Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi threatened to turn the country into a one-party state,The Economist reported in an article published on November 28 citing the premier’s continuous erosion of checks and balances.
Starting with from the arrest of prominent Indian journalist Arnab Goswami in early November the Indian government ministers decried the act and called it assault on free speech.
Judges at the supreme court turned their attention to an urgent plea, the article stated. The hearing was short. “If we as a constitutional court do not lay down law and protect liberty, then who will?” one judge proclaimed.
That evening Goswami swept out of Mumbai’s Taloja prison into a rapturous crowd.
“This is a victory for the people of India!” he said.
According to The Economist, Goswami’s case represented not a test of freedom so much as a test of power.
“Goswami’s case represented not a test of freedom so much as a test of power. The world’s largest democracy is headed to a future that is less, not more free,” the article read.
Victims of Goswami’s criticism in his show were often critics of government policy.
“They are typically reduced to a corner box as Mr Goswami swells into a finger-jabbing prosecutor, denouncing them as “anti-national” or, worse, an agent of Pakistan,” the weekly newspaper magazine stated.
With Indian government’s intentions, Goswami spent just a week in police custody and India’s topmost judges ignored the court’s backlog of some 60,000 cases to schedule a bail hearing within a day of the anchor’s appeal, it the article reported.
India’s prisons hold twice as many inmates awaiting trial, some 330,000 people, as they do convicts.
“A majority of these “undertrials” come from minority groups and a quarter have spent more than a year behind bars,” said Leah Verghese, a law researcher.
When the Modi-led government annexed the special status on Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK) in August 2019 thousands of its residents were detained.
The Indian court entertained only a handful habeas corpus petitions, same as Goswami’s, out of more than 550 writs.
The article further reported that in 2017 Modi slipped through parliament a controversial law that created “electoral bonds”, asserting that as a budgetary matter it need not be scrutinised by the upper house, which was not then in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) control.
The supreme court of India still had not examined the constitutionality of the innovation, which allowed unlimited, anonymous donations to political parties.
“Judges have yet to take up include the imposition last year of direct rule on Kashmir and some 140 legal petitions against the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019, which by inserting religion as a criterion for citizenship undermines the secular nature of the Indian state,” The Economist reported.
Sleepwalking into authoritarianism?
“This government has done so much damage to personal liberty,” says Ajit Prakash Shah, a former high court judge. “But the courts, especially the supreme court, have watched this indiscriminate and violent trampling of dissent like mute spectators.”
The article reported that it was a judge’s ruling that Indira Gandhi, perhaps the country’s most powerful prime minister, had cheated in an election that prompted her in 1975 to plunge India into a 21-month emergency, during which she threw opponents in jail and ruled by decree.
“Legal professionals now liken the current moment to that darkest period for Indian democracy,” the article stated, adding, Many cogs in India’s institutional machinery are not merely complacent, but have grown complicit in a project that threatens to turn the country into a one-party state.”
The Economist quoted Vice-Dean of law at Oxford University and author of a paper, “Killing a Constitution with a Thousand Cuts”, Tarunabh Khaitan, that at least during the emergency the threat was clear that details India’s institutional decay.
“What we have now is a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” he says. “There is no full-frontal big-ticket attack on democracy, but there are multiple, simultaneous attacks on all fronts.… We are sleepwalking into authoritarianism.”
Delhi police’s management of communal riots in the country’s capital for three days last winter left 53 dead.
The top officers in the force had been filmed standing next to a BJP politician at a rally where he threatened to attack protesters, mostly Muslims, holding a peaceful sit-in against the new citizenship law.
“During the violence, police were filmed throwing rocks and torturing captured Muslim youths. More than two-thirds of those beaten, shot and hacked to death were Muslim. Yet Delhi’s finest have declined to register complaints against BJP members for incitement. Their investigations have focused on a purported Islamist-Marxist conspiracy to foment unrest in order to embarrass Mr Modi at a time when he was hosting President Donald Trump,” the article said.
An amendment made last year to the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), a draconian law from 1967 that allowed the state to label and then ban groups as a terrorist, now empowered the government to designate any individual as a terrorist.
“Having enjoyed a stranglehold on the Lok Sabha, parliament’s lower house, for six years, and more recently acquired control of the upper Rajya Sabha, Mr Modi’s government has passed a slew of other laws not only to expand its powers but to dilute those of potential challengers. One thorn in its side has been a law from 2005 that upholds citizens’ right to obtain information (RTI) from state officials,” The Economist reported.
The article further reported that in 2019 the government amended the RTI law. It reduced the tenure and prestige of the role of the commission’s chief. “Small wonder that the commission is rejecting a growing number of information requests from the public, citing ‘insufficient documentation’, even as the number of pending requests has swollen by 50%.”
“Such appointments are a prerogative of the executive, one that previous leaders have scarcely been shy of exercising. More unusual under Mr Modi has been his almost axiomatic choice of candidates with Hindu-nationalist credentials, often from his home state of Gujarat, and his insistence on inserting loyalists even into institutions that had been seen as sanctuaries from party politics,” the article read.
The article reported that Modi ignored institutional precedent in the Indian army, lifting General Bipin Rawat over the heads of two senior officers to appoint him its top commander.
“Mr Modi has made a spectacle of his own commander-in-chief role as no other recent prime minister, and also minted electoral gold from pre-election military operations. Helpfully, India’s soldiers have remained silent at useful moments, too. As independent satellite evidence emerged this summer showing that Chinese forces had occupied strategic posts in territory claimed by India along remote sections of the countries’ border, the army steadfastly refused to comment on Indian government assertions that no land had been lost.” The Economist stated.
The article further stated that the Election Commission of India (ECI) also came under scrutiny as Modi opponents protested his 2019 when the prime minister and other top BJP leaders repeatedly escaped serious censure for issuing what amounted to “communal dog whistles, whereas the ECI promptly sanctioned rival candidates for lesser infractions of its strict codes of conduct.” One of the body’s three top commissioners did object but was overruled.
“Given that India continues to run elections that by most standards are admirably free and fair, it may seem churlish to voice fears for its democracy,” the article said.
The BJP’s supporters scoff at the notion that its rise under Modi had entailed any subversion of institutions or dilution of democracy.
“Our democracy is flawed, but it is a work in progress, not just about the people who are currently in power.” insists Raghavan Jagannathan, editor of Swarajya, a right-wing magazine and adds that such protests are merely sour grapes.
Grand designs in Delhi
The Economist reported that in the absence of strong opposition at the centre, the most effective resistance to the BJP’s dominance lies in state capitals, as well in the press and more broadly in civil society.
“Opposition parties holding slim majorities in other big states, including Rajasthan and Maharashtra, are acutely aware of the BJP’s capacity to “persuade” defectors to its side. This recently happened in Madhya Pradesh, where Mr Modi’s party unceremoniously unseated Congress after luring away a chunk of its deputies,” The Economist reported.
The Modi government has largely marginalised critical voices in the press by leaning on the big conglomerates that dominate the mainstream media, by favouring outlets that share its ideology, such as Goswami’s, and by flooding social media with agitprop, the article reported.
“In the past two months, new rules have curtailed the permitted level of foreign investment in online media and placed the entire sector under the authority of the broadcasting ministry. The moves appear to be aimed at getting a grip on one of the main remaining outlets for dissent, say editors at three of India’s increasingly popular news sites,” The Economist reported.
“We do not have a level playing field any more. What we are getting is not quite a one-party state, but certainly a hegemonic state,” Oxford law Professor Khaitan said.
The trajectory resembles democracies like such as Hungary, Poland and Turkey, where autocracy is on the rise as depicted in the chart.
PHOTO: THE ECONOMIST
Modi’s one-party system can also be detected in him showing keen interest in reshaping New Delhi. It would have 10 identical government office buildings. The project also included expanding the parliament to double the current 545 MPs seat whereas the old building would become a “Museum of Democracy”.
Furthermore, the difference in Modi’s “read-outs” after his congratulatory phone call to President-elect Joe Biden also point out Modi’s agenda for the country.
“Strengthening democracy, at home and abroad.” was one the commitments shared between the two sides which was left out in the version from Modi’s office.
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