Home / Opinion / India’s democracy is taking an illiberal turn

Remorselessly attacking the media, President Donald Trump advances a worldwide culture of impunity. Demagogues and despots flourish in his long shadow: Elected ones, presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Vladimir Putin of Russia, as well as the house of Saud, use the opportunity to expand their power and crush their critics. But nowhere is the ongoing global assault on democratic norms as multi-pronged, devastating and poorly scrutinized as in India, ruled by a Hindu supremacist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

In recent months, there have been a series of mob attacks on people suspected of involvement in the beef trade, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi turned into a volatile electoral issue in 2014. Last week, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), India’s main investigative agency, raided homes and offices of the founders of NDTV, the only major TV station to remain critical of Modi’s government.

The ostensible cause was a criminal complaint about an unpaid bank loan, filed three days before the raid by an individual (NDTV claims that it has paid back the loan). The real reason seems to be an on-air confrontation between a NDTV anchor and the BJP national spokesperson that ended with the latter’s expulsion.

Intimidation of the media by the government is nothing new in India. But the flimsiness of the CBI’s case against NDTV, and the swift and draconian nature of its response, point to an emboldened mood in Modi’s government; they reveal, too, some ingeniously hybrid methods of repression that Erdogan and Putin can only envy.

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For Modi’s government has managed to stoke a mass hysteria against various “anti-nationals" while also deploying the government’s huge machinery to facilitate and legitimate violent acts. The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, a hardline priest appointed by Modi, personally unleashed the “Anti-Romeo" squads, vigilante groups that punish couples guilty of Western-style public displays of affection. The BJP’s ministers have been quick to defend the recent mob assaults on suspected beef traders and beefeaters and to blame their victims.

Far from condemning such officially sponsored mayhem, and affirming the rule of law, anchors on news television channels help amplify mob fury. The synergy between a jingoistic media and the government’s institutions was most recently on display in the case of an Indian army major in Kashmir who had tied a civilian to the bonnet of a jeep and then paraded him through several villages for nearly five hours.

India’s hyper-nationalist new army chief, promoted above his seniors by Modi, bestowed a certificate of recommendation upon the major, and hailed his method as a necessary “innovation" in India’s war with vicious anti-nationals in Kashmir. The major himself, exonerated by an army inquiry, appeared on a private television channel to defend his blatant violation of many international norms. His act then was endorsed by talking heads in television studios and the BJP’s armies of internet trolls.

The machinery of rage and outrage went into overdrive when Twitter evidently forced a BJP member of parliament to delete a tweet demanding that the novelist Arundhati Roy, a longstanding critic of Hindu chauvinism, be tied to the bonnet of a jeep. Most recently, the respected Indian academic Partha Chatterjee was hounded on television for comparing the Indian army’s use of human shields in Kashmir to the brutal methods of British colonialists in India.

Modi himself assumes a regal indifference as civil society in India is steadily destroyed by his allies and supporters. He certainly doesn’t have to worry much about international disapproval, or even scrutiny. The world seems too distracted by Trump’s antics, and the extreme volatility they inject into political and economic realms on several continents.

It is also true that, no matter how horrifying the news from India is, the country remains for many commentators in the West a mostly cuddly democracy and “rising" economic power. A recent article in the New York Review of Books was not untypical in this regard. “In Narendra Modi, India now has dynamic leadership for the first time in many years," wrote Jessica T. Mathews, the former president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. After nodding briefly to criticism of Modi for restricting civil liberties, Mathews added, offering no evidence whatsoever, that “Modi may be consolidating enough political strength to force through long-needed reforms in New Delhi."

For those who breathe the toxic atmosphere of India today, such assessments spring from a cloud cuckoo-land of fantasy. For the rapid poisoning of India’s public culture renders the question of economic reform moot. The contemporary world’s greatest experiment in democracy is dying. It is a measure of the sad and crazy times we live in that we cannot even see this tragedy. Bloomberg

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