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The World’s Largest Election Ever Is Neither Free Nor Fair

If Modi and the BJP win a third term, it may spell the end of India’s democracy, with serious global repercussions.

A woman shows her inked finger after casting her vote in front of a mural of the Indian national flag at a polling station during the fifth phase of voting in India's general election, near Kolkata, India, on May 20, 2024.

From April 19 through June 1, 969 million voters in India will have voted in seven phases to elect the next national government, with results to be announced on June 4.

This is the largest election ever in human history. The Indian electorate is larger than the entire population of the European Union, and larger than the combined electorates of seven other countries with elections in 2024: Indonesia, the United States, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Russia, Mexico and South Africa.

It’s also an election marred by a torrent of hate propaganda. Depending on the outcome, it could ring the death knell for India’s democracy, with serious global repercussions.

Early Indian Fascism

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Narendra Modi is a fascist party, something that’s known to serious scholars of Indian history and politics, but normalized by much of the global political and media establishment.

The BJP is the electoral front of another organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which was founded in 1925. B.S. Moonje, a mentor of the founder of the RSS, traveled to Italy, met Mussolini and advised the RSS to emulate the Italian fascists’ indoctrination of youth.

M.S. Golwalkar, an early RSS leader, praised the Nazi purge of Jews as a “good lesson for us in [India] to learn and profit by” in the mission to “keep up the purity of the nation and its culture.” The “purity” he was referring to was an India where Muslims and other religious minorities would become second-class citizens, and Islamic influence on Indian culture would be eradicated.

Indian Fascism Today

The BJP and RSS today have not strayed from these fascist roots. In India under BJP rule, more than two million people in the northeastern state of Assam who weren’t able to provide birth certificates and other documentation proving their citizenship have been accused of being undocumented immigrants, stripped of their citizenship, and held in indefinite detention in violation of international law. Muslims, women and transgender people have been disproportionately targeted for loss of citizenship. To put this in context, many Indians don’t have birth certificates and other official documents, particularly in rural regions (about 65% of the population) and in lower income groups. The intent is clearly to disenfranchise people the government views as undesirable.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Narendra Modi is a fascist party normalized by much of the global political and media establishment.

In an affront to India’s secular Constitution, the BJP government has changed naturalization laws to provide citizenship to immigrants from neighboring countries — except if they’re Muslim. Activists protesting against this discriminatory law have been charged under sedition and counterterrorism laws.

India’s human rights abuses don’t end at the border either, as shown by the Indian government’s assassination of a Sikh activist in Canada, and the conspiracy to assassinate another Sikh activist in the U.S. Sikh organizations in North America have documented a wide range of other Indian government abuses targeting the Sikh community, including surveillance, harassment and doxing.

Neither Free Nor Fair

Democracy advocates have serious concerns about the integrity of India’s ongoing elections.

Recently, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that the Electoral Bonds Scheme, in which political donors can buy bonds and donate them to political parties, is unconstitutional. The BJP-led government introduced this illegal policy in 2018, and was its biggest beneficiary until it was struck down in March of this year.

BJP leaders, including Prime Minister Modi, have used dangerous Islamophobic rhetoric on the campaign trail. Hate speech during an election campaign is a violation of the Election Commission of India (ECI) Model Code of Conduct, and is also potentially illegal in India. However, the ECI has not responded adequately to complaints about Modi’s rhetoric, issuing only one notice that didn’t even mention Modi by name. In the past, the ECI has built a reputation as a credible, unbiased election monitoring body. But its inaction on this matter raises serious concerns about how the BJP has undermined India’s democratic institutions.

The fascist governments and movements in various countries are already interconnected, even though they don’t yet have a formal alliance. If such an Axis does emerge, it will be a grave global threat.

There are reports of opposition candidates facing threats and harassment, sometimes being forced to withdraw their candidacy, and of Muslim voters being coerced into not voting in Modi’s home state of Gujarat.

The free flow of accurate information, critical at all times and particularly before and during an election, is also threatened, with social media accounts of critics of Hindu nationalism being blocked in India.

Reporters Without Borders has warned of a particularly hostile climate for journalism in India on the eve of the election, making it likely that accurate reporting on irregularities in the conduct of the election will be difficult.

India’s Democracy Is a Global Concern

The outcome of the election is still an open question, but if the intimidation and manipulation work as intended, the incumbent party will win, with disastrous consequences for democracy. If the BJP wins a third term in power, they may feel emboldened to escalate their agenda of dismantling India’s secular constitution and its remaining democratic institutions.

Social movements in India, the leading edge of resistance to the Modi regime, are themselves under relentless attack. International solidarity with Indian movements, and international pressure on the Indian government, are essential.

The Indian farmers’ movement, regarded as the largest protest movement in world history, forced the authoritarian Modi government to withdraw its unjust farm procurement bills in November 2021. While most of the credit goes to the farmers themselves, the outpouring of global solidarity from farmers’ and workers’ organizations, sections of the global Indian diaspora, the global youth climate movement, and various other social sectors exerted additional pressure on the Indian government. International pressure is not a magic bullet, but it helps.

Besides being the right thing to do, it’s also in the self-interest of people worldwide to prevent India from sliding into full-blown fascism. It is, after all, the world’s second most populous country, home to more than one-sixth of the world’s population. And it’s in the grip of a ruthless government that’s actively targeting citizens and residents of other countries, including the U.S., in its war against dissidents.

The U.S. is appeasing the fascist Indian regime for short-sighted, self-interested reasons including the business interests of major technology companies and the United States’ geopolitical rivalry with China.

The consolidation of a fascist regime in India could conceivably lead to the re-emergence of a global fascist Axis. Hungary and Italy are already ruled by protofascist governments, and other countries, such as the U.S. and France have increasingly bold domestic fascist movements. The fascist governments and movements in various countries are already interconnected, even though they don’t yet have a formal alliance.

If such an Axis does emerge, it will be a grave global threat. The last time that democratic governments tried to appease a fascist regime, it led to the Holocaust and the Second World War.

People in the U.S. should be particularly concerned, because the Indian far right has ties with the fascist movement in the U.S., and is increasingly active in U.S. electoral politics. The Lieutenant Governor of Maryland and at least one member of Congress have ties to the Hindu far right. In a recent Democratic primary election in Pennsylvania, progressive incumbent Summer Lee faced a challenger backed by far right Hindu groups.

U.S. Silence

In spite of the compelling reasons why the global community needs to speak up for human rights, democracy and free and fair elections in India, the U.S. government has been strangely silent. The State Department routinely voices concerns about the integrity of elections in other countries, but hasn’t said a word about the Indian elections.

The State Department’s report on human rights in India accurately portrays specific violations, such as the violence against Indigenous peoples in the northeastern state of Manipur, and extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances by security forces in many parts of the country, but fails to name the underlying trend towards a fascist, theocratic Hindu state.

Most disturbingly, President Biden welcomed Prime Minister Modi to the White House in June 2023, when he likely already knew of the Indian government plot to assassinate a U.S. citizen. Even as Modi was in the White House, his government was pointedly ignoring state-sponsored violence against Indigenous peoples in the northeastern state of Manipur. What Biden may have said to Modi in private is irrelevant — what matters is that he didn’t bother to raise any of these concerns publicly before or during Modi’s visit.

The U.S. is appeasing the fascist Indian regime for short-sighted, self-interested reasons including the business interests of major technology companies, such as Google and Amazon, and the United States’ geopolitical rivalry with China.

As U.S. residents, we have the ability and the responsibility to pressure our own government to put human rights, democracy and a more holistic view of U.S. interests over these narrow considerations, and start publicly treating the war on democracy in India as the global crisis that it is.

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