‘Concerns about media coverage..right-wing populism’: What elite US universities said on India polls

A Harvard institute hosted a four-part series of discussions while Princeton published a piece on the history of one-party dominance.

WrittenBy:Maggie Girardi
Narendra Modi at a rally.

As the global gaze turned to India in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha election results, some elite American universities also weighed in with their analyses on critical issues such as voter mobilisation, the risk to India’s democratic institutions, and the diaspora’s perception of national politics.

Among those who looked into such issues were institutes such as Harvard University, Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania. 

Indian polls have always intrigued foreign commentators and the media alike, but the 2024 election is said to be a critical juncture for Indian democracy. PM Narendra Modi seems set to secure a third term in power, a feat matched only by the country’s first PM, amid a rise in allegations of a crackdown on critics. 

Let’s take a look at the commentary by these elite universities. 

Princeton University

Princeton University Press, a publisher of scholarly works linked to Princeton University, published a piece on its website by historian Aditya Balasubramanian, who drew parallels between the early years of Indian democracy and Narendra Modi’s tenure.

Balasubramanian said that this election, India will see the BJP seek a third consecutive victory, which could further its march towards a Hindu nation and heighten repression of the Muslim minority. He also referenced academic and political scientist Suhas Palshikar who described India’s political landscape as one of one-party dominance, similar to the Indian National Congress’s dominance in the 1950s and 60s. 

It said the Swatantra Party, that emerged in 1967 and posed a challenge to the Congress’s dominance, supported regional diversity, resisted Hindi imposition, upheld property rights and also expressed discontent for economic policy. But unlike the right-wing of today, Swatantra leaders avoided religious sectarianism. 

Although the party attempted to capture popular interest, it failed to resonate with the people. “Projects like Swatantra’s can help us imagine alternative solidarities and possibilities, even if they stand far apart from our utopias.” 

Harvard publication

The Harvard Gazette, the official news publication for Harvard University that covers university findings on global topics, wrote about “dark concerns” for India, mentioning a four-part series of discussions – hosted by the university’s Laxmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute – led by Harvard professors Arunabh Ghosh, Maya Jasanoff and Vatsal Naresh.

In the first part, it assessed the legitimacy of India’s democracy, and questioned if its theory and practice still held virtue. In its next part, panellists discussed how India was viewed from an outsider perspective. The third part examined election coverage from the perspective of journalists. And in its fourth part, the panel aimed to answer how South Asian Americans view Indian politics.

In a discussion that questioned the nature of India’s democracy in a multi-ethnic society, American academic Maya Jasanoff expressed concern for the potential consequences of India’s election. 

“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.” 

Other panellists, including politics professor Sandipto Dasgupta and Delhi-based former Indian Express journalist Sushant Singh critiqued the focus on the democracy’s size, which often distracts from qualitative assessments of leadership. 

To Dasgupta, India’s elections have turned into an exercise to add more numbers instead of strategies to implement modernisation or innovative politics. Singh, meanwhile, went on to attest to India’s clear repression of media, which is turning out to be a failing pillar of democracy. 

Raheel Dhattiwala, an independent social scientist, discussed the use of violence during elections and the increase in Islamophobia. 

As the conversation concluded, some audience members challenged the panel’s perspectives. In response, the institute’s executive director Hitesh Hathi listed examples of abuse of state power.

“There is a larger political problem,” he 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.” 

University of Pennsylvania

In early May, the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Advanced Study of India published a series of articles – titled India in Transition – on its website.

Among these was an interview of Francesca R Jensenius, a political science professor at the University of Oslo, by CASI’s consulting editor Rohan Venkat. In her research surrounding India’s voter dynamics, Jensenius found data that suggested higher partisanship among Indian voters and what it meant for how political mobilisation is viewed. 

“Put simply, although it is definitely true that some people ‘don't cast their vote, they vote their caste,’ this is far from true about all voters,” Jensenius said. 

This partisanship takes form through community-based party loyalties, and also through individual loyalties, but which is more prominent remains unclear. “In the context of polarisation, these effects of partisanship can be amplified by the fact that voters are often not exposed to other perspectives. That can result in a hostile political environment where people are not open to other political perspectives, and this can mean that we miss out on a lot of healthy democratic deliberation that can make everyone wiser,” Jensenius said. 

Understanding the complexity of voter mobilisation can serve as a crucial tool within any democracy. And although there is room for broader research, the scholars studying India are intrigued by this unexplored space. 

“For this to continue, we need open dialogue on what is actually going on. And it is important for our research not to be politically motivated. Political science is susceptible to being politicised and made ideological because it is about politics and we are all members of our field of study. And so honest, open, diverse, deliberative, scientific discourse on what's going on politically is extremely important for understanding more.” 

The writer is studying journalism at the University of Missouri.

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