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On the Other Hand: Autocratic anxieties and democratic backsliding in India

Artwork by Rachel Macnaghten

All States have their mythologies. They must justify (or atone for) some assumption of importance in the running of the world. Assertions of empire and hegemony are closely followed by their vindication. The English have a well-worn exceptionalist strain in their political thought, from St George to Bede to Churchill, and the ancient Romans had Romulus and Remus and the Caesarean inheritance. In all these supremacist fictions one thing is constant: they are ideologically used by those in power to justify their having power. Today, in India, we see this chauvinistic pretence reanimated in the sinister, grey-bearded figure of Narendra Modi.

India’s greatest achievement is its self-emancipation from the British Empire under the ascetic tutelage of Mahatma Gandhi, and with that advancement came one of the (in my opinion) most progressive, auspicious, inspiriting documents of the twentieth century – the Constitution of India, a love-letter to the autonomous potential of homegrown revolutions across the globe. At the centre of this text is the dedication towards preserving a sovereign socialist secular democratic republic. It is those constitutional pillars which Prime Minister Modi now abrades.

All parts of that preamble to the Constitution – democracy, secularism, socialism – are betrayed by the rapidly growing authoritarianism of Modi’s government. Indices of democracy like freedom of speech, rule of law, academic freedom and civil liberties have been declining (after 2014, the year of Modi’s ascendancy) to levels not seen since the British occupation and the 1975 Emergency. The Emergency, it must be said, arguably provided precedent for the centralisation of power in the hands of a prime minister after Indira Gandhi’s 1971 election swindle. Modi, proto-fascist, is approaching Emergency-style arbitrary rule. In 2020 a Parkinson’s-suffering Jesuit priest was held in prison on baseless suspicion of Maoist terrorism; the police force have mismanaged civil unrest and have been complicit in Islamophobic violence, for example in Delhi of February 2020 which left 53 people dead, of whom most were Muslim; and Modi has also bypassed checks and balances when promoting his favourite generals. If you are ever looking for a strongman, check for a jingo enthusiasm: the military is indispensable for the workings of a junta, the temperament of a regulus, or the operation of bossism and nomenklatura.

To qualify, Modi is popular, and I do not contend that he has done nothing of worth: his public health initiative that built over 110 million toilets in five years was sorely needed. Opinion polls of mid-2020 show a 78 percent approval rating amongst all adults, and his cult of personality is impressively devotional. He has had stadiums renamed after him, satellites have been sent to the skies with his picture on the casing, and supporters at his rallies often wear terrifying cardboard masks of his face. Seemingly, he is unable to be disliked. And that should ring an alarm bell. Barracking politicians when they’re wrong, protesting them when they’re despotic, laughing at them when they’re ridiculous – these things make up a healthy democracy, yet these things are muzzled in the world’s largest.

This is not to say that India is a stranger to protests. Far from it. Modi is a figure that generates either adoration or resentment  – cultish, to say the least. India has been home to history’s largest protest, one which has been persisting for months, over the common cause of working farmers against the introduction of three bills which dissolve a minimum price guarantee of agricultural produce in favour of market determination. The largest demonstrations have occurred around New Delhi highway encampments, whose borders were cordoned off by razor wire and armed police, but there have been at least 2,800 agrarian protests since August 2020. So protests aren’t entirely extinguished just yet. But it is striking that collective action is the only opposition Modi’s government gets: the Indian National Congress, the de facto centrist counterpart to Modi’s BJP, suffers from inanition, and it was only with great effort that Rahul Gandhi was compelled to speak up on the farmers’ behalf.

I began by cursorily talking about how Modi justifies his power with his pretence, his sword with his ideology. Once I show you what exactly that ideology is and what it means in practice, you will see why I spent some time bemoaning the absence of legitimate opposition and discomposing you about his thaumaturgically limitless popularity.

From childhood, Modi has been committed to the eugenic, absolutist cause of Hindu nationalism: he accompanied separatist marches of Gujarati nationalists and watched as dummies of Congress politicians were burned like Guy Fawkes. Among those with whom Modi aligned himself was Gandhi’s assassin, who worked with the paramilitary sect, the RSS. Today, Modi’s party – the BJP – are closely affiliated with the RSS, the early leaders of which expressed admiration of Adolf Hitler’s policy of racial ‘purification’. The core of Hindu nationalism is an ethnocentrism that explicitly devalues Muslims in the pursuit of a singularly Hindu theocratic State, often leading to sectarian violence. For example, the state of Gujarat in 2002 (Modi’s state, it must be known) saw Hindu extremists, with the tacit approval of state leadership, kill just under 800 Muslims.

Violence against Muslims suffuses the ranks of the BJP, even if Modi himself keeps quiet on his own personal convictions, in the appointment of ever-vocal officials, such as Yogi Adityanath, Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. Adityanath has spoken to crowds about the inability of Hindus to coexist with any Muslim, foretelling religious violence – inciting it, some might say.

The clearest illustration of Hindu nationalism and supremacist ambitions is the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB). In short, this bill grants citizenship to those who failed to qualify for the National Register of Citizens (NRC) – everyone except Muslims. The NRC strips citizenship away: the CAB grants it back unless you’re a Muslim. The pluralism, the secularism, the multiculturalism, the cosmopolitanism of Gandhi and Nehru is being treated like an offensive building: knock it down, Modi says, and build something new. And what happens to those noncitizens? By which I mean of course, what happens to those Muslims? Freshly built detention centres await them; some labourers, Al Jazeera reported, constructing these centres may end up living there in a Kafkaesque perversion that sees them masoning the breezeblocks and iron girders of their own imprisonment.

But for all the imagemaking, all the press bullying, all the xenophobia, Modi may yet fall over the law of unintended consequences. His rightwing economic policies are failing, he is losing international standing with the election of Joseph Biden, his anti-Muslim position has given rise to mass non-cooperation. The LSE pointed out that, in spite of the BJP’s discursive monopoly, they do not possess the power to combat a broadscale coalition of parties in local elections. The CAB has brought thousands and thousands of people together in opposition, as well as the farmers protests. Authoritarianism arises not from strength and stability, but from fragility and insecurity. So while it may be some time before Modi’s grasp of power truly slips, like the fool he has built his house upon the sand.