Nothing perhaps would offend Narendra Modi so much as being portrayed as an admirer of the formidable Indira Gandhi — at least in public. The BJP’s strongman who thumped his 56-inch chest to be voted India’s prime minister in May 2014 is a ferocious baiter of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and seldom misses an opportunity to blame it for the country’s ills. But Indira Gandhi herself has not come much in the line of Modi’s fire as her daughter-in-law Sonia and grandson Rahul have.
That might provide a clue to his closet veneration for the Congress Party’s iconic Iron Woman and the way he has modelled himself on her, the similarities prompting one political analyst to describe him as “Mrs G in trousers minus her cosmopolitanism”. And her political savoir faire and competence, it should be added.
It’s not just Modi, however. Former BJP prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee is known to have extolled Indira Gandhi as Durga (Hindu goddess of invincibility) for the 1971 war with Pakistan. Imperious as Indira Gandhi may have been, Modi is autocratic in the extreme and has reduced the cadre-based BJP to a sycophantic party that is under his complete domination.
The Modi regime is altering the fundamental nature of India’s democracy.
When in recent months, Modi toppled the state governments in Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand by engineering defections within the ruling Congress legislature it evoked memories of Indira Gandhi’s penchant for dismissing opposition state governments. What is lost on Modi — and his party — is that a hoary Congress practice of the previous century cannot be justified, especially after the Supreme Court had issued clear guidelines in 1994 that the majority of a government could be tested only on the floor of the state legislature.
That put an end to the once-popular political game of playing skittles with elected state governments, the only exception being an inglorious exercise by Vajpayee in the late 1990s to overthrow the Bihar government of Rabri Devi. He ended up with more than egg on his face after the court reinstated her.
Yet, a brash Modi regime has thought little of brushing aside constitutional propriety by denying the Uttarakhand government a floor test. Such arbitrary exercise of power that undermines the federal nature of India’s polity appears to be in the DNA of the BJP despite its claims to being a party with a higher moral purpose than the Congress.
The Uttarakhand High Court which heard a petition against the dismissal of the Congress government was scathing in its strictures against Delhi and accused it of “cutting at the roots of democracy”. The court also excoriated the centre for its tearing hurry to pull down an elected government for no tangible reason. Similar questions were also asked by the Supreme Court for BJP’s subversion of democracy in Arunachal Pradesh where it had gone to the extent of declaring an emergency. So much for the cooperative federalism that Modi had promised when he took office barely two years ago. Political opportunism has its own logic.
But dislodging opposition state governments is just one aspect of the illiberal ways of the BJP governments both at the centre and in states. Parliament itself has come under attack with the saffron party using its brute majority in the House of the People or Lok Sabha to quell criticism. It has been run on practically dictatorial terms over the past two years.
Opposition criticism that Modi runs the most centralised government in free India’s history is hard to refute. He has done little to change his style which he had honed in his three terms as chief minister of Gujarat. It was a state that he ran as his fiefdom, where his cabinet was marginalised, party MLAs mattered little and the party was of no account.
Whatever the criticism in parliament or in the media, it is hardly likely to weigh with Modi who appears supremely indifferent to the convulsions in Indian society. The prime minister seldom speaks, not even when the worst of atrocities have been perpetrated on the minorities and the hugely disadvantaged lower castes. Nor does he seem particularly concerned about the travails of the economy or the acute agrarian crisis that has been exacerbated by drought, leading to a fresh spike in farmer suicides.
All these are but distractions for Modi who is fixed on his core agenda. He is engaged in the fundamental transformation of India’s liberal democracy into the imagined nation of the Hindu supremacist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) with whom he has spent most of his life. Dismissal of opposition state governments is but one part of the strategy to forever change India’s liberal democracy to one that the Hindu right wants.
Insidiously, it cuts at the very idea of what the Indian Republic was meant to be. The ideal of inclusiveness is being replaced with majoritarian exclusiveness. Nationalism is defined by callow slogan-shouting while ‘otherness’ is daily emphasised by attacks on inter-communal marriages, in murders of Muslim cattle traders and in suppression of dissent. Rationalism and its champions are the prime targets, the writers eliminated or their works pulped.
Here’s one example of how far the insanity is being carried. The National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language has sought a declaration from writers seeking financial aid from the council that their work was not critical of government policies. The declaration has to be signed by two witnesses.
New laws are being enacted by the various BJP governments to extend the control of the government over universities and autonomous institutions. Prestigious institutions of higher learning are being packed with RSS ideologues and opportunists lacking in both academic credentials and any culture of enlightenment. The bureaucracy has been muzzled in no uncertain terms and officials, like the political sycophants, are not above declaring that Modi is God’s gift to Indian democracy.
Ruthlessness in stifling of political dissent and media freedom has become the hallmark of both the central and state governments run by the BJP, the most notorious being the Raman Singh regime in Chhattisgarh which has been in power for over 12 years. Much like Balochistan, Chhattisgarh, which is facing an insurgency by Maoists, has turned into the deepest black hole of India’s illiberal democracy. Journalists are hounded, arrested and jailed for reporting on the state. Lawyers and academics are debarred from working in the state or labelled anti-national and political activists are routinely targeted. In all cases, the BJP believes criticism of the state is not permitted in the national interest.
The founders of the Indian Republic, most of all Nehru, had hoped to and did create a liberal society despite the deep and unjust divisions in it. Over the years, much has been done to address the injustices but not with as much success as one had expected. The BJP under Modi appears determined to undo those hoped for ideals.
The writer is a journalist based in New Delhi.
Published in Dawn, May 2nd, 2016