional means, hindering the establishment of “legality and legislative primacy.”18
Given this structural situation, it is hardly surprising to find governments using the powers they have been granted for the purposes for which they have been granted them. This is particularly important because, as recent assessments of Indian democracy argue, India’s current democratic deficits lie not in the electoral arena—where competition continues to be largely free and fair as judged by the criteria of contestation and participation—but in the erosion of nonelectoral freedoms and civil liberties, especially the freedoms of expression and association.19 Such an argument is not only ahistorical, it also rests on shaky constitutional and political ground. It gives the impression that India had an expansive domain of civic freedom that the BJP government has been steadily constricting since 2014—an impression as shaky as the foundations it rests on.
India has never actually had such an expansive domain of civic action. What space it did have was subjected to executive approval, and even that shrank steadily, as India’s postcolonial leaders moved right away to enclose the remaining civic commons with a ruthlessness that would have caused eighteenth-century British parliamentarians to blush. The first piece of legislation passed in democratic India, for example, was the Preventive Detention Act, while the first constitutional amendment took a sledgehammer to fundamental rights. The reasons behind these moves—high-minded or not—are immaterial. What is material is that these freedoms are, and have been since the beginning, heavily constrained and dependent on the capriciousness of the executive. The legal and constitutional tools to squeeze them when desired have always existed, have been used regularly, and have remained unchallenged by parties of all stripes. India has, and has always had, a constitutional structure relatively inhospitable to extraparliamentary democracy.
As an example, think of a legal instrument such as the Uttar Pradesh Gangster Act, which enables the state to confiscate the property of alleged gangsters on the orders of a bureaucrat, without the need of any sanction from the courts or the prosecutor20—a law now emblematic of India’s political climate. Having been on the books since 1986 and used haphazardly over the years, it has now achieved notoriety in the hands of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, who has used it with renewed ferocity to seize (and then, using urban-planning laws, demolish) properties in what is considered the most egregious example of India’s current antidemocratic upsurge—with negligible judicial interdiction. This begs an obvious deeper question: What does forty years of this law say about India’s constitutional settlement?
I am not suggesting that these freedoms were entirely absent, nor am I suggesting that they have not shrunk. What I am suggesting here is that they have always been unstructured, available when, and to the extent that, the executive has loosened its grip—expanding and contracting as per the executive’s determination to intervene in social questions. Democratic backsliding is, at least on this score, a misnomer in my opinion, given that the boundaries of the playing field are yet to be altered—and this movement is part of a continuum within which Indian democracy has historically oscillated without (at least as yet) going out of bounds at either end.
Outside the Capital
The period between 1989 and 2014, referred to rather euphemistically as the coalition era, generally seems to form the backdrop against which arguments for India’s democratic deficit—or its drift into electoral autocracy are made. This, I contend, skews perceptions about the nature of democracy and political power in India, providing a powerful rhetorical tool to direct attention to the post-2014 period but saying little about why the coalition era proved especially profitable for the extraparliamentary aspects of democracy.
The post–Rajiv Gandhi era in Indian politics, beginning in 1989, brought economic liberalization, the shattering of Congress hegemony, the rising assertiveness of OBC (Other Backward Classes) groups, and escalating communal tension. OBC demands and determination combined with the implementation in 1990 of the Mandal Commission report (1980) brought about a deepening of the representative character of India’s legislative institutions (and bureaucratic institutions, to a certain extent), as the proportion of OBC legislators almost doubled. This demonstrated the capacity of mobilized social groups (but importantly, not individuals) to resist and renegotiate power relations within India’s democratic structures. Concurrently, first V.P. Singh’s Janata Dal and then new caste-based and region-based parties smashed Congress’s dominance, especially in the crucial northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, resulting in splintered mandates at the national level and leading to the need for multiparty coalitions as no single party could muster a legislative majority.
By their very nature, coalitions prevented concentration of power and provided for a wider dispersal of executive authority. This diluted government control, creating space for a variety of institutions to exert degrees of independence—the courts, but especially, bodies such as the Election Commission and the Comptroller and Auditor General. Inevitably, a greater degree of liberalism and a wider domain of civic action ensued. Globalization brought a dash of added glamor. It is little wonder that when plotted on a graph, India’s democracy indices peak in the late 1990s and the 2000s at the height of the coalition era.21 These peaks, however, had rather prosaic underlying causes.
In the states, where mandates were not splintered, things were very different. There, with concentration of power made even more acute by the Tenth Schedule, and thus largely secured against backbench rebellion and intraparty conflict, chief ministers—especially those from regional parties who also doubled as party bosses—quickly transformed themselves into “supreme leaders” and pioneered a “Chief Minister model of governance.”22 Personalization of authority, capture of state institutions, symbiotic relationships with the bureaucracy, political violence, intimidation of opponents and dissenters, the malicious use of First Information Reports (the first reports of possible crimes, written by police) and false cases, and widespread surveillance were key parts of this model, which was replicated across multiple states.23
This indeed became the de facto, tried-and-tested model for running a government—first fashioned in the states, and then implemented in the center once a legislative majority was mustered in 2014. That Narendra Modi was a chief minister who ran his state on this model for more than a decade is not insignificant. I am unaware (perhaps because I am a historian and not a political scientist) of major theoretical explorations of this phenomenon, but as the journalist Rama Lakshmi once wrote: “If you have covered Indian states long enough, you would know that this is how several chief ministers govern—like regional satraps and chieftains . . . . Many in the Delhi commentariat chose to look the other way because a lot of this was happening during haloed coalition years in the centre.”24
At this point, I am not even going into the criminality, corruption, and gangsterism that became a regular feature of politics in states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar; the political violence and thuggery in places like West Bengal and Kerala; or the state-sanctioned use of extrajudicial violence in Punjab, Kashmir, Bombay, and the like. I am only pointing out the cementing and overt manifestation of authoritarianism in India’s political structure during the coalition era. While the dispersal of power allowed institutions to exert a degree of independence in Delhi, unprecedented concentration of executive authority caused supposedly independent institutions to completely collapse or surrender in the states. Thus the coalition era, in that sense, was a mixed blessing as far as the quality of Indian democracy went. So, what indeed does all this imply?
A Singular Experience
In his book India’s Founding Moment, the political theorist Madhav Khosla argues that India’s constitutional experience was singular, its founding the response to a unique and exceptional set of questions. The peculiar and specific historical conditions of the constitution’s creation, both domestically and globally, Khosla wrote, “should encourage us to see it as the paradigmatic democratic experience of the twentieth century.”25 To do so, however, requires accepting that the normative foundations, and therefore the political and constitutional structure, of Indian democracy are distinct.
At their heart lay questions about the realities of India’s condition and its suitability for democracy. And these were answered with significant local innovations to the transplanted Westminster system to acclimatize it to local soil, which was vastly different from Britain and the white-settler dominions. Allowing the executive to legislate in place of the legislature, in peacetime and without the declaration of an emergency—executive power at legislative expense, unheard of in Westminster—was only one of these local innovations. There were many, collectively transforming India’s Parliament into what Harshan Kumarasingham called an “Eastminster,”26 a beast very different from Westminster beyond the likeness of superficial institutional forms.
What I am getting at here is this: If we accept the normative singularity (or at least specialness) of India’s democratic experience, and the specificity of its conditions, then it follows that normative comparisons with the older democracies of Western Europe and North America are relatively unproductive. For example, in counting the number of journalists jailed, what meaningful comparison is really possible between a country with a constitutional commitment to freedom of the press, such as the United States, and a country such as India, where it is legally and constitutionally permissible for a bureaucrat to seize your property on accusations of that you are a gangster? Indian democracy should thus be assessed on its own terms.
On its own terms, the formal practices of Indian democracy remain intact, even if one could argue that its substance is threatened by the bureaucratic authoritarianism underpinning it. By the standards of electoral contestation and voter participation, as Ashutosh Varshney has observed, “India’s democratic vitality has held steady.”27 In states such as Delhi, Bihar, and West Bengal, smaller and more poorly resourced parties have roundly defeated the BJP. Voter turnouts remain high. No one disputes the validity of results. Space for well-organized civil society action, even in a relatively inhospitable institutional context, remains available, if diminished, as demonstrated by the 2020–21 farmers’ protests.
The informal practices of democracy—civic action and liberal freedoms of expression and association—may well be constrained, but that is, and has been, a feature of Indian democracy and not a bug. An overt manifestation of authoritarianism is embedded in India’s constitutional structure and political culture, where it is threaded tightly with democracy and grounded in history and pragmatism. Crucially, this is accepted by all shades of political opinion. No party or social movement has yet sought to challenge or promised to undo the legal and constitutional architecture on which such authoritarianism is premised—one can only assume that it enjoys a degree of political consensus.
The reign (I use this word deliberately) of Nehru saw bloody battles over territorial sovereignty in Hyderabad, Kashmir, Manipur, and Nagaland; India’s worst anti-Muslim violence in Hyderabad in 1948, which claimed thousands of lives; the constitutional clipping of civil liberties via the First Amendment; and draconian legislation such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. The reign of Indira Gandhi saw the Indian Air Force bombing its own citizens; mass relocation of villagers in Mizoram; the Emergency (1975–77) and rampant anticonstitutionalism; forced sterilization; blood-letting in Punjab; a massacre of Muslims in the Nellie area of Assam; and Operation Steeplechase and brutal anticommunist violence in West Bengal in the early 1970s. Consider what those eras might have looked like if social media, camera phones, 24-hour news cycles, the internet, and mass information flows had existed; if Twitter feeds across the world had been flooded with videos and testimonies from places such as Nagaland in 1956, at the height of the insurgency; Bastar (then part of Madhya Pradesh) in 1966, during the police massacre of tribal people; or Bengal in 1971 during Operation Steeplechase.
The reign of Modi in that sense is less a departure from the norm than a confirmation of it. Despite appearing to deviate from recent history, the BJP government in fact utilizes existing legal tools, building on and solidifying trends and practices that were already prevalent in the states. Modi’s reign has seen, and will see, its share of ostensibly “authoritarian” actions, and one may disagree with their intended social outcomes. But unless the formal structures of democracy struggle or break down, or a political consensus against the concentrations of power that enable such “authoritarian” actions emerges and proclaims as a political goal the liberalization of the constitutional structure, there is little, as yet, to suggest that the broad continuum of Indian democracy is anything but intact. We may have to wait for a new coalition era (or perhaps for the wheels to come off entirely) to know for sure. But until then, Indian democracy remains as it ever was: messy, normatively unique, and intertwined with a large dose of authoritarianism.
1. The franchise was first introduced in India by the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms, embodied in the Government of India Act, 1919. The first election was held in 1920, with just over a million people eligible to vote.
2. Maharaja Ganga Singh to Austin Chamberlain, 15 May 1917 (Copy), Royal Archives, PS/PSO/GV/MAIN/15906.
3. For further context see: Tripurdaman Singh, Sixteen Stormy Days: The Story of the First Amendment to the Constitution of India (New Delhi: Penguin, 2020; London: Bloomsbury, forthcoming 2024); Tripurdaman Singh, “How India’s Founding Fathers Built an Eastminster Democracy,” Times of India, 22 January 2022.
4. Singh, “How India’s Founding Fathers Built an Eastminster Democracy.”
5. Sunil Khilnani, “1950’s: Era of Wrong Turnings,” India Today,2 July 2007.
6. For the uninitiated, a brief overview of the Tocqueville paradox is provided by Scotty Hendricks, “The Tocqueville Effect: Why We’re Always Angry about Something,” Big Think, 27 August 2016, https://bigthink.com/culture-religion/the-tocqueville-effect-and-why-well-always-find-new-controversies.
7. See Uday S. Mehta, “Indian Constitutionalism: Crisis, Unity, History” in Sujit Choudhry, Madhav Khosla, and Pratap Bhanu Mehta, The Oxford Handbook of the Indian Constitution (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2016), ch. 3; Uday Mehta, “The Social Question and the Absolutism of Politics,” India Seminar, www.india-seminar.com/2010/615/615_uday_s_mehta.htm.
8. The speeches around Nehru’s “Objectives Resolution,” especially those by Nehru, Ambedkar, and M. R. Masani are instructive in this regard. See Constituent Assembly Debates, vol. 1, 16 and 17 December 1946. On the key strands, see Granville Austin, The Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of a Nation(New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999).
9. Constituent Assembly Debates, vol. 2, 22 January 1947.
10. Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (London: Penguin, 1990). One could, on that score, as easily refer to Nozick and the idea that patterned principles of distribution are fundamentally inimical to liberty. See, Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2001).
11. See Ayesha Jalal, Democracy and Authoritarianism in South Asia: A Comparative and Historical Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 13–25.
12. See Article 19 of the Constitution of India.
13. See M. R. Madhavan, “The Absurdity of the Anti-Defection Law,” The Hindu, 26 February 2021, https://prsindia.org/articles-by-prs-team/the-absurdity-of-the-anti-defection-law.
14. Madhav Khosla, India’s Founding Moment: The Constitution of a Most Surprising Democracy (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2020).
15. Constituent Assembly Debates, vol. 3, 29 April 1947.
16. See Singh, Sixteen Stormy Days.
17. Uday S. Mehta, “Constitutionalism” in Niraja Gopal Jayal and Pratap Bhanu Mehta, eds., The Oxford Companion to Politics in India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2011), 19.
18. Anil Kalhan, “Constitution and ‘Extraconstitution’: Colonial Emergency Regimes in Postcolonial India and Pakistan” in Victor V. Ramraj and Arun K. Thiruvengadam, eds., Emergency Powers in Asia: Exploring the Limits of Legality(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 89–120.
19. Ashutosh Varshney, “How India’s Ruling Party Erodes Democracy,” Journal of Democracy33 (October 2022): 104–18; Ashutosh Varshney, “Modi Consolidates Power: Electoral Vibrancy, Mounting Liberal Deficits,” Journal of Democracy30 (October 2019): 63–77.
20. See, for example, Omar Rashid, “Behind Yogi Adityanath’s Crackdown on ‘Mafia’ in Uttar Pradesh Lies Gangsters Act,” Outlook India, updated 16 April 2023, www.outlookindia.com/national/-special-law-through-which-bjp-cracked-down-on-gangsters-like-atiq-ahmad-in-uttar-pradesh-news-278842.
22. See Rama Lakshmi, “Narendra Modi Is Ruling India as if It Was Another State and He Is Still a Chief Minister” The Print, 8 February 2021, https://theprint.in/opinion/narendra-modi-is-ruling-india-as-if-it-was-another-state-and-he-is-still-a-chief-minister/600796/.
23. Lakshmi, “Narendra Modi Is Ruling India As If It Was Another State,” and, for example, “‘I Have 211 Cases Against Me”—Nakkeeran Gopal on His Battle with Criminal Defamation,” NewsMinute, 20 May 2015, https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/i-have-211-cases-against-me-nakkeeran-gopal-his-battle-criminal-defamation-30613.
24. Lakshmi, “Narendra Modi Is Ruling India as if It Was Another State.”
25. Khosla, India’s Founding Moment, 6.
26. Harshan Kumarasingham, A Political Legacy of the British Empire: Power and the Parliamentary System in Post-Colonial India and Sri Lanka(London: I.B. Tauris, 2012).
27. Varshney, “How India’s Ruling Party Erodes Democracy,” 106.
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