Vinod Mubayi

Whichever result the Indian election delivers on June 4th, the conduct of the entire campaign by the ruling BJP party led by Narendra Modi has seriously shamed the country and diminished the future prospects of electoral democracy in the country if the BJP, as widely forecast, manages to win. As the book How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt reminds us: “Democracies may die at the hands not of generals but of elected leaders—presidents or prime ministers who subvert the very process that brought them to power.” One way of subversion these leaders use is to tell outright lies about their opposition, whether politicians or policies, that serve to polarize the electorate and divide them into hostile camps eroding the boundaries of toleration and acceptance needed to preserve a democratic polity.  Donald Trump, who served as US President from 2016-2020 was often cited as a champion liar, accused of telling an average of a dozen lies every day. Modi is a close follower of this practice.

Numerous examples of lies uttered by Modi during the election campaign, all of which violate the model code of conduct set down by Election Commission of India (ECI), have been cited by the small but vibrant alternative media in India. Avoiding any mention of issues that affect most people in India such as price rise or unemployment on which his own government’s performance over the last decade is highly suspect, Modi’s main focus has been on polarizing the Indian electorate on religious grounds by demonizing the Muslim minority to arouse his Hindu-nationalist fan base. To do this, he is prepared to malign the opposition parties on completely specious grounds accusing them of saying or doing things that even a cursory examination proves are totally untrue.

In a speech in Banswara in the state of Rajasthan on April 21, Modi claimed that the manifesto of the opposition Congress party contained a plan to seize the private wealth of the majority Hindus and hand it over to Muslims who were labeled in demeaning code words such as “those who have more children” and “infiltrators.” Modi even went to say that the Congress would grab the gold jewelry of Hindu women including mangalsutras (necklaces worn by some married Hindu women) and hand them over to Muslims. Needless to say, this was a complete fabrication as the Congress manifesto has no such plan to grab any private property of anyone let alone the mangalsutras of Hindu women. This falsehood of Modi, along with many others, was also an egregious violation of the ECI model code of conduct that states: “No party or candidate shall include any activity which may aggravate existing differences or create mutual hatred or cause tension between different castes and communities, religious or linguistic.” It is another matter that the ECI, like other official agencies of the government that are supposed to be neutral towards political parties, has chosen largely to turn a blind eye to the rabidly communal speeches of Modi or other leading lights of the BJP. 

Modi continued to perpetrate other falsehoods claiming, for example, that former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had said that Muslims would have the first rights to the nation’s resources or that the Congress would seize the property of urban Hindus. As the Wire reported his speech in Aligarh, UP on April 22, Modi not only said that the Congress would redistribute the assets of Hindus to Muslims he also went on to claim that the Congress would act like urban-Naxals: “The Congress will go to the extent that if you have an ancestral home in your village, and you have purchased a small flat in the city for your children, it will snatch one of them away… Isn’t this Maoist thinking? The Congress wants to snatch your hard-earned wealth, it wants to loot women’s property.”

A dignified but firm response to this litany of lies hurling abuse at the Congress Party and demonizing Muslims was given by former Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh. As reported in The India Cable of May 30, Dr. Singh stated in an open letter to the people of Punjab that no Indian prime minister has ever used such “hateful, unparliamentary and coarse terms” as Narendra Modi, specifically targeting certain sections of society or the opposition. Dr Singh accused Modi of indulging in the most vicious form of hate speeches and said he was the first Prime Minister to “lower the dignity of public discourse.” Referring to Modi’s Banswara, Rajasthan speech – where he [Modi] claimed Singh once said Muslims had the first right to India’s resources – Dr Singh asserted that Modi also “attributed some false statements to me. I have never in my life singled out one community from the other. That is the sole copyright of the BJP.”

Polarizing the electorate by attacking minority Muslims is an old ploy of Modi’s parental organization, the RSS, where he undoubtedly learnt his politics. The early leaders of the RSS in the 1930s like Guru Golwalkar greatly admired what the Nazis were doing to minorities in Germany like the Jews. BJP governments in states like UP and Madhya Pradesh have been enacting the same kinds of laws prohibiting marriages between Muslims and Hindus, which BJP trolls call “love jihad”, that were enacted by the Nazis in Germany forbidding marriage or sexual relations between Jewish and non-Jewish Germans. Leading Indian human rights activist Harsh Mander writes: “In Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler in 1935 announced two laws known as the Nuremberg laws. These stripped Jewish Germans of citizenship rights and criminalized inter-religious marital and sexual unions. These two laws reduced Germany’s Jews to non-citizens and criminalized marriages and sex between Jews and Germans. In Modi’s India, laws have been passed that assailed the principle of equal citizenship of Muslims and criminalized religious conversion for inter-religious marriages.”  

 The book How Democracies Die indicates how autocrats who come to power via democratic elections often use security threats to “justify antidemocratic measures” such as draconian laws to curb and hinder opposition. In addition, the book points out how “elected autocrats subvert democracy [by] packing and “weaponizing” the courts and other neutral agencies, buying off the media and the private sector (or bullying them into silence), and rewriting the rules of politics to tilt the playing field against opponents. The tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy’s assassins use the very institutions of democracy—gradually, subtly, and even legally—to kill it.”

The Modi regime has repeatedly used laws such as the enhanced Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) that allows a supposedly democratic government to keep people in jail for years without trial as in the Bhima-Koregaon and several other cases. Anyone who has followed Indian politics recently is well aware of the use of government agencies such as the Enforcement Directorate (ED), CBI, Income Tax Department, and assorted police agencies at the state and central levels to harass and jail political opponents including even elected Chief Ministers who happen to belong to opposition parties. Judges at different levels are either intimidated by the government or hamstrung by the provisions of draconian laws that seem to make jail the rule and bail the exception. This authoritarianism that represses opposition and harasses minorities, signified by bulldozer justice where homes and businesses of Muslims have been destroyed on false pretexts, while BJP trolls are rarely penalized even when they commit serious crimes like lynching is tending to erode and destroy democracy.

However, as the election campaign has proceeded the opposition INDIA alliance has focused on economic and social matters that directly affect people’s lives while Modi and his cohorts have kept on talking incessantly about Muslims, Moghuls, mutton, and mangalsutra. From recent newspaper accounts it appears that a certain amount of Modi fatigue is beginning to set in, even in the North Indian Hindi speaking belt where the BJP has held sway over the last decade. Thus, Modi, who has been giving “interviews” that are better described as monologues to selected groups of journalists from the lapdog mainstream media, appears to have begun to slip from indulging in outright lying rants to uttering stupidities, demonstrated by his remark that Gandhi was unknown in the world until the 1982 Attenborough film was shown. This remark was on par with the idiocy he uttered some years ago at a session of the Indian Science Congress that the existence of the god Ganesh (elephant head with a human body) proved that highly skilled surgical transplant science must have existed in Vedic times thousands of years ago. The fact that this assertion was met with applause from many of the “scientists” present illustrated the depths to which Indian intellectual traditions have plunged in the Modi era.   

One hopes that the derision with which the Gandhi remark has been met, shows that Indians are getting tired of some of the ignorant and semi-literate commentary offered by their Prime Minister, who brandishes a college degree in a hitherto unknown subject called Entire Political Science.

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