05/30/2014 11:01 am ET Updated Jul 30, 2014

Is India Tiring of Democracy?

Hindustan Times via Getty Images

The Indian electorate gave an overwhelming parliamentary majority to a man whom they expect to rule like a president, if not more. Narendra Modi, the newly minted Prime Minister of India and leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, is likely to oblige them, and more. Not only has Modi secured a mandate to be "strong and decisive," but what appeals to the Hindu majority that elected him is his ability to ride roughshod over the processes of government, apparently in the interest of "good governance."

There is widespread expectation that Modi's aggressive leadership will succeed in pushing through his business-friendly agenda to produce a quick dividend for a country that is going through a "revolution of rising expectations." The persona of political machismo was deliberately cultivated by Modi touting his top-down decision-making -- at the expense of "due process" -- that accelerated investment in Gujarat, the state he ruled for three terms.

Will Modi be able to do the same nationally, contend as he must eventually with a petulant parliament, a jealous bureaucracy and an activist judiciary, all in the view of the noisy national media? More precisely, is the country ready to coalesce around authoritarian capitalism, albeit with trappings of electoral democracy, jettisoning the Fabian democratic model inbuilt in the Indian constitution?

There are several reasons why India may be tiring of democracy. About 700 million Indians are below the age of 26, of whom nearly a 100 million joined the electoral rolls within the last five years. For these millennials there is only "one God, that is GDP," as the Economist notes. With a majority of the youth increasingly gravitating to urban centers, caste and other identity politics are being subsumed by the lure of consumerism. Added to this, television, Internet and social media have created an aspirational class that seems unmanageable for the prevailing political and bureaucratic culture.

Beyond the immediate provocations, there are also a number of "objective conditions" that are conducive to the rise of an authoritarian system. At the outset, Modi's victory can be seen as a triumph of the Hindu "cultural mainstream," over liberals who are deeply rooted in Western intellectual and political tradition. Author and self-styled sociologist Santosh Desai sees Modi's triumph as an expression of collective angst against the liberal elite who regard this cultural mainstream as "regressive, communal or chauvinistic," if not outright illegitimate. And the liberal elite, he says, "have no natural cultural resonance with the Indian reality." The cultural mainstream here refers to a vast swath of Hindu India that regards modernity as a mere means for material advancement and doubles down on Hindu civilizational pride, religious rituals, Hindi language and films.

If the recent elections were a watershed, it is only because the tables have turned in the long battle between the Hindu Left (reformists) and the Hindu Right (revivalists) that started in the early 19th century when the Hindu reform movement was launched not only to counter the cultural and moral superiority claimed by the "Christian" colonial masters, but for the political unification of Hindus seen as a necessary condition for (new) nation building.

The reformists under the Congress Party dominated the political landscape for the most part, particularly during the period when Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, held sway. The revivalists, subdued and even ostracized after Gandhi's assassination by a member of its ranks, have rebounded under the BJP in the 1990s. They accomplished this largely by 'scapegoating' the minorities, particularly Muslims, who (since the Partition of India) were merely incidental to what was really a civil war within the Hindu fold. But the significance of the BJP's electoral triumph under Modi is that for the first time the revivalists have come to power on their own steam and on their own terms. Now they will have the opportunity to define and actualize the Hindu idea of the state in all its manifestations.

It is not a secret that the revivalist creed advocates an authoritarian state, if not an outright Fascist one with its accent of racial purity and superiority. As essayist and author Pankaj Mishra wrote in The Guardian recently, it was not difficult for Modi to shrewdly deploy the "idioms of management, national security and civilizational glory" in a country "where many revere the author of Mein Kampf for his tremendous will to power and organisation." Clearly, the cultural mainstream has no qualms about it, lending credence to the long-held suspicion of some about the compatibility of Hinduism with democracy. Mishra, for instance, cites B.R. Ambedkar, the principle author of the Indian Constitution, as saying "Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic."

Even if such an assessment seems harsh, there is no denying that India in many respects is an illiberal democracy, with most of the power -- political, bureaucratic, military and corporate -- vested in the upper castes that constitute a mere 18 percent of the population. Most of rural India remains segregated along caste lines and most urban ghettos are divided on a communal basis. Outside of a small Westernized urban middle class, the status of women remains ever so unequal and insecure. Physical and structural violence against marginalized sections of the society is countenanced by the cultural mainstream, if not brazenly, certainly through indifference or hypocrisy. Vigilantism against the behavior or practices that are considered culturally alien, censorship of perceived insult to religious sentiments, and laws against religious conversion, etc. are only a shade less dangerous than how they are prevalent in Pakistan.

Against this backdrop, an authoritarian rule by Modi could only make an incremental difference, apparent only to the Westernized liberals. And what kind of systemic form that it is likely to take will depend less on Modi than on the cultural mainstream, whose sense of civilizational superiority has been growing in direct proportion to the growth of GDP, at least over the past two decades. If Modi can redeem his promise of 8 percent growth over the next 10 years, he can have his Hindu India.