The Atlantic's Yascha Mounk argues that if you want to see the horrific autocratic fascism of a second Trump term, take a look at where India's Narendra Modi is now with his violent hypernationalism.
When I spent a month on a research trip to India in December 2014, half a year after Narendra Modi swept to power, the writers, academics, and intellectuals I met were engrossed in a debate that may now feel oddly familiar to Americans. They all disliked Modi, an ardent Hindu nationalist, because of his disdain for India’s secular constitution. But they were divided on the impact that his rule was likely to have on the basic freedoms they enjoyed.
Some people feared that Modi would quickly move to quash dissent; one even worried that he might soon land in prison for criticizing the government. Others waved such fears away as hyperbolic.
In his first five years in office, Modi did considerable damage, both to the freedoms his critics enjoyed and to the security of the country’s religious minorities. Social-media mobs intimidated anybody who dared to criticize his government. Media outlets allied with Modi stoked fears about Muslim men waging “love jihad” by marrying Hindu women. Mainstream newspapers that were once highly critical of Modi started to praise him with surprising regularity, and to criticize him with notable rarity. And in episodes of what Indians euphemistically call “communal violence,” Muslims were lynched by angry mobs.
The worst, however, was yet to come. After Modi won reelection with an even larger majority in the spring of this year, his government began to take radical action to unwind the secularism of India’s constitution, arguably doing more damage in the first months of its second term than it had in the previous five years. Some of the concerns about Modi that seemed exaggerated at the conclusion of his first term in office are now starting to look prescient.
During his reelection campaign, Modi vowed to introduce a national register of citizens, which would allow the government to keep better records and to expel unauthorized immigrants. This plan raised fears both among Hindu immigrants who came to the country decades ago after being expelled from neighboring countries such as Bangladesh and among Muslims who lack the necessary documentation to prove that they are in fact citizens. Once reelected, Modi proposed to help the former group by granting unauthorized immigrants from Muslim-majority countries—including Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan—an express path to naturalization if they belonged to a persecuted religious minority in their country of origin. In other words, Hindus who have no legal right to be in India would likely be able to stay, while many Muslims who have been in India for generations would face the threat of deportation—bringing India one step closer to the Hindu nation that Modi desires.
Over the past weeks, a large protest movement has formed to oppose these radical changes. In cities and universities across the country, citizens of every faith have rallied to defend the country’s secular constitution. The government’s response has been brutal: In some states, it has invoked colonial-era statutes to ban the assembly of more than five people. In other states, it has shut down the internet. Harrowing videos that quickly went viral show policemen roughing up Muslim students whom they suspect of having protested the government.
As Pratap Bhanu Mehta, the country’s preeminent political scientist, told me, in his first term, Modi focused on economic initiatives without ever distancing himself from Hindu nationalism. “In the second term, he has taken a more aggressive stand to enshrine Hindu majoritarianism in law and polarize public discourse,” Mehta said. “Even more worryingly, the use of the state apparatus to quell dissent and protest has increased markedly. In states like Uttar Pradesh, the police is cracking down on protesters from the minority community with unprecedented ferocity.”
Many observers of India have been surprised that Modi has grown so much more extreme in his second term in office. But a comparison of populist governments around the world suggests that India is following a predictable pattern of what would-be authoritarians do when they win reelection.
As we’ve seen in countries including Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela, populist leaders are at first hamstrung in their ability to concentrate power in their own hands. Many key institutions, including courts and electoral commissions, are still dominated by independent-minded professionals who do not owe their appointment to the new regime. Media outlets are still able and willing to report on scandals, forcing the government to tread somewhat carefully.
Once these governments win reelection, these constraints begin to fall away. As the independent-minded judges and civil servants depart, populist leaders feel emboldened to pursue their illiberal dreams.
Replace "Hindu" with "Christian" and you already have the Trump regime's deportation plan under Stephen Miller. Give them a second term with Mitch still in charge of the Senate and god help us the House, and another Supreme Court pick or two, and all bets are off as to whether the Civil rights era survives into 2024.
Or free and fair elections, for that matter.