Is India Still a Democracy? Rahul Verma Emphatically Says Yes

Rahul Verma

Rahul Verma is a fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. He is also Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science, Ashoka University. Recently, he wrote “The Exaggerated Death of Indian Democracy” in the recent Journal of Democracy.

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India should be understood as a test case of democracy outside the Western world.

Rahul Verma

Key Highlights

  • Introduction – 0:44
  • India’s Democracy Paradox – 2:24
  • Reconciling Illiberalism – 15:54
  • Sources of Indian Democratic Deficits – 20:02
  • Overstating and Understating Indian Democracy – 30:50

Podcast Transcript

Is India still a democracy? This was the subject in a recent symposium in the Journal of Democracy. It’s also a subject I hear discussed among many scholars of democracy. A few years ago the Varieties of Democracy labeled India as an electoral autocracy. Since then many scholars I admire and respect have taken different sides on the issue. 

Rahul Verma argues India is still a democracy. His article is called, “The Exaggerated Death of Indian Democracy.” He argues Indian democracy is not as bad as many say and has even improved in some ways .

I reach out to Rahul, because I wanted to hear his perspective. He is a fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. He’s also not a cheerleader for the BJP. But he does make a case that is much more optimistic about India than we typically hear. Still, I press him hard on some of his claims, because I genuinely wanted to hear his response. On the whole, I think it’s one of the more interesting conversations. 

Now before we start, I want to give a quick thanks to Stan Masters and Mia Suzuki for putting together the episode transcript. Like always you can send questions or comments to But for now… Here is my conversation with Rahul Verma…


Rahul Verma, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Rahul Verma

Thank you so much, Justin, for having me.


I thought your article in the recent Journal of Democracy, “The Exaggerated Death of Indian Democracy,” was quite fascinating because it definitely cuts against the grain of a lot of the conversations that we have in the democracy community about India. You make some really interesting insights here. You write, “The BJP-dominant party system is marked by a paradox. Indian democracy is expanding and deepening on some counts and shrinking on others.” This podcast has gone in depth with a lot of different scholars about how Indian democracy is shrinking. So, what I’d like to do is start with an understanding of what ways democracy is deepening in India.

Rahul Verma

I would say that there are scholars who have actually noted the distinction between India’s electoral democracy and liberal democracy and what they are arguing is that India is doing well or robust on the electoral democracy front, but the liberal elements of Indian democracy are under siege. But even those who identified the electoral democracy front, have just stopped at saying elections are fine. They are competitive. The BJP is winning and losing elections, so there is electoral vibrancy. What I wanted to underline is that behind this electoral vibrancy we are also witnessing certain paradoxes. It’s not just a vibrancy from elections, it’s a widening and deepening in certain respects.

In what sense is it widening or deepening? Basically, the turnout rates in India have been increasing. India does not have a compulsory voting system. Turnout rates, which were somewhere around 58-59% in the early 2000s, in 2014, when BJP and Modi came to power for the first time, actually jumped by six percentage points. In 2019, the turnout again jumped by two and a half percentage points. Overall, the turnout is increasing. India used to have a large gender gap, meaning that women were less likely to turn out. That gap was shrinking, but by 2014 and 2019, that gap has now narrowed down to 0.0%. Basically, in some cases, women have started turning out in larger numbers than men. More people are contesting, more parties are contesting, so it’s expanding.

The deepening is happening as representation in the cabinet has widened. Now you have many more segments that are getting ministries and ministry representatives. Both the president of India and the last president of India come from very marginalized communities. I can quote other examples. Now one side can make the argument that this is all symbolism and there is nothing substantive about it. But if it’s happening at so many levels, can we simply just dismiss it? Should we not acknowledge this expansion and try to understand why this is happening? What this might be doing to our party politics and what this might be doing to our democracy?


I think there’s no better example than Modi himself. He’s a member of the OBCs, the Other Backward Classes. It’s important because in the past, the Prime Minister has oftentimes come from the Brahmin class and that’s most exemplified by the Indian National Congress and the Gandhi family. It’s this paradox where India is becoming more illiberal in many ways, but at the same time it seems to become more open to participation from different groups that were somehow not formally kept out of power, but informally kept out of power. That’s something that I’ve been trying to grapple with and struggled to really put my head around just with the way that participation has evolved in India in recent years, especially under the BJP.

Rahul Verma

I wouldn’t fully agree with this painting of India becoming an illiberal democracy. Of course, there are certain elements within our democracy which are not going well, but have we reached the stage where we can call Indian democracy an illiberal democracy? I don’t know. I’m not saying no, but one will have to give me more concrete evidence to say that this is the baseline and this is the inflection point where we should call it an illiberal democracy. Both those who argue that Indian democracy isunder siege or those who say it’s not would agree on certain components.

First, we all agree that Indian democracy has never been perfect. It’s not to say that the society by large is futile, Indians show anti-democratic attitudes, and India has a caste system which is anti-democratic in its essence. Think of it like a large polity, a continent-size polity, very poor, that has been ravaged by 200 years of colonialism, was partitioned along the lines of religion. With such a diverse society governance is always going to be a challenge. There is always going to be multiple demands on the state and any party which will come to power will be juggling to cater to all kinds of demands and that has also produced some imperfections of democracy.

What I wanted to indicate from my piece, and some others have also alluded to it, is that India should also be understood as a test case of democracy outside the Western world: How it has survived despite all doomsday predictions that the grand experiment of India developing as an electoral democracy is surely going to fail; how India will fragment into pieces. We have survived that with our imperfections. I want to acknowledge all imperfections.

Second, I’m not going to say that there are not elements within our democracy which I, as a citizen of this country, should be concerned about. I can list many of them. Indeed, many multi-ethnic societies are also going through that kind of problem. Where I disagree with the current scholarship is that we jump to labels too quickly and too soon. Maybe they’re able to see something which I’m not able to see, so they can see something might happen in the future and there are elements present of it. But then it has to be written that yes, there’s enough evidence that indicates five years down the line, 10 years down the line, or two years down the line, things will go off the mark.


You mentioned how important Indian democracy is because it has a post-colonial tradition. People have expected the demise of Indian democracy since its beginning, and yet Indian democracy has survived for over 70 years now. I firmly believe that part of the reason for so much criticism of India as a democracy is due to the fact that it’s one of the most important democracies in the world. It’s really the second most important democracy after the United States, which again, is another democracy that receives an incredible amount of criticism about itself. At the same time, a lot of the criticism about Indian democracy comes from outside of India. It comes from the West. I’d like to ask you, what does the West, what do people in the United States and Europe, most misunderstand then about Indian democracy?

Rahul Verma

That’s a hard question to answer for two reasons. One, I don’t want to say all the criticisms come from the West- scholars based in India, civil society actors based in India, scholars of Indian origin teaching and working in Western universities- there is a range of people who have been critical of Indian democracy and I think any active citizen should be always reflective of its democracy because we can all agree there’s no perfect democracy. Perhaps in Francis Fukuyama’s writing you get that Denmark was perfect for a certain period of time. But democracies are always a work in progress. I think if you ask me what we miss, and I don’t want to say it’s Western scholars, even we in India, I think fail to acknowledge the complexity of just running this system.

I’m not saying India is great, I’m saying India is unique in certain respects and you need to understand that uniqueness, the challenges that we have. Unless you are empathetic about those challenges, I think the criticism then looks like being judgmental. My request and plea is to be reflective and reflective from an empathetic standpoint, rather than trying to tell us how things should be and what our comparison yard should be. Our comparison yard should always be first us and how we can be better tomorrow from how we were yesterday. Then the second comparative yard should be other countries and what we can learn from them.


At the same time India is a role model for a lot of developing countries who are aspiring to become a democracy. To simply say that India should only be compared against itself- a lot of countries are comparing themselves against India and are looking to India for inspiration, especially countries that have ethnic challenges, that have so much different diversity among religion, among ethnicity, and are trying to find a road to democracy. Is it completely fair to say that India should only be judged against itself?

Rahul Verma

No, Justin, that should be the first yardstick comparison. Then you should also be looking for inspiration from other countries with good systems. You should learn from those systems and sometimes even from their mistakes, which is very, very important. If you want to become role models for others, of course, you should also have role models for yourself. So, when I’m saying India has to be compared with its own past and its own future, even in these 70 years of India being an independent nation state, on the same questions at different moments of time we have succeeded, and at different moments of time we have failed on the same question.

For example, India’s northeast has been a challenge. India managed to make great strides in being able to bring these territorial areas into the mainstream body politic in the 1990s and 2000s and now there are again tensions rising up. This is to say that we need to learn from what we were doing right at those moments and what we are doing wrong at this moment and all the gains that we made in these 20 years. That’s not at all to say that in those 20 years, the integration of northeast India was perfect. Perfection is something which I think we all just chase. We never reach it. Because of its uniqueness, one has to first look within. If your gaze is only going to be from outside of India, then perhaps you’ll be missing the picture.


That’s completely fair. Of course, the way that you described it, that India has had its bright spots and its not so bright spots, is very similar to the United States. Throughout its history the US has had challenges and it’s had moments where we were not at our best, and we’ve had moments that demonstrated the best parts of our character. So, the experience of India in a lot of ways is not completely different from other countries.

Rahul Verma

You are absolutely right when you are comparing India against the United States, but in that comparative scale, Huntington wrote long ago about three waves of democratization. If you go by the Huntintonian logic, we’re in the midst of a global recession of democracy. I don’t know whether you have come across any piece on India’s democratic backsliding, which argues about external factors. There was some consensus that the present slumps are also being formed because of the external pressures in the system. But India’s Democratic backsliding is being reduced to one party in power.

The scholarship is missing what external factors, and maybe in the current moment it’s possible that those external factors don’t apply to India. But then you have to show that. Those are hypotheses. You have to test those hypotheses to show that all other factors don’t apply, and only the party in power is responsible for democratic backsliding in the last nine years.


I feel like the story of backsliding in India is told as a global story of backsliding throughout the world and that Modi is oftentimes compared against other leaders in democracies such as Orbán in Hungary, Trump in the United States, and many others. Sometimes those characteristics have parallels. Sometimes they don’t. It’s a complicated question but I don’t think India is told as a unique story of democratic backsliding.

I think the challenge for India in particular is the fact that it’s such a large country, the fact that it’s so important in terms of how we think about democracy that I think everybody looks to India as a leader. It’s going to be a leader on the international stage, whether it wants to be or not, and I think that’s one of the challenges. Now, I would like to know in terms of Narendra Modi and the BJP, do you feel like India has become more illiberal under the BJP and Narendra Modi, or is that a false narrative?

Rahul Verma

Let me answer this question in the following way, which was also part of my piece. If you are going to compare Indian democracy from 1989 to 2014 vis-a-vis 2014 onwards, and if that’s the metric, the baseline, then of course India has declined on certain indicators which form the basis of democracy indices. That’s where one compounding variable comes into play- which is that the 1989 to 2014 period in Indian politics was a coalition era and this is a dominant party system era. Just by virtue of the party system changes, the institutional balance of power changes, institutions became more assertive during the coalition era and now the legislative party is more assertive and dominating independent institutions. That’s a function of a dominant party system.

Most often dominant party systems are also presided by a very charismatic and popular leader which also creates this assumption or flows into this thing that there is going to be some sort of greater centralization of power because there’s a charismatic leader presiding over the entire system. If you ask me, my submission would be that any kind of dominant party system and any kind of group holding power, whether on the extreme right or extreme left, is bad for democracy. It’s just the nature of dominant systems. When they rise, they are going to bring certain, what we’ll call anti-democratic sentiment. In that sense, the rise of a dominant party system has created space for anti-democratic sentiments, which is marked by a desire for a strong leader, which is marked by a more technocratic system.

Perhaps these leaders and these systems rise because the old systems collapse under the weight of their own inefficiencies, and that’s the cycle. Second, what I would like to point out, especially given the BJP- though they may not want to describe themselves as a conservative party- is certainly a party which is on the center right. On the question of minority rights and especially Muslims, their record has not been great. It’s not just what you can dismiss as fringe elements. Even people with serious positions within the party organizations make statements against Muslims that might create a very unsafe environment for them. On those counts I think Indian democracy has certainly taken a hit.


When we think about dominant party systems, particularly in India, I find it difficult not to draw parallels with the previous dominant party system which involved the Indian National Congress and my mind drifts to two key leaders that were charismatic during that period.

One would be Nehru, who is one of the key founders of India, and the other one is Indira Gandhi, who is his daughter. Indira definitely took India in a much more illiberal direction. In declaring the emergency, you can make an easy case that she took India in a much more illiberal direction than the BJP has to this day. Nehru, on the other hand, did not. He is considered very democratic and I feel like one of the big differences between him and Indira is that Nehru seemed to focus on building institutions in India and Indira seemed to focus more on her charismatic personality. I worry that Modi is focused more on his personality rather than building up those institutions of India. Does my understanding of Indian history have some merit to it or would you disagree with that?

Rahul Verma

No, I largely agree with your description of Indian history. I think I did a similar comparison. I said on most counts, India’s current setup looks much more like the second party system. About the first party system, I think personally, whatever I’ve read about Nehru, he seems like a great democrat. Maybe that is a part of his personality, maybe because he was also one of the tallest leaders of India’s Freedom Movement, so you were driven by a very different kind of mission. You’re bringing a country out of colonial power and trying to build a new India like in his famous destiny speech.

But many features, which we note are instances of centralization, which also then mutated into democratic backsliding, were present during the Nehru regime between 1952 to 1962. While being a Prime Minister, he did dismiss the first elected communist government in the world in Kerala. If you think about the First Amendment Act, which India passed, where Nehru, some would argue, goes against the Supreme Court. Now it depends on how they read the conflict between Parliament and Supreme Court then and how they read the conflict between Parliament and Supreme Court now. Whether one conflict is trying to establish parliamentary sovereignty and the second conflict is basically undermining an institution. Tripurdaman Singh, in the same symposium, highlights some of those illiberal elements that were part of the original vices or part of the initial institutional design. That would be my first take on the institutional makeup.

Second, I think Nehru, to his credit, went to great lengths to ensure a more secular democracy and inclusion of all kinds of religious minorities into the body politic. In fact, he disagreed with the then president of India and made sure that the establishment at that time didn’t do anything which lookedHindu in character. He made great efforts at that. The current regime argues that perhaps trying to parachute a secular model of democracy here, in a deeply religious society needed much more integration and dialogue.

You can’t just whitewash a deeply religious society and some of its practices with some institutional makeovers, some laws, but without a dialogue with the society. The same thing happens where first generation leadership failed to have dialogues on certain questions which were needed. Many of those things have now come up with far wider issues in a much more polarized society, and some of those polarized narratives seem to be reflecting that our illiberal elements have also widened.


I think this is a very important conversation. What you’re saying is that those early founders, people like Nehru and Ambedkar, especially, in forming the Constitution and forming certain values into Indian government, in many ways were imposing certain values on the rest of society that maybe they weren’t completely ready for and hadn’t debated fully. In many ways Modi is not something new. He’s just revisiting some of those debates from throughout Indian history.

Rahul Verma

Yes. All I’m saying is that given where we are starting in 1947, some of those questions needed to be debated on public platforms in different ways, and that’s where perhaps people like Nehru and other founding fathers and mothers of the Indian constitution should have made efforts. By not engaging in those conversations, by keeping some of this under wraps, thinking that modernization will take root and all the traditional value systems of the society will slowly fade away, I think we didn’t do justice at that moment of time.


I think that this relates back to the original question that we had, which was about which ways democracy is deepening in India while at the same time it’s shrinking on others. It sounds like the early founders wanted to remove some topics from public debate so that they could ensure that they protect institutions, they protect liberal values necessary to protect those institutions and to protect the ideas of democracy itself. But at the same time, by removing those topics from public debate, many people felt that their voice was being diminished. In many ways, democracy was something less than what it should be, that it wasn’t truly democratic.

By bringing those topics back into debate, people who feel that those topics had not been resolved and agree more with the BJP these days, think of Indian democracy as being deepened by revisiting these topics and issues once again, even though in many ways you can make the case that this is injecting illiberal ideas back into the body politic.

Rahul Verma

Let me make two points. First, I think there are two dominant party systems, one under Nehru and one under Indira. The difference between the two dominant party systems was also that in the Indira years, there was actually an opposition. Even in this dominant party system under the BJP, you have a viable opposition. In Nehru’s time, while it was a competitive electoral system, the opposition was really, really weak in its electoral strength. In fact, if you read the writings of Rajni Kothari, he would say opposition parties were just parties of pressure. The opposition was built within the Congress, which was a large umbrella coming out of the national movement. The voices at that time were so feeble that even if there was an opposition, it would not become visible.

The second point I would like to make, because India’s conservative right-wing forces before the 1990s never had electoral power at the state level and certainly not at the national level, before the 1990s, or 1996-1998, when the BJP government came to power. I don’t think you’ll be able to show me campuses and think tanks and research centers which had conservative intellectual life in them. In some ways, one complaint which the right will have, is that it was never given space in this system. Of course, they had their own organizations, RSS and all those kinds of things. They have one grievance and I think there is some popular acceptance that the elite educated in western systems have not given them space and they tapped into some of those voices or some of those debates and questions, which I was mentioning.

I completely agree with your question that perhaps founding fathers like Ambedkar, Nehru, and Gandhi may have been right in not opening up those debates at that moment of time. India was undergoing too many crises to be dealing with all those things at that time. Madhav Khosla has written very beautifully about this, that the Constitution in that sense is a pedagogical tool. It’s basically a radical promise that these constitution makers are making to the society. By revisiting these old wounds, we’re not going to move ahead. We will be drawn into old battles, which is not very helpful. I’m not at all trying to put blame on the choices they made.

Perhaps those were the best choices they could have made under those circumstances, but the outcome of those choices today – I’m giving them the benefit of doubt of 1950s India – But today, when I look at the 1990s and 2010s, I think there have been different occasions between the 1950sand 1990s and 2010s when some of those debates and discussions should have happened. I don’t think we have properly tried to understand how to integrate a large religious minority into the mainstream of the body politic.


I’m not trying to really blame anybody or even give a pass to anybody either.  A big part of my mindset is to try to understand from other people’s points of view why it is that they think democracy is being deepened, when so many people from the outside and even some people from inside India think of it as being under threat. It’s definitely a paradox and there’s definitely things to take into account. One of the thoughts that I have is whether we overstated how democratic India was in the past. Are we overstating how much democracy is declining because in the past we overstated how democratic India truly was?

Rahul Verma

Yes. I think that’s also the crux of the problem. The baseline is not clear. We definitely went overboard in celebrating once we managed to defy those initial predictions. By 1990 we were singing the praises of Indian democracy where we should have been much more limited in our celebration of what we managed to achieve. We also should have understood that at the moment, if you’re seeing veto points in the system, it’s also because the nature of the party system has changed. It also brought some widening of the system where you got many more people from the backward caste and poor and rural areas participating more in the electoral arena.

So, we over celebrated those things, because that moment of the 1990s also marks the rise of all kinds of negative elements in politics and this also connects to my first question. While Indian democracy is widening on the electoral front, we’re also shrinking. Most of our parties have become dynasties. Most of our politicians are coming from political families. Of course, elections are costly everywhere and even in the United States, you have to spend a lot money, but still parties in the United States and even at the state level are not dynastical in nature. They’re not in the clutches of one political family. India has some 36 parties in the parliament and some 30 of them are controlled by single families. Many of these families are rising in that moment of the 1990s when Indian democracy was actually expanding.

We have so many politicians with criminal charges and charges, not just minor corruption here and there, but serious charges of murder and rioting and those kinds of things. At least 30% of our parliamentarians have that kind of thing. In some ways, participation is expanding. The political class that we are getting is very limited in character and so we overstated it then and we’re overstating it now.


Again, I think Modi represents the paradox in Indian politics because he is in many ways a self-made politician. He is a self-made man. He is not from a dynastic family, even though he heads a political party that in the past represented high caste Hindus. Yet the INC, the Indian National Congress, is represented by a dynastic family- the Gandhi family- and they’re trying to present themselves as very much a liberal democratic party that represents a more pluralistic India. At the same time, they have a legacy of authoritarianism under their previous leader Indira Gandhi.

There are so many contradictions within Indian politics. It makes me wonder whether the INC is really the right party to emerge as the face of the opposition in the future. I know you’ve studied the party system in India in depth. How does a true opposition to challenge the BJP at the federal level really emerge?

Rahul Verma

Let me say a few things about the adjective you used for the INC and the opposition. This needs to be unpacked. While the INC projected itself as a secular liberal political party, I don’t think their actions, and not just under Indira Gandhi, even under Nehru, and even after that, indicates that they were that inclusive. How many members of the Scheduled Caste became chief ministers during the 30 years of Nehru and Indira Gandhi’s rule? How many women became chief ministers at that time? How many Muslim chief ministers were made? There were failures even during the first and second dominant party systems to expand and get more groups within the mainstream body politic. Similarly, I think many of these parties, which claim to be secular and liberal in nature, have actually not been as secular and liberal as they say.

Can the INC emerge as the focal point of a united opposition in the next election which will happen in a year from now? I think that’s a very likely possibility. In fact, last Friday there was a meeting of opposition leaders in one of the Indian states, the first meeting where members of 15 parties, more than two dozen leaders gathered. They still don’t have a proper blueprint of what this united opposition would look like, but what has become clear is that without Congress, any such opposition alliance is inconceivable for the near future because among these state level formations, Congress is the only party which has a Pan-India presence. Congress is likely to be the nucleus around which this oppositional alliance is going to get formed.

Can they trounce the BJP? I think that’s an open question. We will know in a couple of months what kind of issues become salient and what the oppositional alliance will look like. Certainly, there has been a secular decline in the Congress party’s strength- what it used to be in the first party system, the second, the third and fourth. Slowly, a party which used to have 70-75% of seats and 40% of vote share by the 1990s became a 30% vote share party, and now it’s a 20% party. In many of the important Indian states, the Congress party is a very, very poor replica of its former self.

The story of Congress’ decline is also the story of where this dominant party failed to provide wider representation. This has been well documented by social scientists for the last 60 years. How can our understanding of India as a democracy in the past fail to acknowledge our representational deficit at which the Congress party was at the center? That part I don’t understand.


Well, Rahul Verma, thank you so much for joining me today. I want to plug your article one more time. It’s “The Exaggerated Death of Indian Democracy.” Thank you so much for talking to me today. Thank you so much for joining me.

Rahul Verma

Thank you, Justin, for having me. I learned a lot from our conversation today. Thank you for those provocative questions.

Key Links

The Exaggerated Death of Indian Democracy” in Journal of Democracy by Rahul Verma

Centre for Policy Research 

Follow Rahul Verma on Twitter @rahul_tverma

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