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India’s high-stakes election

Voters line up to cast their ballot outside a polling station in Dugeli village during the first phase of voting of India's general election on April 19, 2024. (IDREES MOHAMMED/AFP via Getty Images)
Voters line up to cast their ballot outside a polling station in Dugeli village during the first phase of voting of India's general election on April 19, 2024. (IDREES MOHAMMED/AFP via Getty Images)

In 2023, professor Ashutosh Varshney joined us to talk about democracy in India.

“India is ceasing to be a liberal democracy but it is an electoral democracy,” Varshney said. “If … the next election in India is not competitive and opposition party leaders are put in jail, then we are heading towards an electoral autocracy.”

Since then, prominent opposition leader Arvind Kejriwal has been arrested. And India’s elections are currently underway. What does Varshney think now?

Today, On Point: a test for democracy in the world’s largest democracy.


Ashutosh Varshney, director of the Saxena Center for Contemporary South Asia. Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences at Brown University. Author of eight books, including “Battles Half Won: India’s Improbable Democracy.”

Vivan Marwaha, author of “What Millennials Want: Decoding the World’s Largest Generation.”


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. And this is On Point.

Vikram Chandra is considered one of India’s leading journalists. He’s covered his nation for more than 30 years, including at the pioneering independent news network NDTV, and now at his multilingual news platform Editorji Technologies.

In that time, he’s reported on several wars in Kashmir, interviewed world leaders, and probed India’s domestic politics and foreign affairs. Now, he’s covering one of the biggest events of them all. India’s elections.

VIKRAM CHANDRA: It’s one of the greatest spectacles on this planet, probably the greatest show on the earth. The fact that you can actually get 970 million people, that’s a billion people who are going to probably, who are able to cast their vote.

CHAKRABARTI: India’s elections unfold over the course of 40 days. They began on April 19. Voting ends on June 1st. Results are tabulated and released on June 4th.

Now, Indian law says voters must have access to polling stations no farther than 1.2 miles from where they live. So that means millions of election workers and a whole lot of electronic voting machines are deployed to make it happen – across rivers, up into mountains, into some of the most remotest places in the country.

CHANDRA: If you think about it, the way it sometimes works in the U.S. is that everyone goes to the polls on the same day and you’re sort of done. Here, it’s actually the counting is a miracle. All of those boxes are going to be put in and within three hours, India is going to count a billion votes or nearly a billion votes. I mean, okay, not all of them are going to go out and vote, but you get what I mean.

Yes, the voting process is spread out over six weeks. Because the security has to be done and the officials have to move from place to place to conduct the election, to tally all those votes. All of them are then put into these electronic voting machines. And then it’s all counted and tallied in like four hours flat on the 4th of June.

CHAKRABARTI: Amazing, when you think about it. At this point, it’s expected that the current ruling party, the BJP, will make a strong showing this election. And likely returning prime minister Narendra Modi to India’s leadership for a third term. Chandra says the BJP’s strength is due to a number of reasons, including a disjointed and rudderless opposition.

CHANDRA: Therefore, what the BJP always tries to do and has been able to do very successfully is say, “Alright, here’s Narendra Modi. Who’s on the other side?” And then you’ve got this, invariably put up this picture of 20 squabbling opposition leaders, all sort of fighting with each other, and none of them apparently with the status or the stature or the ability to articulate a vision for the future. And that’s why what the BJP wants to do and what the BJP tries to do is will be to make this election into a referendum on Modi. Modi versus who?

CHAKRABARTI: Chandra says that when Narendra Modi is on the ballot, the opposition party has a tough time winning seats. He says they need to make this election about something OTHER than Modi and his cult of personality. Something like the high rate of unemployment in India, which is currently plaguing the economy.

CHANDRA: The opposition is trying to make that instead of saying, Okay, let’s not have a referendum on Modi. Let’s have a referendum on inflation and on unemployment, because we think there are much better grounds out there. The only issue with that particular card is that what happens if people say yes, we’re very worried about unemployment but we think that Modi is the person who’s most likely to fix it.

CHAKRABARTI: Earlier this year Prime Minister Modi predicted that his party, the BJP-led alliance and its allies would win 400 out of 543 parliamentary seats available, that would be a huge majority. Of course, we don’t yet know what’s going to happen because elections are still ongoing. Vikram Chandra says the opposition is warning of the dangers of a win like that.

CHANDRA: The opposition is certainly painting this election in rather apocalyptic terms, they are saying that this is going to be the last election. And if Modi comes back with a thumping majority, in a two thirds majority, then the constitution is going to be amended and you’re not going to have elections ever again. And that sort of a thing, that’s probably slightly more scary than the reality, but that’s the way it’s being painted.

And it was seeming till a couple of months ago, that’s exactly what’s going to happen. You’re going to have Modi coming back with a very thumping majority. Now that the election campaign has already started, you never quite know, right? There’s a lot of people, there’s a billion people, and you never quite know what’s going to happen.

CHAKRABARTI: That was veteran TV journalist Vikram Chandra. He’s founder of Editorji, a short video news and information platform based in India.

Now here’s the thing. India has always been a massive and dynamic laboratory for the expansive possibilities and limits of modern democratic systems. We are talking about the governance of the most populous, multi-religious, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic country in the world.

And that’s why many look upon the current election with both admiration and trepidation. Democracy advocates say Prime Minister Modi has championed a fundamentally anti-democratic, Hindu-nationalist vision of India. They warn that an overpowering win for the BJP could accelerate India’s transition from messy, but open democracy, to what our guest today once called an electoral autocracy.

And that guest is Ashutosh Varshney. He’s Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences at Brown University, he’s also director of the Center for Contemporary South Asia. I should say, the Saxena Center for Contemporary South Asia. And author of many books, including “Battles Half Won: India’s Improbable Democracy.” Ashutosh Varshney, welcome back to On Point.

ASHUTOSH VARSHNEY: Pleasure to join you, Meghna.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so you are the man who about a year ago on our show, when we were doing a show about India and populism used this phrase, electoral autocracy.

So I actually want to first go back and listen to what you said a year ago and then ask you where you see India now, but here it is.

VARSHNEY: I have made the claim thus far that India is not a, India is seizing to be a liberal democracy, but it is an electoral democracy. If, for example, the next election in India is not competitive and opposition party leaders are put in jail, then we are heading towards an electoral autocracy.

CHAKRABARTI: So Professor Varshney, that was you one year ago. And one year on, what are your thoughts now?

VARSHNEY: Yeah, the claim about electoral autocracy, one should note what democratic theorists say, is on a scale, zero to one, it’s not zero or one, it’s not a binary. And India, by arresting the current government, Modi government, by arresting not only Arvind Kejriwal, whom your reporter mentioned, the Delhi chief minister, some weeks ago, but also another chief minister and chief minister in India’s head of, elected head of state government, arresting him.

And then also trying to freeze the bank accounts of the leading opposition party has taken several steps down the ladder. It’s not yet zero, which would be electoral autocracy, but it has taken several steps down that one to zero ladder.

There is no doubt that Mr. Modi or the Modi government, through its actions, was trying to restrict electoral competition.

CHAKRABARTI: You have no doubt about that? I have no doubt about it, because this is how you injure the opposition parties and politicians. So one of them cannot campaign. He’s in jail. Two of them cannot campaign, they’re in jail, and the financial health of the leading opposition party, the Congress party, has been severely damaged.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, so about these arrests and the jailing of opposition members, the chief ministers of the states that you had talked about, if I understand correctly, though, they have been arrested under accusations of corruption, correct?

VARSHNEY: That’s right.

CHAKRABARTI: The reason why I point that out is because, supporters of Prime Minister Modi would say, corruption is not unfamiliar in India, right?

I was just looking at Transparency International’s 2023 Corruption Perception Index, which rates countries zero to 100. The closer you are to zero, the more corrupt a nation is. India scores 39 out of 100. Is there not perhaps a legitimate cause behind the arrest of these opposition leaders?

VARSHNEY: So two answers to that. First, if the Modi regime did mean its anti-corruption campaign seriously, then it would not invite some major politicians in the opposition. Who are accused of corruption and have been charge sheeted. Prima charge sheet in India means a prima facie case, before it goes to the court.

Before the conviction. More than 20 leaders, opposition leaders, have been either forced to join BJP or enticed into joining BJP. And their corruption cases have been, they cannot be dropped legally, but they’ve been relegated for a much later date and perhaps not invoked at all.

So if you want a serious attack on corruption, you wouldn’t let corrupt leaders from the opposition join your party and in such large numbers. So corruption here is a political weapon. Rather than an honest attempt to cleanse India, the corruption campaign.

CHAKRABARTI: Can I just ask you? We have about a minute before our first break, Professor. … So share a common analysis with you and I and all of our listeners today.

What do you think is at stake if the BJP does win an overwhelming majority of seats in this election?

VARSHNEY: If the BJP wins two thirds of India’s parliamentary seats, that’s over 365 and he has already claimed that he would like to win 370. For himself, for the party, BJP party and 400 for the alliance, that will give them certainly the power to —

CHAKRABARTI: Change the constitution.

VARSHNEY: The constitutional amendment requires two thirds of parliament and half of state governments. They have half of state governments. And two thirds of parliament, if they win. Then there is a real chance of serious constitutional changes.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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