A week is a long time in politics, or so goes the cliché. But as the previous week showed, it’s also enough time to prove how dramatically India’s politics has changed since Prime Minister Modi took power.
All the four pillars of democracy – executive, legislature, judiciary and media – got redefined in a mere seven days.
Finally, 2014’s extraordinary general election created sharp edges around India’s democratic institutions.
Goodbye, Centrist Politics
It’s now clear, with the wisdom of hindsight, that 2014 smashed India’s centrist consensus, injecting an avowedly right-wing government in office. Until then, it was thought that India would only tilt left or right, but stay within a circumference of centrist, moderate ideologies.
This notion was reinforced during the 6 years of Prime Minister Vajpayee’s BJP-led rule, which swung rightward but preserved institutional structures created over half a century of independence.
However, the Modi government has now decisively aborted centrist politics. I say this as a matter of fact, without passing any value judgement. Since it won democratically, it has used its mandate to begin building a majoritarian edifice. It has expanded the state, nationalising a spectrum of free market institutions, from the pricing of pharmaceuticals and sports rights to oil.
It openly bats for Hindu causes, from scrubbing minority insignia to encouraging differential treatment under the law. It advocates a hard, militaristic nationalism which is imbued with religious fervor.
It aggressively conflates the political party with the government and ultimately with the nation. So if you are either against the BJP or its government, you are damned as being “anti-national”. It mocks the language of moderation as weak pacifism. It treats ideological opponents as “enemies” who should be neutralized – casually charging them with treason, calling them traitors – instead of looking upon them as adversaries who need to be intellectually vanquished. It wants to reconfigure institutional structures that are seen as too soft and accommodating.
Just see how three events rammed home this hard reality, altering the chemistry of democratic conventions in the wink of a week!
J&K Assembly Brazenly Dissolved
In 2015, the Modi government made a bold political departure from its hardline attitude towards J&K. It created a coalition with the “soft separatist” PDP of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. People applauded, convinced that Modi had sued for peace. It was the season of hope and reconciliation, both proving ephemeral. The coalition collapsed in a welter of acrimony, and Modi reverted to his jack-boot policy on J&K.
A partisan Hindi heartland politician was appointed as the new governor. Backroom machinations began to split the PDP and install a BJP-dominated government.
Alarmed, Modi’s three opponents – PDP, National Conference and Congress – quickly buried their mutual animosity to cobble a strong majority of 50+ in a house of 90 members. By all democratic canons, the new coalition had to be invited to form the government. But the governor brazenly played truant. He switched off his fax machine, and waited for a good eight hours until he had spoken with the rulers in Delhi. His instructions were clear. Dissolve the house. And he did that instantly, trampling over every legislative convention.
I concede that it wasn’t the first time that a governor had acted with such constitutional impunity. But this was J&K, a disturbed region with alienated people (remember, over 95 percent had boycotted local polls in the Valley just days ago).
It was a suicidal moment to indulge in petty, muscular politics. But right-wing ideological pressure had triggered an executive/legislature explosion; a delicate consensus was violated.
Centre’s Iron Grip on RBI
The Reserve Bank of India’s (RBI’s) autonomy used to be an article of faith. But the Modi government wanted to influence it politically. It wanted to mitigate the hardships that demonetisation, GST and slow economic growth had heaped on small businesses. It also wanted failed public sector banks to restart lending, but that would have required fresh capital. Ideally, the government should have used its fiscal book to achieve these objectives. But its budgetary arithmetic was fragile.
So it simply threatened to use Section 7 of the RBI Act, which would have directed RBI to do its bidding. Such a coercive use of the law would have been unprecedented.
Now, while pointing this legal gun, its hand-picked board nominees browbeat the central bank into submission. The governor relented, and gave a few concessions. The regime pulled back on other demands by a few weeks, until the next meeting in mid-December. It’s an uneasy truce, but the regime has drawn the first blood.
The relationship between the Governor and the RBI Board has been ideologically reconfigured, perhaps forever.
Supreme Court, CBI & “Noisy” Journalists: Unholy Discord
The CBI fiasco could challenge even the most imaginative authors of spy thrillers. The regime sent in its armed guards at midnight, installing a new chief, sacking the feuding top cops, raiding their offices and snooping into their gadgets and files!
The next day, the sacked officers approached the Supreme Court and filed all kinds of petitions against the state and each other. A harried court tried to grapple with this extraordinary situation. It ordered a court-monitored enquiry into the allegations against the CBI Chief. But one of his responses got leaked. The court flew into a rage.
Did the court then infringe a cardinal principle of jurisprudence by presuming guilt?
Because while the leak could have happened at any point in the chain – including from the defendant’s keyboard operator or the court’s clerks – the bench assumed that the CBI Chief had committed a breach of trust.
Clearly, the judges were, somewhat understandably, unsettled by the unusual circumstances; so they overlooked what they had once advocated, that “noisy” journalists are the lifeblood of a democracy. But in the current context, they took great umbrage against the pesky, irreverent news portal that had dared to publish the “unprintable” stuff.
In one awkward moment, the chemical adhesive between the third and fourth pillars of democracy had come unstuck.
Political Battle that Can Only Be Fought at the Hustings
To be fair to the Modi regime, while its methods are questionable and extreme, its tools are “democratic”. After all, it did win a historic mandate in 2014; and Prime Minister Modi is using that to graft a new ideological skin on India’s political democracy. To peel away that skin, his opponents have to create a counter narrative that appeals to the electorate, thereby wresting the political mandate.
In the ultimate analysis, Modi’s opponents cannot be squeamish, simply crying foul. They will have to mount a vigorous and energetic political response.