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.
Poland’s populist government, which won reelection this fall, is a particularly scary example of this tendency. In his party’s first term in office, Jarosław Kaczyński started to undermine the independence of the judiciary, to turn the state broadcaster into a powerful propaganda outlet, and to erode the rights of various minority groups. But conscious of the need to win reelection, he also compromised on some of his most extreme reforms: When millions of women marched in the streets of Poland’s major cities to protest a law that would have banned abortion even in cases of rape, his party—Law and Justice—withdrew the proposed reform to the country’s already strict laws. And when a report by by the European Union admonished Law and Justice for its blatant attacks on judicial independence, the government refrained from bringing the supreme court under its direct control.
Now Kaczyński is tending to his unfinished business. A new law states that judges may be fired for a number of vaguely defined offenses, including expressing their political opinions. In effect, it would allow the government to demote any judge whose decisions it dislikes. As the members of the Polish Supreme Court said in a statement, the reform amounts to “a continuation of the lawlessness of the 1980s,” when the country was ruled by martial law.
In his first term in office, Donald Trump has done plenty of damage to the rule of law. His firm control of the Republican Party has made it virtually impossible for Congress to act as a check on the executive. He has exercised enormous influence over institutions ranging from the FBI to the State Department. And it is now evident that he has abused the powers of his office to damage the electoral prospects of his most likely opponent in the 2020 election.
Even so, some of the most extreme predictions about Trump’s tenure in office have, so far, proved unfounded. Madeleine Albright’s warning about impending fascism in the United States, for example, seems a bit much: For all the tremendous damage Trump has inflicted on the institutions of the American republic, there are no stormtroopers in sight.
Perhaps that’s why the fear and anger that propelled such big protests in the first months of 2017 seem to have dissipated. Neither the spectacle of Trump’s impeachment trial nor the children still held in cages at America’s southern border have inspired anything resembling the levels of mobilization that marked his first months in office. Many may assume that Trump’s reelection will bring nothing worse than four more years of the same—terrible, to be sure, but by now imaginably terrible.
Current events in India and Poland should shock Americans out of this complacency. Trump’s first term is at best an imperfect guide to the horrors that would await us if he manages to win a second one. When they are reelected, populists nearly always become more radical and more dangerous.
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