Vinod Mubayi

India has recently been dubbed an “electoral autocracy.” As 2024 arrives, the autocracy portion of that description acquires greater significance as every organ of the state from the police to the nominally independent investigative agencies, to the two national legislative bodies are being constantly weaponized by the ruling regime to target, attack and disempower all forms of dissent, whether political, social, or even cultural.

The case of attacks on religious minorities is particularly egregious especially in states ruled by the BJP that have witnessed the practice of “Bulldozer Raj”, where homes and shops of mainly minority Muslims are simply demolished on dubious grounds without legal process by state or municipal authorities, and where lumpen mobs of the majority target, assault, and sometimes kill minority Muslims and Christians and Dalits while police look the other way or participate in the mayhem. The perceived success of attacks in clamping down on dissent seems to have emboldened elements of the Indian regime to go after dissent and opposition in the Indian diaspora. How this plays out given the high-profile nature of these events remains to be seen.

In the meantime, autocracy is taking on a new dimension as well over a hundred members of parliament from opposition parties were expelled from both houses of parliament, the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, because they insisted that the Home Minister Amit Shah make a statement in the House on the recent breach in security that allowed some protestors to enter parliament, display leaflets and let off smoke canisters inside the building.

The India-Israel connection has flourished greatly in recent years along with the friendship between Modi and Netanyahu and the perceived linkages between Zionism and Hindutva based on a shared antipathy to Islam. India has become a major importer of Israeli military hardware and interestingly of spy software that has been used to infect the electronic devices (cell phones, computers) of opposition politicians, journalists, academics, social activists, filmmakers and anyone critical of the government. It was no surprise then that the Indian government’s initial posture was to side with Israel in the conflict with Hamas by abstaining on a cease fire resolution in the UN, although that has shifted a little bit in the last few weeks given the widespread international condemnation of the genocidal scale of the Israeli assault on the civilian population of Gaza. It is curious then, as mentioned below, that the BJP-ruled state government of Haryana has seen fit to release an advertisement calling for 10,000 Indian workers to find construction jobs in Israel to replace dismissed Palestinian workers or Jewish workers drafted into the Israeli Army to invade Gaza and kill Palestinians.

Everyone who lives in India or visits there is presented in every public arena, stationary or moving, with the ubiquitous image of Prime Minister Modi. It appears on public hoardings, bus stops, railroad stations, airports and even inside airplanes, buses and trains, not to speak of post offices, vaccination cards, and other government issued forms of identification. He is perhaps the only living political leader to have a major sports arena, the Narendra Modi cricket stadium in Ahmedabad, named after him. It is as if each and every action of the Indian state is a personal gift from him. Only the successes of course! The failures are quickly ignored and forgotten by the godi (lap dog) media. Now the state-owned Indian Railways are going a step further in celebration of this cult of personality as noted below.

Supreme Court Kowtows Again to the Government

One of the most troubling features of the autocratic trend in India is the supine posture of the higher judiciary. Far from exercising its function as a check on the excesses of the executive, the high court in important cases is meekly kowtowing to the arbitrary actions of the government while composing judgments that appear to defy elementary logic let alone the provisions of the constitution.

In a bizarre judgment in November 2019, the Supreme Court, ruling on the Babri Masjid – Ram Janambhoomi case, characterized the destruction of the mosque as a heinous crime but awarded the land on which the mosque stood to those who had committed the crime and decreed that a Ram Temple be built on the premises. This was like a court verbally denouncing the crime of bank robbery but not only awarding the looters the proceeds of their heist but also telling them how to spend it. It was obvious then that the Supreme Court bench, which included now Chief Justice Chandrachud as one of those who assented to the judgment and may have authored a portion of it, bowed to the wishes of the Hindutva regime of Modi in issuing this strange judgment that lacked any discernible logic.

Four years later, after sitting for a long time on the case filed by petitioners against the abolition of the statehood of Jammu & Kashmir and Article 370 of the Indian Constitution in August 2019, the Supreme Court (SC) has kowtowed to the Modi regime again. The Modi regime action of August 5, 2019 abolishing J&K statehood and downgrading it into two Union Territories (UTs) ruled by the Centre while also erasing Article 370 fulfilled a long-cherished demand of the BJP that was loath to see India’s only Muslim majority state enjoy a special status even as many of the provisions of Article 370 had been whittled away over the years. Its verdict accepted in full everything the regime did even while it criticized some aspects of the way it was done. Noted legal scholar Alok Prasanna Kumar noted that “As seems to have become the norm of late, the SC’s Article 370 judgment displays a vast gap between the rhetoric in the writing of the verdict and the actual decision in the case.”

In an editorial on December 12, the Hindu newspaper called the judgment a “political boost to the ruling BJP and an endorsement of its audacious move in August 2019 to strip Kashmir of its special status.” It characterized the verdict as a “retreat from the Court’s known positions on federalism, democratic norms and the sanctity of legal processes…that legitimizes the subversion of federal principles, fails to appreciate historical context and undermines constitutional procedure.” In particular, the SC’s failure to give a ruling on whether the bifurcation of J&K into two UTs is permitted under the Constitution was described as “an outstanding example of judicial evasion.” Considering that this was the first time Article 3 of the Constitution was used to downgrade a state, the SC’s failure to address this issue means that “the verdict is an invitation to the Union [Centre] to consider creation of new UTs out of parts of any State.” Both Ayodhya and J&K verdicts imply that constitutional principles can be bent and twisted to suit the political actions of the central government.

Opposition members expelled from Parliament

Modi along with the BJP has frequently boasted about his plans for a Congress-mukt Bharat. A week or so ago, that boast turned instead into an Opposition-mukt Parliament. Fully 146 MPs, all belonging to opposition parties, including senior leaders of the Congress, DMK, Janata Dal, TMC, and AAP, were expelled from the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. This number of expelled MPs is an unprecedented figure in the history of Parliament in India.

Their crime was to demand that the Home Minister Amit Shah issue a statement in the House followed by a discussion on the breach of security earlier in December when two youth protestors who had gained entrance on visitor passes jumped on the floor of Parliament with leaflets highlighting unemployment and describing the Prime Minister as a “missing person.” They burst smoke canisters to mark their protest probably in imitation of what the late revolutionary Bhagat Singh and his comrades had done almost a century ago. The youth were arrested under the Unlawful Activities Protection Act UAPA on charges that are usually related to terrorism but the object of their protest was sidelined and ignored by the godi media.

Although the protestors were arrested, the fact that their visitor passes had been obtained on the initiative of a BJP MP from Karnataka did not lead to his expulsion. Instead, the Speaker of the House expelled the opposition MPs when they refused to give up their demand that Shah issue a statement on the breach and the Speaker schedule a discussion.

Obviously, the expulsion was done to avoid any embarrassment to the government and divert possible questions on the object of the protest as well as the antecedents of the BJP MP who granted visitor passes to the intruders. Saving face is important to autocratic leaders and if 146 opposition MPs have to be expelled that is a small price to pay.

Commentators have pointed out that senior ministers of Modi’s first cabinet, the late Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitly, had protested similarly in the past during the rule of the UPA government without incurring the penalty of expulsion. Indeed, Swaraj had claimed in 2012 that stopping Parliament from functioning was a form of democratic protest as it was part and parcel of parliamentary tradition. However, that was before Modi ascended to power in 2014. Now, as political commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta recently wrote in his column in the Indian Express newspaper on December 22, parliamentary democracy has effectively collapsed. He wrote that “the recourse to this formal language of democracy serves increasingly to provide a constitutional veneer to what is in effect, an unconstitutional concentration of power.”

Since the mass suspension of opposition, Parliament has become no more than a rubber stamp for the government. Crucial laws such as the far-reaching changes to the Indian Penal Code and The Criminal Procedure Code that affect the entire criminal justice system were simply passed by voice vote in both houses of Parliament with barely any discussion.

Modi’s Cult of Personality

Another feature of autocracy is the cult of personality of the Leader. While this phenomenon was associated with earlier autocrats like Hitler and Stalin, its emergence in supposedly “democratic” India should not be a surprise given the ongoing trend to the One Nation, One Leader philosophy. The ubiquitousness of Modi’s portrait is now a feature of the Indian environment, especially in urban areas. In a recent article in the India Cable, Paul Koshy, an engineering consultant, unmasks the public funds being expended by governmental entities to literally promote Modi’s image. He writes that “Our nation has entrusted the Union government with the money collected from us through taxes and other levies. See how they spend the money.”

Koshy goes on to summarize the content of an RTI response to a query sent to Central Railway headquarters in Mumbai that is worth quoting at length:

On platforms in the Central Railway Zone alone, around 20 “permanent” selfie booths have been installed at the cost of Rs 6.25 lakhs each, totaling Rs 1.25 crore (12.5 million rupees, about $150,000). And another 32 odd “temporary” selfie booths at a cost of Rs 1.25 lakh each (a modest Rs 40 lakh, 4 million rupees or $50,000). This essentially has a life-size 3D model of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (they also have lower budget two-dimension life-size cutouts), props for people to stand beside Modi and take selfies with their phone cameras. Circulated on social media, this is designed to pep up the popularity of our beloved PM. These props also have texts and images that highlight some flagship schemes, programs or achievements by national or state agencies, for which the government seeks credit.

Since there are 19 zonal railways in India, the installation of these selfie booths in all zones could easily add up to many millions to promote Modi’s personality cult by this avenue alone. Considering that railroads are the overwhelming choice of travel mode for long distance travel in India and that millions of people flock to rail stations every day, the potential for promotion of the cult using this captive audience is stupendous.

Koshy remarks that selfie points in railway stations are a national priority but rail accidents that have led to the loss of hundreds of lives in the last few years or improved passenger amenities “do not make the cut,”

Will India provide workers to replace those Israelis engaged in genocide in Gaza?

Due to the expulsion of Palestinian workers from Israel and the assignment of many Jewish workers to military duty, Israel is facing labor shortages. Given the close friendship of Modi and Netanyahu and the ideological convergence between Zionism and Hindutva based on a shared antipathy to Islam can India become a source of labor to the Jewish state? The Indian government has denied this and Indian trade unions that have called for a cease fire in Gaza and expressed support to Palestinians strongly oppose sending workers from India to Israel.

So, it came as a surprise that a day after the Ministry of External Affairs informed Parliament that no discussions have been held with Israel regarding a possible replacement of Palestinian construction workers with Indians, the government of the state of Haryana, ruled by the BJP, released an advertisement calling for recruiting 10,000 construction workers to be sent to Israel. The advertisement comes at a time when Haryana is facing the highest unemployment rate in the country, belying the Modi regime’s rosy predictions of India’s economy. The Center for Monitoring the Indian Economy CMIE estimated in January 2023 that Haryana had an unemployment rate of 37.4% compared to the national unemployment rate of 8.3%.

When the Haryana government was strongly criticized by opposition parties and trade union leaders for trying to lure its unemployed to a war zone it offered a strange defense of the advertisement saying that its ad was meant to protect Haryana’s population from unscrupulous travel agents trying to offer jobs abroad and that there was no compulsion for workers in Haryana to go to any place where they didn’t want to go. Of course, one has to recall that double-speak and lying is stock-in-trade for the BJP especially in the Modi era. It is obvious that a government sponsored advertisement will lure the many desperately seeking work whether it is in a war zone or not. One unemployed construction worker in Haryana was quoted as asking why the government could not offer him a job in India if the country is “becoming wealthy” as claimed by Modi and his followers instead of sending him to a country at war, Israel.

What the Future Beckons

In an article in the Wire of December 30, commentator P. Raman says “It is really a bad time for the Indian democracy. The year 2023 witnessed the Modi establishment extending its control on [the constitutionally mandated] democratic institutions like the Election Commission and the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG). Indian parliament looks more like Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdo?an’s Grand National Assembly.” Raman concludes by pointing out that no constitutional obstacle is left any longer to the “abuse of authority” and if Modi regains power in 2024 there will be no constitutional “pillars left to crumble.”

Top - Home