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For years now, scholars in this magazine and elsewhere have tracked the decline of democracy in countries around the world. Markers for this reversal of people power include erosions of freedom of the press and human rights as well as the rise of leaders with authoritarian tendencies.

Discussions about a democratic recession are particularly important when it comes to India, a country that is technically the world’s largest democracy. On paper, it holds largely free and fair elections with lots of choices for voters in what is a decidedly chaotic multiparty system. Yet an array of global surveys indicates the reality is rather different. Freedom House downgraded India from “free” to “partly free” in its 2021 survey of civil freedoms. The World Press Freedom Index ranks India 150th in the world. And as Foreign Policy readers may know, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, New Delhi has put in place policies that make life harder for the more than 200 million minorities who have lived in the country for decades.

Indian historian Ramachandra Guha, a popular biographer of Mahatma Gandhi, recently published in FP an essay titled “The Cult of Modi,” in which he described just how India’s leader has eroded democracy during his eight years in power. Guha points out that Modi has systematically weakened important pillars of democracy: the press, the judiciary, Parliament, even his own cabinet and party.

For years now, scholars in this magazine and elsewhere have tracked the decline of democracy in countries around the world. Markers for this reversal of people power include erosions of freedom of the press and human rights as well as the rise of leaders with authoritarian tendencies.

Discussions about a democratic recession are particularly important when it comes to India, a country that is technically the world’s largest democracy. On paper, it holds largely free and fair elections with lots of choices for voters in what is a decidedly chaotic multiparty system. Yet an array of global surveys indicates the reality is rather different. Freedom House downgraded India from “free” to “partly free” in its 2021 survey of civil freedoms. The World Press Freedom Index ranks India 150th in the world. And as Foreign Policy readers may know, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, New Delhi has put in place policies that make life harder for the more than 200 million minorities who have lived in the country for decades.

Indian historian Ramachandra Guha, a popular biographer of Mahatma Gandhi, recently published in FP an essay titled “The Cult of Modi,” in which he described just how India’s leader has eroded democracy during his eight years in power. Guha points out that Modi has systematically weakened important pillars of democracy: the press, the judiciary, Parliament, even his own cabinet and party.

But why, then, does Modi win elections at the federal and state level so regularly? Why is he the most popular elected leader in the world? Why do Indians keep voting for him if he is eroding democracy? And what does a less democratic India mean for the world? I put these and other questions directly to Guha in an interview on FP Live, the magazine’s forum for live journalism. Subscribers can watch the complete 35-minute interview on the video box above. What follows is a condensed and edited transcript.

Foreign Policy: I thought it would be instructive to begin with why Narendra Modi is so popular.

Ramachandra Guha: He’s been in public life since he was a teenager, first in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), then as chief minister of his home state Gujarat, and then as prime minister. So he’s very experienced. He’s an autodidact but incredibly quick at learning things. If a top-ranking economist had a conversation with him about monetary policy, he’d pick it up. He’s a brilliant speaker in Hindi—which is the most widely understood language in India—and, of course, in his native Gujarat. All of this makes him a very effective politician, certainly compared to [former U.S. President] Donald Trump and [former British Prime Minister] Boris Johnson. And he’s far more intelligent, shrewd, and effective than them, which makes him all the more dangerous.

FP: People often compare Modi with Trump or former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Why, in Modi’s case, are we wrong to make these comparisons?

RG: Comparisons with Bolsonaro or Trump are not plausible because they are essentially narcissists and demagogues. But a plausible comparison could be made with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Like Erdogan, Modi has invoked this idea of a glorious civilizational past, which Westernized Turks and Westernized Indians have deliberately suppressed or buried. Like Erdogan, Modi has emphasized religious majoritarianism. Another interesting comparison is with Russian President Vladimir Putin because the RSS is somewhat like the KGB. It’s a tightly knit, secretive organization that works hard at protecting its own interests. Like Putin, Modi has very few advisors he trusts. Where the comparison breaks down is that compared to Turkey and Russia, India is much more religiously and linguistically diverse, much more populous, and has a longer and more robust democratic tradition.

In some ways, it is much harder to do what Modi has done compared to what Erdogan did in Turkey or what Putin did in Russia because their institutions were already weak and underdeveloped. I don’t think India has any plausible claim to being the world’s largest democracy anymore.

FP: A lot of people in India say they voted for Modi once, twice, and that they’d vote for him again. He is easily the world’s most popular politician. He wins votes. Isn’t that democracy?

RG: Democracy is about much more than just elections. It’s about accountability between elections. Modi is very rarely in Parliament. The press is totally controlled, the bureaucracy supine. There’ve been attempts to politicize the judiciary and the military. The election commission is notoriously partisan. A mechanism of electoral funds is in place, where funding of political parties is secretive and 80 percent of the money goes to the ruling party.

Even elections aren’t that free and fair anymore. In many states, the [Bharatiya Janata Party] BJP lost power but then accused or bribed legislators from other parties to join it. Estimates of how much money is paid for a legislator to join the BJP are staggering. The fact that Modi has won two general elections and is likely to win a third [is not sufficient to call India a democracy]. Democracy is about accountability, transparency, and self-correcting mechanisms, which in India are totally eroded.

FP: You mentioned there is diminishing press freedom in India, but the response I often hear to that claim is that you can say and print what you want in India.

RG: Few people can say what they want. In the English-language media, there are few people like me. In India, the only independent English-language TV channel, NDTV, has just been taken over by a billionaire very close to Modi. They’ll showcase someone like me or [prize-winning novelist] Arundhati Roy, and in some ways, we are protected by our international reputation.

However, if you look at the everyday life of a reporter in an Indian newspaper writing in Hindi or Malayalam, if you look at attacks on newspaper journalists, if you look at killings of journalists reporting on such things as the sand mining mafia, there’s a reason we are ranked 150th in the Press Freedom Index.

Particularly in the electronic media, there is [nonstop] praise of Modi. Modi wrote an article last week about India assuming the rotating presidency of the G-20. Every Indian newspaper carried it. They had no option. Can you imagine [U.S. President] Joe Biden writing an article and [an Oklahoma county chronicle] having to carry it and the New York Times and the Washington Post and Time and CNN? It is a kind of absolute control [that the state has].

FP: In your piece in FP, the most worrying and surprising aspect of how you were describing the erosion of democracy in India was your point that even the judiciary has begun to show signs of kowtowing to the Modi government. What are the main markers you’ve seen?

RG: At the level of popular consciousness, the Modi regime has communalized the Hindu mind. It has made Hindus fearful about those who are not Hindus. It has stereotyped Muslims in particular as dangerous, evil enemies of the nation, and it has emboldened Hindu thugs on the street to use violence against religious minorities. This kind of consciousness permeates everyone. In a scuffle, the police takes the side of the religious majority. It’s not neutral. Lower court judges do not often give bail to Muslims. Even when it reaches the Supreme Court, there’s the inducement of handouts of retirement jobs. Chief justices are made members of Parliament or appointed as governor of a state. These are all ways in which you can make judges blind and complicit. Several judges have died in mysterious circumstances.

FP: When we look at the erosion of major different pillars of democracy, isn’t it important to lay blame at the door of the opposition, especially the Congress party?

RG: Absolutely. When the history of India’s democratic backsliding is written, it will attribute the decay, degradation, and even possible destruction of Indian democracy to four architects. Those would be Modi and his right-hand man [Home Affairs Minister] Amit Shah on one side, and [former Indian National Congress President] Sonia Gandhi and her son, Rahul Gandhi, on the other. They’re the joint architects of the dismantling of democracy. Rahul Gandhi is being rebranded afresh to challenge Modi in the 2024 elections. But young Indians are disgusted by entitlement. Rahul Gandhi is not just a fifth-generation dynast; he’s never had an administrative position. He refused a ministership when the Congress was in power because his mother felt he must become prime minister directly, as [her husband] Rajiv Gandhi had done. He is an indifferent orator. After 15 years as a member of Parliament, he still can’t speak fluent Hindi. And yet, Sonia Gandhi insists that only her son must lead the Congress into the next general elections despite the fact that in 2014 and 2019, he represented a grave handicap. In that sense, the Congress party has contributed to this decline and continues to contribute to this decline.

FP: Just coming back to Modi and his cult of personality, we haven’t yet fully reconciled why people keep voting for him. Are young Indians voting for Modi because they have no other choice? Or is his brand of leadership what they actually want?

RG: I think they’re voting for him partly because he exudes an aura of authority, of being in control, of being selfless because he has no family and he’s come up through his own hard work. They’re voting for him because of what I call the communalization of the mind, and [they see him as a] Hindu leader who is uncontaminated by Islamic, Christian, or Western ideas. They are also voting for him because there is no other option. And finally, because many of them are skeptical about the virtues of democracy and think one strongman can fix all their problems.

FP: What are the global ramifications of a less democratic India?

RG: Modi has had two lucky strikes. One is having Rahul Gandhi as his chief domestic opponent, and the other is the rise of China’s Xi Jinping. Firstly, no matter how much India’s democracy declines, it’s still much more democratic than authoritarian China. Secondly, because Xi Jinping has escalated the traditional rivalry between China and the United States, the West thinks it needs Modi as a bulwark against Xi Jinping and China. So for all the lip service that the [U.S.] State Department plays to human rights, they will never really question the abrogation of human rights in India so long as Modi is seen as a reliable, steadfast ally against a threatening and overbearing China.

FP: To end on a hopeful note, is there a book you’d like to recommend for people interested in reading more about India?

RG: On the 75th anniversary of Indian independence, I published a column where I recommended 50 of my favorite books about modern India.

Source: https://news.google.com/__i/rss/rd/articles/CBMiTmh0dHBzOi8vZm9yZWlnbnBvbGljeS5jb20vMjAyMi8xMi8xNC9pbmRpYS1kZW1vY3JhY3ktZGVjbGluZS1yYW1hY2hhbmRyYS1ndWhhL9IBAA?oc=5

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