• The Road to Illiberal Democracy

    How do we characterize this government as it enters into the final year of its term?

    Vagraj Badarayan

    May 31, 2018

    Image courtesy India Today

    As Narendra Modi led BJP-NDA government completes 4 years in office, there is a flurry of analysis about its achievements and failures. The government has come up with full page advertisements on the front page of newspapers listing its achievements, opposition has been listing its failures. This is quite obvious and indeed a healthy sign for a democracy where political parties fight in the democratic space to put across their respective positions. But there is a deeper issue at stake. How do we characterize this government as it enters into the final year of its term and gears up for the next parliamentary election now less than a year away?

    Let us begin with the self-perception of the government. At the formal level, BJP claims that development is its key objective. Over the last four years, it claims to have achieved significant success in speeding up development in contrast to UPA-II which was suffering from corruption, policy paralysis and worked under the overarching influence of Gandhi family symbolizing dynastic rule. However, it is not the economic policies of this government that are its distinguishing feature. On the contrary, there is every likelihood that any government that comes to power would, by and large, follow a similar trajectory of economic policy with some differences in the sectoral emphasis. The pro-market, neo-liberal economic policy has become the consensus economic policy parameter, some degree of change in emphasis notwithstanding. The distinction lies somewhere else.

    The key demarcation of this government lies in its underlying efforts to change the nature of Indian democracy. This is reflected in its relentless attack on the idea of Constitutional liberalism of which secularism forms a very important part. It can be seen in the deep hatred BJP-RSS nurture for Nehru for which the charge of dynastic politics serves as a convenient instrument. It is understandably though. Even more than Gandhi, it was Nehru who symbolised the aspiration of people to move on to the path of liberal democracy after India gained independence. The elaborate institutional set up established by Nehru as the Prime Minister of the newly independent country ensured that the ideals of liberal democracy got embedded in India’s systemic DNA. Despite making strenuous effort, BJP finds it difficult to dismantle those structures of a liberal-democratic state. Hence the unease with Nehru.

    In his brilliant essay on Constitutional Liberalism (Foreign Affairs, Nov.-Dec. 1997) Fareed Zakaria has delineated some of the basic elements of the Constitutional liberalism. A liberal democracy, Zakaria argues, ‘is marked not only by free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion and property.’ If we examine the world and India in particular on these parameters, it will be clear that increasing number of countries in the world have been opting against the system of ‘liberal democracy’ though they continue to remain democracy. Illiberal democracy is on the rise. There is a trend towards decoupling of democracy and liberalism. India is no exception.

    Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán declared in 2014 that he wants to take Hungary on to the path of ‘illiberal democracy’ which implied a ‘strong state, a weak opposition, and emaciated checks and balances.’ Don’t be surprised if you see close resonance of this statement in India. Slogans like ‘Congress Mukt Bharat’ and the systematic weakening of the institutions like judiciary and media which work as instruments of check and balances on the government are a few of its indicators. Similarly, BJP has been trying hard to push the agenda of ‘one nation-one election’ as a prelude to Presidential form of government. BJP has long held this view that a strong state is a must for achieving its goals and ‘one nation, one election’ is a clever move in this direction.

    Academics and scholars have pointed out the increasing number of ‘illiberal democracies’ across the world. A few decades earlier, countries in Africa, South East Asia and Latin America were marked out for their illiberal democracies. But now countries in Europe, specially East European countries and those which have split from the erstwhile USSR are increasingly becoming examples of illiberal democracies. Viktor Orbán of Hungary and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are two of its shining stars. Many believe that US under Trump is also moving in this direction.

    Turkish President has slowly restricted the scope of political freedom and pluralism after winning the 2015 referendum with a thin majority. In Poland too the same trend can be seen where the ruling Law and Justice Party has ‘undermined the courts, politicized the civil service, and turned public media into a crude party propaganda organ.’ Earlier, countries in South East Asia like Singapore were examples of illiberal democracies which seems to have gained pace over the last few years.

    India is also moving onto the path of illiberal democracy under the leadership of Narendra Modi. If one looks at some of the key changes that have taken place in India over the last four years of BJP government, the direction of India’s political system becomes clear.

    Unlike the fascist governments or authoritarian regimes, leaders who want to take the country towards the path of illiberal democracy retain the façade of democracy but slowly hollow out its real content. They bank on elements of populism and cult of the hero to thwart democratic processes. The demonetisation move of Narendra Modi government is an example of this. Government sought no views from the established channels of the Finance Ministry or RBI or economists before declaring 86 percent of India’s currency notes as invalid. The government led by its finance minister Arun Jaitley went into an overdrive to prove that the exercise was meant to rid country of black money and crush terrorism. The entire government machinery was put into the job to work out the justification and trumpet the claim that it was a successful move and that Prime Minister Narendra Modi took such a ‘brave’ step. The outcome of the move is for everyone to see.

    Delineating the complex mechanism of populism, Christophe Jaffrelot (The lure of the populists, Indian Express, February 26, 2018) says that the populist leader ‘short circuits his own political party and all institutions in general….he claims he represents everybody as if the whole nation had voted for him.’ Concentration of power and repudiation of pluralism are also its crucial elements. The top leader uses his claimed popularity to abridge and thwart the liberal space gained by the people in a democracy often based on their struggle with the government in the past. Illiberal democracy flourishes on the energy and acceptance of the populist leader. There is no need to labour this point in the context of India.

    An illiberal democracy requires weakening of the checks and balances built into the democratic system. A constant attack on the institutions which act as instruments of checks and balances on the government goes hand in hand with the centralisation of power and authority in one hand. Two of the most important institutions which have suffered serious erosion under the BJP government since 2014 are the Supreme Court and the media. Never before in the history of India, judges of SC had called a press conference to vent out their deep anguish over the state of the apex judicial body of the country. The senior most judges of the SC expressed their apprehension about government’s interference in the working of the SC which, they claimed, is threatening the very existence of democracy in the country. Increasingly, the impartiality of the highest court has come under a cloud. Even the Election Commission has been accused of favouring the government in power which reflects the erosion in the trust and respectability of statutory institutions in India.

    The media has also shown abject surrender to the government in power. A number of News Channels now openly and blatantly run the agenda of the government. Many of these channels have no qualms in violating the well established code of ethics for media organisations. It was clear during the JNU episode when some TV channels showed morphed and edited video clips of JNU students shouting slogans against India. The recent sting by Cobrapost on media houses involving big names like Times of India group and India Today among many others shows how deep the rot has gone. The media houses were willing to run the divisive and hate filled campaign of Hindutva in lieu of money offered to them in the name of advertisement. Rather than speaking truth to power, mainstream media is now behaving more like an extended propaganda arm of the government. Public Service Broadcaster, Prasar Bharti consisting of All India Radio and Doordarshan has shed even the pretence of being neutral and non-partisan. Hope remains alive though in the form of online journalism which has shown real courage and fearlessness as expected of media in a democracy.

    Other institutions like CBI and ED have also capitulated and become a handmaiden of the government to carry out witch hunt against political rivals. The universities, which provided space for debate and discussion, are sought to be controlled by putting people of doubtful merit as Vice Chancellors with the sole agenda of limiting these freedoms and somehow promote the right-wing agenda. Unfortunately, armed forces and police are also being politicised and a culture of showing affinity to the right wing ideological universe is being rewarded.

    Within bureaucracy, the officers at senior levels are now too scared to give honest, if these are disagreeable to the political boss, opinions on files or otherwise. It would not be a surprise if, tomorrow, the can of worms comes tumbling out after the BJP goes out of power and decisions taken by the various arms of the government are scrutinised.

    Overall, the institutions are slowly being sapped of their vital energy. Their commitment to the rule of law has been compromised substantially. They are being turned into agencies for furthering the agenda of the political party in power, whether these are lawfully allowed or not.

    The government has been consistent in weakening the civil society groups, especially those whom it considers to be opposed to the right-wing Hindutva ideology. Large number of NGOs working in the field of environment, tribal, Dalit and Women’s rights, human rights, RTI, Anti-nuclear activists etc. have been identified and punished in various ways. A number of NGOs have their registrations cancelled. Activists like Teesta Setalvad have been jailed or cases lodged against them on various pretexts. Funding has been stopped under one pretext or the other. Indeed, NGOs with left leaning persons at the top are seen as biggest enemies of the government. Deepening of the liberal element of democracy depends significantly on civil society organisations and the illiberal democracy thinks it essential to tame them, if possible eliminate them from the public space even while right wing RSS affiliated NGOs have a field day.

    Illiberalism does not shy away from violence. In fact, violence is used by it to establish its position and send a message for the future too. The gruesome firing on people protesting against the Sterlite plant in Thuthookodi in Tamil Nadu killing more than a dozen of the unarmed people recently is a grim reminder of the reality. In June last year, 5 farmers protesting in Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh were killed in police firing. In April this year, 8 Dalits were killed during the bandh called by the Dalit organisations. Such examples abound. On all such occasions, the Prime Minister did not offer a word of sympathy for the people killed. State violence is not new but the sanctity provided to it by the powers that be is the hallmark of an illiberal state.

    The reason that a supposedly liberal democratic structure gives way to a popular support to illiberalism lies in the discontents of liberal politics. Most of the element of the liberal democracy slowly got diluted and they only became the masks to protect the status-quoist imperatives of the ruling forces. Secularism became barren and discredited as it was used to create fear psychosis among minorities without really making substantial changes in their lives. Under the overwhelming wave of globalisation, government kept moving away from pro-people economic policies to market driven crony capitalism. Symbolism took precedence over real work to promote the interests of the weaker sections. All of this created a reaction that drove people into the lap of illiberal forces. This has been the story all over the world. Reaction to the established semi-liberal democratic systems like in India creates the condition in which illiberal forces take root.

    The illiberal forces are also marked by their deep disdain for migrant population and minority groups. In India, the politics of BJP is rooted in first demolishing the foundations of the liberal democratic state so that the movement towards a majoritarian fascistic system is easier to achieve. It is true that India is not quite close to the fascistic system as yet. This is partly because the project of conversion of India into an illiberal democracy is encountering significant challenges from the people. Every such challenge to the illiberal design implies that the majoritarian-fascistic goal is pushed back a little.

    An illiberal state does not need to become explicitly authoritarian to achieve its goal. By the clever use of populism, propaganda and a vindictive state machinery it is able to achieve most of its objectives. In the economic terminology, it is more cost-effective way to achieve the same objective. In its pursuit, surveillance at all levels is crucial. The forced implementation of the UID project and the recent move of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to set up a mechanism in all the districts of the country to monitor social media platform to gauge public mood are two of the examples of a surveillance state.

    It is far more challenging to fight the illiberal state than fascism or authoritarianism because it hides behind the hollow structures of democracy. It is also difficult to put up a resistance to illiberalism as it creates the illusion of development backed by propaganda and demagoguery. It is not easy to rip apart the façade of populism and show that the king is naked. But it is not impossible. People of India are showing this every other day in small measure. There are reasons to be hopeful of a liberal-democratic India surviving beyond 2019 too.


    First published in The Citizen.

    Donate to the Indian Writers' Forum, a public trust that belongs to all of us.