News | South Asia India’s Slightly Different Election

After ten years of Modi, the state of the world’s largest democracy is being discussed both at home and abroad



Britta Petersen,

People watching the Road show of the Aam Aadmi Party for upcoming Election, on April 27, 2024 in New Delhi.
People watching the Road show of the Aam Aadmi Party for upcoming Election, on April 27, 2024 in New Delhi., Photo: IMAGO / Hindustan Times

Arvind Kejriwal, Chief Minister of Delhi, is currently in prison on corruption charges. According to reports, Kejriwal has allegedly been fed large quantities of mangoes with the intent of increasing his blood sugar levels. At an election rally organized by the oppositional Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA), his wife Sunita accused prison management of trying to kill her husband, a diabetic, by withholding the insulin that is vitally important for his health.

Britta Petersen directs the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s South Asia Regional Office in Delhi.

Welcome to India: on 19 April, voting began in the largest democracy in the world. It was a festival of democracy ­— colourful, loud, and aggressive. Yet it is not always clear who the villains are and who are the heroes.

Around 1 billion people are eligible to vote in the country. The popular prime minister, Narendra Modi, is confident that his Hindu nationalist Bhayatiya Janata Party (BJP) will win “more than 400 seats” in parliament, giving the party a two-thirds majority in parliament. However, Indian voters have often been able to come up with surprises.

Voting will take over one-and-a-half months, as states vote at different times to simplify the process. In the hard-to-reach mountain regions and remote villages, electronic voting machines are sometimes brought to local voting stations by mule or boat. Election results are not expected until 4 June.

Caste and Class Politics

This process has been established for decades.  This year, however, criticism has been more vocal both at home and abroad. How healthy can Indian democracy be when a popular politician like Arvidn Kejriwal from the opposition Aam Admi Party (which roughly translates to “party for the little guys”) is imprisoned shortly before the vote on allegations of corruption?+

Last year, opposition leader Rahul Gandhi, a grandson of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, was stripped of his seat in parliament for insulting Modi. Gandhi’s sentence was later suspended by the high court, but now his party is struggling under an investigation by the tax authority, which has frozen its accounts. This is an extremely difficult situation to be in, especially in a country where, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, campaigning is even more expensive than in the US.

In its 2024 Democracy Report, the Swedish think tank Varieties of Democracy Institute downgraded India to an “electoral autocracy”, due to a political climate in which multiparty elections take place alongside “insufficient levels of fundamental requisites such as freedom of expression and association”.

The Indian political system is an expression of the existing caste- and class-based society in India.

Critical intellectuals, like well-known author Arundhati Roy, have tirelessly argued that India today has become a “criminal Hindu fascist enterprise”. However, this form of extreme criticism fails to recognize that India’s democracy has always functioned quite differently to what (usually Western) textbooks on democracy presuppose.

The Indian political system is an expression of the existing caste- and class-based society in India. The rise of the BJP marks a break with what India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru of the Congress Party, once called “the idea of India”: a secular, multi-religious, and socialist republic. By contrast, BJP’s vision is of an India that will reclaim its original name, Bharat, and with it the history and religion that was repressed by centuries of colonialism. According to this perspective, India is confidently taking its place among developed nations and is committed to its original religion, Hinduism.

It’s possible that this idea could replace Nehru’s “idea of India” in part because the Congress Party and other left-wing parties have remained projects of the ruling upper castes. Additionally, the promise of socialism enshrined in the constitution — in the sense of equality, justice, and solidarity — remains unfulfilled.

Mahatma Gandhi, who like Nehru was an incredibly important figure in India’s struggle for independence, supported the caste system and only wanted to improve the position of the “untouchables” (Dalits), whom he euphemistically called “Harijans”, or children of God. Only parties explicitly founded to represent Dalits have directly questioned the caste system. Likewise, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which currently governs the state of Kerala, still has no Dalit member in their political office. Party secretary Sitaram Yechury is from the Brahmin caste, the highest.

The BPJ’s Formula for Success

Unlike socialist parties, the BJP allowed Narendra Modi, a representative of the worker caste, to occupy a leadership position. Modi’s humble origin story is a trump card he regularly plays against his opponents. It is an easy play, especially because for the almost 80 years since independence, the Congress Party has been dominated by the Brahmin Gandhi family and does not hold internal elections.

In the Indian political system, castes, lower castes (jati), and religious groups are perceived to be fixed groups of voters who must be won over en masse. Comparisons with representative democracies that function according to the principle of “one man, one vote” are more complicated for this reason. The BJP follows this logic, focusing on winning over the Hindu majority.

Unlike the INDIA coalition, for example, whose member parties appeal to very different groups of voters in different federal states, the BJP has a single strategy for the whole country. This uniformity also gives the BJP an advantage over the very successful regional parties in southern India. While these regional parties continue to prevent the BJP from making significant gains in states like Tamil Nadu, they offer voters no alternative at the federal level.

Without a more concrete plan, India runs the risk of wasting the advantage of its young population.

The BJP by contrast directs its proposals to large swathes of the country’s population: generous social welfare for the poor, infrastructure projects and considerable economic growth (currently at 8.4 percent of GDP) for the middle class, and, more recently, a nationalist foreign policy that aims at rousing people’s hearts (not just those of the elites) which have been battered by colonialism: we are somebody again!

The fact that the structural problems within the Indian economy, in which around 80 percent of people work in the informal sector, will not be solved by these policy promises might undermine the BJP’s chances — particularly when a large proportion of the population realizes that things are no longer on the way up for them economically.

As Kunal Kundu, the India Economist at French bank Société Générale, suggests: “After a decade of almost jobless growth, the rising number of dejected workers had pushed India’s LFPR (labour force participation rate) well below that of the Four Asian tigers.” “The fact that the BJP is focusing on the existing employment engines of infrastructure, manufacturing, and government jobs, which have not made much of a difference so far, must be all the more worrying”, Kundu warns. Without a more concrete plan, India runs the risk of wasting the advantage of its young population.

However, Modi also has official positions to distribute, and he deliberately awards some of these to members of the lower castes. For example, the current president is Draupadi Murmu, who belongs to the particularly marginalized tribal population (Adivasi) and Ram Nath Kovind, a Dalit, previously held the highest state office.

In the Shadow of Hindu Nationalism

Muslims, however, who naturally have little to do with the Hindu nationalist party but make up one fifth of India’s population, are not considered to be potential BJP voters and so are often either ignored or cast as the enemy of the Hindu majority.

Professor Sukhadeo Thorat, head of the Indian Institution of Dalit Studies, is of the opinion that Modi and his BJP party do not want to destroy Indian democracy. Rather, their aim is to “consolidate the Hindu electorate”, thereby securing a hegemonic position in the Indian party system similar to that of the Congress Party, which ruled the country for 54 years.

As the recently deceased psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar has demonstrated, cultural stereotypes, religious identity, and communalism shape Hindu and Muslim perspectives from early childhood onwards. Thanks to that process, violence becomes acceptable when it’s communally or religiously sanctioned. Modi’s recent grand inauguration of a temple to the god Ram in Ayodhya, a temple built on the ruins of the Babri mosque, which was destroyed in 1992, is thus a symbol of national rebirth. The fact that an estimated 2,000 people lost their lives in the riots following the mosque’s destruction becomes little more than a historical footnote.

Criminality and democracy have always gone hand in hand in India. As Milan Vaishnav has demonstrated, for example, in 2014 more than a third of all members of the Lok Sabha, the parliament in New Delhi, faced legal proceedings. More than a fifth of these trials were for serious crimes. Nevertheless, Indian parties put forward these MPs and voters vote for them as long as they can convey the impression that they’re doing something for their “community”, seemingly in accordance with the old saying, “He’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”

Criminality and democracy have always gone hand in hand in India

As a result, a large number of politicians offer investigative authorities a lot of opportunities for attack. According to a report in the Indian Express newspaper, since 2014 a total of 25 high-ranking politicians who were under investigation have joined the BJP to save their hides.

It is not surprising that Indian voters sometimes find their political system too chaotic, which has consequences. According to a survey by the US Pew Research Center, 67 percent of voters responded affirmatively to the question: “Would a system in which a strong leader can make decisions without interference from parliament or the courts would be a good or bad way to govern the country?”

Arvind Kejriwal, who is accused of money laundering in connection with issuing alcohol licenses, will remain in custody until 7 May (just three weeks before the Delhi elections). And while for now he has been given insulin in prison, it is not known whether mangoes are still on the menu.

This article first appeared in nd.aktuell in cooperation with the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. Translated by Eve Richens and Marty Hiatt for Gegensatz Translation Collective.