The 2019 General Elections are unlikely to feel as epochal as the 2014 polls. This is in part because they are a sequel to a narrative that began five years ago. On one side is Narendra Modi, who in 2014 was sold as the man who would save India, but is now a politician whose biggest challenge will be staving off disappointment about his five-year tenure. On the other are, for the most part, the same people who were up against Modi in 2014, except that they might huddle in tighter this time around. But even if this year’s elections may feel less massive than 2014, the tenor and content of political discourse over the coming year will be tremendously significant for India.

One of the key trends of Modi’s tenure has been the undermining of the institutions that underpin India’s status as a successful South Asian republic and democracy, in a neighbourhood where few others can say the same. Modi’s government has focused on eliminating any obstacle that stands in the way of its agenda, from the judiciary to the Reserve Bank of India to the Election Commission to even the Central Statistical Office. Anyone who criticises the government is not accepted as a political or bureaucratic rival, but is deemed to be an enemy of the state. As commentator Santosh Desai put it, “The leadership of this government seems to believe that it can operate only in an environment of absolute dominance and unquestioned obedience.”

Not since former prime minister Indira Gandhi has a government so brazenly – and successfully – attempted to brush aside constitutional norms in service of its own goals, which it advertises as the desires of the Indian people. Research about how democracies turn into dictatorships can seem to chillingly reflect India’s current headlines. Take this observation by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, authors of How Democracies Die:

“Without robust norms, constitutional checks and balances do not serve as the bulwarks of democracy we imagine them to be. Instead, institutions become political weapons, wielded forcefully by those who control them against those who do not. This is how elected autocrats subvert democracy – packing and “weaponizing” the courts and other neutral agencies, buying off the media and the private sector (or bullying them into silence), and rewriting the rules of politics to permanently disadvantage their rivals. The tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy’s enemies use the very institutions of democracy – gradually, subtly, and even legally to kill it.”

In this sense, a second-term for Modi does indeed seem truly dangerous, especially with the right-wing ecosystem pushing for the Indian Constitution to be rewritten if the BJP does manage another majority. But even if this worst-case scenario does not materialise, there is little to be hopeful about in the coming year. The success of this current government has not just been electoral. It has also managed to set the terms of our debates, moving the centre well to the right.

So even if the Opposition pulls off an unlikely victory or if the BJP wins with a dented majority, India is unlikely to have a government that sets out to undo the damage inflicted on institutions, that recasts the discourse around the rights of the minorities and the disadvantaged, that factors in the impact of its actions on communities and the environment, that reimagines the relationship between the state and the individual.

Modi’s failure to deliver jobs, a booming economy and a new vision for what the Indian state should look like means the upcoming election also lacks a socio-economic narrative, outside of addressing the wrongs of his tenure. As social scientists Pratap Bhanu Mehta points out, key questions about what sort of a state India should be may not even be debated, even though they desperately need to be engaged with.

Ultimately, 2019 might simply be a question of damage control. There is little in the way of hope. But like climate change talks, one can hope that the elections and the governance that comes after them can at least put speed bumps in the way of India’s slide away from its position as a vibrant democracy. There is still plenty of vitality in the country and its vast youth still remain an asset. But for this to be channeled productively, India’s public discourse should offer a platform for a plurality of ideas to thrive and compete. The best-case scenario for the the next year, then, is for the democratic decline to be arrested while those with sharper, brighter visions of where India should go are given breathing space to develop their thoughts and bring them to the mainstream.