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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 33 New Delhi August 3, 2019

Modi 2.0: Whither Indian Democracy?

Saturday 3 August 2019

by Ram Puniyani

Narendra Modi has won the 2019 elections with a resounding mandate. Now his party has a simple majority in the Lok Sabha and his alliance NDA has a sizeable majority in the Lower House of Parliament. What does it mean for Indian democracy? Will democracy sustain, or will it get converted into some sort of an authoritarian rule? This is the question on the minds of many who have experienced diverse phenomena related to Modi first as the Gujarat Chief Minister and then as the Prime Minister of India.

Backdrop of Present Regime

Democracy is a journey from formal values of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity towards converting these values in a substantive way. The strength-weakness of democracy can be judged by various parameters. Some of these are decentralisation of power, empowerment of average citizens, freedom of expression, affirmative action for weaker sections of society and sense of security enjoyed by the religious minorities. How do we see the evolution of these norms with Modi 2.0 firmly in saddle in the seat of power?

Narendra Modi is a trained pracharak of the RSS. The RSS is wedded to the goal of a Hindu Rashtra and its politics is that of Hindutva. He was deputed by the RSS to be the Organising Secretary of the BJP, before he was asked to take over the Chief Ministership of Gujarat from Keshubhai Patel, who floundered while handling the 2001 earthquake in Gujarat. After his taking over the post, soon enough the Godhra train burning happened in which 58 kar sevaks were burnt alive. As per Modi, there was a reaction to this in Gujarat, the infamous Gujarat Carnage, in which over one thousand innocent Muslims were done to death along with around two hundred Hindus. After this carnage Modi focused on Vikas (development), popularised the Gujarat Model of development. The big corporates were given a free hand with all the concessions from the State. The propaganda of the Gujarat Model of development was too strong and this helped him to pitch for the Prime Ministership.

He stated in the 2014 elections that ‘He is born in a Hindu Family: He is a nationalist, so he is a Hindu nationalist’.1 He promised acche din (good days), ending corruption, bringing black money and stated that everybody will get Rs 15 lakhs in their accounts. He also promised creation of two crore jobs every year of his regime. His victory brought him to the fore with an undisputed position in the party (BJP) and the government.

Modi 1.0

This period was marked by centralisation of power. Most of the powers of the Central Government came into his hands. Our cabinet system of government, where the Prime Minster is regarded as the first among equals, got replaced with a pattern where all powers were usurped by him.2 The institutions, which along with Parliament are the backbone of democracy, have been stifled and manipulated to reduce their autonomy. One recalls the press conference called by four Supreme Court judges to express their anguish about the state of affairs.3 The RBI saw similar problems after the exit of Raghuram Rajan, and later resignations of first the Governor Urjit Patel and of Viral Acharya, the Deputy Governor. In one of his earlier speeches Acharya had pointed out that “governments that do not respect the Central Bank’s independence will sooner or later incur the wrath of financial markets, ignite economic fire and come to rue the day they undermined an important regulatory institution”.4

The CBI saw the bickering between two top officials. It was again related to erosion of autonomy of the organisation.5 The Election Commission has been accused of being partisan to the ruling dispensation, where it ignored the communal comments of the Modi-Shah duo while taking on minor deviations from the leaders of the Opposition. Modi had commented that Rahul Gandhi is contesting from Waynad which is an area where minorities are in a majority. This was not objected to and no action was taken for such an observation. A group of ex-civil servants wrote to the President that the Election Commission has lost its credibility and has not been able to implement the Model Code of Conduct.6

Social Atmosphere

The policies of the government, the assertion of the RSS combine created an atmosphere of intolerance. After the murder of Dr Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, M.M. Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh were assassinated in a similar way. The murder of Akhlaq, Junaid and many others added to the viciousness in the atmosphere. In the middle of these ‘hate crimes’, writer Uday Prakash and Nayantara Sahgal had returned their well-earned honours. This was followed by eminent scientists, film-makers and writers returning their awards. None from the RSS combine came with the appeal or instruction to stop the acts of intolerance like killings; in contrast some of them said ‘award wapsi’ (returning awards) was being done with a political and monetary purpose.7

While the real issues of the society remain neglected, the issue of Ram temple has been kept in the forefront, more so when the elections are round the corner. As such the matter is in the court; yet there were claims from the spokesmen of the BJP that the Ram temple will be built. Just before the 2019 elections the VHP and RSS decided to postpone the issue till after elections.8 The blunt and aggressive statements on the issue and the attitude from the RSS combine are leading to an atmosphere of fear, more so among the weaker sections of society and among the religious minorities.

This government issued advertisement on the eve of the Republic Day in 2015; in the advertisement there was the facsimile of the Preamble of our Constitution, in which the words Secular and Socialist were missing. Later the Union Minister Anantkumar Hegde, stated that the BJP was in power to change the Constitution.9 With Yogi Adiyanath as the CM, the State Government organised Divali with actors dressed as Ram and Sita landing in Ayodhya in a helicopter. The same Yogi Aditya-nath said that secularism was a big lie of independent India, showing us the intentions of the BJP-RSS. Organising of religious functions as state programmes is fraught with dangers.10


The attacks on the character of our universities and education system have been an ongoing process. We painfully saw the incident at the JNU, where after showing a doctored CD on a channel, many students were charged with sedition and labelled as anti-nationals. It was no surprise that the police failed to file the charge-sheet of the incident for nearly three years. The Court had rejected the plea of the state that Kanhaiya Kumar, Anirban and Umar Khalid were anti-nationals or needed to be given punishment for that. It has created an atmosphere of fear in our educational insti-tutions.11 After the JNU, the Aligarh Muslim University has been the target, by branding some Muslim students as anti-nationals. The curriculum is being communalised and the BJP leaders are outright promoting blind faith. They have claimed that there was plastic surgery, internet, genetic engineering, Pushpak Viman in the ancient period. This is an assault on the scientific temper; this is contrary to the Directive Principles of the Indian Constitution which tells us to promote scientific temper and rational thought.

Citizens’ Security and Rights

Dalits are getting a rough deal at the hands of this government. Rohith Vemula, the research scholar at Hyderabad Central University, was forced to commit suicide as his organisation was labelled to be indulging in casteist and anti-national activities, Vemula’s scholarship was stopped and he was expelled from the hostel. He was implicated and put behind the bars on NSA charges for caste violence in Saharanpur, and was released after nearly one-and-a-half years.12 The Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle was banned in IIT Madras. In Una four Dalit youth were mercilessly beaten after stripping them.

The Kathua rape case and Unnao rape were horrifying. In Kathua the BJP took out a rally to support those accused of having committed rape. In Unnao the BJP MLA, who was allegedly involved, was arrested only after the family of the victim threatened to commit suicide in front of the Chief Minister’s residence. The issue of cow beef has been projected as one of the major issues. Many lynchings leading to the death of Muslims, on charges of eating or trading of cow have shaken the conscience of our society. Around ninety people have been mob-lynched. Lynching of Junaid (June 2017) in the outskirts of Delhi, in a train, did come as a saturation point of cow-beef-related violence. To express their anguish people came out on the streets in great numbers in a largely spontaneous protest, ‘Not in My name’. While some critics under-mined this expression of pain and anguish of sections of the society, it did catch the attention of national and international media, bringing shame to the image of our country. The result was that our Prime Minister, who has been keeping maun (silent) on the issue, came forward to make a bland statement.

On the issue of cow-beef-related lynching the data collected by IndiaSpend, based on the content analysis of media reporting, tells us that “Muslims were the target of 51 per cent of violence centered on bovine issues for over nearly eight years (2010 to 2017) and comprised 86 per cent of 28 Indians killed in 63 incidents. As many of 97 per cent of these attacks were reported after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government came to power in May 2014, and about half the cow-related violence—32 of 63 cases—were from States governed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) when the attacks were reported, revealed our analysis of violence recorded until June 25, 2017.”13

Our society has been accepting plural norms in most of the arena of our life. The issue of cow-beef has added to the intolerance in society, suspicion against Dalits and Muslims have gone up due to this. Incidentally, the BJP has exhibited very hypocritical attitude in matters of cow-beef. In the North-Eastern States, in Goa and Kerala, it keeps quiet on these matters while in other States it raises the pitch of this topic to polarise the society. Incidentally due to the cow vigilantes now it has become difficult to sell the old cattle; the result is that hoards of cattle are roaming freely damaging the standing crops.


The newer and more independent online media outlets, and some social media voices, continue to call out the government, but the liberal space in the English-medium press is shrinking. Modi’s BJP won its first term by changing the rules of the perception game in devastating ways, bringing lethal propaganda and fake-news machines in the campaign. It has been like taking an assault rifle to a fencing match. A large section of the print and TV media has turned into the Modi Media, a term coined for the media which has become totally servile to the ruling dispensation.14 The role of the media in questioning those in power has changed to grilling the Opposition. The Media is the fourth pillar of the state. It has to keep the government on the proper track. With its servile attitude there is no critical restraint on the state power. the BJP has been the major political party to use the social media to spread its propaganda. Its lies on social media are drowning out rationality, fact and memory. An incremental normalisation of communalism and hate speech is well under way.

Post-May 2019: Conclusions

While it is a brief while that this government has come back to power, its assertion this time is much worse. Now chanting ‘Jai Shri Ram’ is being used in a more aggressive way. Tabrez Ansari, a youth, was tied to the pole on suspicion of stealing a bicycle, and forced to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’. He died soon due to merciless beating. Similarly in Parliament, the BJP MPs have used the same chant to heckle the Muslim MPs 15 and also the MPs of the Trinamul Congress.

The basics of a democratic society are under a great challenge with assertion of Hindu nationalism combined with authoritarianism. The trends of the last five year make it clear that there is a need to step up the struggle to uphold the values of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. There is a threat to the Indian Constitution, which needs to be thwarted.















14. media-questions


The author, a retired Professor at the IIT-Bombay, is currently associated with the Centre for the Study of Secularism and Society, Mumbai. 

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