Always a rather grubby affair, as if put together by minimally competent quiet quitters, Indian democracy is now in serious trouble. To be sure, its formalistic trappings remain in place. Nearly a billion Indians will file into polling stations starting on 19 April. The world’s biggest election to date will take place in seven phases staggered over a Trussly span of 44 days. Results will be announced on 4 June.

Yet what will transpire will not be, in any meaningful sense, an electoral contest. Narendra Modi, India’s ruler since 2014, will trounce his rivals for a third time. And if the cards appear stacked in his favour, it’s because he owns the pack. Cobbled together at the eleventh hour, the hapless, heteroclite alliance ranged against him, the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance — INDIA for short — has had to suspend campaigning for want of funds; its bank accounts have been frozen by Modi’s government ostensibly on account of tax evasion.

Smaller parties, too, don’t stand a chance. Arvind Kejriwal, locally in power in devolved Delhi, has recently joined some of his party mates in prison. Kickbacks on liquor contracts are alleged, though everyone sees the ruse for what it is: a means to destroy the Common Man’s Party, which has for long been a burr in the ruling BJP’s saddle.

What of popular protest? Revolting farmers calling for higher procurement prices for wheat and rice, both Indian staples, learned their lesson in a hard school last month, when police and paramilitary forces were set on them. During the pandemic, the tractor classes had dealt a major blow to Modi, who was forced to climb down on agrarian reform — allowing big business to enter the wholesale market — in the face of a Delhi blockade. This time around, however, Delhi’s ruler gave no quarter. Farmers beat a hasty retreat as drones rained smoke bombs and tear gas upon them. On pain of fines and even imprisonment, social media apparatchiks were arm-twisted into blocking accounts critical of Modi and suppressing reports about the protests. To Elon Musk’s credit, though, X went public about government intimidation where previously Twitter had quietly gone along.

As for the press and television, the less said the better. The latest World Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters Without Borders, ranks India below Afghanistan and Libya; in a list of 180 countries, India comes in at 161st place. This in a land that, at the height of the Cold War, was arguably the freest between Berlin and Sakhalin. These days, however, a single critical piece of reporting is sufficient to warrant the taxman’s — or the policeman’s — knock on the door, as the BBC discovered last year.

Nearing 10 years in power, Modi hasn’t held a single press conference. His favourite Bollygarchs, Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani, both cronies of old, have a stranglehold on the legacy media. Ambani controls 70 outlets, which have a combined viewership and readership of 800 million. Meanwhile, the last independent network of sorts, NDTV, fell in 2022 to Adani, whose chartered plane Modi used on the campaign trail. Since the Prime Minister’s election, Adani has serendipitously scooped up all manner of contracts from airports to seaports, petroleum to edible oil.

As with the press, so with the judiciary. Time and again, the Supreme Court has proven itself as little more than the current ruler’s rubber stamp, ruling in Delhi’s favour over the construction of the Ram Temple atop the ruins of the razed Babri Mosque; over the suspension of rights in the disputed northern enclave of Jammu and Kashmir, whose residents were denied internet and phone access for 18 months; over Aadhar, a comprehensive China-style biometric database designed to be used, inevitably, as a mass surveillance tool.

Last month came a belated display of juridical independence: the Supreme Court scrapped electoral bonds — backhanders by another name — which in recent years had become the main source of campaign finance. Too late. The BJP has already raked in £600 million from them, as against the Congress Party’s £140 million. No surprise there. The donors — in the main mining and construction magnates tangled in red tape — naturally preferred the incumbents to their opponents.

The Congress, it is true, doesn’t inspire much confidence. That it ruled virtually uninterrupted from independence in 1947 to Modi’s election in 2014 — 54 of those 67 years — was in itself a little miracle, thanks in no small part to its historical role in displacing colonial rule, and the distorting effects of the Westminster system that guaranteed it supernumerary representation in parliament. Still, each passing decade registered growing disaffection with Congress misrule: bovine growth rates in the Fifties; wars in the Sixties; dictatorship in the Seventies; pogroms in the Eighties; corruption in the Nineties and 2000s.

By 2014, the Congress had run out of steam. Worse, it was hoist with its own petard. Decades of cosseting Hindu nationalists in its ranks had paradoxically mainstreamed their outré ideology. Similarly, just as the first-past-the-post system had worked to its advantage from the Fifties on, it now benefitted the BJP. In 2014, with 31% of the vote, Modi commanded 52% of parliament. Conversely, with its 19% vote share, the Congress boasted a mere 8% of lawmakers.

Now, it seems, we’re in for a repeat performance. Polls predict a BJP sweep. Modi’s coalition is set to win three quarters of the seats. If playing dirty works for Modi, he has been helped along by his duff opposition. Led in name only by the Congress president, Mallikarjun Kharge, a cipher by all accounts, the face of INDIA in fact is Rahul Gandhi, fourth-generation nepo baby and loser of the last two elections, now awaiting his third drubbing. Watching him on the hustings is a painful experience. He comes across as insufferably smug — also humourless, guileless and entirely lacking in irony. Modi, by contrast, laces his speeches with sarcasm, revelling in the double entendre and bon mot. Substantively, Gandhi’s pitch consists of no more than a vague rehearsal of multicultural shibboleths. Stylistically, he affects the élan of a cut-price Modi: scraggly beard, staccato delivery, superfluous appeals to piety.

“The fact remains, though it is unfashionable to point it out, that the people never really took to this democracy business.”

All the same, too much should not be made of these personal defects, or indeed of Modi’s strengths. For there is a third dimension enabling India’s slide into dictatorship (or, at any rate, “electoral autocracy”, the more precise expression favoured by political scientists): the Indian masses. The fact remains, though it is unfashionable to point it out, that the people never really took to this democracy business. But one can hardly blame them. As the economist Pranab Bardhan has argued in a superbly lucid analysis, democracy was imposed from on high by competing Indian elites, none of whom were strong enough to rule single-handedly. Indian democracy was, above all, a gentlemen’s agreement. Liberty, equality, and fraternity had nothing to do with it.

Properly speaking, the people themselves have had a say only in a handful of elections — the two following the dictatorship of the Seventies, and the six between 1989 and 2004. Before that, India was essentially a one-party state, a state of affairs to which the country has now once again returned. Then as now, structural reasons — political violence; business backing; media clientelism; mass defection — conspire against a free and fair vote.

The upshot has been political ossification. In the grey expanse of ramshackle slums, where scavenging counts as gainful employment, politicians’ promises are understandably received with cynicism, even incredulity. Decades have gone by since independence, and India has nothing by way of a national health service to show for it. State schooling remains a shambles. A recent study found that less than a third of 10-year-olds could handle basic maths. Only 84 million — 6% of Indians — make more than $10 a day.

Yet, at a popular level, inequities provoke little resentment. For vertical deference counts for more than horizontal solidarity. The average Indian looks up to his betters, and shares no fellow feeling with his equals. To the latter sentiment is attached the rank odour of Marxism — by turns foreign, unnatural and even a little sinister. G.K. Chesterton held that “the oligarchic character of the modern English commonwealth does not rest, like many oligarchies, on the cruelty of the rich to the poor. It does not even rest on the kindness of the rich to the poor. It rests on the perennial and unfailing kindness of the poor to the rich.” Nowhere is this truer than in India.

Here, in a nutshell, is how the caste system is sustained, every stratum content with its station. Against this backdrop, elections degenerate into computational games played out in panelled boardrooms, with parties vying for the support of “caste leaders”, who, in exchange for public sinecures, deliver votes en bloc. Democracy proper, needless to say, can hardly thrive in cultural conditions where individuality is at such a discount.

Indeed, no observer of the Indian scene can fail to note the oppressive conformity — ideological; cultural; sartorial — of the place, of an order with few world-historical equivalents outside the Muslim world. From haircuts to home décor, one is hard-pressed to detect even a hint of deviancy. Outside elite ghettoes, public displays of heterosexual, let alone homosexual, affection are as rare as alien sightings. Women remain practically absent from the workplace; the female participation rate hovers around the 28% mark.

Pop culture offers no respite. Barring the odd tour de force such as the Amazon show Pataal Lok, a coruscating, chiaroscuro masterpiece that pulls no punches in depicting the dregs of Delhi, film and television rarely deviate from the usual formula: slapstick snoozefests interspersed with mechanical dancing and nationalist propaganda; think Adam Sandler meets Jane Fonda with hints of Leni Riefenstahl. The premise, invariably, is boy meets girl, something which is all too rare in the real world. Marriages — few of which are open (quelle horreur), mixed (caste taboos apply), or liable to termination (1% of Indian marriages end in divorce, as against 42% in Britain) — are customarily brokered by parental fiat.

Intellectually speaking, what was once a luminous world of letters is now a backwater. Time was when — as late as the Nineties — the hottest name was Vikram Seth, a terrific prose stylist unafraid to tackle the darker recesses of Indian culture. His heirs, if they can be called that, are Chetan Bhagat and Amish Tripathi, both subliterate dispensers of postcard schlock. Tellingly, their celebrity rests not on their vapid writing but their vigorous cheerleading for Modi.

The review and opinion pages, likewise, used to be a punchier affair. There was a real joy to be had leafing through the latest number of Seminar, Quest, Swarajya, even the Economic Weekly. The latter nowadays throws its writers under the bus, pulling pieces to placate offended industrialists. The leading dailies, for their part, simply toe the party line. Real investigative reporting is left to the dissident press — the likes of Caravan, Scroll, and The Wire, which eke out a tenuous existence amid spurious lawsuits and tax raids. Anti-caste academics and activists are routinely carted off to jail on trumped-up charges of conspiracy.

All of this evidently enjoys popular approval. With polls showing that 85% of Indians express a preference for autocratic or military rule, one can only conclude that the vast majority of Indians don’t exactly swear by democracy. On the eve of what promises to be a sham election, with opposition leaders in prison and party funds frozen, it seems they have finally got what they wanted.

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