India’s Despotic Election

The playing field is tilted decisively in favor of the ruling party. The chances of an electoral upset have not been eliminated, just sharply minimized.

Illustration Insert by despardes.com

Debasish Roy Chowdhury at Project Syndicate: Those monitoring the health of democracy around the world are unanimous in their bleak prognosis of India under Modi. Freedom House describes India as only “partly free,” and the V-Dem Institute in Sweden has, since 2018, categorized it as an “electoral autocracy.” In its 2024 Democracy Report, V-Dem singles India out as “one of the worst autocratizers lately.”

From Russia and Hungary to Turkey and (until recently) Poland, a common pattern of the twenty-first-century autocratizers is that, unlike textbook authoritarians, the new despots cunningly stop short of destroying or fully dismantling democracy. Recognizing the legitimizing power of democracy, they use its processes to rise to power, often through polarizing identity politics. Once in office, they then move to capture or hollow out democratic institutions – including the judiciary and independent media – that otherwise might serve as a check on their majoritarianism. Modi’s decade in power has offered a masterclass in this process.

It is often said that democracy’s greatest advantage over other forms of government is its built-in capacity to self-correct. In theory, regularly scheduled elections ensure accountability for incompetence, corruption, and misrule; and in the meantime, the force of public opinion restrains the arbitrary exercise of power. But in the real world, the vulnerability of democratic institutions means that elections can be reduced to raucous rituals that merely reaffirm the power of the incumbent ruler. Voting choices can be manipulated through the force of money. Opposition candidates can be subdued through state organs (like tax-enforcement authorities). And citizens can be deprived of the independent, objective information that they need to evaluate the government to decide whom to vote for. When this happens, elections no longer serve as a check on creeping despotism; they enable it.

Indians tend to fetishize elections, which now wholly define their self-imagination as a democratic society, obscuring other institutional necessities. The carnivalesque quality of the world’s biggest electoral process hides a bitter truth: this year’s elaborate exercise in offering the franchise to 970 million people has all the hallmarks of a despotic election. The voting is not overtly rigged (as in Russia’s farcical polls), but the playing field is tilted decisively in favor of the ruling party. The chances of an electoral upset have not been eliminated, just sharply minimized.

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