Ashutosh Varshney on India. Democracy in Hard Places

Ashutosh Varshney

Ashutosh Varshney is the Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences and Professor of Political Science at Brown University, where he also directs the Center for Contemporary South Asia. His chapter “India’s Democratic Longevity and Its Troubled Trajectory” appears in the forthcoming book Democracy in Hard Places.

Listen on SpotifyListen on AppleListen on Google Listen on Stitcher

Become a Patron!

Nehru is asked several times in those early years, ‘Aren’t you doing something which has never been done before? You are 17% literate. Half of your country is below the poverty line. Under such conditions no democracy has ever stabilize itself and perhaps has not emerged.’ And his argument repeatedly is that we shouldn’t be constrained by the history of the West.

Ashutosh Varshney

Key Highlights

  • How India defied early theories of democratization
  • The role of leadership in India’s early democracy
  • Why India returned to democracy after Indira Gandhi’s emergency?
  • The eerie similarities between India’s recent treatment of Muslims and the rise of the Jim Crow era in the American South
  • When will democratic backsliding in India become a democratic collapse

Podcast Transcript

Thank you for listening to the Democracy Paradox: A podcast on democracy, democratization, and world affairs. Each week we talk about big picture insights to better understand political issues and events. These are complex ideas that might be unfamiliar, so I always provide a complete transcript at 

Today’s guest is Ashutosh Varshney. Ashu is a Professor of Political Science at Brown University and the Director of the Center for Contemporary South Asia. But more than that he is one of the foremost scholars on democracy in India. I have been reading his articles on India in the Journal of Democracy for years and was excited to bring him onto the podcast. 

Now regular listeners already know this is also the third episode on Democracy in Hard Places. This series of episodes is largely based on a new book from Scott Mainwaring and Tarek Masoud. So, far we have discussed Indonesia and South Africa. But India is probably the earliest example of democracy in a hard place. It proved what was possible for many developing countries that followed in the third wave of democratization. 

But this still undersells India’s achievements. Think about it. India overcame religious, linguistic, and caste divisions to embrace universal suffrage after independence. It’s a remarkable accomplishment especially when you consider many states in the American South denied African Americans the right to vote until 1965. So, whenever we talk about democratic backsliding in India we should put it in context of its remarkable legacy of democratic achievements. Last week’s guest Evan Lieberman wrote something about South Africa that also applied to India. He wrote, “If it does come apart, it will be one of the great tragedies of the early twenty-first century, because its democratic order is surely one of the great accomplishments of the twentieth.” 

So, I hope this conversation emphasizes the importance of Indian democracy, but also recognizes the real setbacks under the leadership of Narendra Modi. Like always you can send any questions or comments to Here is my conversation with Ashutosh Varshney…


Ashutosh Varshney, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Ashutosh Varshney

It’s a pleasure to be here.


Well, Ashu, a lot of my conversations on India so far have focused on its challenges including a lot of the setbacks for its democracy under Narendra Modi and the BJP. However, I’d like to start today with a recognition of India’s accomplishments as a democracy. For a long time, India was an outlier among democracies. It didn’t fit a lot of the common theories of democratization. It wasn’t developed enough economically and the people were too diverse for democracy to thrive according to theories like modernization, for instance. But over time, it did prove that democracy was possible in hard places. So, Ashu, how did early scholars of democracy explain the presence of Indian democracy when it really didn’t fit any of their theories?

Ashutosh Varshney

So, that’s absolutely correct. Given the existing theories, it’s been an outlier, an exceptional case. The first recognition came from Barrington Moore in the late sixties and then quickly thereafter by Robert Dahl whom we regard in political science as the leading or at least arguably the leading scholar of democracy since the Second World War. Adam, Przeworski’s name would also have to be added to that list. There’ve been very influential, very original. Dahl in particular because he gave us the seminal ideas, the seminal ideas for theorizing about democracy.

So, there basically two arguments. One was a claim sometimes made explicitly and sometimes implicitly articulated that since India did not fit the conventional theories which were about socioeconomic conditions, level of income or class structure – Did it have a sufficiently large middle-class? No. Did it have sufficiently high income in the 1950s? No. It became a middle-income country only around 2005 or 2004. So, if it did not have these socioeconomic conditions viewed as conducive to democracy, then the residual in that area was perhaps leadership.

Now political science has not been able to analyze in a rigorous manner and several leading political scientists and others have recognized this. That we theorize about objective conditions, socioeconomic conditions, class structures, type of quality, type of representation system, etc. But we are unable to theorize about the impact of leaders on political outcomes. Robert Keohane has a famous essay on this, but he’s not the only one. Many others have written about the world of political activism. If you ask political activists what matters, they would always refer to leaders. What matters more than anything else? Leadership. You go to political scientists and talk about politics. What matters more than anything else? Socioeconomic conditions or the nature of institutions.

So, leadership is something that falls out of the typical analytic domain and if you see what Barrington Moore is saying, he’s hinting at that. That Nehru’s influence and the whole generation around him has perhaps been very salutary, has been very remarkable. Robert Dahl had another argument though he does say there is something very distinctive about Jawaharlal Nehru’s leadership and his commitment to democracy, his values, and his ability to make those values acceptable to the political class in general and a large section of the population. That’s what leadership does. It leads both the political class and the masses.

So, he hints at that, but he has one more argument which is about socioeconomic conditions which we should take note of. You talked about India’s widely noted pluralism and diversity. Dahl says paradoxically, he uses the term subcultural diversity, and says it might have hurt Indian democracy if India had not had subcultural diversity, but had subcultural dualism. So, he drew a distinction between plurality and dualism. What did he mean? He said, if you look at Sri Lanka, he was getting very, very pessimistic about Sri Lanka, where there are the Tamils and the Sinhala people. That’s the only cleavage available. Similarly in Malaysia, the only cleavage available is the Malays and the Chinese. He even argued that in American history whenever race becomes dominant, then it’s white versus black.

So, under subcultural dualism, the battles in politics become do or die battles. There is no refraction, if you will. But if you have subcultural pluralism, there’s lots and lots of groups that are there. Some linguistic which are very important. Some religious that are important. Race has not been an important issue in India. Caste, religion, language – They don’t cumulate in India. So, think of Tamils in Sri Lanka. They are racially distinct, they’re linguistically distinct and they are religiously distinct from the Sinhala people. So, this is a cumulative cleavage. Everything is cumulating. India’s Muslims may be religiously distinct from the Hindus, but they speak the language of the region. They don’t have an all-India language. They speak the language of the region and there are 15 odd languages in India which have more than 10 million people each.

So, of the two early ideas, one is the role of leadership which this particular volume in which my chapter appears pays a lot of attention to values of leaders. You can’t have democracy without democrats. You need commitments to democracy. You need those values of leaders. So, this particular volume was emphasizing that, Dahl hints at that and Barrington Moore and the early democracy scholars in 1960s hinted at that. But Dahl also points out that India’s radical cultural diversity might have helped because pressures kept getting refracted. There was no concentrated attack on the power of Delhi. Delhi could maintain order because there would be trouble in one region, but not all over the country. Trouble in another region, but not all over the country. Sometimes in religion, sometimes in language, sometimes in caste, but all of India did not burn simultaneously.


The point that you make about so many different forms of pluralism that exist in India is fascinating, because a lot of people think that homogeneity is necessary for democracies to thrive. Yet Dahl is saying the opposite. That the diversity that exists in India allows there to be so many different cleavages that there isn’t just this firm polarization between two different groups that tear apart the fabric of society.

But I want to step over and talk more about this idea of leadership, because in the mid-seventies Indira Gandhi enacts what’s called the emergency where democracy effectively takes a short hiatus and when it comes to a close and they bring back elections, she’s voted out of office. The people in India actually respond to it very negatively. If we were to consider the idea of leadership being the defining factor that holds Indian democracy together, I would think that Indira Gandhi’s leadership would have torn Indian democracy apart, because the people who stood up against her was effectively the rest of Indian society, the Indian voters. How do we explain how India emerged out of the emergency to reclaim democracy within this context of the importance of leaders?

Ashutosh Varshney

So, that’s an excellent question. Mrs. Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, did suspend democracy for roughly 21 months technically, 18 months to be more realistic, but formally, technically 21 months. So, she announced elections. Of course, she hoped she would win. She lost. She came back three years later. The problem was she did not know then when she lost that she would come back. So, she accepted her defeat and the opposition came to power. Then she routed the opposition three years later. So, her suspension of democracy was certainly driven by her own ambition to continue to stay in power. The challenges were very, very serious when she declared the emergency and she incidentally used constitutional clauses for that.

There is a constitutional clause which says under conditions of severe internal disturbance and emergency an internal emergency can be declared that can be used to suspend freedoms of expression. You can be detained without trial. Habeas corpus can be suspended. So, the entire opposition was jailed and freedom of press was taken away. It was challenged in court and the court actually supported her. So, what happened under the emergency was certainly a collapse of democracy, not an erosion of democracy. But a constitutional clause was used for that and it was legitimated by the judiciary. So, constitutionally, it was not wrong, but in every other sense it was wrong. It was a collapse of democracy for 21 months.

Now, as I say in this chapter by the mid 1970s, over two decades after the first election in India, it was no longer a question of values. Enough interests had developed which were attached to the continuation of democracy. Why do I say that? Because in several states they were running those governments at the state level. So, they developed these parties, which were regional parties, mostly, which had started running state governments and winning elections at the state level. These regional parties had developed a strong interest in the persistence of democracy. So, as soon as they were released from jail and the elections were held, they knew they had a great chance and they would win. So, they won and they formed a coalition. These are mostly state level parties with one exception.

They formed a coalition and they ran the government in Delhi for three years. Then they lost. Because of its various contradictions, this coalition came apart and they lost. So, it begins with strong commitment to democratic values by the first generation of leadership represented by Nehru, but he was not the only figure. I think this has to be understood that people around him at the summit of the polity also were committed to these values. The constitution was an expression of these values. The constitution came out of an assembly that deliberated what should be the constitutional dimensions of India’s polity that debated that for over two years before it came up with the constitution.

So, the constitution represented the values of the first-generation leaders. That is the beginning of the democratic experiment. These leaders lasted for quite some time. Nehru, for example, won three elections and he died only in 64. So, for 17 years, he was India’s prime minister with those values and a lot of people who fought for independence were around him and were his colleagues. So, it begins that way and then when Mrs. Gandy’s hammer on democracy falls then interests have already developed. Moreover, these interests who are benefiting from democracy and who will benefit from democracy start fighting back. As soon as they get an opportunity when she announces the elections, they push back and they win.

Then when Mrs. Gandy comes back to power, she has learned one thing. It will be very hard to suspend democracy any longer, because of what happened. So, the only option is to win an election and to continue winning elections free and fair and that’s how this great electoral bedrock of Indian democracy was first built and then consolidated.


It’s amazing how diverse that first generation of leaders was. You’ve already talked about Nehru as the first prime minister, who is obviously a giant in Indian history and Indian politics. But you also have well-known leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, somebody who’s very well known, but also BR Ambedkar. He’s somebody who’s oftentimes overlooked and just understanding the type of principles that he represented, the type of groups that he represented, helps explain why there are so many divergent interests that develop and that are willing to speak out for themselves by the time that we get to the mid-seventies, because you have a diversity of leaders like these giants of Indian history, the first generation of Indian Democrats.

BR Ambedkar is also known as the father of the Indian constitution and in the book, you write, “The constitution has become an institutional bedrock of India’s democracy.” The constitution comes up a lot whenever you talk about Indian politics. It’s such an important institution. It’s such an important document. What makes the Indian constitution so special?

Ashutosh Varshney

Let’s talk about what makes it so special for democracy. So, Ambedkar as the father of the constitution, though supported by a committee, he was the chair of that committee and clearly one of the biggest brains behind the constitution that emerged. Ambedkar clearly saw perhaps more clearly than most that democracy means at least two things. It’s meaning can be expanded, but at least two things must be satisfied. First only periodic elections can be the basis of government formation. There can be no nonelectoral basis of government formation. That’s clearly laid out in the constitution.

So, the first statement about elections appears as early as 1929. 1950 is when the constitution was adopted. It is debated from 47 to 49 and in 1950 is adopted. But the first idea is in 1929 right after a Britain gets universal franchise and it is still a British colony. Indian leaders are saying, ‘If Britain can get universal franchise, why can’t we?’ Now by the 1940s, people like Nehru are making very strong claims that each person in a polity has equal value regardless of their caste, gender, religion, linguistic ability, education, and literacy.

So, India was only 17% literate in 1947 and he argued that the 83% who were illiterate can know their interests and they can express their interests through the vote. ‘How can we sitting in Delhi, trained in English universities with degrees from Oxford, Cambridge, or India’s various universities – How can we say that we know their interests better than they do themselves?’ Therefore, they should have the right to vote and they will express their interests and their preferences, that way. So, that is argument number one: elections and universal franchise as the basis for government formation. That’s argument number one.

But Ambedkar also knew that once you have elected a government, you need some checks on its powers. It should not be unrestrained for five years until the next election. So, what should it be checked with or checked by? He argued the constitution therefore should have at least the following freedoms guaranteed. One, freedom of expression that cannot be taken away. Two, freedom of religious practice that cannot be interfered with. Three, freedom of association, not simply making political parties, but for people to form groups, and have the freedom to do so and organize protests rather than simply vote for political parties.

So, at least these three freedoms should be there, but then he added… and this has a very clear context because of the partition of India. Muslim majority areas became Pakistan and Hindu majority areas became India and religion was the basis for that. One of the claims of the father of Pakistan was that a Muslim minority would not be safe, secure, and happy in a Hindu majority India which also had universal franchise. How can 12% of India protect itself? So, that would be the Muslim minority. Before Pakistan was formed it would have been 25%. But he said, ‘Even how can 25% protect itself against 75%.’ So, Ambedkar made a famous argument. One, Hindu society has internal caste cleavages, so you shouldn’t talk about Hindu society as undifferentiated.

Two, even if it came together, overcame caste divisions and became a united Hindu block. Our constitution will protect minority rights. Minority rights cannot be taken away. Because in a Hindu majority polity where Hindus have elected a Hindu oriented government that cannot lead to Muslim rights going away, Christian rights going away, etc. We will protect those rights in the constitution. Finally, he also said there should be checks on the executive and the legislature and the biggest check will be the judiciary.

The judiciary will protect the constitution. It is not the job of the legislature to do so. It’s not the job of the executive to do so. They are all interested in aggrandizing power, in maximizing power, in grabbing power. It is the job of the judiciary to check such instincts on the part of the legislature and our executive. The judiciary will be the final protector of the constitution, therefore, the final protector of minority rights, therefore, the final predictor of freedom of expression, final protector of freedom of association, final protector of religious practice. Elections will not do that by themselves.

So, these two, if you think about this, one is a purely electoral dimension, then there is a nonelectoral dimension. He was clear about both and they are inscribed in the constitution. Both of these aspects. That’s why it is such a serious document and such an important document. Whenever governments go towards or embrace an excessive view of their powers: detention without trial; taking minority rights away; attacking civil society. Whenever governments have gone in that direction, that’s happening now, but whenever in the past, they’ve gone in this direction, the judiciary has come out often in support, not consistently, but often in support.

Especially after the emergency the judiciary was a very big protector of the constitution. So, first the judiciary approved bait emergency, but then after the emergency the judiciary consistently fought the predatory instincts of the executive and the legislature. That’s why it’s such an interesting document. It deals both with elections and what happens in those five years between them.


This comes across to me as very radical. I mean, on paper, a lot of these ideas already existed. People thought there should be universal suffrage. People thought that liberalism should be connected to democracy in different places. But in practice, it didn’t always happen that way. Like in the United States, in 1947, we still have the Jim Crow era in the American South. There’s still a lot of fear about allowing people who can’t read and write to be able to vote. At least to that extent, India feels like it’s taking these basic ideas about democracy and really pushing them to the limits as if to say we can make this work. What did Indian democracy teach the world about democratic values and democracy when it showed what was possible at this time?

Ashutosh Varshney

So, Nehru is asked several times in those early years, ‘Aren’t you doing something which has never been done before? You are 17% literate. Half of your country is below the poverty line. Under such conditions no democracy has ever stabilize itself and perhaps has not emerged.’ And his argument repeatedly is that we shouldn’t be constrained by the history of the West.

He did not know much about the United States of America. India did not know much about Jim Crow. I have been reading a lot about Jim Crow as of late and I’m writing about the Jim Crow South and the current democratic conditions in India. Whether there are any similarities or not. In fact, the world did not know about Jim Crow. America was not at the center of world attention. People came to know a lot about fascism and the attacks on minorities in Europe, but not what was happening to blacks in the 11 or 12 former confederate states. That was not known for a long time even after that.

So, I don’t think he was aware of that, but he was certainly aware of European history and the leaders around him. His colleagues were aware of Europe and they thought, to use a term from political theory, that politics cannot be viewed as endogenous to socioeconomic conditions. That there are some socioeconomic conditions which will stabilize democracy. Politics can be exogenous. Politics can create new conditions. So, the so-called Hobbesian view of politics. Politics in charge. Politics in command. Politics can create new structures. Politics can create new conditions and therefore to believe that European social conditions and their relationship with democracy will pertain to India is to not believe in the political possibilities that human agency can provide.

So, there was a clear and determined attempt to show that politics can be in command and can create new possibilities. Therefore, it should not be seen as either a prisoner of history or a prisoner of socioeconomic conditions. It can create new histories. It can create new conditions. So, with this resolve and with this understanding, they set about creating a democracy in very inhospitable conditions.

Dahl uses the term, ‘The most inhospitable conditions’ and Adam Przeworski uses this term also. ‘In perhaps the most inhospitable conditions Indian democracy survived’ and his statistical model said that the chances of surviving were as close to zero as you can imagine, as close to zero as you can imagine. Therefore, something has to be explained in a way which theories do not fully predict. That was the idea of politics in command, politics with this vision guiding it, and politics creating new structures, new possibilities, as opposed to feeling imprisoned by either history or socioeconomic conditions.


Do you feel that India is actually a hard place for democracy to thrive, especially at the time when they democratized in 1947, or do you think that we just didn’t understand what it takes for a democracy to thrive?

Ashutosh Varshney

I think it was a hard place to practice democracy. Because while I made an argument against the predominance of socioeconomic condition, I’m not making the case that there is relevance zero. No. So, under those conditions, practicing democracy was very hard and a commitment to certain values was required. An unwavering commitment which this first generation of leadership demonstrated. Incidentally, the book that we’re discussing, where my chapter appears also makes a very big argument about this, about the values of leaders and elites.

You can expand it to elites in general, but the most important part here is the value of political leadership. So, it was very hard and you can see that when values change as fundamentally as they have in the last few years, it can have a very, very negative impact on the functioning of democracy. So, I think we should begin to take the idea of values of political elites and their commitments extremely seriously once again.


So, Ashu, let’s go ahead and pivot and start talking about the current leadership under Narendra Modi. And I’ll be honest, most of the papers that I’ve read from you in the past all focus on the present-day state of India. So, I’m a lot more familiar on your views about where India is today and where it’s been headed. So, why don’t we just start with Narendra Modi? Can you explain how he’s different from some of India’s past prime ministers?

Ashutosh Varshney

So, first and foremost, he is a Hindu nationalist which no prime minister of India has been except Mr. Vajpayee between 1998 and 2004. We can talk about how the two Hindu nationalisms differ. Mr. Vajpayee was not an ideologue and there’s so much evidence for it. Many of us have written about it and he was in a coalition. The BJP, the Hindu nationalist party, was not in full control of the legislature. Mr. Modi is only technically and formally in a coalition. But he has enough seats in parliament to get rid of the coalition partners if he wants to do that. He has a majority in parliament and his parliamentary majority was further enhanced in the second election he won in 2019.

So, the clearest difference compared to the previous prime ministers is this commitment to an ideology which is actually unconstitutional. Hindu nationalism fundamentally says that Hindus of India, the majority community of India, owns the nation. This is the idea of Hindu supremacy which is very close to the idea of white supremacy in America. That other religions cannot claim equality with the Hindus. This is the original Hindu home land. Hindus, therefore, should have primacy in the way the polity is run, in the way the legal structure is run, in the way education is run, in the way the cultural artifacts of society are imagined and presented.

For example, in the way films are made. Now, the new ideological attack is on films of India, Bollywood, the biggest producer of films in the world. They should be making films on those periods of Indian history or those events of Indian history after independence where Hindus, if you will, were repressed. The idea in the earlier incarnation of a BJP led government under Vajpayee, basically some kind of Hinduization of the polity without changing laws, without using the machinery of the state to actively oppress minorities, some kind of Hinduization of the public space. That’s what it amounted to under Vajpayee. Under Modi, it’s now amounting to several things. One, change the laws. You have a parliamentary majority, so you can change the laws in favor of Hindus.

Two, use state machinery to express the dominance of Hindus. For example, if Muslims are caught eating beef (cows are sacred to many Hindus, not all, but many Hindus) they should be punished. Moreover, the police should be used for that and sometimes Lynch mobs can be used for that while the police watches. If Hindu women voluntarily want to marry Muslim men or want to date or court young Muslim men that should be stopped. Laws have been formulated in some states for that, but it’s a combination of laws, police, and vigilante action. All three combined. If Muslim girls want to wear a head covering, a hijab, while coming to school they should be stopped. That’s an expression of Islamic religiosity. But Hindu boys if they wear tilaka or Sikh boys if they wear a head covering that shouldn’t be stopped. That’s not the state acting neutrally.

So, these are a series of things. Some of them through laws, some of them through executive decrees, and then the use of state machinery to implement that. Then finally, the vigilante action that we have seen since 2014 is very similar to the vigilante action in the Jim Crow South where racial superiority of whites was imposed via laws, but also via vigilante action including lynching and the state governments look the other way when all of this happens. The local police look the other way, but sometimes participates.

So, something similar is happening in India which is very different from the earlier incarnation of Hindu nationalism which was simply about a certain Hinduization of the politics. But here we have laws, executive decrees, and vigilante action all coming together as a way to avenge the period of Muslim rule especially of North India That was a period of Hindu humiliation. Now the time has come to humiliate Muslims. So, righting the wrongs of history through films, through propaganda, through executive degrees, through educational curriculum, through mass mobilization. All of that makes this period very, very different from anything that has happened in post-1947.


So, this parallel that you draw between the Jim Crow era and the American South to the treatment of Muslims today is fascinating to me. I’ve had the same thought before, especially when I was reading Modi’s India by Christophe Jaffrelot in the way that he talks about the vigilantism. It definitely made me think back to stories that I’ve read about the Jim Crow era in the American South. And it’s not just the fact that there’s vigilantism. It’s also the fact that the institutions of the state, the political institutions, converged to allow a permissiveness of white supremacy to continue to terrorize marginalized communities specifically African Americans.

It’s not as simple as just saying that the laws were changed, because there were moments where vigilantism was clearly against the law. Moments where they were breaking laws when they did things. The Emmett Till trial is a perfect example where white supremacists killed an African American boy who came from Chicago and an all-white jury set those people free even though everybody who was reading about the trial didn’t understand. They felt this was just an open and shut case.

So, I see the same thing happening in India, where it’s not even necessary sometimes to change the laws. Even if somebody breaks the law, is clearly violating the law, if they’re doing it in a way that’s permitted within society, the police will look the other way. And even if the police don’t look the other way, the courts might look the other way. All of these different institutions work together and converge to be able to allow the oppression of marginalized groups within that society.

Ashutosh Varshney

That is fundamentally correct, but let me introduce a couple of points there. The Jaffrelot book talks about India becoming an Israel. It’s imprecise conceptually in the follow way. Israel started as a Jewish state. It’s not that Palestinian rights are being taken away now. India did not start as a Hindu state. India started as a state where every religious community was equal. For historical circumstances which all of us understand too well that’s not how the Israeli state was born. Now it has maintained elections and it has allowed Arab parties to function. It has Arab doctors and teachers and all of that. But the nature of the polity, the fundamental nature of the polity, is of a Jewish polity and once you accept that then rights can be discussed. That’s not how India began. That’s incidentally how Pakistan began as a Muslim polity where minorities could live.

Therefore, if you think of the Jim Crow South that’s a better analogy. Why? Because by the 14th amendment, blacks got civil rights, civil equality, and by the 15th amendment they got equal franchise, universal male franchise. The data suggests that as early as 1874 in most ex-Confederate states 80-85% of blacks had registered. Now they couldn’t take away black voting rights by saying that blacks don’t not have the right to vote. That was not possible after the 15th amendment. But by introducing literacy as a criteria by introducing poll taxes they essentially reduced 84-85% black registration in 1873-74 to 5-7% registration by 1905 by which time Jim Crow had institutionalized.

Now, if you look at India today, Muslim voting rights have not been taken away. Electorally India continues to be a vibrant democracy, because elections are generating victory after victory for Mr. Modi except in 11 states. All 28 states are not under his control. Seventeen are, but these are very big victories. Now, a law has been introduced in parliament in December which said that migrants or refugees from surrounding Muslim majority countries can come to India and become citizens except Muslim refugees. For the first time in India post-independence history, a religious exclusion has been made from citizenship.

Then there was this idea that there should be a national registry of citizens. There were so many protests that they didn’t go through with this idea. But what would a national registry of citizenship do? If you don’t have the right document, (they haven’t even explained what documents will be necessary to prove your citizenship), then you lose your citizenship. And if you lose your citizenship and you are a Hindu, there are ways in which even when you don’t have the documents you can get citizenship. Muslims cannot and that will be the beginning of disenfranchisement of Muslims. It could be something like 50% of Muslims would lose their voting rights if they ceased to be citizens. They would get something or the other from the state, but loss of citizenship will mean loss of voting rights. That is a very Jim Crow kind of outcome.

That is possible, not certain. But that is what the Modi regime was trying to do. If they win again in 2024, they may be able to do that. But it’s not yet certain. So, in other words, this is more a Jim Crow story than an Israel story. That’s why the Jim Crow parallel is interesting. In one way, however, it’s different. Blacks never ruled the American South and Muslims did rule much of North India, much of Western India and much of Eastern India. That is a very big difference. That generates very different kinds of political currents. But once you take that particular distinction away, the idea that Muslims should be disenfranchised just as blacks were, then there is a lot of similarity in the way Indian politics are evolving today and in the way politics evolved in American South after 1870.


I just want to emphasize what an enormous step that would be. It’s just a crossing of the Rubicon to move away from universal suffrage when that is one of the founding principles of India itself in 1947. In the chapter in this book that we’ve been referencing, you write, “India after 2014 is not a case of democratic collapse, but one of democratic erosion or democratic backsliding.” You make the case that India is still an electoral democracy and some people might even consider that a contentious statement, because Freedom House has already downgraded India to partly free. V-Dem has downgraded them to an electoral autocracy. I don’t want to debate the definition, but what I do want to ask you when does backsliding democratic backsliding become a democratic collapse?

Ashutosh Varshney

So, my claim is closer to the Freedom House claim. So, Freedom House has called India a semi-democracy or a flawed democracy. I don’t remember the exact phrase, but it’s not calling India an electoral autocracy. The two claims are different. Freedom House is saying India’s elections are working fine. They are generating an outcome. You may not like. They are generating an outcome namely victories after victories for the BJP and Narendra Modi. But my claim is not that India’s elections are being stolen. No. India’s elections are generating an outcome that I do not like, but they are nonetheless producing real victories for Narendra Modi.

But it’s the nonelectoral dimensions where the onslaught is unmistakable: freedom of expression, freedom of religious practice, freedom of association and the attempt to push back judicial controls. Judicial oversight is also clearly tenuous. Now, of course, the judiciary, if it bows down under pressure and continually bows down, then I think there will be a Hindu national state or very serious flaws, because the judiciary is the protector of the constitution and India’s constitution does not allow Hindu nationalism. India’s elections are allowing Hindu nationalism today. But not India’s constitution. So, you’re getting a clash between the electoral side of democracy and a larger constitutional side of democracy. You’re getting a clash. If you will, it’s democracy versus democracy. It’s a clash within democracy.

So, that’s why I’m closer to Freedom House. Moreover, I don’t think it’s electoral autocracy, because BJP governments at the state level have been thrown out. They’ve been outvoted. They’ve been outvoted in Madhya Pradesh. They were out voted in Rajasthan. They were outvoted in Chhattisgarth. They were out voted in one of the most important states of India, Maharashtra, where city of Bombay is, India’s financial heartland. The biggest financial powerhouse of India is the city of Bombay. The city of Bombay’s in the state of Maharashtra. In Maharashtra, the BJP ran and they lost. So, I don’t think the principle of electoral accountability has disappeared. Therefore, India shouldn’t be called an electoral autocracy.

It is a serious democratic erosion and democratic backsliding. But to answer your pointed and good question, when elections cease to be meaningful, India will have a democratic collapse not simply a democratic erosion. Elections have to cease to have meaning. Elections have to be either suspended or manipulated in a manner that suggests that was not the electoral verdict. Stolen. Manipulated. Fixed. That’s not what’s happened. In many states the BJP has not been able to make headway. The fact that it has been in control in Delhi now for eight years does generate the impression that it controls all of India. No, it does not control all of India. And when it does control all of it. Then I think we may want to revisit this question. But in any case, even then we’ll have to show that elections have ceased to be meaningful. That they are not expressing the popular verdict.


So, we started out with a very optimistic conversation about what Indian democracy has meant to the world and how it began. Things kind of turned pessimistic when we began talking about where things have been heading, especially under Narendra Modi. Although I do feel that this faith in Indian elections, this idea that Indian elections have continued to be meaningful, does give us some room for optimism. But I do want to end this conversation by getting a sense of where you think Indian democracy is headed. Are you optimistic or are you on the whole pessimistic?

Ashutosh Varshney

I would have to say I’m pessimistic at this point. I can tell you how a democratic revival can take place. I can outline those conditions. But after all is said and done, Hindu nationalism derives its power today from its electoral legitimacy, from its election victories. That’s how it derives its power. We don’t see any all-India level political formation today challenging the BJP in elections all over India. In states, yes. But not all over India. Until that coalition is formed, until that fight is launched, I think BJP will win elections at the central level which is the most powerful. So, yes, at this point, we can say that Mr. Modi and the BJP are odds on winners of the next election less than two years away and that through sheer power of electoral vote will seek to undermine the constitutional proprieties.

The most important actor would then become the judiciary and the reason for my pessimism now is that I don’t know which way the judiciary would go. If I had been sure about how the judiciary would behave, how it would continue to fight as it did between 1977 and 2014, let’s say, then I would be more optimistic. The other issue is international opinion. Civil society has been decimated, so that can’t be the force for change. Electoral politics can be. As I said there is no all-India alternative emerging yet and if it emerges, then we can be more hopeful. Then the judiciary as I said. Those are the three and then the fourth is international opinion.

Now international opinion can be broken into two parts. Newspapers, podcasts, what they’re saying is all negative now virtually everywhere. They’re negative. But the more important thing for this government is what foreign governments say as opposed to what newspapers say, what democracy forums say, what international civil society organizations say. It doesn’t care about Amnesty international. It doesn’t care about the Journal of Democracy unless Foreign Affairs and Journal of Democracy and Amnesty International can have an impact on the White House and the Department of State.

So, let me give you an example. The national spokesperson of the BJP ten days ago abused the Prophet Muhammad. She is not a fringe player. She is the national spokesman who is supposed to represent the BJP in television debates and various other public forums. She represented the party. Three days ago starting with Qatar, then UAE, then Bahrain, then Saudi Arabia, then Kuwait, they officially at the governmental level protested and publicly protested. What did the government do yesterday? The Indian government suspended two of their spokesmen, expelled one spokesman and suspended the other, and officially put out a statement that India’s polity, India as an Indian government, is governed by India’s constitution which provides religious equality.

No religion can be insulted under Indian laws. America’s first amendment protects that kind of speech. India’s first amendment does not. The law is very clear. If you insult a religious figure, if you insult a religious community, the laws can put you in jail on the grounds that such statements would undermine public order. So, at this point, 15 Muslim majority nations have expressed officially and publicly their disapproval of what happened in India and the BJP government literally for the first time has bowed to international pressure. Now is this tactical? Will they find some other way of doing exactly what they were doing? Most probably this is what will happen. They will make sure that profits are not insulted, but anti-Muslim policies continue.

The issue then will be what will the powerful governments in the world say about India’s majoritarianism, India’s Hindu supremacy, India’s attacks on its minorities. India does have an ambition of playing a bigger role on the world stage and that ambition can come into conflict with very negative opinions expressed publicly by powerful governments. I don’t think The New York Times or Foreign Affairs or Journal of Democracy or Washington Post or Financial Times can do it. It will be governmental power expressed in the international arena against India’s rising Hindu supremacy and its anti-minority repression. So, I’ve laid out for you the variables.

I don’t think Washington will go too much against India because Washington needs India against China. A very important segment of that worldview that is emerging in Washington is the so-called Indo-Pacific built around a core which is Japan, Australia, the United States, and India all trying to contain China. Because of that Washington and London and European capitals will probably not go too far against India’s majoritarianism. So, let’s see where all of this goes. But as you can see the variables that I think can check rising Hindu majoritarianism, rising Hindu supremacy, I’m saying those variables are not generating optimism right now without saying that this story has reached its conclusion.


Well, Ashu, thank you so much for joining me today. Last week I was talking with Evan Lieberman about South Africa and he makes the case that South Africa is just one of those very important countries for how we think about democracy in the world and I think India without question is one of those countries that’s very important beyond India. It is very important for how people in other parts of the world think about democracy. So, I think all eyes are watching on India to see how things unfold, because it has an importance that extends beyond its borders. So, thank you so much for joining me. And thank you so much for your continued contributions on the topic.

Ashutosh Varshney

It was a pleasure to join you. Thank you.

Key Links

Modi Consolidates Power: Electoral Vibrancy, Mounting Liberal Deficits” by Ashutosh Varshney in Journal of Democracy

Learn more about Ashutosh Varshney at

Follow Ashutosh Varshney on Twitter @ProfVarshney

Democracy in Hard Places edited by Scott Mainwaring and Tarek Masoud

Democracy Paradox Podcast

Dan Slater on Indonesia

Christophe Jaffrelot on Narendra Modi and Hindu Nationalism

More Episodes from the Podcast

More Information

Democracy Group

Apes of the State created all Music

Email the show at

Follow on Twitter @DemParadox

100 Books on Democracy

Leave a Reply

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: