Vinod Mubayi

The current Indian regime led by the BJP and its leading figure Mr. Narendra Modi never tire of bragging about India/Bharat, as the mother of democracy. Although the record of the last decade that the BJP has been in power casts serious doubt on the veracity of this claim, recent events of the last week leave little doubt that India is fast becoming the Father of Autocracy. Freezing the bank accounts of the largest opposition party and jailing an opposition Chief Minister of Delhi (the National Capital Region) on flimsy, if not non-existent, evidence on the eve of national elections are not democratic actions to say the least. Rather, they are more like the acts of a despot who wants to prevent any chance of his opponents dislodging him from power.

Various speculations have been made on why Modi felt necessary to take these drastic steps when the media at both national and international levels are projecting an easy victory for him and his party. Were these actions meant to divert public attention from the electoral bonds scandal where the BJP is accused of perpetrating one of the biggest, most corrupt, financial scams in independent India’s history? Or do they demonstrate a lack of confidence in the electoral outcome? Or, as one commentator put it, “is this, as is more likely the case with regimes that slide into tyranny, simply an expression of the regime’s essential character”?

The dictatorial proclivities and instincts of the Prime Minister whose acolytes have anointed him as the god Lord Ram have been clearly demonstrated over several years. He does not hold press conferences where he would have to answer questions, his contempt for parliamentary debate is well known, he frequently hurls abusive remarks towards those who differ with him, and now his tendency towards jailing political opponents as well as absolving those charged with crime who jump on his bandwagon has become a daily occurrence. The other feature, one he shares with his best friend Donald Trump, is his penchant for telling lies and making outlandish statements aimed at denigrating his opponents or exalting himself and his policies. As a very recent example one may point to his comments on the Congress Party’s election manifesto that “it reflects the thoughts that the Muslim League had before independence… The Congress wants to impose the Muslim League’s thoughts from that era on the India of today”. Writing in the India Cable of April 8, S.N. Sahu, special assistant to former India President K.R. Narayanan, says “As if this charge were not bizarre enough, he [Modi] went ahead and added, “And what is remaining of the manifesto is dominated by Communist and leftist thoughts.” According to Sahu “It is rather unacceptable that someone occupying the high office of Prime Minister would make such ridiculous observations on the manifesto of a rival political party. It is more a dog whistle to spread the false narrative that the Congress is aligned to the cause of Muslims and thereby polarize people along religious lines and consolidate Hindu votes in the BJP’s favor.”

Modi and the BJP’s journey to electoral autocracy has two aspects: one is a material or money aspect based on a symbiotic relationship between leading Indian capitalists and Modi. The Ambanis and Adanis and others of their ilk have benefited greatly from Modi’s tenure earlier in Gujarat when Modi was chief minister and after 2014 at the national level through what has come to be known as the “Gujarat model” of development. The corporate bosses have in turn enriched the BJP as well as contributed to the growth of the enormous and obscene cult of personality of Modi. The other aspect is ideological based on the notion of India becoming a Hindu Rashtra (nation), a long-standing goal of BJP’s organizational mentor the RSS. Modi, a former full-time RSS pracharak (propagandist) before he became a politician, has assiduously promoted the majoritarian Hindutva agenda over his entire career based on “othering” religious minorities, mainly Muslims but also Christians. He presided over the pogrom in Gujarat in 2002 when over a thousand Muslims were brutally slaughtered by fanatic Hindu mobs while the police stood by doing nothing.

Both aspects, material and ideological, serve to promote electoral autocracy, and eventually a one-party state run by a strongman on the lines of European fascism of the 1930s, which provides a good example of what may happen especially on the ideological aspect if Modi and BJP return to power. Hitler and the Nazis came to power by winning an election but then proceeded to systematically dismantle all political opposition as well as push majoritarianism to an extreme level by committing a genocide of minorities. It is useful to recall what the ideological mentors of Modi, the RSS and the BJP, thought and said about Nazi fascism when it was at the peak of its power. Human-rights activist Harsh Mander quotes the Hindutva icon V.D. Savarkar: “In a speech in 1940 after the start of the Second World War, he [Savarkar] said, “There is no reason to suppose that Hitler must be a human monster… Nazism proved undeniably the saviour of Germany under the set of circumstances Germany was placed in…The very fact that Germany or Italy has so wonderfully recovered and grown so powerful as never before at the touch of Nazi or Fascist magical wand is enough to prove that those political ‘isms’ were the most congenial tonics their health demanded.” Mander goes on to quote another Hindutva icon, M.S. Golwalkar, who led the RSS for many years and was its most influential ideologue. Golwalkar also praised the Nazis and wrote: “German race pride has now become the topic of the day. To keep up the purity of the race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the Semitic Races – the Jews. Race pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindustan [India] to learn and profit by”. Mander also points out that “India remains one of the few countries in the world in which Hitler’s autobiographical manifesto Mein Kampf is openly sold, even in bookstores in railway platforms, and is enduringly one of the best-selling books in the country. Surveys in schools and colleges indicate that growing numbers of young people choose Hitler as the role model for an ideal leader over Gandhi.”

Coming to the material or money aspect, it is useful to note that global capitalism in all countries has been marked by a sharp rise in economic inequality. India is no exception as indicated in a recent study by the World Inequality Lab that finds India to have become one of the most unequal countries in the world where by 2022-23 the shares of income and wealth held by the top 1% of the population were at their historically highest levels that exceeded even those in very unequal countries such as Brazil and South Africa. While news in the business press of the western countries tries to create the impression that the Indian economy is booming because the stock market is at an all time high and Modi never stops boasting about India becoming a $5 trillion economy, the fact is that this growth is focused on at most the top 10% of the population while the vast majority are enduring the highest levels of unemployment seen in the country and significantly worse economic conditions. Autocracy in political matters and crony capitalism in economic affairs serves the top 1% and particularly the top 0.01% very well as it preserves their dominance while the 90% get fed tales of how great India/Bharat was 1000 years ago before the Muslim conquerors came and destroyed Bharat’s greatness.

The amount of wealth BJP has gathered through its use of corrupt instruments like electoral bonds or by its closeness to the crony capitalists is being put to use in its quest for autocracy by buying opposition politicians. Other methods are to use different investigative agencies like the Enforcement Directorate (ED), the Central Bureau of Investigation, (CBI) the Income Tax (IT) department, etc., to threaten them with various charges and let them off if they agree to toe the BJP line. Thus, the newspaper Indian Express recently reported that 23 out of 25 leading Opposition politicians who faced action from central investigative agencies were let off after they joined the BJP or one of its electoral partners since Modi came to power.

Checks and balances inherent in a democratic setup are increasingly falling by the wayside as the drive to autocracy gathers momentum. Much of the mainstream media owned by large corporate houses that have jumped on the BJP bandwagon and promote Modi’s cult of personality have become what is known as the godi (lapdog) media. Journalists that expose or oppose government policies find themselves under government surveillance, subjected to spyware, tax raids, and arrests. In 2014, media watchdog Reporters Without Borders ranked India at 140 out of 180 countries and by 2023 it had dropped to 161. The organization Committee to Protect Journalists reported that 36 journalists in India had been imprisoned in the 9 years of Modi’s rule from 2014-2023 compared to 8 in the ten years of the UPA regime (2004-2014).

Sweden’s V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy) Institute has labelled India an electoral autocracy since 2018 and has characterized it as among the “worst autocratizers” in the world recent years. V-Dem Institute defines an electoral autocracy as one in which multiparty elections for the executive exist albeit with “insufficient levels of fundamental requisites such as freedom of expression and association, and free and fair elections”. The freezing of the bank accounts of the major opposition party, the Congress, on the very eve of elections would likely qualify as an unfair act lending support to the charge leveled by the V-Dem Institute.

The weaponization of what are in theory independent agencies such as ED and CBI, the downgrading of Parliament, the suborning of the judiciary either through promises of lucrative post-retirement appointments or otherwise, and the conversion of the once independent Election Commission of India once a proud symbol of the probity of Indian elections into a toothless rubber stamp of the executive, are the “achievements” of the Modi regime that are fast taking the country into one party rule. It is now up to the Indian voter, who has demonstrated a measure of sagaciousness in the past, to ensure that India does not fall into the pit fashioned by its current leaders.

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