Teesta Setalvad: How Indian Democracy is being turned on Its Head

A hard and meticulous strategy for political education and cultural messaging that includes the the history and relevance of principles of Constitutionalism is as relevant today as ever before and needs not just to be created and disseminated but organised.

There was a slight difference between May 26, 2014 and May 30, 2019 in the calibration around the events. Both dates, five years’ part, saw the swearing in of a supremacist government in power in India by a substantial majority.  If the 2014 victory was tentative yet triumphant, there were attempts to paint a show and a narrative, of South Asian leaders, including Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif and others being invited to attend. While sections Indian elite and stars from Bollywood dotted the forecourt of the President’s residence, Rashtrapati Bhawan, New Delhi, the message to neighbours was that India is the Big Brother who is extending a hand. With a penchant for making history and some tough beginnings to surpass, Modi was and has always been into painting a grand narrative. 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). That changed in the early 1990s s a Congress under a leadership committed to “freeing India from a controlled economy” chose the path of neo-liberal economics, drawing closer not just to the United States. Under NDA-I, an alliance government also led by Hindu supremacists, Israel too -earlier shunned for its treatment of the Palestine question –became friend from foe.

Given the vitriol of the campaign that led to Mode’s first victory, his almost no holds barred unleashing of hatred, the “us” versus “them”; where the us are only and only “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 for the strategic shift in narrative it was not meant to be. Appealing to a vast section of India as the ‘tea seller’ from an un-entitled background, there was no shame for his followers that the man aspired to riches, be it a coat that cost Rest, 10,00,000 (when he met President Obama in Delhi months later) or a Mont Blanc pen that cost Rs 1,00,000 as he signed documents to take his oath wore expressions of crass personal wealth.

The first five years of the regime were sign of times of come. Over-centralising 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, cutback 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 dissenter) were brutally killed. The slaying of rationalists Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, MM Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh (only the first happened before 2014), by an extreme right wing group was also something India has not often seen. The fountainhead of the thinking read ideology of this regime –that sets its sharply apart from other parties even those like the Congress who have resorted to authoritarianism in the past –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 and many would say shameless move to de-monetise all of India’s legal currency crippled India’s flagging economy and virtually killed the informal sector. Reports of the aggrandisement of the ruling party’s coffers came in only to be snuffed out by men who led the party and were intolerant of reality shows. 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 had a busy few months (less than three to date) sending down this message.

Parliament that met to pass the budget in July, has been used thereafter to push through legislation(s) without even the show of referring them to Parliamentary Committees for consultation or feedback. Not only does this second regime seem in a particular hurry; but, as the swearing in ceremony on June 30 showed –this time the guests at the same venue had doubled to 8,000– there was no need (or inclination) this time for India to send any messages. internationally. One sixth of the world live in India, and as sole spokespersons for those over whom they now rule the Modi 2.0 regime felt no real need to assuage any concerns.

The first session of Parliament not only further perverted the UAPA law (Unlawful Prevention of Atrocities Act), amended by the (2004) Congress-led regime (those amendments were ironically supported by the supremacist BJP at the time with only the parliamentary left vociferously opposing validating laws that had serious questions for personal liberties. Even during the previous ten years of Congress rule –which had an otherwise decent record–of legislating on rights (be it the right to information, rural work, right to food, or rights of forest workers/Adivasis), these draconian provisions of the then amended UAPA were used selectively in targeting youth from the minority on charges –often judged by courts to be fabricated –of “terrorism.” Now these aberrations have been taken a step further. And the Modi 2.0 regime has now passed an amendment that allows even an individual to be unilaterally declared a terrorist –without judicial scrutiny and only by the government’s executive decision –and his/her properties to be attached and seized. As if these amendments were not bad enough, the completely unilateral and unconstitutional abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution and stripping the state of Jammu and Kashmir of its special status (a legal requirement under the state’s Instrument of Accession to the Indian Union) on August 5, is the worst example of Modi 2.0 regime’s running roughshod over law, decency, morality and the Constitution.

Kashmir, the Valley has been blocked in or blotted out, internet and communications shut down, even landline phone connections shut down. A fundamental decision that affects the very existential reality of the Kashmiri people has been taken without hearing their voice or representation. The state has been under President’s rule for months. If the Modi 1.0 government will be recognised for subverting and perverting India’s institutions by appointing to crucial posts –men and women who have no regard for notions of equality and non -discrimination– the second time round, the regime will be target Indian federalism. No Indian state is now safe from these rapacious hands.

How did Modi Regime 2.0 notch up its spectacular victory?

A realistic assessment for most of us before the results were out was that the BJP itself would get about 180-200 and in alliance, the NDA would notch up about 220 or 240 seats out of the total 542 seats that make up Indian Parliament. It’s the 80 to 100 seats extra and the massive margins in some that appeared programmed (and even manipulated for some) to send out a message. The manner in which the Election Commission of India (ECI) functioned through the entire seven stage polling phase has raised eyebrows. There was clear effort not to question either the huge display of funds (beyond legal limits) used by the ruling party nor check violation of election law: through misuse of official position or speech that violated Constitutional norms (read hate speech). More money was spent on the Indian 2019 election than on the American elections, $Six billion dollars! Of which 80 per cent has been spent by the ruling BJP. They have, through their enactment of a non transparent and opaque law (electoral bonds) –during the last term –ensured that both have the money and do not need to disclose the source. Neither the ECI nor India’s Supreme Court have in any real sense questioned this abuse. This reflects on the erosion (if not complete takeover) of our institutions whom we expect to uphold foundational Constitutional principles

The RSS, the ideological backbone of the BJP election machine has always had a formidable cultural and social presence, again made easy with the free flow of funds from abroad to its various outfits. Whether the RSS works on charity or education, a core component is its ideological slant, bending or perverting Indian minds towards an unquestioning authoritarianism where a supremacist male Hindu hierarchy is both valorised and validated. Through de-monetisation and election bonds those access to funds has grown even further and the BJP now has an election machine that can compete with the RSS’ octopus like organisation.

Propaganda, the key tool of any authoritarian proto-fascist regime is run, or fuelled through its paid saffron shirts. The party has put in place a formidable 24 hour connected network that disseminates their message (read propaganda) which again is not one message but layered and several messages: these valourise the one strong leader (now two or three!) willing to strike out for drastic change, vilify the opposition (the BJP sine its last term has spoken of a Congress-mukt (free) Bharat (India), “promote” every government scheme that they have introduced –its efficacy multiplied and glorified a thousand times over through this well-oiled propaganda — and all the while, layer this with a sub-conscious message of othering and ‘hatred.’

Months before the May 2019 elections, the poor economic conditions, farmer’s protests, a revived and belligerent opposition, charges of corruption over the Rafael deal had started to bother the dispensation. Come February 2019 and the Pulwama terror attack on CRPF personnel in the Kashmir Valley was quickly diverted away from the abysmal intelligence and governance failure that it was, to a high voltage chest thumping show of nationalistic machismo. Within a week, a staged ‘attack’ on Pakistan at Balakot –even the efficacy, efficiency and truth behind this raises serious questions — provided the requisite miniscule and banal fodder to re-furbish Modi as the man India needed, the man against evil.

Finally serious questions of EVM tampering have also been raised that cannot be wished away. The battle, to be fought, and that must be fought, needs to factor in and deal with all of these things. The scarcely veiled and calibrated messages of Muslim bashing/othering, aggressive pseudo nationalism, the ‘selling” of the government schemes need to be dealt with. As does the shameful belittling of the opposition that is also happening at alarming speed with little regard for facts or the truth. It is this formidable body of misinformation and meticulously well organised and well oiled/ healed organisation that we collectively need to counter.

How, is the question? Who can do this? Political parties that in the Opposition that look moribund need to be moved, shoved, pushed. By us Indians, citizens. Remember, also that (unlike in 2014 when even if the results were more startling they at least appeared believable) this time state power has also been (illegally used) to garner data from Facebook and other platforms to the service of one party, to help further disseminate the propagandist message, through WhatsApp groups and for FB messaging. There are also the structural issues of sections of our voters who have been deliberately or otherwise disenfranchised (missing voters) and how will we get rectified now? And, bringing our voter out to vote. How are we going to do that?

A hard and meticulous strategy for political education and cultural messaging that includes the the history and relevance of principles of Constitutionalism is as relevant today as ever before and needs not just to be created and disseminated but organised. Every space, school, college, office, gram panchayat needs to be involved. The campaign needs to be sustained, layered, fun but not only fun, historic, relevant, aimed at building real perceptions away from heaps of propaganda filled hate.

Two little instances give me hope. One is from the day before yesterday, when left parties organised a protest at Azad Maidan in Mumbai against the dismantling of Article 370. Many present felt that engaging with the Mumbai commuter was useful, there was curiosity in the midst of misinformation, that then can be our first lesson; how do we re-furbish energies towards re-building a sense of resistances after first establishing our new sense of communities?

Second, our Opposition may be weak in Parliament. However, can Indians creatively work to show a strong united opposition on India’s streets?


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April 2024


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