India’s Steady Sleepwalking into Authoritarianism
And how we are probably witnessing the end of the world’s largest democracy
In early November 2020, India was swept away by the controversy of Arnab Goswami, a prominent journalist who, according to an Indian friend, is the equivalent of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson.
Goswami was dragged from his home and then thrown into jail, pushing government officials to denounce a blatant assault on free speech and demanding that the journalist be granted bail.
To government critics, Goswami’s case was a test of BJP’s (Bharatiya Janata Party, India’s ruling party) power rather than one of freedom of speech. They argue that the defendant has pioneered an extremely aggressive style of journalism. His guests were often government critics and opposition figures, whom Goswami cornered before denouncing them as traitors and anti-nationalists.
But, the reason Goswami was thrown in jail wasn’t because of his widely controversial shows, nor because of something he specifically said (although his open criticism against the Mumbai Police has enraged the local government more than once.)
The journalist’s alleged crime involved an unpaid debt to a decorator who left a suicide note implicating him and others in his suicide. In 2019, the case had been closed when the BJP was still in power in Mumbai.
Now that an opposition party (Shiv Sena) is ruling the Marathi capital, the case was reopened, which goes to show the thin line that separates political valor from personal attacks in Narendra Modi’s political landscape.
So, on a humid November night, when Goswami left the Mumbai Taloja Prison, welcomed by a huge and vocal crowd, and stated: “This is a victory for the people of India!”, a lot of people got worried. By all evidence, the world’s largest democracy was slipping into a dark age ruled by one party, and, slowly, the last vestiges of a forgotten and ancestral democracy were crumbling one by one.
India’s political regression
During the same week that Goswami was bailed out, an 83-year-old Jesuit priest by the name of Father Stan Swamy made a plea of his own to be granted bail too. Father Swamy has championed tribal people’s rights for years and is now being held as an alleged Maoist terrorist. Since he suffers from Parkinson’s disease and cannot hold a cup steadily, his lawyers requested that he be given a straw in his prison cell. Sadly, the court postponed the hearing for 20 days.
The case of Father Swamy is one of many. When, back in 2019, Modi planted his claws deep into the state of Jammu and Kashmir, detaining thousands of its citizens, and illegally annexing its land, more than 500 writs of habeas corpus were filed. Yet, the courts hardly looked at them.
What’s even more surprising is the Supreme Court’s ability to drag even constitutional matters. In 2017, Modi’s administration proposed a controversial law to create “electoral bonds”, stating that due to their budgetary nature the bonds didn’t need to be scrutinized by the Upper House of Parliament (which was not in BJP’s control at the time.)
To date, the Supreme Court has yet to validate the constitutionality of the “electoral bonds”, among other important questions in the Indian political landscape: the imposition of direct rule on Jammu and Kashmir and the petitions against the Citizenship Amendment Act for example.
Such practices of arbitrary justice are not new to India, although it is undoubtedly the largest democracy in the world. But, up until now, the courts have usually tried to keep the executive branch in check and limit its hold on absolute power. Such was the case of Indira Gandhi, perhaps India’s most powerful Prime Minister in history, when a judge ruled that she had cheated in an election in 1975 which prompted her to declare a 21-month-long state of emergency. During the period that would come to be known as the Emergency, Indira threw the opposition in jail and ruled by decree.
It is not only the courts that are turning a blind eye to where India is heading, many cogs in India’s institutional machinery seem eager to remain in step with the government and have even grown complicit in turning the country into a one-party state.
Tarunabh Khaitan, vice-dean of law at Oxford states in his paper Killing a Constitution with a Thousand Cuts: “There is no full-frontal big-ticket attack on democracy, but there are multiple, simultaneous attacks on all fronts…We are sleepwalking into authoritarianism.”
Modi’s grip on power
The impression that most Indians seem to hold on to the country’s police force is that it’s a machinery to protect the powerful and prosecute the weak.
Earlier this year, when the capital’s streets were taken by communal riots for many days, Delhi’s police force left at least 53 dead people. Top officers were filmed standing next to a BJP politician while he threatened to attack the protesters, mostly Muslims. Many of them ended up tortured and injured by Delhi’s forces.
Yet, Delhi’s police had declined to register any complaints against any BJP members for incitement, focusing rather on an alleged Islamist-Marxist conspiracy to embarrass Modi during Trump’s visit to Delhi.
Modi and the BJP are not shy to show the Indian people just how much they can still enforce their grip on power. An amendment made last year to a 1967 draconian law called the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) now enables the government to designate any individual or group as terrorists, holding them indefinitely without bail, confiscating their properties, and prosecuting any associate as an accessory to terrorism. Under UAPA, many youths have been rounded up during the spring lockdown for their involvement in the Delhi riots.
To draw a clear picture of where India is heading, perhaps it is wiser to analyze Modi’s appointments and nominations for institutions that have always been considered a sanctuary from party politics. Whenever he was given a chance, he made sure to nominate loyalists and people with Hindu-nationalist credentials.
Twice Modi has replaced the heads of the Reserve Bank of India after they openly criticized his economic policies. For the nomination of India’s Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), which has earned a reputation for denouncing government waste, Modi passed on seven senior secretaries from within the organization and opted for a retired official from his home state of Gujarat.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, Modi broke institutional precedent in the Indian Army in 2016 by appointing General Bipin Rawat as its top commander over two army senior officers. In 2019, after a law was changed to stretch the army retirement age, General Rawat became the chief of staff of all of India’s forces.
During India’s modern post-colonial history, the army has always maintained a tradition of keeping away from politics, a unique military characteristic in the South Asian region. But, lately, many military officers tend to weigh in on civilian and political matters, prompting some retired soldiers to reproach current officers their cozying up to politicians.
The BJP is without a doubt the world’s largest political machine, with many times the organizational expertise and the financial resources of its rivals. It has found a strong narrative in Modi’s tale of what India should be, a tale of rampant populism and indomitable nationalism that is powerful and convincing enough for many people.
This sharply contrasts with the modern INC (Indian National Congress, the previously dominant party), led by a weakened Gandhi dynasty, and slowly disintegrating. The INC’s inability to connect with people on the ground and to form a proper opposition led to the collapse of its structure. Indians who hate Modi and what he stands for often feel the same way about Rahul Gandhi, the INC’s figurehead.