Narendra Modi Is Preparing New Attacks on Democratic Rights

Narendra Modi is the strong favorite to win a third term as India’s prime minister when elections begin this week. Modi and his allies have prepared a new round of repressive policies to consolidate their Hindu chauvinist project after the vote.

India's prime minister Narendra Modi speaks after releasing the Bharatiya Janata Party's manifesto in New Delhi on April 14, 2024. (Sajjad Hussain / AFP via Getty Images)

Over the last ten years, governmental power and command over material resources have further extended Hindutva’s ideological appeal and its organizational implantation in Indian society. In this year’s election, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Narendra Modi does not merely want to secure a majority of seats as before or return to power with its National Democratic Alliance (NDA) partners. It wants to elect 370 or more MPs, giving the party a two-thirds majority in the Lok Sabha (LS) after the elections.

This outcome is highly improbable but not impossible. The recently formed Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) bloc includes the Indian National Congress, the mainstream left parties, and many regional parties that saw their electoral bases in national and state elections eaten away by the BJP when they previously formed alliances with it.

However, these parties have no common vision or agreed, meaningful program. Hostility to the BJP is the main glue holding them together and almost all of them, including the Congress but with the exception of the Left, have a soft Hindutva posture. Moreover, in some states there are unresolved clashes over seat distribution between the major non-BJP contending parties.

The INDIA bloc believes that the BJP will easily remain the single largest party but hopes that its tally will fall sufficiently to create the possibility of a non-BJP coalition government — a forlorn hope, it must be said.

Constitutional Change

State elections in India are largely desynchronized from general elections. Between December 2024 and December 2027, some seventeen states will have to go to the polls. If the BJP makes significant gains in all of these elections, it will enhance its numbers in the Rajya Sabha (RS) Upper House, whose MPs are elected through a proportional-representation, single-transferable system of voting by the elected members of the state assemblies. RS MPs sit for staggered terms lasting six years, with one-third of the current 233 designates up for elections every two years, namely in 2024, 2026, and 2028.

Some constitutional amendments can be made with a majority in both houses, which the BJP could well obtain. More drastic overhauls of the constitution would require a two-thirds majority in both houses. The BJP could then, with compliance from Supreme Court (SC) senior judges including the chief justice, change the very character of the constitution to grant de jure status to an India that many would say is already to a great extent becoming a de facto Hindu nation and state!

This is why the BJP has pulled out all the stops to ensure that this LS election process is weighted in its favor. Firstly, the three-member Election Commission (EC) is now packed with Modi favorites. It has the final word on all controversies regarding electoral violations, including what constitutes hate speech.

Secondly, the SC judges only mustered the courage after a seven-year delay to declare the electoral bonds scheme for large donations to political parties unconstitutional, on the grounds that it denied the public the right to know which donors (corporations or others) gave how much to which party. Only the BJP in government knew. Now that the names, sums, and dates of payments have been revealed, strong circumstantial evidence shows shell companies funneling money to the BJP and widespread extortion and bribery by the powers that be.

The BJP’s dominant influence over the big print and electronic media chains means that it is confident of minimizing the negative fallout from these revelations. The main thing is that the BJP got the lion’s share of such funding for campaigning and other purposes.

Thirdly, government agencies are arresting senior opposition leaders on the mere suspicion of financial wrongdoing, using a Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) that shifts the burden of proof onto the accused and can allow for detention without bail for as long as the investigation may take.

Those targeted in this way include two non-BJP chief ministers, Hemant Soren and Arvind Kejriwal, of the states of Jharkhand and Delhi respectively. This week, a Delhi court rejected the application for bail from Kejriwal, convenor of the Aam Aadmi Party, and extended his time in custody until April 23 at least. Kejriwal’s chances of being released before the elections conclude are low.

In contrast, hardly any BJP leader has faced government raids for alleged illegalities in the last six years. Since 2014, of the twenty-five prominent opposition leaders facing corruption cases who then joined the BJP, twenty-three obtained full relief.

Fourthly, there are genuine and legitimate worries about the possibility of electronic voting machine (EVM) manipulations. This is demonstrated by the experience of many developed countries that first tried and then abandoned EVMs because they wanted maximum verifiability and secrecy in the electoral process. India’s EC has not taken any of these concerns on board.

After the Polls

In terms of policy, how different is the BJP from its predecessors in power? The first BJP-led coalition governments, in office from 1998–99 to 2004, were headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. They embraced the economic shift toward a compensatory form of neoliberalism first carried out in 1992 by the Congress-led government, as well as its post–Cold War turn toward strategic realignment with the United States and Israel.

While continuing down the same road after his 2014 victory, Narendra Modi made sure that his favored crony capitalists from his years as Gujarat’s chief minister would also become the most favored crony capitalists at a national level and among the top Indian transnational companies. In September 2020, the government introduced three laws to promote contractualization and corporatization of agricultural production, processing, distribution, and retailing that would initiate a dynamic of steady polarization of landholdings.

These laws were repealed in December 2021 because of massive farmer mobilizations. However, more than two years later, the government has not conceded the key demands of the farmers. The farmers secured a defensive victory, preventing further deterioration but not advancing their economic situation. In the coming period, there will be more careful and graduated efforts on the part of the BJP to achieve what those earlier farm laws aimed to do.

On the external front, Hindutva’s ideological distinctiveness was expressed at two levels. First of all, it openly declared India’s status as a nuclear power in 1998. Second, because it sees Zionist Israel as an example to learn from and follow in addressing India’s “Muslim problem” in Kashmir and elsewhere, it has gone beyond previous governments in downgrading relations with Palestine.

The distinctive danger of the BJP/Sangh lies on the domestic political-cultural front. The basic framework guiding its actions is as follows:

  1. Eliminate or subordinate all electoral and political rivals.
  2. Hollow out the structures of democracy and federalism.
  3. Terrorize and ghettoize Muslims to make them second-class citizens and politically obedient.
  4. Restrict the space for and willingness to dissent.
  5. Impose ideological homogenization in media and education to make Hindu nationalism the dominant and enduring common sense that most defines India.

Over the last ten years, the BJP has taken significant strides at all five levels in pursuit of the Hindutva project. During Modi’s third term, his government will apply more such measures, and we can anticipate some of these actions since the grounds have already been laid. We will focus here on four such areas: the CAA/NPR/NRC process; the One Nation, One Poll (ONOP) project; school education; and the three new criminal laws coming into force from July 1, 2024, that ostensibly replace colonial laws of repression and sedition but actually make them worse.


The December 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act for the first time introduced religious discrimination, specifically against Muslims, into the principle of citizenship. This is why it provoked major popular street and public sit-in protests, often with Muslim women in the forefront.

According to the CAA, if non-Muslim communities (the overwhelming majority of which are Hindus) came from the three neighboring countries of Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan before the end of 2014, they would be eligible for citizenship after five years. These minorities are assumed to be persecuted but not legally defined as such, since otherwise it would be necessary to prove that status.

After these elections, a National Population Register (NPR) will be carried out, probably alongside the decadal census that was postponed in 2021 owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. The NPR is supposed to eventually enable the completion of a National Register of Citizens.

Another anticipated benefit of the NPR will be its large-scale data input that can enable more comprehensive state surveillance. This process gathered great steam through the digitalization program to establish for everyone a unique identification “Aadhar” number that is linked to demographic and biometric data stored by the government. There are ongoing efforts to insist on linking this number to all kinds of personal transactions.

Besides the Aadhar number, the NPR demands that people supply the numbers of their passport, mobile phone, voter ID card, and driving license, as well as their mother tongue and parents’ place and date of birth. Depending on the gaps in the data collected, there will be a new huge category of “Doubtful Citizens.” In Assam, the one state where the NRC exercise took place in 2013–19, the failure rate comprised 6 percent of its thirty-three million residents. If we extrapolate this figure nationally, it would be around eighty million people.

There will be special government-appointed committees and tribunals to handle the appeals for reconsideration and give the final verdict. Huge numbers of mass detention centers separate from existing jails are to be built in the states for those finally declared to be stateless illegal migrants who will endure long-term incarceration.

The CAA will provide an escape route for many Hindus, probably most, but not all of them. Muslims who do not have the required documents will suffer disproportionately, and there is no extradition treaty with Bangladesh and Pakistan. A few opposition-ruled states have said they will oppose this overall process, but most states will not.

Professor Faizan Mustafa, constitutional expert and vice chancellor of Hyderabad’s NALSAR University of Law, has said of this NRC process:

In a polarised environment of today, Muslims, liberals and political dissenters will be the primary targets of exclusion through this draconian provision. Similarly, poor people, illiterate, landless, women and orphans may be marked as doubtful citizens. This will also lead to a lot of corruption as these officials may seek illegal gratification to remove the doubtful tag.

To the benefit of the BJP government, the SC has repeatedly delayed taking the matter up in the more than four years since the CAA became law, let alone issue a ruling on its unconstitutionality.

One Nation, One Poll

The next census will show a relative increase in population in the poorer northern and central states where the BJP/Sangh have more sway as compared to the south where women are better off and have fewer children. There will then be gerrymandering to create more electoral constituencies and to redraw their boundaries to suit the BJP at the national and state levels.

A presidential committee has already recommended the ONOP system, explaining how to synchronize national and state-level terms of office. Implementing this would require a two-thirds majority in both houses, ratification by half the states, and endorsement from a SC that has in certain cases betrayed its role as guardian of the constitution’s “basic structure.” Even if the BJP falls short of the required number of MPs, it will resort to other means to encourage defectors and party breakaways to merge or ally with it.

ONOP would enable national-level issues to subsume regional and local concerns that come to the fore during state assembly elections. ONOP may not eliminate all these regional parties, but it can significantly hurt their electoral prospects, making their subordination to the national government more likely.

The ONOP project is a new addition to a wider armory of efforts to tighten central control over the states. These have included greater centralization of taxation measures such as the Goods and Services Tax (GST); the appointment of pro-BJP governors to discipline state governments in various ways; and the dispatch of special central investigative and disciplinary agencies, even though law and policing is supposed to be a state prerogative. The overall result has been not just a serious weakening of the federal structure but a sharpening of India’s north-south divide, which could in time reach a level never before seen.

School Education

Since 2014, the Modi government has sought to expand the teaching and influence of Hindutva ideology in the education system. There is a general neoliberal policy of promoting the privatization of third-level education of all kinds. Under this orientation, colleges under the umbrella of an overarching university system are receiving much greater autonomy to frame their own courses.

Meanwhile, central universities (like Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University) and public universities in states controlled by the BJP have undergone a dramatic overhaul, especially in the social science and history departments where students would otherwise tend to become more critical of Hindutva-type thinking. The BJP has carried out this transformation from the top, first by having their own people appointed at the higher administrative levels, then by manipulation in selecting and promoting teachers, making curriculum and course changes and imposing a general degeneration in the democratic character of campus political-cultural life.

But education starts at the school level. Most schools, public and private, follow the syllabus and the final board exams set by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE). The CBSE in turn bases its teaching courses on textbooks published by the National Council for Education Research and Training (NCERT) for classes up to the twelfth grade. Unsurprisingly, there have been curriculum changes and substantial rewriting of textbooks to promote erroneous and dishonest Hindutva views of Indian history and politics, both ancient and modern.

In late 2021, a new policy emerged. Public-private partnerships and shared funding would now help set up one hundred secondary level “Army Schools.” These are different from the thirty-three existing publicly funded schools under the Ministry of Defense that prepare students for taking and passing the National Defense Academy entrance exams so they can eventually become officers in the Indian Armed Forces.

Between May 2022 and December 2023, forty privately owned schools with different fee structures signed memorandums of agreement with the government along the new policy lines. It now transpires that 60 percent of these schools are run by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and allied organizations as well as BJP politicians, Hindu religious bodies, and other Hindutva soulmates. The determination of the BJP/Sangh to ideologically transform the officer corps within the armed forces in their own image should be obvious.

Three New Criminal Laws

Besides giving Hindi names and acronyms to the Code of Criminal Procedure (BNSS), Indian Penal Code (BNS), and the Indian Evidence Act (BSA), the substantive changes have made them worse than before. The main purpose is to curb dissent and frighten off opponents and critics by widening the remit of possible actions that can be criminally investigated and punished.

The draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) broadens the definition of a terrorist act. It does not necessarily have to be something that actually happens, but can encompass anything — including words — that either has the “intent” or is simply “likely” to threaten India’s “unity,” “integrity,” “security,” or “sovereignty,” or which generates a feeling (“likely to strike terror in the people or any section of the people in India or in any foreign country”).

The burden lies with the accused to prove their innocence. Under the terms of the UAPA, only the central National Investigative Agency could formulate this charge, but the BNS enables a regular police superintendent to do so.

The BNSS has extended the period in which suspects can be held in police custody, during which torture can take place, and made securing bail less easy. Any arrestee can now be handcuffed, in a break with the previous rule, while the police can take signatures, fingerprints, and voice samples from those not accused of any offense. Under the BSA, the authorities can seize electronic communications and devices of all kinds for investigative purposes.

The overall picture is depressing. But we must avoid false optimism, however consoling, and take an accurate measure of the enemy’s strength and expanding hegemony.

The biggest objective hurdle to the spread and consolidation of Hindutva forces remains the continental size of India and its linguistic, cultural, social, and political-electoral diversity. This guarantees that there will be popular resistance to economic distress, ecological degradation, and the erosion of democracy, not to mention caste, gender, class, and regional injustices.

The Left in particular must prepare itself and its cadres for these struggles. There is still all to fight for.