From a democratic state-nation to an illiberal ethnic state?

India’s bold experiment in being a pluralistic, liberal democracy has thus arrived at an inflection point. While we cannot predict how long Modi and the BJP will remain in power, it is clear that the ascendant Hindutva has changed Indian’s polity, society, and identity in ways that will be difficult to reverse.

It has already been noted that when India started its journey as a democracy, the odds seemed to be stacked against its success. But against the expectations of many Western analysts, Indian institutions and civil society, for all their imperfections, proved to be resilient. This resilience had its roots in the design of independent India’s institutional framework. India, like Belgium and Canada, is a multinational state. This means that the country contains within it groups that have strong ethnic, religious, or linguistic identities, and that at least some of these identities have political salience. National leaders may find it challenging to build legitimacy with such groups. One way to get the buy-in of different groups into the state-making project is to craft a political system that combines national political integration with recognizing and protecting subnational identities. This was the approach that was taken by India’s early leaders, who envisioned India as a state-nation; that is, a state with multiple nations existing within it (Stepan, Linz, & Yadav, 2011).

This helps explain why India was constituted as a federal polity, with power-devolved to the states (Stepan et al., 2011).13 On the matter of religion, it explains why the Republic of India was envisioned as a secular state. Although India’s Constitution was amended in 1976 in order to include the word “secular” in the preamble, several portions of the original text, adopted in 1949, already embodied secularism in principle. Article 15 bans religion-based discrimination, and Article 25 permits all Indians the right to freely practice their religion. Articles 26 and 30 recognize the right of religious groups to establish charitable and educational institutions, and to receive state aid.

Indian secularism is distinct from that of Western democracies such as the U.S. or France. In the Indian context, secularism has meant that the state has kept a "principled distance” from religious matters, while treating people of different religions equally. At the same time, the Indian state has intervened in religious affairs in different cases, for example, by banning animal sacrifices, reforming civil law pertaining to specific religions, and subsidizing religious pilgrimages (Nandy, 1998; Madan, 1998; Bhargava, 2002; Jaffrelot, 2017, 2019).

The early leaders of independent India believed that it was desirable, even necessary, for the Indian state to build political integration without imposing cultural homogeneity. Others, however, have long believed something different - notably, that India should be defined as a Hindu nation and state. Hindu nationalists contend that, to the extent that subnational groups continue to live in India, they must pay allegiance to the majority community (Jaffrelot, 2007; Vaishnav, 2019). India should not be a state-nation that accommodates distinct identities. Rather, it should be a nation-state, where the cultural dominance of Hinduism should extend into the country’s political and social framework.

This alternate vision of India has been unabashedly steeped in the Hindu religion’s caste hierarchy, and, until recently, had a distinct regional bias. The BJP’s electoral success was concentrated in states in northern and western India, such as Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat. In recent years, the BJP has made considerable ground in other parts of the country, including the southern state of Karnataka and the eastern states of Assam and West Bengal. Today, with the widespread popularity of its leader and its strong control over many of India’s institutions, the Hindutva vision of India seems to be near fruition. By seeing the country as a nation-state dominated by a Hindu ideology, this vision is fundamentally at odds with the ideal of a pluralistic India.

Some have argued that India is now well on its way to being an ethnic democracy, along the lines of Israel (Chatterji et al., 2020). In an ethnic democracy, a particular community claims ownership of the state’s territory and practices. While nonmembers of that community can be residents or even citizens, they do not belong to the dominant nation and are therefore lesser citizens. For example, in Israel,14 Jewish citizens are the dominant group, and Arab Israelis do not enjoy equal status. The concept of an ethnic democracy contains within it a fundamental incompatibility with the concept of liberal democracy. The latter requires equal protection for all, whereas an ethno-national structure privileges a certain group and is therefore explicitly unequal. Smooha (2002) has argued that despite the lack of equality, an ethnic democracy can claim to be democratic if all its citizens, including minorities, have political and civil rights, are allowed to participate in politics, and are not systematically repressed by the state. Others have argued that the inherent incomparability of this conceptualization means that ethnic democracies are unstable, and will, in many cases, move toward exclusionary majoritarianism, which does not in fact protect the political and civil rights of its citizens (Peled, 2011, 2014).

In the case of India, the march toward Hindu ethnic domination has been partnered with an unmistakable move away from many, if not most, democratic traits. The emphasis on silencing and punishing dissent, even from members of the dominant Hindu community, indicates that democratic conditions are sharply deteriorating. While the country continues to hold regular elections and has a competitive multiparty system, the extent of authoritarian nationalism means that the democratic feature of the country is being threatened (Repucci, 2020). If it continues on this trajectory, India cannot be a considered an ethnic democracy along the lines identified by Smooha (2002). Rather, it will morph into a majoritarian, repressive, illiberal polity.15

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