India’s democracy is strained by illiberalism

In 2003, Indo-American public intellectual Fareed Zakaria published an influential book titled “The Future of Freedom: Liberal Democracy at Home and Abroad.” Democracy — the rule of and by the people — is not inherently good in and of itself, Zakaria argued, but needs to be tempered by liberalism. Liberty and economic freedom have to be anchored in the rule of law, a separation of powers and the protection of basic rights. Zakaria’s thesis seems relevant both to the world’s oldest democracy, the United States, and the biggest democracy, India.

India continues to be robustly, even chaotically, democratic. But its freedom is under growing threat.

Contrary to the critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the assault on Indians’ liberties did not begin with his government. Successive Congress Party and Congress-majority governments whittled away at individual social, political and economic freedoms over decades and created an increasingly intrusive state. It is a Congress government after all that inserted the word “socialist” into India’s constitution in 1976. The opening words of the Preamble are “We, the people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic.”

Property rights and economic liberties were thrown out the window as the state encroached upon and then occupied the commanding heights of the economy. Congress governments discredited secularism by corrupting it into endless appeasement of unreasonable Muslim demands, including banning the novel “Satanic Verses,” in search of the Muslim vote. The voter backlash in favor of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was entirely predictable.

That said, when Modi was elected prime minister in 2014 with a decisive majority, he generated unease in many quarters about pursuing a Hindu sectarian agenda, while being the repository of hope from the plurality who voted for development, good governance and economic growth. So far he seems to have done more to validate the fears of the uneasy than satisfy the aspirations of the hopeful.

In years to come a classic case study of the government riding roughshod over people’s property rights to cause immense hardship for no appreciable gain and considerable economic loss will surely be the decision to demonetize India’s two highest denomination currency notes last November. People were told when and how much they could access their own money, and were ordered to go digital, or else. Single young women had limits placed on their jewelry. Visitors to the country could exchange a maximum of 5,000 rupees per stay (not per day) at their hotel. That is just $75!

Demonetization resonated with the people because it was portrayed as an assault on black money. Mass financial illiteracy means that very few people seem to know that only 6 percent of illicit wealth is held in cash. Consequently the move remains popular and thus far at least has paid electoral dividends. Continuing political popularity in turn has further emboldened the intolerant elements in the ruling party’s social support base, who are now openly imposing the moral boundaries for all Indians with regard to dress, diet, faith and patriotism. The signs are ominous of a march toward totalitarian government by official decree as an accompaniment to lifestyle choices dictated by Hindu nationalist zealots.

Less this appear unnecessarily alarmist, consider some recent high-profile cases. People have been beaten up in public and lynched under suspicion of transporting, storing and eating beef, anathema to devout Hindus. Others have been assaulted and charged with sedition for failing to stand up for the national anthem in a cinema hall. To question the claims of military brilliance in any operation ordered by this government is an act of treason. Authors of articles critical of the Modi government, including yours truly, are trolled by the Modi “bhakts” (worshippers), with suggestions that elements of the BJP may be the organizing force behind this. Social media tools are abused for directing massive hate traffic at the undesirables.

Recently the student wing of the BJP beat up protesting students at one of Delhi University’s premier colleges. When Gurmehar Kaur, the daughter of a soldier felled by Kashmiri militants, posted against the hooligans on Facebook, she got so many rape and death threats she had to flee Delhi. Cabinet minister Kiren Rijiju tweeted her mind was being polluted. Another senior BJP leader, Uma Bharti, boasted that as chief minister of the state of Madhya Pradesh she ordered police to torture rapists. Jodhpur University authorities filed a police complaint against visiting Jawaharlal Nehru University professor Nivedita Menon for remarks on Indian Army atrocities in Kashmir, which of course the socially sensitive and tenderly loving soldiers would never do.

Actor-politician Divya Spandana was charged with sedition for saying “Pakistan is not hell, people there are like us.” The climate of rising intolerance is reinforced by a stridently jingoistic press such that The Economist believes “India’s press is more craven than Pakistan’s” regarding official propaganda.

A rare note of courage was struck by Siddharth Varadarajan, founder-editor of The Wire news portal, who channeled Emile Zola in the notorious Dreyfus case in France in 1898 to “confess” to a multitude of enjoyable dealings with Pakistanis. Most recently, an Indian film that has garnered many global awards, “Lipstick Under My Burkha,” was banned at home because it explores sexuality from women’s point of view. To add insult to injury, the letter from the film certification board was written by an illiterate, saying the movie was too “lady-oriended [oriented]” with “contanious [continuous] sexual scenes.”

India is a complex and uniquely diverse country of over 1 billion people. Its territorial integrity and very survival as one nation depends on the operations of criss-crossing principles, institutions and practices of mutual respect, tolerance and accommodation. It is a heterogeneous collection of minorities and pluralities, not a single majority country. The different religious, linguistic and regional identities will continue to coexist only so long as one group does not attempt to capture state power as a means to impose its values, beliefs and social practices on all others. In other words the biggest threat to India’s national unity lies in the intolerant actions of its nationalist zealots.

Modi’s predecessor from the BJP, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, understood and acted on this abiding political verity. Does Modi really want his legacy to be that he paved the road to the breakup of India through illiberal intolerance of its vibrant diversity?

Ramesh Thakur is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.

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