India’s democracy faces a crisis unprecedented in its 75-year-old history. An ethnocratic imagination undermines the inclusive Indian nationalism that imbued its founding movement and that aims to consolidate its Hindu majority as the dominant ethnos.

Not only do religious minorities find themselves identified as internal enemies, but members of the historically oppressed Bahujan communities who do not conform to the image of a good Hindu are sought to be marginalised.

In recent years, the list of internal enemies has come to include liberals and leftists, activists who have raised issues of the environment and human rights, and anyone else perceived to be “anti-national”.

Dissent is muzzled, increasingly through official edicts. Old controversies over temples and mosques are reignited, as in Mathura and Varanasi over the last few months, where claims that mosques were built upon the demolition of temples have resurfaced.

Local compromises negotiated by Hindus and Muslims over centuries are challenged, and new religious flashpoints threaten to rent asunder the social fabric knitted together by India’s diverse communities.

India shares its democratic degradation with many other countries across the world. This process has been variously described as authoritarian, populist, ethnocratic, exclusionary and fascist. I have argued elsewhere that such moves signal India’s transition to an ethnocracy in which “a dominant ethnos gains political control and uses the state apparatus to ethnicise the territory and society in question”.

Ethnocratic states, such as Israel, Sri Lanka and Malaysia, frame policies that rigidify distinctions between social groups considered the core of the nation and groups considered peripheral and external to the nation.

To be sure, the dominant groups in ethnocracies value democracy – at least for themselves – and often take pride in their democratic institutions. But a polity based on the structural exclusion of a section of its population cannot reasonably be said to qualify as a democracy.

Recent events in India, which have triggered bodies such as Freedom House and V-Dem to rethink India’s status as a democracy, make it imperative for us to take seriously the category of ethnocracy when reflecting on India’s democratic decline.

A free and open Indo-Pacific

Despite the domestic erosion of democracy, India has managed to remain at the forefront of global efforts at upholding democratic principles. Indeed, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has gone on to extol India as the mother of all democracies, invoking the country’s heritage of participatory decision-making and checks and balances on royal authority.

India is a founding member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, simply known as Quad, alongside Australia, Japan and the United States. Members of the Quad are explicit in their commitment to a free, open, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region, thereby signalling their shared worries over China’s growing economic and military assertiveness in Asia and beyond.

Given the domestic erosion of democracy, India’s membership of the Quad is significant. The Quad is animated by visions of the Indo-Pacific, rather than Asia-Pacific, an idea first conceived in 2006-’07 as an expression of shared anxieties between India and Japan over China’s rising assertiveness in Asia and beyond.

With the United States becoming interested in exploring alliances in the context of its own competition with China, the term has now gained geopolitical significance. Despite varying interpretations, most considerations of the Quad are based on the imagination of the Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean as one contiguous area through which the majority of the world’s goods and energy supplies are transported.

Many observers perceive the Indo-Pacific as an alternative to the multi-trillion dollar Belt and Road Initiative that criss-crosses Eurasia. Former US President Barack Obama had outlined plans for an Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor during his second presidency.

Former US President Donald Trump too extended this vision when he declared his support for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific at the 2017 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation. Building on those early initiatives, US President Joe Biden last year committed to a free, open, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region in a rare op-ed in The Washington Post penned together with Modi, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

India’s membership despite the degradation of its democracy at home raised many eyebrows but has been accurately understood as western and Asian efforts to balance China’s rapid economic and military rise.

Within India, there appears no immediate or even longer-term threat of democracy being formally suspended in India. Modi does not tire of proclaiming India’s democratic lineage, unlike interwar European fascist demagogues who pointedly rejected democracy. The Bharatiya Janata Party has respected the mandate of the provincial elections they have lost since their 2019 spectacular re-election to power.

Modi has declared himself at the service of his people rather than proclaiming himself as the equivalent of a führer or duce –Italian for leader and what Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was referred to. Modi remains committed to the Hindutva ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. His BJP-led government is subjected to checks and balances by its ideological fount. Indeed, such checks and balances are likely to prevent even as charismatic a leader as Modi from assuming absolute power.

A mural ahead of the 2014 general election results, at the BJP's Ahmedabad office in May 2014. Credit: Reuters

Renewing Indian democracy

The hollowing out of India’s democracy, even as the country is at the forefront of efforts to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific, will not come as a surprise to those who observe the interplay of domestic politics and foreign policy.

After all, the Indo-Pacific received a fillip under Trump, not exactly a paragon of democracy in the US. Historically, Western countries have fought wars in the name of promoting freedom when they denied those same rights to racial minorities and colonised populations.

In the same vein, India’s western allies are likely to ignore the ongoing hollowing out of democracy within the country, given its crucial role in balancing China. India on its part is likely to cultivate its western allies in its own quest to contain China’s growing aggression in the neighbourhood and prevent localised religious flashpoints from degenerating into wider communal conflict.

The same imperative – of cultivating western allies – will also contribute to India not formally suspending democracy anytime soon.

The primary source(s) of renewing democracy in India, as elsewhere, therefore will be domestic. One such source lies in the arena of opposition political parties who have shown some success in containing the BJP’s aspiration to totally dominate electoral politics in India.

A national coalition of state-specific parties, such as the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu and Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi, could mount an electoral challenge to the BJP ahead of the 2024 parliamentary elections.

Another source is offered by social movements that could generate a groundswell of support for democratic values threatened by the present regime. Recent protests by farmers, civil society activists demanding the repeal of the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019, and students demanding the extension of affirmative actions in favour of India’s historically oppressed communities offer some rays of hope in this direction.

But to do this effectively, Indians must be cognisant of the crisis in which we find our democracy, despite enthusiastically championing it worldwide.

This article first appeared on Political Insight published by SAGE Journals.

Indrajit Roy is a Senior Lecturer at the University of York.