A New, Fundamentally Different Political Order: The Emergence and Future Prospects of ‘Competitive Authoritarianism’ in India

India is no longer a liberal democracy. Bharatiya janata Party leaders are creating a new kind of political order that is an example of “competitive authoritarianism.” They have mounted a broad assault on democratic institutions, norms and practices. Their ongoing drive for top-down control has targeted Parliament, cabinet, government, the Election Commission, the media and many other institutions and interest groups, including major corporations, senior civil servants and the BJP’s own party organisation. Because the new order seeks to create a one-man government, with adulation focused on a single leader, it is more a cult than a well-rooted and institutionalised system. Its long-term survival, after the leader moves away from the scene, is open to serious doubt.

 

India is no longer a liberal democracy. Until the May 2019 election, it was possible to see the emerging system as an illiberal democracy—a term that implies a change in degree but not in kind. But since then, the drive towards autocracy has gone far enough to make that term obsolete. BJP leaders are well advanced in creating a new order which differs in kind from liberal democracy. It is an example of  “competitive authoritarianism.” 

To understand this, we must take a broad view. When we consider the emerging “BJP system,” we naturally think of the old “Congress system” that Rajni Kothari discussed in his classic study (Kothari 1964). As we do that, we are tempted to focus narrowly on what political scientists call the “party system”—the array of political parties and their interactions. But Kothari also examined the Congress system’s wider implications for Indian democracy.   

If we focus narrowly on the party system, we might conclude that the BJP has developed a new “dominant party system,” rather like Congress of old. That argument misleads in two ways. 

First, the BJP’s electoral dominance has limitations. It won two national elections when Narendra Modi—his popularity boosted by fawning praise from most of the media—was sure to lead the new government. But it has fallen short of victory in an embarrassingly long string of state-level elections since late 2018. Because Modi cannot head state governments, the BJP there is less inspiring and far from a ‘‘dominant’’ force.  

Much more important is a second misperception. A narrow focus on the party system prevents us from seeing that Modi is engaged in a thoroughgoing suffocation of democracy, to create a fundamentally different kind of political order. Top BJP leaders seek not just dominance, not just hegemony, but an opposition-mukt India (Mohan 2017). This shows utter contempt for rival parties, which he describes in sub-human terms as snakes, rats, cats and dogs. That implies a refusal to “acknowledge the legitimacy of opponents”—a fundamental democratic norm (James Kloppenberg in Edsall 2020). When the BJP falls short of victory at state elections and then takes power by inducing defections, it shows utter contempt not just for opponents but for voters and the democratic process.  

Modi’s new political order subjugates all public institutions, alternative power centres and independent voices to create an autocracy (Mehta 2020a; Jaffrelot and Verniers 2020; Mukherjee 2020). A respected global data set on democracy places Modi’s India among the “top 10 autocratising countries.” India ranks 19th in their index, below 14 African countries (V-Dem Institute 2020: 10, 30).  

A new label is needed to describe what is being introduced. Political scientists call it ‘‘competitive authoritarianism.’’ This is the most momentous change—in labels and in political reality—since independence. It is also the saddest.  

What does that label mean? The literature on it (Levitsky and Way 2002, 2010, 2020) analyses systems in which power holders do not abolish all formal democratic procedures, but “employ informal mechanisms of coercion and control, while maintaining the formal architecture of democracy” (Levitsky and Way 2010: 27). The result is a hybrid system that retains the outward appearance of democracy with little actual substance. The formerly level playing field is steeply tilted, to the advantage of those in power. Incumbents’ “manipulation of state institutions and resources is so excessive and one-sided that it seriously limits political competition, (which) is incompatible with democracy” (Levitsky and Way 2010: 6). Election commissions are controlled. Opposition parties may raise funds, but those in power raise vastly more (in India in 2019, 18 times more than all other parties combined). Governments curtail “political rights and civil liberties, including the freedom of the press, freedom of association, and freedom to criticise the government without reprisal." They “deny the opposition adequate media coverage… Journalists, opposition politicians and other government critics may be spied upon, threatened, harassed, or arrested.”

The Modi regime has mounted a broad, aggressive assault on democratic institutions, norms and practices. It has severely weakened institutions that impede the drive for top-down authoritarian control. It has strengthened those which can assist that drive—not least investigative and coercive agencies—while tightening partisan control over them. So many other institutions have suffered such severe damage that in the new hybrid political order, democratic and authoritarian elements coexist, but the balance is tipped severely towards the latter (Levitsky and Way 2002: 52-53). This new ‘‘competitive authoritarian’’ order differs not in degree but in kind from earlier dominant party systems and from liberal (or illiberal) democracy.   

Authoritarianism’s Extensive Reach 

The pursuit of top-down control afflicts every important power centre—official and non-official. Parliament is largely disempowered. Between 2014 and 2019, it was allowed to scrutinise only 26 % of bills – down from 60 % and 71 % in the two previous parliaments. Since May 2019, things have degenerated. Only one of the first (pre-COVID-19) 25 bills was scrutinised.

Most cabinet ministers have little or no power. They learn of their policies from their bureaucrats who receive instructions from the greatly empowered Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). “How they dress, who they meet, where they meet, what they say…all is being monitored” (Mehta 2014).  

The Election Commission has been captured. During the 2019 election campaign, two of its three commissioners permitted Modi to violate its code of conduct, repeatedly. Thereafter, the third dissenting commissioner—and his wife, son and sister—were relentlessly hounded by investigators seeking evidence of misdeeds. They found none. He eventually accepted a post at the Asian Development Bank.        

Communal “false propaganda,” distributed through social media, is “permeating into the rank and file” of the armed forces—India’s “most secular organisation.” BJP leaders have sought to politicise the forces, and Hindu rituals involving the military have been turned into “PR exercises” (Mor 2020). 

Attempts to achieve judicial compliance have made considerable headway (Mehta 2020b, Tripathy 2020), although some rulings still vex the authorities. The drive to dominate the courts by influencing judicial appointments continues.  

Most media proprietors have been tamed by the use of carrots (benefits for their other corporate enterprises) and sticks (investigative raids, loss of government advertising and punitive defamation suits). Two large teams monitor media content. Critical reports attract warnings. Editors are instructed to reissue positive reports on Modi. Objective journalists are persecuted by the officialdom and extremists (Tripathy 2020). The government recently extended supervisory powers to include online and video-streaming platforms. 

One new law enables control of the National Human Rights Commission, another cripples the Right to Information Act, a third empowers the government to designate anyone as a terrorist without evidence. Sedition charges are widely used to intimidate political rivals and non-partisan voices and organisations. Even a Nobel Peace Prize winner, Amnesty International, has been brazenly targeted.      

Hindutva extremists press leading universities to curtail dissent. One suffered a violent mob attack while police stood by, another witnessed gunplay to intimidate peaceful protesters and police beating readers in the library. In a global study, India’s academic freedom ranking plummeted between 2014 and 2019—lower than Somalia, Ukraine and Pakistan (Scholars at Risk 2020, chapter 8).  

The unbridled drive for top-down control has even targeted three groups of fundamental importance in the political order. First, this supposedly pro-business Prime Minister has used the threat of investigations and raids to frighten formidable corporate executives. Ajay Piramal and Rahul Bajaj have spoken of an atmosphere of fear, and Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw has complained that captains of industry are treated as pariahs (PTI 2019). Second, Modi has refused to grant the customary two-year tenures to even the most senior bureaucratsto keep them on a tight leash. They include the Cabinet, Home and Defence Secretaries and the chief of the Research and Analysis Wing (Kapoor 2020). Thus, Modi has sought (with considerable success) to control two of what Pranab Bardhan’s classic study identified as the “three dominant proprietary classes”—industrial capitalists and the most exalted figures among urban professionals (Bardhan 1984). But nowhere is the all-embracing imposition of top-down control more apparent than in its weakening of a third key institution, the BJP’s own party organisation.

More a Cult Than a “System”: Will It Endure?

Will competitive authoritarianism endure over time? Two questions arise. First, how well rooted and institutionalised is it beyond the influence of one individual, how solidly is it anchored in transactional links to key interests and structures?  Second, are the changes that enable it irreversible over the longer term? On both fronts, serious doubts arise.  

What we see here is more a cult than a reliably institutionalised ‘system’. Competitive authoritarianism in India, unlike some other countries, is based on personal rule—top-down control by one man. While radically centralising power and encouraging a personality cult, Modi has used menace against institutions and organisations. If instead they had been incorporated by persuasion, by transactional offers of inducements, the new order’s future might be bright. But since most have suffered disempowerment and intimidation, their long-term loyalty is questionable.
Deinstitutionalisation has affected not just state institutions, but also others—including, astonishingly, the BJP’s organisation. Shah has strengthened its capacity to contest elections.  But it has been deprived of its former, somewhat democratic substance—which, under Atal Behari Vajpayee, helped to sustain India’s broader democratic process. Yashwant Sinha describes it as “a party of slaves” (Sinha 2020).

At the core of the old Congress system during the 1950s and 1960s was a set of structures that had sinew, reach and considerable autonomy: regional political machines—units of the party organisation which distributed goods and services through patronage networks in exchange for political support. It succeeded because national leaders practiced transactional politics—sharing powers and resources with regional Congress leaders and key interests.  Later versions of ‘dominant (or nearly dominant) party systems’ were similar—including Vajpayee’s BJP.  

Modi has changed this. The BJP organisation is chiefly an instrument for fighting elections. It campaigns under strict control by Modi and Shah—which other BJP leaders resentand its main task is to promote adulation for the heroic leader. Between elections, government programmes are devised and dramatically announced from the apex of power and are implemented through the bureaucracy, controlled from the top down—which sometimes prevents benefits from reaching their targets (Jakhar 2017). Some lavishly lauded initiatives like Aadhaar have gravely damaged many vulnerable people (Manor 2020b). Some programmes deliver to some degree, but inequalities have still deepened. Disappointed farmers and poorer voters supported the BJP in 2019 less because they had been benefited than because Modi’s lavishly funded publicity machine persuaded them that he would deliver in future (Jaffrelot 2019).     

Many regional BJP leaders with skills to facilitate policy implementation and to cultivate key interests have been sidelined in favour of inexperienced newcomers who are obedient and/or hard-line Hindu chauvinists. Seasoned regional leaders—who in four states have complained to this writer (see also Verma 2020)—have very limited opportunities to distribute goods and services. So they cannot forge solid transactional ties to important interest groups that might sustain the influence of the party as an institution once Modi passes from the scene. One otherwise excellent analysis mistakenly refers to “party–state fusion” (Jhaitan 2020). The BJP organisation has been hollowed out, not fused with the state. While numerous individuals from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh hold key positions in many institutions, they also have little influence over policy making and implementation.

Those organisations’ limited roles in governing make this a cult rather than a “system.” If a “system” existed that was organised around party structures with real substance, it might endure. But Modi’s competitive authoritarian order is flimsier. It is held together by one man’s voracious appetite for control, by coercion and intimidation, and by adoration of and obeisance to him. That is a source of strength today, but it threatens the new order’s long-term survival.  Everything depends on him as an object of devotion. If he departs the stage, the cult will collapse and the new order will be in peril. 

There are no credible successors. Modi has carefully avoided empowering subordinates who might succeed him and sustain the new order. Amit Shah wields considerable power unlike all other ministers, senior party leaders, and senior bureaucrats. But even Shah is utterly deferential (see the photograph of him bowing in abject subservience to Modi in [Kishore 2020]). When, despite their modest powers, BJP state governments still manage achievements, the credit goes to Modi (Deshpande et al 2020). When Modi takes gambles, unlike Xi Jinping, Donald Trump and some other authoritarians, he does not permit subordinates to play important roles, so that they become ‘fall guys’ if things go wrong (Manor 2020a). Modi must always be in command on his own. With no second line of leadership, how can a convincing successor be found? Modi appears to enjoy excellent health, but he is 70 years old. 

As the classic study of competitive authoritarianism notes, “Where governing parties were weak … succession issues frequently destabilized competitive authoritarian regimes” (Levitsky and Way 2010: 348). If the cult collapsed, it is possible–perhaps likely–that competitive authoritarianism would not endure. The recent trend towards radical deinstitutionalisation could give way to its opposite: political regeneration. Institutions that have been stripped of autonomy and power could claw those things back, as leaders within them wish to do.  

Regeneration is a genuine possibility because it has happened before in India. For most of the period between 1971 and 1989, Indira Gandhi first undermined nearly all political institutions in order to exercise personal rule, and then her son Rajiv largely sustained that. But for 25 years after 1989, when no party could win a parliamentary majority, massive powers flowed away from the PMO to other institutions at the national and state levels—a remarkable example of institutional regeneration (Manor 2016a). Since 2014, that process has been reversed, but since regeneration happened once, it could recur.  

Can popular adherence to religious polarisation and majoritarian perspectives compensate for the loss of the indispensable leader and sustain competitive authoritarianism in a post-Modi era? Those two themes loomed large in voters’ minds between 2014 and 2019 (Heath 2020: 206–07). But earlier, for decades, Indians tended not to fix tenaciously upon any of the numerous identities available to them—of which their religious identity was just one among many. Instead, they shifted their preoccupations from one identity to another, and then another—often and with great fluidity (Manor 2016b). That constructively fickle tendency, which prevented tension and conflict from building up along one fault line in society, might reassert itself.  

India’s sophisticated electorate has also been demanding and impatient: ousting eight of 12 national governments and roughly 70% of state governments since 1977—extremely high rejection rates by international standards. That too could make a comeback. We may not have seen the last of fluidity and voter impatience. The long-term prospects of India’s poorly institutionalised and shallowly rooted competitive authoritarianism are open to serious doubt.

 

 

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