India’s shrinking democratic space

The BJP’s dystopic national vision jeopardises the future of our republic

September 15, 2018 12:15 am | Updated 01:09 am IST

 Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah.

With less than a year to go before we head into general elections in the summer of 2019, it is becoming evident that this will be no ordinary electoral contest between the BJP and the rest because what is at stake is the future of our democratic republic.

It seems that a pivotal moment in our political life is approaching, with the BJP and its allied organisations embarking on a strategic course that is far more ambitious and combative than in 2014, seeking as it does to alter the fundamental postulates of the democratic framework of the Indian nation.

As Indians, we are justly proud of the structure of our governance and our Constitution which has ensured that India is both a democracy and a republic. This powerful and well-articulated constitutional link between democracy and republic has entrenched all citizens as equal stakeholders in this nation state.

The Constitution, which came into force in 1950, had ensured that Indian citizens were given a set of inviolable freedoms, including equality before the law and freedom of expression.

An inheritance in peril

It is this democratic inheritance which is now in peril, with the BJP signalling a willingness to depart from the traditional moorings of governance. The ruling party and its Hindu nationalist affiliates are becoming increasingly vocal in the public sphere in their questioning of the foundational principles of our democratic framework, airing afresh pre-Independence Hindu nationalist doctrines that question the basis of India’s composite nationhood.

Meanwhile, the trend of the Modi administration’s policy responses and actions in recent months suggests a stronger tilt towards implementing the original agenda of Hindu nationalism, by making policy moves that seek to unsettle the governing consensus on nationhood and citizenship.

The edgier tone of the policy statements emanating from the party’s top leadership, particularly its president, Amit Shah, indicate that the BJP is preparing for a more combative political strategy. In the recent meeting of the BJP National Executive, Mr. Shah asserted the party’s determination to not only win 2019 but rule “for the next 50 years”.

The purpose of the BJP’s recent political moves on the Citizenship Act, on the controversial concept of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and on the special status of Jammu and Kashmir is to challenge the prevailing governing consensus on key issues such as citizenship and the relationship of various States to the Union. All these moves would add up to a fundamental rewriting of the rules of engagement between the Indian nation and all other players, be it citizens, constituent States, or communities.

Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the government is taking decisive steps on fulfilling several of its core Hindu nationalist doctrinal commitments. Its policy articulations on citizenship, on the status of J&K, and its strident public campaign against intellectuals and civil society activists , branding them as “urban Naxals”, are all signposts of a new political culture that is sought to be forcibly entrenched in our public space.

Yet, neither the Congress nor other opposition parties acknowledge emphatically that what is really unfolding in the political arena is a fundamental contest between the original pluralist vision of Indian democracy and the monocultural and exclusivist view of the Hindu nationalists. These parties do not seem to have grasped the deeper pattern of interconnected trends unfolding behind the policy steps taken by the Modi administration with the encouragement of the ruling party.

When the Modi-led National Democratic Alliance government assumed power in 2014, its initial approach to historically sensitive issues such as Kashmir and minority groups was cautious. It also appeared eager to prove its governing capability and demonstrate a willingness to adhere to the Constitution. Mr. Modi was quick to show his disapproval of the mob violence and the cow vigilantism of right-wing groups that erupted brazenly after its assumption of power.

The gloves are off

But now the BJP appears determined to take its gloves off, eager to wade into controversial issues such as the status of J&K and the Citizenship Act. By explicitly placing these issues that relate to citizenship and community rights at the top of the party’s national political agenda, it is clearly readying for elections.

Government officials and party spokespersons are becoming explicitly combative on the concept of special rights for Kashmir. They are unapologetic on the controversy in Assam over the agony of genuine citizens who find their names missing in the new NRC. Undeterred by the strong public criticism, party and government leaders continue to affirm enthusiastically their commitment to the government’s proposed Citizenship (Amendment) Bill of 2016.

This proposal, which blatantly omits Muslims from the list of communities in the South Asian neighbourhood who are invited to take Indian citizenship, has been widely condemned as unconstitutional because of its exclusivist intent, violating Article 14 mandating equality before the law.

In recent months, the situation in the Kashmir Valley is at its inflamed worst, with the political process having collapsed as Governor’s Rule has been imposed. After the breakdown of the alliance with the PDP in June, the BJP has reverted to its traditionally hard-line position on the status of J&K, questioning the special provisions designed to protect its conditional accession to the Union.

Article 370 of the Indian Constitution as also Article 35A were historical commitments to the State of Jammu and Kashmir based on the conditional terms of the Instrument of Accession in October 1947. Given that J&K’s adherence to the Indian Union remains vulnerable to external challenge, it is evidently bad strategy to embark on a confrontational course in respect of the special provisions designed to protect its status in the Union.

Therefore, inexplicable are the loud musings from senior officials in the Modi government such as the National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval, reportedly calling the idea of a separate Constitution for J&K an “aberration”. Also provocative was a BJP-sponsored challenge in the Supreme Court to the validity of Article 35A. Such a stand-off, while it possibly thwarts the prospect of a revival of a peace process in the State, benefits the BJP politically, as the hard-line stance is bound to appeal to its hard-core Hindu nationalist supporters.

Likewise, the pronouncements of Mr. Shah at the recent BJP National Executive meeting on Assam, the issue of illegal migrants, the NRC controversy and the Citizenship Amendment Bill underlined the party’s determination to press ahead with its polarising strategy. The political resolution adopted at the meeting echoed Mr. Shah’s assertions.

The resolution called the publication of the NRC “a monumental work in securing the cultural, economic and demographic interests of the state as well as the national security interests of India”. Further, militating against the global trend of humanitarian sympathy for the plight of the Rohingya, the resolution says the BJP National Executive “compliments the Modi government for its determination in weeding out the infiltrators, whether Bangladeshi or Rohingya”.

Alarming too is the BJP National Executive’s welcome of the proposal in the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill of 2016 to grant citizenship in a shortened time frame to Hindu minorities from the South Asian neighbourhood. In effect, what emerges from the BJP’s recent conclave is an insular and rejectionist perspective sharply at odds with India’s hitherto strong humanitarian traditions.

Unabated repression

Meanwhile, in the public sphere, the repression of critical voices and dissent continues unabated. There is a vitriolic narrative being fed into the public discourse, aided by an incendiary social media campaign, against journalists and activists, painting them as “urban Naxals”, peddling unsubstantiated allegations of links between these critics of the government and the Maoist insurgency. This McCarthyist campaign is intended to discredit the public resistance steadily building up against the government’s efforts to curtail democratic freedoms.

If not for the Supreme Court, which is proving to be the last bastion in the defence of basic rights, India’s democratic governing framework would be under greater challenge. Political scientist Robert Paxton defined fascism in his seminal study in 2004, The Anatomy of Fascism , as “a form of political behaviour marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood” and in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants “abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion”.

This could well be a description of the BJP’s mobilisation strategies and its political perspective. It is time for those of us invested in keeping India’s democratic imagination vibrant and expansive to resist such an exclusivist political vision.

Malini Parthasarathy is Director, Editorial Strategy and former Editor of The Hindu

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