Democracy safe in India — for now?

Lovers and promoters of democracy everywhere will be somewhat cock-a-hoop about the outcome of the latest and largest election on the planet.

In what was called the world’s biggest ever exercise of democracy, 642 million Indian voters, out of an eligible 969 million, gave incumbent prime minister Narendra Modi a good old-fashioned scare in the six-week election just completed.

While Mr Modi becomes India’s prime minister for a historic third time, he has lost a significant amount of support for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) he leads. In the 2014 and 2019 elections, the BJP won 282 and 303 seats in the Lok Sabha, in which 272 seats are needed for a majority.

This time, the Hindu-nationalist BJP fell well short of that clear mandate, with 240 seats. That has compelled Mr Modi to form a coalition government, by gathering together another 53 seats from the right-wing National Democratic Alliance, of which the BJP is also a member.

Mr Modi certainly deserved a real fright. His track record, especially recently, of pitting Indian against Indian and religion against religion and fomenting deadly violence has been atrocious and his hallucinatory ramblings about being a divine being have been particularly alarming.

With 1.4 billion people, India has now leapt ahead of China as the Earth’s most populous nation. This huge country is riven by differences of faith, language and class, not to mention its abhorrent caste system.

But in the face of all of those hurdles, Indians remain proud of their nation’s combined independence and democratic system, even one which operates against the backdrop of a great deal of often institutionalised corruption.

For all his appearance as a smiling grandfatherly figure, the 73-year-old Mr Modi is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

He is one of that cadre of populist leaders on the Right, such as former United States president Donald Trump, former Brazilian president Jair Bolsinaro and former Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte, for whom truth is a loose concept and who subscribes to the alternative facts fantasy when it suits.

We can breathe a sigh of relief that Mr Modi will be somewhat reined in by coalition partners in this coming term, although with them all being of the same Right-leaning ilk, he will still be able to pass some egregious laws.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures as he arrives at Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)...
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures as he arrives at Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) headquarters in New Delhi to celebrate his election win. Photo: Reuters
At least, without a clear majority in the Lok Sabha, he will not be able to pursue what many of his opponents feared — changes to the constitution of India, which came into force in January 1950 and requires the nation to be secular.

Some were even worried for the fate of democracy in India if Mr Modi was able to exert the influence he desired. His pronouncements in recent years have certainly tended towards jingoism, directed mainly along religious lines.

As a Hindu, the prime minister’s utterings and recent policies have whipped up hatred against Sikhs and Muslims, leading to bloodshed.

Before the election, concerns were voiced by Muslims that Mr Modi and his party were not even bothering to hide their intentions to turn India into a Hindu homeland.

There have been riots in Delhi and many dozens of incidents involving attacks by Hindus against Muslims and Sikhs.

Civil liberties have also been curtailed under his leadership. Journalists have been targeted through anti-terror laws for writing stories inconvenient to his narrative. Mr Modi has never taken a press conference since becoming prime minister in 2014.

And then what are we to make of Mr Modi’s deranged burblings ahead of this election? He said he was convinced he had been chosen by God to carry out His work. In a television interview, he said after his mother died he reflected again on having being born biologically and decided God had sent him divinely.

It remains to be seen how much restraint the BJP leader’s coalition colleagues might be able to apply to his plans. It’s good news that Mr Modi did not get an outright victory, but potentially bad news that the National Democratic Alliance is also right-wing.

Democracy appears to have been saved in India, for the next five years anyway.

For the rest of the world’s sake also, it is crucial the largest country on Earth doesn’t turn its back on it.