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Monday, April 7, 2014

Modi and the Looming Spectre of Authoritarianism

As Ambedkar had warned, Indians have a curious predilection towards bhakti and hero-worship in politics, one that has caused the country much harm. Given Modi’s iron grip within the BJP, we must guard against repeating old mistakes.

The last few days have been especially eventful for the always hectic Modi campaign. The BJP disciplined three of its patriarchs, Advani, MM Joshi and Jaswant Singh, imposing on them firmly the party’s diktat. Advani’s move to contest from Bhopal was scotched, being seen as an attempt to prop up a Shivraj Singh Chouhan-led centre of power, one that was obviously not to Modi’s liking. Joshi was made to contest from Kanpur rather than Varanasi, where he is the sitting MP, so that Modi could contest from the holy city, touted as a “safe seat” for the BJP. And Jaswant Singh was summarily expelled over the phone when he threatened to oppose the High Command’s decision to not nominate him as the BJP candidate from his home constituency of Barmer. All three incidents point to a significant strengthening of Modi within the BJP, as all other centres of power are either made to fall in line or removed. A more subtle indication of this power shift was provided by Rajnath’s Singh’s move of replacing the “Modi” in BJP’s official slogan, Ab ki baar Modi sarkaar, with the word “BJP”. The incident was sought to be papered over by claiming that it was an inadvertent mistake but by then tongues had already started to wag. Of course, all of this is small change compared to the popular slogan “Har Har Modi”, which raises Modi, literally, to the level of god (the original slogan, “Har har Mahadev” is a celebration of Lord Shiv). When the Shankaracharya of Dwarka Peeth objected to this “vyakti puja”, Modi hurriedly advised his supporters, via a tweet, to desist from the slogan. However, this literal deification of Modi was just one of the many indicators which point to his almost complete domination of the BJP.

The last time someone held such a sway on his or her own party was when the indomitable Mrs Indira Gandhi ruled over the Congress. Appointed as a consensus candidate after the death of Lal Bahadur Shastri, she soon ousted the Congress old guard and took full control. An authoritarian to the core, she went about methodically increasing her personal power at the expense of various systemic checks and balances. She tried to break the independence of the judiciary, discontinuing the practise of appointing the senior-most judge as chief justice, choosing her own candidate instead. The bureaucracy was made firmly subservient to the political executive, as her secretary, PN Haksar, pushed the concept of “committed” civil servants. She also significantly eroded the federal nature of India’s polity, concentrating power in the Centre. As Bidyut Chatterjee writes in his book, Indian Politics and Society since Independence, during Indira’s rule “centre-state relations were practically reduced to a state of near non-existence and unitarism triumphed under the aegis of a strong state”.

This is, of course, not to single out Indira. In the absence of checks, power corrupts everyone and anyone. Even her father, usually hailed as a pukka democrat, had a crushing hold on his party and his government and it was probably this dominance that led to the “Himalayan blunders” of 1962—surrounded by his lackeys, Nehru’s disastrous China policy just did not have the opposition and, consequently, the balance that was needed. To go even further back, in parallel with the deification of Modi, Gandhi was hailed as a saint and awarded the title of “Mahatma”. However, even he was not averse to misusing some of this power. In 1939, Subhash Chandra Bose won the elections for the presidency of the Congress, defeating a man, who as it so happened, was the Mahatma’s candidate. Rather than accept this democratic verdict, Gandhi used his iron grip on the leaders of the Congress to get 12 of the 15 members of the Working Committee to resign. Crippled, Bose was forced to quit and leave the Congress in disgrace.

This seems to be a particular Indian trait: we love to lionise our leaders, make them into gods, literally even. On 25th November 1949, Dr Ambedkar, in his famous Grammar of Anarchy speech delivered to the Constituent Assembly, had warned of exactly this. “There is nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long services to the country,” he said, but also warned that “in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship. .” (emphasis mine)

India, unsurprisingly, seems to have ignored Ambedkar’s prophetic words. When Indira Gandhi first announced the Emergency, amazingly, India’s middle class actually cheered it on. Khushwant Singh wrote how it “was generally welcomed by the people. There were no strikes or hartals, schools and colleges re-opened, business picked up, buses and trains began to run on time.” Mrs Gandhi was seen as the “strong leader” India needed. Just like in 1975, even today, Ambedkar is being ignored and the Great Indian Middle Class is hankering again for a “strong leader”. This time that leader is Modi, who is to deliver India from her chaos and bedlam, ironically, by defeating Indira’s grandson at the hustings. The more things change…

Vijay Prashad, writing in The Guardian also acknowledged the authoritarianism inherent in the rise of Modi but argued that the fact that India does not have a presidential but a diffused parliamentary system of government is what will act as a check against Modi’s power should he win the elections. This, on paper, is correct. Our Westminster system, in theory, makes the government responsible to the legislature. For Modi to continue in office, he will have to have the confidence of at least 271 members of the Lok Sabha, not an easy task.

In practise, however, things are not that rosy. The peculiar way in which the executive is chosen in the Westminster system means that it must necessarily be one that enjoys the confidence of Parliament. In other words, while Parliament is meant to check the executive, given that both draw their power from the same organ, the ruling party, this is a weak check indeed. A conflict of interest is almost built into the system by default. This peculiar nature of the Westminster system was highlighted by Lord Hailsham in his now famous Richard Dimbleby Lecture at the BBC in 1976, where he memorably called this feeble arrangement of checks and balances an “elective dictatorship”. It also must be noted that the “elective dictatorship” of the UK becomes even more despotic in India, given that we have that most undemocratic of instruments, the Anti-Defection Law. In the UK, in extreme circumstances, governments could still be reined in by, say, a backbench revolt. Given that an MP in India is a slave of his party high command, such a scenario is, literally, impossible. The ruling party has full control of both the executive and the legislature, the latter farcically meant to provide a check on the former. In the US Presidential system, on the other hand, the complete separation between the executive and legislature means that even an extremely strong president can be held in check, as has happened multiple times in the current Obama administration.

It is, therefore, no surprise that this system has once allowed one individual, Indira Gandhi, to completely dominate the country, making Parliament and even institutions like the cabinet, completely subservient to her. One year before the emergency, DK Barooah had even gone so far as to proclaim that “India is Indira. Indira is India”, his sycophancy providing an apt expression of Indira’s iron grip on the government, even if not, as claimed, India. This time, Modi’s supporters and, indeed, many BJP leaders have gone even one step further, comparing him to Lord Shiv himself. And while, even if for appearance’s sake, Indira fought on the basis of slogans of development such as “gharibi hatao”, the BJP slogan is starkly Modi-centric: “Ab ki baar Modi Sarkar”, the absence of the BJP in its very own slogan being a stark reminder as to how personality-centric Modi’s campaign is.

Some might argue that Indira Gandhi is an extreme case and there is no way the BJP would even be able to get close to the number of seats the Congress held under the “Indira Wave”. This is a valid point and there is a good chance that the exigencies of coalition politics would hold in check many of Modi’s more authoritarian tendencies. Nevertheless, given his absolute power within the BJP and the harm authoritarianism has already done to India, we must keep Ambedkar’s warning in mind: “in politics, bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation”.

First published in NewsYaps

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