Modi strongman rule raises questions about India’s ‘democratic decline’

Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, center, during a campaign rally in Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India, Thursday, April 25, 2024. Modi redoubled his attacks on the main opposition party, using language critics say sowed division among the country’s Hindu majority and Muslim minority. Photographer: Prakash Singh/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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A decade into power, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi looks set to secure a rare third term with general elections now underway.

Under his rule, India’s economic growth has been robust and its geopolitical standing in the world has risen.

Yet the country has also witnessed signs of democratic backsliding that have become evident under his leadership, observers and critics say.

“Modi has projected himself as an East Asian strongman,” Asim Ali, an independent political researcher in New Delhi, told CNBC.

He has also been called “the high priest of India – that he is above all politics,” Ali added. “This is very worrying as mixing religious nationalism with economic development” has been a “central feature” of his government.

In its latest 2024 report, the Sweden-based V-Dem Institute said a third Modi term could worsen the political situation “due to the already significant democratic decline under Modi’s leadership and the ongoing suppression of minority rights and civil society.”

India begins the second phase of its elections in 2024

US research group Freedom House said Indian elections will take place in a media landscape marked by increasing “legal attacks on critical journalists” and news outlets.

There is no doubt that “the space for democracy between elections has shrunk” under Modi, Milan Vaishnav, South Asia director at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told CNBC.

“Today, the liberal nature of India’s democracy is less evident,” he added, with “rising majorities, weakening checks on the executive and a growing intolerance of dissent.”

Last year, the government shut down a BBC documentary – which questioned Modi’s alleged role in the deadly 2002 Gujarat riots – and blocked social media platforms from sharing clips of it.

Many Indian mainstream media, especially the Hindi-speaking outlets, have been “co-opted” into spreading propaganda to deliver “the government’s message”, according to Ali.

India shuts down the internet more than any other country, with authorities often using such tactics to quell political protests and stifle criticism, rights groups say.

In a recent Newsweek interview, Modi addressed the issues, calling India the “mother of democracy.”

“Our media plays an important role in this regard,” he said, dismissing claims of “reduced media freedom” in India as “dubious”.

The Prime Minister’s Office and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party did not respond to CNBC’s request for comment.

The opposition’s ‘witch hunt’

Ahead of the election, India’s main opposition – the National Congress Party – accused the Modi government of freezing its bank accounts.

“This is a criminal act against the Congress party by the Prime Minister and the Home Minister,” Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said in a fiery attack.

“It is being orchestrated to paralyze us before the elections,” he claimed, adding that the people were “deprived of their constitution and democratic structure.”

The Modi administration rejected the opposition’s claims.

BJP and DMK representatives on how they addressed the deadly floods in India's Tamil Nadu

Previous governments have also pursued “a witch hunt against opposition politicians,” said Chietigj Bajpaee, a senior research fellow for South Asia at Chatham House.

But the scale of the “Modi government’s actions is what makes it more alarming” as it has “used significant levers of power” to intimidate opponents, he added.

India’s Supreme Court recently granted interim bail to jailed Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, a vocal political rival of Modi who was arrested in March in a bribery case. The arrest raised eyebrows as he was the leader of India’s Aam Aadmi Party, a key player in a larger opposition alliance.

The timing was “unusual” as it came just before the elections, Bajpaee said. It seems the government “does not want to leave any stone unturned” in its stated goal of securing 400 seats in the Lok Sabha, or lower house of Parliament, he added.

‘Pro-Hindu Party’

In the last decade, Modi’s BJP has become emboldened in pushing its Hindu nationalist ideology, analysts say. The aim was to consolidate his support among Hindus, who make up 80% of the country’s 1.4 billion inhabitants.

“The BJP is an avowedly pro-Hindu party,” Vaishnav said. Since coming to power in 2014, but especially after 2019, it has “sought to use legislation, regulation and even civil society to advance its agenda,” he added.

Pedestrians watch as a screen broadcasts footage of an inauguration ceremony for the Ram temple in Ayodhya, attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at a public place in New Delhi, India, Monday, Jan. 22, 2024. Modi fulfilled his party’s decades-long promise by inaugurating a large Hindu temple in northern India. Photographer: Prakash Singh/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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In January, Modi inaugurated a controversial temple in the city of Ayodhya – on the site of an ancient mosque demolished by a Hindu mob – fulfilling a decades-long campaign promise.

“The temple issue would matter in the Hindi-speaking belt, especially to energize the Hindu base,” Ali said, adding that the government has also used “anti-Muslim” rhetoric during the election campaign.

Modi was recently accused of hate speech after he allegedly called Muslims “infiltrators” at a rally that was seen as undermining India’s secular constitution.

The Modi government’s “talk of establishing a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ or Hindu nation indicates ambitions to break down the divide between state and religion,” Bajpaee noted, warning that this could “erode India’s secular credentials.”

Cult-like status?

Still, the public backlash against Modi’s tough rule has been limited. His charisma and personality have made him incredibly popular both at home and abroad.

“There is no one in the opposition to match that kind of popularity,” Ronojoy Sen, a senior fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, said in a recent CNBC interview.

Political observers argue that Modi is taking advantage of a cult-like status created around him – backed by the ruling party’s formidable electoral machinery – to build a direct link between him and the electorate.

For those unhappy with the direction of the country, “voting out the BJP means they have to get rid of Modi,” said Neelanjan Sircar, a senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. That will be “difficult to do if voters identify with him.”

No one in India's opposition parties can match Modi's popularity: analyst

His populist appeal has endured despite India’s entrenched economic problems such as rising youth unemployment and widening wealth inequality.

A pre-poll CSDS-Lokniti poll showed Modi far ahead in popularity, with 48% of respondents choosing him as their choice for prime minister compared to his opposition rivals.

India’s economic progress was not “obviously worse before Modi came on the scene,” Sircar noted. “During Manmohan Singh’s time, India also grew very fast,” he added, referring to the economic reforms under the former prime minister in the 1990s.

“What has changed is the way everything is branded in Modi’s image.”

Even the BJP’s manifesto is called “Modi Ki guarantee” — or Modi’s guarantee, Sircar pointed out, adding that the entire political system “is geared towards positive attribution to the top.”

‘Big changes’

With election results due in early June, it has been widely expected that the Prime Minister and the BJP will prevail for a third term, given India’s weak opposition.

A re-elected Modi government will be “more powerful” to push ahead with “politically sensitive economic reforms and its more divisive identity-driven agenda,” said Bajpaee of Chatham House.

In a recent interview, Modi exuded confidence, saying he wanted to make India “the third economic superpower” and outlining his bold vision.

The Indian leader will “flex his muscles” to pass significant legislation on a strengthened mandate, Carnegie’s Vaishnav added.

“Modi has already prepared voters to expect ‘big changes’ once he is brought back to power,” he added.

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