Indian democracy is being dismantled piece by piece


Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi PHOTO/Wikimedia Commons

There were some notable differences between the swearing-in ceremonies of the Hindu-supremacist government of Narendra Modi in its first victory on May 26, 2014, and its re-election on May 30, 2019.

The 2014 victory was tentative yet triumphant. There were attempts to paint a narrative of the South Asian leaders who were invited, including Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and others. While Indian elite and stars from Bollywood dotted the forecourt of the president’s residence (Rashtrapati Bhawan, in New Delhi), the message to neighbors was that India is the Big Brother offering a hand to other nations. Modi, who touts the humble beginnings he overcame, has repeatedly shown a penchant for trying to make history and create a grand narrative. By the 2019 swearing-in ceremony, it seemed that Modi’s government had abandoned the pretense that India needed the approval of the outside world.

India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a celebrated internationalist. His firm belief in collaborations among the developing nations, fed on his socialist roots, led him, along with other legendary leaders, to the emergence of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). There was a major shift for India in the 1990s when the Indian National Congress, under a leadership committed to freeing India from a controlled economy, chose the path of neoliberal economics, drawing closer to the United States and Israel.

Then came the vitriol of the campaign that led to Modi’s first victory, his almost no-holds-barred unleashing of hatred, and his rhetoric of “us versus them” (where “us” can only mean “Hindu India”—never mind the segregations of caste complications that come with the term). His master stroke of inviting “enemy nation” Pakistan to share the glory of his electoral win was hailed by many as a strategic shift—one that never materialized.

Appealing to a vast section of India as the “tea seller” from a humble background, there was no shame for his followers that the man aspired to riches, wearing an outrageously expensive coat (when he met President Obama in Delhi months later) or using a luxe Mont Blanc pen as he signed documents to take his oath—crass expressions of personal wealth.

The first five years of the regime were signs of the time to come. An immediate centralization of power, an assault on university campuses (especially on student leaders who questioned this hegemonic and proto-fascist ideology that has groomed Modi since teenage years), cutbacks on workers’ and farmers’ rights, arrests on activists and lawyers and worst of all, lynchings of Indians who did not fit the definition of the ‘ideal’ Indian—that is, Muslims, Dalits, Christians and communists (read: dissenters) were brutally killed. The slaying of rationalists Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, M.M. Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh (only the first happened before 2014) by an extreme right-wing group was also something India has not seen. The ideology of this Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Founded in 1925, its core belief is that India should not be a democratic republic but a Hindu theocracy; it subscribes to unequal and discriminatory levels of citizenship (following both Mussolini and Hitler) and is wedded (in its own writings) to overthrow the Constitution. Propaganda around the glory of the nation and “development” subsumed the gory 2014-2019 reality of violence, fear and lynchings. The unilateral move to “liberalize” India’s legal currency crippled India’s flagging economy and virtually killed the informal sector. Reports of the aggrandizement of the ruling party’s coffers came in only to be snuffed out by men who led the party and were intolerant of media reporting reality. Those men are now in positions of unbridled power today.

I wrote some months ago that this government has all but declared a war against its own people. That was before the 2019 results that took the supremacist victory to even higher levels, making a mockery of parliamentary debate and all-party dialogue. The second Modi regime sworn in this year has demonstrated in just three months what we can expect.

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