When the Modi government swept to power in May 2014, it did so without a single Muslim or Christian MP among the 282 who won on the party’s ticket. In fact, SS Ahluwalia, a Sikh, and Thupstan Chhewang, a Buddhist from Ladakh, were all that the BJP had to show by way of minority or non-Hindu representation among its flock. In a country in which the minorities account for over 20 per cent of the population, a party winning a majority in Parliament would be expected to have the diverse communities represented among its ranks. After all, an important aspect of democracy is that all sections feel they have a stake in power. But clearly, the BJP cares little for such niceties. Three years later, it jettisoned even the pretence of putting up Muslim candidates in UP, a state where almost a fifth of the population belongs to that community. If anything, the message has become even clearer – the minorities have no place in the BJP’s scheme of things or in “sabka saath”.
The fundamentally undemocratic nature of the Modi government’s vision of governance is laid bare not just by this stark reality, but by its actions in the three years it has been in power. Whether it is a question of individual rights or of political battles, the Modi government, the BJP and the larger sangh parivar have shown time and again that they don’t need to think twice before trampling on democratic norms.
In just the year gone by, the instances of this contempt for democracy are several and unmistakable. The most obvious, of course, is the manner in which the government reduced almost 90% of all currency in circulation to worthless paper overnight. Another article in this booklet examines in greater detail how much damage was caused by this move, but even without going into the merits of the decision, there is no mistaking the autocratic impulse behind it. The prime minister and a handful of his chosen cronies did not even bother to consult the cabinet on something so enormously disruptive, leave alone the BJP’s allies, Parliament or the people at large.
The same disregard for democratic norms was evident in the manner in which the BJP rushed to form governments in Manipur and Goa despite having lost the elections in both states. With governors who were not surprisingly willing to play along – the one in Goa actually went on record to say she had consulted Arun Jaitley about it!!! – the people’s mandate was reduced to an irrelevancy. Given the manner in which the BJP had sought to destablise the government in Uttarakhand earlier in its tenure and had successfully converted a Congress government in Arunachal Pradesh into its government, Manipur and Goa came as no surprise, but they did underline just how cavalier the party’s attitude towards democratic norms is.
The manner in which Aadhar has been rammed down the throats of people is another example of this authoritarian attitude. Despite interim orders from courts that Aadhar cannot be made mandatory for welfare schemes, the government has simply gone ahead and in practice done just that without waiting for final orders. The manner in which the Aadhar law was passed was in itself another instance of the government riding roughshod over all dissent and opposition. Realising – after its experience with the land acquisition bill – that it would not be able to get the bill accepted by the Rajya Sabha, it simply dubbed it a money bill since money bills cannot be blocked by the Rajya Sabha. The fact that scores of constitutional experts said this was unconstitutional and that the Aadhar bill could not by any stretch be construed as a money bill mattered not one bit.
A similarly cavalier attitude has been exhibited by the government in appointments to key academic bodies, the latest being the Indian Council for Social Science Reasearch (ICSSR). The primary claim of Braj Behari Kumar who’s now the ICSSR head seems to be his views -- that Modi is the best prime minister and worst victim of intolerance; that caste in its current form and untouchability are due to invasions by Arabs, Turks and Mughals; that Macaulay and Marxists led to India’s intellectual decline; and, that the Opposition’s support to JNU students hurt nationalistic sentiments. Never mind Kumar’s academic credentials or the credibility of the institution nationally and internationally. He’s clearly a Modi bhakt and that’s good enough. Like a medieval monarchy dispensing favours, the Modi government has appointed Kumar and others just as unsuitable to a series of positions both in academia and in other institutions like the film censor board.
These blatantly authoritarian and undemocratic steps are of a piece with the larger thrust of the sangh parivar aimed at cowing down minorities and dissenting voices. The attacks on students in Hyderabad and JNU that had already signalled the intent to muzzle dissent in the early part of the government’s tenure have been kept up in its third year, with a funds squeeze on universities being just another weapon for dealing with these potential centres of dissent.
Beyond the universities, the bigger picture reveals a consistent pattern of fanning a militarist ‘nationalism’ and of labelling anybody disagreeing with this approach an anti-national. The attempt is to reduce the equation to two choices – you’re both a camp follower of Modi and the sangh parivar or you are an anti-national. What could be more undemocratic than this false dichotomy? This false binary was foisted on all those who chose to disagree with the ‘ban’ on Pakistani artists appearing in Indian films.
Arguably the most blatant exhibition of the Modi-led BJP’s undemocratic nature was in the shutting down of slaughter houses in BJP run states in the aftermath of the party’s victory in UP. While the move was ostensibly only against “illegal” slaughter houses, the agenda was clear. A trade would be effectively shut down because it was largely controlled by a community the ruling party has no love lost for. The excesses of the anti-Romeo squads in UP once again betrayed a complete lack of respect for individual rights and choices and the intent to impose the sangh parivar’s medieval world view, by force if need be.
None of this should surprise us. After all, the Modi government began by enacting an ordinance so a person of his choice could be appointed principal secretary in violation of the law as it then stood. And the sangh parivar’s contempt for democracy was manifested just as clearly when its governments in Rajasthan and Haryana effectively made the overwhelming majority of rural women, Dalits and tribals ineligible to hold panchayats positions by imposing educational qualifications for these posts. While they should not surprise us, therefore, they should shock all those who value democracy into fighting these authoritarian trends before they gain further steam.