Modi’s Ideology-Driven Power Grab Has Redefined Indian Democracy

Modi’s Ideology-Driven Power Grab Has Redefined Indian Democracy

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It’s now clear, with the wisdom of hindsight, that the general election of 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 six 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 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 fervour. It aggressively conflates the political party with the government and ultimately with the nation. So, if you are either against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or its government, you are damned as being “anti-national”. It mocks the language of moderation as weak pacifism.

Here are three of the latest political events that prove this, and all of them happened in the wink of a week!

1. J&K Assembly Was Brazenly Dissolved

In 2015, the Modi government made a bold political departure from its hardline attitude towards Jammu and Kashmir. It created a coalition with the “soft separatist” People's Democratic Party (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. 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 new governor played truant and dissolved the house. 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.

2. Leashing the RBI Governor to the Board

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. The governor relented and gave a few concessions. 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.

3. Unholy Discords Between SC, CBI & ‘Noisy’ Journalists

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! A harried Supreme 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. They also seemed to overlook what they had once advocated, that “noisy” journalists are the lifeblood of a democracy. In one awkward moment, the chemical adhesive between the third and fourth pillars of democracy had come unstuck.

Now, 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 will 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.

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