On the 75th anniversary of independence for India, how much is there to celebrate?

Politics in India is much rougher and much more corrupt that in the democracies of Europe and North America. Assassination is not uncommon: the revered Mahatma Gandhi in 1948, the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984, and the Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 were all murdered, although it has to be noted that these were not really political assassinations which happen more at local level.

Communal, caste and regional tensions continue to haunt Indian politics, sometimes threatening its long-standing democratic and secular ethos. The language used by political candidates about each other is often vivid. Nevertheless, for decades, India was a poster child for democratic development: a poor, sprawling, ethnically diverse country that nevertheless had regular elections and peaceful transfers of power – the hallmarks of a functioning democracy – albeit with the flaws inherent in such a system, including a single dominant party.

The parliamentary scene has been transformed in the last eight years with the BJP winning an overall majority in both the elections of 2014 and 2019. The leader of the BJP Narendra Modi is a dominant figure who is both popular and populist. He is the first prime minister since 1971 to win majorities in parliament in back-to-back elections and a survey by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies found that nearly one-third of people who voted for the BJP last time did so in support of Modi, rather than the party or their local candidate.

But Modi is a divisive figure who has been accused of an increasing personality cult and a serious undermining of democratic institutions and practices. Writing in “The World Ahead 2022” published by “The Economist”, Ramachandra Guha – an historian and biographer – has declared: “In the seven years that Narendra Modi has been prime minister of India, he has not formally proclaimed a state of emergency – but then perhaps he has not needed to. For he has ruthlessly used the instruments of state power to undermine the functioning of democratic institutions. He has tamed the media (India is currently ranked 142nd on the World Press Freedom Index), set the tax authorities on his political opponents, and jailed dozens of human rights activists. He has also sought, with some success, to bring under his control previously independent institutions such as the army, the central bank, the election commission and the higher judiciary.”

In a March 2022 article in the “Observer” newspaper, Nick Cohen wrote: “Narendra Modi and the Hindutva right are turning the world’s largest democracy into the world’s ugliest democracy. Muslims are denied the security of full citizenship. The independence of the Indian courts, the civil service, the electoral system and the media has been horribly compromised as the Bharatiya Janata Party creates, if not a one-party state, then at least a state where only one party can win.”

This is the conclusion of my guide to the Indian political system which you can read here. I have visited India and you can read an account of my travels here.


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