India’s Election: Cracks Start to Show in Authoritarian Rule

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Credit: Himanshu Sharma/picture alliance via Getty Images

LONDON, Jun 7 2024 (IPS) – India’s Hindu nationalist strongman Narendra Modi has won his third prime ministerial term. But the result of the country’s April-to-June election fell short of the sweeping triumph that seemed within his grasp.

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has shed seats compared to the 2019 election, losing its parliamentary majority. Modi remains prime minister thanks to coalition partners. It’s a long way from the 400-seat supermajority Modi proclaimed he wanted – which would have given him power to rewrite the constitution.

The outcome may be that Modi faces more checks on his power. If so, that can only be good news for those he’s consistently attacked – including civil society and India’s Muslim minority.

Modi’s crackdown

Under Modi, in power since 2014, civic space conditions have deteriorated. India’s election was accompanied by the usual headlines about the country being the world’s largest democracy. But India’s democracy has long been underpinned by an active, vibrant and diverse civil society. Modi has sought to constrain this civic energy, seeing it as a hindrance to his highly centralised and personalised rule.

Modi’s government has repeatedly used repressive laws, including the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, to harass, intimidate and detain activists and journalists on fabricated charges. Law enforcement agencies have raided numerous civil society organisations and media companies. In October 2023, for example, police raided the homes of around 40 staff members of the NewsClick portal and detained its editor.

This was one of many attacks on media freedoms. Independent journalists routinely face harassment, intimidation, threats, violence, arrests and prosecution. Last year, the government banned a BBC documentary on Modi, followed by tax investigation raids on the corporation’s Indian offices.

The authorities have also used the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act to block access to international funding for civil society organisations, targeting those critical of their attacks on human rights. In 2020, the government amended the law to make it even stricter, extending powers to freeze bank accounts. Since the start of 2022, the authorities have cancelled registrations of almost 6,000 organisations.

The authorities have also unleashed violence against protesters. In 2019, citizenship legislation created a way for undocumented migrants to become Indian citizens – but only if they weren’t Muslim. Despite India’s secular constitution, the law introduced religious criteria into the determination of citizenship. The passage of this discriminatory law brought tens of thousands to the streets. Security forces responded with beatings, teargas and arrests, accompanied by internet shutdowns.

It was the same when farmers protested in 2020 and 2021, believing new farming laws would undermine their ability to make a living. The farmers ultimately triumphed, with Modi repealing the unpopular laws. But several farmers died as a result of the authorities’ heavy-handed response, including when a minister’s car ploughed into a crowd of protesters. Once again, the authorities shut down internet and mobile services, and police used batons and teargas and arrested many protesters.

As the new citizenship law made clear, those who have least access to rights are the ones most under attack. Muslims are the BJP’s favourite target, since it seeks to recast the country as an explicitly Hindu nation. The party’s politicians have consistently stoked anti-Muslim hatred, including over the wearing of hijabs, interfaith marriage and the protection of cows – a revered animal in Hinduism.

Modi has been accused of spreading anti-Muslim hate speech and conspiracy theories, including on the campaign trail. During the election, he called Muslims ‘infiltrators’ and alluded to India’s version of a narrative often advanced by far-right parties – that a minority population is out to replace the majority through a higher birthrate and the conversion of partners.

The BJP’s populist rhetoric has encouraged hatred and violence. In 2020, Delhi saw its worst riots in decades, sparked by violence at a protest against the citizenship law. Groups of Hindus and Muslims fought each other and 53 people were killed, most of them Muslims.

Top-down institutional violence followed the unilateral revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special autonomous status in 2019. The removal of constitutional protections for this Muslim-majority region was accompanied by a military occupation, curfew, public meeting ban, movement restrictions and one of the world’s longest-ever internet shutdowns. Indian government authorities have detained thousands of Kashmiri activists and criminalised countless journalists.

Disinformation thrives

Ahead of the election, the state detained key opposition politicians such as Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and froze opposition bank accounts, including of the main opposition party, Congress. Almost all politicians investigated by the government’s Enforcement Directorate are from the opposition.

Indian elections always take several weeks, given the huge logistical challenge of allowing up to 969 million people to vote. But this one, spread over 82 days, was unusually long. This allowed Modi to travel the country and make as many appearances as possible, representing a campaign that put his personality front and centre.

Disinformation was rife in the campaign. BJP politicians spread claims that Muslims were engaged in what they called a ‘vote jihad’ against Hindus, accompanied by accusations that the opposition would favour Muslims. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi was a particular target, with false allegations of links to China and Pakistan and doctored videos in circulation.

But despite the many challenges, the opposition coalition performed better than expected. The result suggests at least some are tired of the Modi personality cult and politics of polarisation. And for all the BJP’s attempts to emphasise economic success, many voters don’t feel better off. What matters to them are rising prices and unemployment, and they judged the incumbent accordingly.

It’s to be hoped the result leads to a change in style, with less divisive rhetoric and more emphasis on compromise and consensus building. That may be a tall order, but the opposition might now be better able to play its proper accountability role. Modi has lost his sheen of invincibility. For civil society, this could open up opportunities to push back and urge the government to stop its onslaught.

Andrew Firmin is CIVICUS Editor-in-Chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.