Nation & World

Dark concerns over upcoming vote in world’s largest democracy

Sugata Bose (from left), Sandipto Dasgupta, Sushant Singh, and Raheel Dhattiwala.

Sugata Bose (from left), Sandipto Dasgupta, Sushant Singh, and Raheel Dhattiwala shared expert insights on the upcoming general election in India, kicking off the “India Votes” series.

Niles Singer/Harvard Staff Photographer

5 min read

Social scientists discuss controversial Indian prime minister Modi, rise of right-wing populism, erosion of political journalism

A group of Harvard social scientists launched a four-part series last week previewing the high-stakes 2024 general election in India, expected to draw a record turnout in the world’s most populous nation, where more than 986 million are registered to vote.

The balloting will decide the political makeup of Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of Parliament. It will also determine whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a hard-line Hindu nationalist, will remain in power for a third term. The “India Votes” series kicked off with a conversation interrogating the very nature of democracy in the vast, multi-ethnic society, with Modi’s leadership proving a central theme.

Today India faces challenges that will be familiar to anyone in the Harvard community, noted series co-organizer Maya Jasanoff ’96, the X.D. and Nancy Yang Professor and Coolidge Professor of History. “The rise of right-wing populism has been a subject of global significance,” she said. “Concerns about media coverage of political campaigns are highly pertinent. …. And India’s international presence has been shaped by an increasingly large diaspora population, particularly here in the United States.”

Hindus make up the largest religious group in the nation at about 80 percent. The political, economic, and social persecution of India’s religious minorities figured prominently in the conversation, sponsored by multiple academic departments and global centers, including the Harvard University Asia Center, Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute, and Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.

Also central was what moderator Sugata Bose, the Gardiner Professor of Oceanic History and Affairs, called India’s “fascinating case study of the struggle to establish democratic norms” after freeing itself from the authoritarianism of British colonial rule in 1947.

The expert on modern South Asia and Indian Ocean history opened the discussion with a chronicle of his own service in the Lok Sabha, or House of the People, between 2014 and 2019, just as Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (B.J.P.) swept to national power.

“In my very first speech, I tried to issue a warning not to confuse majoritarianism with democracy and uniformity with unity, having noted that the House of the People did not reflect the rich diversity of India as well as it should,” recalled Bose, whose latest book is the just released “Asia After Europe: Imagining a Continent in the Long Twentieth Century.”  

As the evening’s three panelists took turns giving prepared remarks, Sandipto Dasgupta, an assistant professor of politics at the New School, suggested the persistent focus on the size of India’s democracy distracts from more qualitative assessments of political leaders like Modi, the clear favorite according to recent polling.

“What we get is this idea of elections sans any kind of modernization, sans any kind of new politics — elections as just an exercise in adding large numbers,” said Dasgupta, whose “Legalizing the Revolution: India and the Constitution of the Postcolony” is available this month. “We get this peculiar idea of a deeply undemocratic set of politicians who believe in elections very, very much.”

Sushant Singh, a senior fellow at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research think tank, underscored this point, noting that North Korea is one of the more than 60 countries with elections in 2024.

The political scientist, veteran journalist, and former Indian military officer also testified to the diminished state of India’s political press, which he accused of failing in its role as a pillar of democracy.

“When Trump won [in the U.S.], Margaret Sullivan at The New York Times wrote that journalists are going to have to be better, stronger, more courageous,” Singh said. “In India, the journey has been in the opposite direction after Modi won in May 2014. Media have become a cruel propaganda arm of the government and ruling party.”

Raheel Dhattiwala, an independent sociologist who is currently a fellow with the University of Heidelberg, spoke to the use of violence for winning elections. She cited the anti-Muslim riots that occurred in Gujarat in 2002, when Modi was the Indian state’s chief minister and widely perceived to have supported the attacks.

“The greatest violence was in places where the B.J.P. faced the greatest electoral competition — not where it was strong or weak,” said the former journalist, who published “Keeping the Peace: Spatial Differences in Hindu-Muslim Violence in Gujarat in 2002” five years ago.

Mob violence like that is hardly necessary today, Dhattiwala argued. “You no longer need to feel any shame in expressing hatred for a minority group,” she said.

Some in the audience pushed back on these analyses during the question-and-answer session. One attendee challenged the panelists to list a positive accomplishment of the Indian government over the last 10 years. Another requested something — anything — to end on a hopeful note.

“As I sit here, I’m a little struck by what to me feels like the narrowness of the case you make,” said Mittal Institute Executive Director Hitesh Hathi, M.A. ’97, one of the last in the audience to speak.

He listed examples of political violence and abuse of state power occurring in Indian states controlled by parties other than the B.J.P. “So there is a larger political problem,” Hathi said. “If we only focus on one party and one system and one man, it feels to me like we are perhaps missing the problem and a possible solution, which I would argue comes from the deep roots of democracy in South Asian soil.”

“India Votes” continues on March 25 with associate professor of history Arunabh Ghosh scheduled to preside over a virtual conversation featuring perspectives from India’s neighbors. Social studies lecturer Vatsal Naresh will lead an April 8 panel of journalists who have reported on Indian politics nationally and internationally. Jasanoff will close out the series on April 16 with a focus on South Asians in the U.S.