India has never been a perfect democracy. But for decades it’s succeeded in being a representative one. Its politics are raucous, with dozens of parties and unwieldy ruling coalitions. This has long been a source of dismay to its influential middle class, who speak longingly of the “efficiency” they imagine one-party rule has delivered to countries as big as China and as tiny as Singapore.
Those Indians should beware what they wish for. Politically, if not constitutionally, India is edging ever closer to being a one-party state — closer than it’s been since the heyday of the Indian National Congress Party, which led the country to independence. In 2014, under Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party won an absolute majority of seats in parliament on its own, something that hadn’t happened in three decades. The party has since extended its dominance, sweeping to power in several more states this month including India’s most populous, Uttar Pradesh.
The opposition is in complete disarray. Congress appears to be in terminal decline. The party has no idea what it stands for, and the only thing holding it together is the increasingly unpopular Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. A much younger challenger, the Aam Aadmi Party, has been built up for years by the Delhi-based “national” media, but has struggled to expand outside the capital. And strong regional leaders can hold Modi at bay for only so long; he trounced two of them in Uttar Pradesh.
Modi has chosen to wield his mandate defiantly, ignoring those who argued that Uttar Pradesh voters were responding to his promises of jobs and economic development, and appointing an inexperienced priest-politician named Adityanath to run the state. “Yogi,” as he is known, is hardly the most inspiring of figures; Foreign Policy magazine declared in 2008 he was one of “the world’s worst religious leaders.” His speeches have consistently demonized Muslims; he’s even called for Hindu icons to be installed in every mosque in India. His views on women’s issues are equally clear and dispiriting: Their “energy” must be “channelled and regulated” so they can give birth to great men.
Uttar Pradesh is vast. Were it a separate country, it would be the world’s fourth-largest democracy. Its population is young, growing and jobless. Yet Gorakhpur, the northeastern city which Adityanath has represented for five terms in Parliament, is far from a model of development; it’s in fact one of the most depressing places I have ever visited. Industry and investment have passed it by. People talk in hushed tones of the power of the temple that Adityanath heads, and of the dreaded militia through which he rules the area.
Some observers think Modi is showing his real colors. Faced with a discredited and ineffectual opposition, the BJP can now become more truly itself. Perhaps that’s why not one of the 400-plus BJP candidates in Uttar Pradesh was a Muslim — although Muslims make up one-fifth of the state’s population. The political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta, writing in the Indian Express newspaper, argues that after its victory, “the BJP believes it can get away with anything.”
Another possibility, though, is that Modi is being carried along by the forces he’s unleashed. Indeed, some Uttar Pradesh voters would probably argue that he and the BJP haven’t been energetic enough on the social issues that Adityanath has made his own — such as “love jihad,” a ludicrous conspiracy theory which suggests Muslim boys are being trained in madrassas how to wear flashy clothes and ride off with Hindu girls on their motorcycles, thereby increasing the numbers of Muslims and coincidentally depriving deserving young Hindu men of mates. Adityanath might not have been Modi’s first choice — he prefers less charismatic state leaders — but, given the strength of such sentiments, the Prime Minister might have felt he had no other choice.
It’s worth remembering that Modi’s rise has shifted the political spectrum in India. Once, not so long ago, he represented the far right; today, he’s the center. Compared to Adityanath, certainly, Modi looks like a moderate.
That’s why the BJP’s extraordinary dominance of the political space is not without its dangers — even for Modi. Years ago, the BJP Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, after anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat, gently chided the fiery radical in charge of the state at the time, reminding him of his “rajdharma” — his duty as a leader. But that radical chief minister proved too popular for the centrist prime minister to remove. And today, Modi sits where Vajpayee did.
The BJP has never concealed its desire to crush its political opponents; one of its most popular slogans promises a “Congress-free India.” (Imagine the Democrats promising a “Republican-free America.”) But, whether Modi likes it or not, India is not China, or even Singapore. It is a real democracy, and democracies abhor vacuums. If the opposition to Modi doesn’t come from outside, and from the left, it will come from inside, and to his right.
(Mihir Sharma is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was a columnist for the Indian Express and the Business Standard, and he is the author of “Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy.”)