Rob Jenkins is a professor of political science at Hunter College, City University of New York, and coauthor of Politics and the Right to Work: India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, published next month by Oxford University Press.
India’s democracy has had a turbulent month. After leading his party to victory in a series of provincial elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appointed a militant purveyor of Islamophobia, Yogi Adityanath, to govern Uttar Pradesh, a state whose population of 200 million is 20 percent Muslim. Adityanath’s elevation is clear evidence that Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) no longer feels compelled to conceal its Hindu nationalist agenda behind bland campaign promises of “development” and “governance.”
Observers worry that the ongoing assault on secularism is combining with other trends to undermine the pillars of India’s liberal political order. Free speech and free inquiry face attacks on many fronts. Student groups affiliated with Modi’s BJP have used violence to break up university seminars on Kashmir and other topics deemed undebatable. Human rights activists and researchers are routinely harassed by police and officials. Charges of sedition have been brought.
Rule-bound governance is also under threat. Modi’s finance minister recently abused long-established parliamentary practice by cramming several far-ranging, and highly controversial, policy reforms into what he claimed was a standard budget bill. This was a brazen attempt to avoid scrutiny by parliament’s upper chamber, where the BJP is in the minority.
Such norm-defying behavior takes its toll. Over time, the foundations of even the most resolutely open society can decay. Some observers contend India has already joined the ranks of the “illiberal democracies,” countries where institutional checks on elected governments have been systematically eroded.
Not so fast. Prophets of political doom should take a deep breath. In the seven decades since India’s independence in 1947, its democratic institutions have repeatedly rebounded in the face of existential threats, including wars, insurgencies, economic crises, and a two-year state of “emergency” imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the mid-1970s.
A closer look at contemporary Indian politics reveals formidable mechanisms of democratic self-preservation at work. In fact, during the very week that Modi appointed Adityanath, two significant, if less headline-grabbing, events occurred that illustrate why efforts by powerful actors to subvert the rule of law will not go unchecked.
The first was a ruling by India’s Supreme Court, a bulwark against state impunity for decades. The court upbraided central and state government departments for failing to comply with a series of rights-based development laws passed by Modi’s predecessor that guarantee citizens access to education, employment, and food.
The ruling is significant beyond the material relief it will unleash. The court demanded that officials activate legally mandated accountability mechanisms designed to cultivate informed, engaged citizenship. Officials would have to subject a bigger share of welfare programs to “social audits” conducted by local people. Crucially, the court announced its intention to continue monitoring how the state fulfills its obligations to its most marginalized citizens. And the non-governmental group that filed the lawsuit has used the publicity surrounding the case to begin transforming itself into a political party dedicated to advancing the interests of the poor. All this suggests the continued existence and vitality of alternative power centers.
The second recent event of note was the seeming collapse of an ill-conceived $12 billon iron-and-steel project in the state of Odisha. South Korean conglomerate POSCO announced its willingness to return vast tracts of land acquired on its behalf by government agencies more than a decade earlier. It will take time for this deal to unwind, with uncertain consequences. But the project’s likely demise is an important political victory for indigenous communities and other people whose livelihoods and way of life have been under sustained assault by an unholy alliance between POSCO and the state government.
Subjected to intimidation and dispossession, anti-POSCO activists spent years forging a diverse and remarkably durable coalition. They have deployed an impressive range of protest tactics to wear down their opponents. Movement leaders deftly combined litigation with lobbying of policymakers inside India’s elite civil service, which for all its flaws can act as a brake on the arbitrary exercise of power.
Resistance to environmentally and socially destructive industrial projects has also emerged within local elected councils, which have been granted increased authority over land-related matters by laws such as the 2006 Forest Rights Act. The control that elected local councils now exercise over jobs programs and welfare benefits have made these once-marginal bodies increasingly important sites for political assertion, particularly among the rural poor.
There is ample reason to be alarmed about authoritarian tendencies in Indian politics. The centralization and personalization of power in the BJP is among the more chilling. But before affixing the “illiberal” label to this particular democracy, which may be ill but remains plenty liberal, we would do well to take stock of the formidable obstacles, institutional and political, that stand in the path of would-be autocrats. Rather than fostering complacency, awareness of these assets may suggest strategies for addressing the challenges that lie ahead.