Even electoral wins against majoritarian nationalism will not be adequate in light of the sociocultural tectonic shifts that have occurred in India.
“The tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy’s assassins use the very institutions of democracy—gradually, subtly, and even legally—to kill it.”Steven Levitsky and Daniel ZiblattHow Democracies Die
As soon as the disqualification notification of Rahul Gandhi as Member of Parliament came following the Surat court indictment, a senior journalist working in an official capacity for the Narendra Modi government tweeted: “Sense of entitlement, privilege and the undying belief that Dynasty is above Democracy, Family is above Law will never work in New India. The era of law is same for all but privileges are different is over.” This was a sentiment that supporters of the government echoed enthusiastically: there is nothing political in the decision, it is merely judicial.
But here is the irony: the forces waving the flag of democracy and taking up—of course, a laudable exercise—the task of cleaning up the politics of dynasts are the ones who have caused the greatest damage to India’s democracy since Indira Gandhi’s Emergency in 1975. While this should be obvious to those who study Indian democracy closely, it is also borne out by the large, global, comparative statistical exercises in which democracy indicators after 2014 have fallen to the lowest levels since the 1970s. Sweden-based Varieties of Democracy Institute’s report calls India one of the “worst autocratisers” in the last 10 years, after having downgraded it to an “electoral autocracy” a couple of years ago; Freedom House moved India from “free” to “partly free”; in the Human Freedom Index, India fell from 90 in 2013 to 119 in 2021. This is just a sample of reports.
‘Third wave of autocratisation’
As research demonstrates, India and the rest of the world are not only experiencing a backslide in democracy, known as the “third wave of autocratisation”, but are also realising that a vast majority of autocratisers came to power through legal elections and then proceeded to destroy democratic institutions through legal methods. That is why scholars have called this present wave of autocratisation as happening under a “legal façade”.
If we are to understand Rahul Gandhi’s disqualification, we must look beyond the surface, and that this is not merely about Rahul Gandhi, the individual. Why the present moment, in one sense, is more dangerous than 1975 is that this destruction of democracy has not happened in an overnight, big bang move of suspension of fundamental rights, press censorship, or the mass jailing of main opposition leaders. It has happened through a decade-long process of a slow-burn erosion of democracy through the legitimacy of electoral victories, the steamrolling of Parliament through brute majorities (the revocation of Article 370 without consulting the elected government in Jammu and Kashmir, for instance), the subjugation of the media (the raids on Dainik Bhaskar and the BBC, among many others), and judicial acquiescence in front of the most powerful executive in India’s history (two sitting Supreme Court judges praising the Prime Minister, for example).
Thus, unlike 1975, there are no visible horrors to see, except for those who have been subject to the depredations of the state. The legal façade also means that the popularity levels of the government and the Prime Minister are among the highest in the world. The support for a strong, authoritarian leader is at an all-time high in India now. As scholars Levitsky and Ziblatt argue, “The drift into authoritarianism doesn’t always set off alarm bells. Citizens are often slow to realise that their democracy is being dismantled even as it happens before their eyes.”
The drift into authoritarianism
Petitions challenging the unconstitutionality and arbitrariness of the revocation of Article 370, arguably among the most important petitions that should have been heard urgently, have been pending in the Supreme Court for three years. Meanwhile, in opinion surveys, the abrogation of Article 370 on Kashmir is considered among the top achievements of the government. This is how faits accomplis are achieved legally. As (retired) Justice A.P. Shah has noted, whenever powerful single-party governments have been in power in India, the judiciary’s powers have become weaker.
We live in an era where “encounter killings” or extrajudicial executions of alleged criminals or the demolition of their properties are officially celebrated as stellar examples of “law and order”. That is why it is said that there is no law or constitution that exists in a vacuum. Law is shaped by power, political and social. All governments, across party lines, try to bend the institutions of democracy in their favour.
But the degrees of subversion vary. Indira Gandhi’s authoritarianism did not have widespread societal acceptance and she lost at the hustings in 1977, just as Rajiv Gandhi’s 400-plus seats could not win him a second term. Now, unlike Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, Narendra Modi’s regime is fuelled by a passionate combination of religious majoritarianism and nationalism: along with Kashmir, another top achievement that comes up in opinion polls is the building of the Ram temple.
This is the context for Rahul Gandhi’s sentencing. A context in which the ruling party, which is supposedly heralding democracy in India, supervised in 2019 a Lok Sabha that had 55 per cent of its members facing criminal charges of murder, rape, crimes against women, and so on. In the same year, 29 per cent of the Union Cabinet had Ministers with serious criminal charges against them. Yet, Rahul Gandhi becomes merely the third sitting Lok Sabha member to be disqualified, not for rape or murder, but for defamation. The first MP to be disqualified on that ground.
It is a context in which a person facing terror charges has been elected (on the ruling party ticket) to Parliament for the first time in India; for the first time there is a Prime Minister with a history of coded hate speech and campaigning on the basis of religion (a ground for disqualification); Union Ministers have publicly called for violence against anybody deemed an “anti-national”; a flurry of religious leaders regularly give calls for genocide against Muslims; and top ruling party State functionaries and politicians have delivered an unprecedented number of hate speeches in the past nine years, all without any legal or political consequence. Is it not ironical that the only elected representative in India’s history to be convicted for hate speech and disqualified is Azam Khan, the Samajwadi Party leader from Uttar Pradesh, in 2022?
Is it not staggering that the judge who sentenced Rahul Gandhi emphasised that the seriousness of Rahul’s crime was enhanced because an MP’s words have a “very wide impact on the public”? So, do the words of the Prime Minister, who said that the perpetrators of riots can be identified by their clothes, and that of the Home Minister, who recently said that “we taught them [Muslims] a lesson in 2002”, not have a wide impact? Of course, the law would claim that no community was named, so there is no prosecutable charge.
- India’s democracy indicators after 2014 have fallen to the lowest levels since the 1970s.
- This destruction of democracy has not happened in an overnight, big bang move of suspension of fundamental rights, press censorship, or the mass jailing of main opposition leaders.
- It calls for a larger cultural and political transformation in favour of a pluralist democracy and tuned against extremist ideologies.
The farce of legalism
Besides, justice has been reduced to being merely about court verdicts: the courts have sentenced Rahul, the courts let a terror accused contest elections, the courts gave a “clean chit” to Modi for Gujarat 2002. There is no political and moral culpability that exists beyond legally prosecutable culpability, not even for a terror attack or a state pogrom that killed thousands of people. It is as if these are not crimes because the accused are members of the majority community. And it is as if the entire process of securing and protecting evidence, protecting the witnesses, prosecuting the accused, is merely a legal process, and not a political one. One needs to look at the abysmal conviction rates of the 1984 and 2002 pogroms to understand the tortuous process of securing justice for victims. And even when they do get justice, the perpetrators shockingly get remissions.
What does it mean for justice when a country’s Prime Minister and Home Minister do not think there is anything morally heinous to sign off on the release of the killers and rapists in the Bilkis Bano case on the grounds of “good behaviour” in jail, given the knowledge of their most barbaric crime—that of killing a three-year-old child?
Rahul Gandhi’s sentencing and disqualification demonstrates another truth beyond the farce of legalism, which is often glossed over in popular discussions. And that is the fact that Indian democracy has incontrovertibly changed with the rise of an extremist version of majoritarian, religious nationalism. This latest version of Hindu nationalism can scarcely be accommodated within liberal democracy even if the latter has always been severely flawed and has in many ways laid the basis for the former. But now Hindu nationalism is threatening to break out of even this flawed liberal democracy. And this is the real crisis.
Political opponents as enemies
As the philosopher Chantal Mouffe has argued, democracy entails that political opponents are not treated “as an enemy to be destroyed” but as an “adversary… whose ideas we combat but whose right to defend those ideas we do not put into question”. This also means that there are some shared commitments to certain democratic values. The fundamental shift in the last decade has been the breakdown of this shared commitment and the full-fledged conversion of the adversary into an enemy. The slogan of a “Congress-mukt Bharat” reinforces the point.
In the Hindu nationalist discourse, one can see the constant vilification of Rahul Gandhi as a terrorist sympathiser. Even those who are opposed to his politics should pause to ask: what kind of political universe is one in which a person who has lost his parent and grandparent to terrorist attacks by militants is branded as a terrorism supporter?
Since 2014, the minimal dialogue, discussion and civilities that existed between the ruling party and the opposition have broken down. The former does not feel the need to take the latter into confidence, even during big national crises such as demonetisation, a military attack on Pakistan, or the pandemic.
The explosion of hate in society, especially on mainstream television (noted by the Supreme Court itself), hate crimes, and the setting of a completely new normal of what can be said in the public sphere are threatening to break the tenuous threads that hold democracy together in India. According to a Pew Research Center report, following the pandemic-related targeting of Muslims, India ranked the worst in the world in 2020 in terms of social tensions related to religion.
Political language matters a lot and the extreme polarisation that we have seen in recent years has sounded the death knell for the idea of deliberation. Every citizen who challenges the ideology of majoritarian nationalism is branded an “anti-national” and asked to go to Pakistan; dissenting students are booked under draconian sedition or terror charges; and refugees are termed, in genocidal language, as “termites”.
Degradation of the public sphere
This is the shocking degradation of the public sphere that has set the stage for normalising the disqualification of Rahul Gandhi and the targeting of other opposition leaders through Central investigative agencies as a mere exercise in legalism: “the law taking its own course”. But as an Indian Express report noted, 95 per cent of the cases against prominent politicians by the Enforcement Directorate since 2014 has been against opposition leaders. This figure was 54 per cent during the United Progressive Alliance rule.
Scholarship in the US has shown that a phenomenon such as Donald Trump did not arise overnight but was the result of increasing polarisation and extremist ideas, and language like “anti-American” being used by mainstream formations such as the Republican Party to target political opponents. If severe threats to democracy could arise in the US, with far more robust checks and balances between different wings of the government and a stronger media than younger democracies, one can only imagine the crisis that can befall India now, which has already experienced a major shock to its democracy in the 1970s.
While the disqualification of Rahul Gandhi will be fought legally, unless the real crisis is addressed there cannot be any solution to the threats that democracies face worldwide. Given the tectonic shifts that have happened in the socio-cultural realm, even electoral victories against majoritarian nationalism, while important, will not suffice without a larger cultural and political transformation in favour of a pluralist democracy and tuned against extremist ideologies. As history shows, this is not easy, but it is not impossible either. Rahul Gandhi’s disqualification is not about him per se, but a moment to think about the big picture of India’s democratic journey.
UPDATE: On August 4, the Supreme Court stayed Rahul Gandhi’s conviction in the criminal defamation case for his ‘Modi surname’ remark, acknowledging, though, that the alleged remarks were not in good taste and public figures should exercise caution.
Nissim Mannathukkaren is with Dalhousie University and tweets @nmannathukkaren.