Rahul Gandhi, India’s top opposition leader and main opponent of the country’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, was recently disqualified as a member of parliament. This came after Gandhi was found guilty of defamation over a comment he made about Modi’s surname during a rally in 2019.
Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party had also waged a furious campaign demanding “Rahul Gandhi maafi mango(Rahul Gandhi, apologies) after comments Gandhi made during his recent visit to the UK. The scion of India’s most prominent political dynasty has made several remarks claiming that India’s democratic institutions have been deliberately undermined by the current government.
This, BJP members claimed, amounted to “slandering” India itself. Their reasoning was that criticizing the state of India’s postcolonial democracy in the halls of the former colonizing country has crossed the line. But this hypersensitivity is tantamount to evading scrutiny if it means that democratically elected leaders cannot express their opinions freely in any forum.
The political brand of Modi and the BJP has thrived on the sustained use of deliberately contradictory speeches and policies as part of what I termed his “postcolonial neoliberal nationalism.” This political project has been divisive for its weapon of colonial history, its inability to act on crony capitalism, and for claiming a monopoly on what it means to be a nationalist.
The space to raise these concerns within India is rapidly shrinking, as evidenced by the decline in civil and political liberties that has led Indians to be classified as “partly free” in the latest Freedom House Index.
Gandhi, along with other opposition leaders and scholars like us and others, inside and outside India, have pointed towards this democratic backslide or worse that is taking place in India. Such criticisms are routinely met with the political label of being “anti-national”, “anti-Indian” and “foreign-financed”.
In various speeches and forums during his visit to the UK in March, Gandhi said – as he regularly does in India – that Modi and the BJP are waging an unprecedented campaign against political opposition, civil society and dissent.
In this, they are doing the bidding of the far right Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) (National Volunteer Organization). Gandhi described the RSS as a “fundamentalist” and “fascist” movement that “has essentially captured almost every institution in India.”
Gandhi is not alone in criticizing the RSS. Writer and activist Arundhati Roy has said the same of the movement, arguing that the century-old paramilitary movement was backed by much of India’s corporate sector.
Democracy in decline
The RSS is a nucleus of the ‘Sangh Parivar’ umbrella movement of various right-wing organizations and an ideological parent of the BJP. He has been quite open about his desire to transform India into a heavily militaristic nation based on extreme Hindu nationalism.
Institutional capture by the BJP is evident in its control of India’s top bureaucracy, regular use of the Enforcement Directorate (a law enforcement agency under the Ministry of Finance) to target political opposition, and ‘settlement of controversial leaders of academic and cultural institutions. Thanks to long-standing pressure from Sangh Parivareven school textbooks were revised to present a selective and Hindu-centric view of history and science.
With the support of many in business and media, the BJP has built a cult around Modi based on the idea of one leader, one party, one nation (Hindu). This resembles what many would see as bearing the hallmarks of modern fascism.
The BJP’s reaction to Gandhi’s criticisms only confirms this assessment. Rather than addressing the substance of Gandhi’s arguments, the party and its supporters instead focused on criticizing him personally. They describe Gandhi and other critics as “anti-national” and as part of a “foreign conspiracy” to weaken India.
This contempt for the opposition by no means stops at political figures like Gandhi. In March, Justice Minister Kiren Rijiju reported that “some retired judges” were “part of the anti-Indian gang”.
The BJP also has a very bad record when it comes to free speech in India. International media monitor RSF said in its current report that:
Violence against journalists, a politically partisan media, and the concentration of media ownership all demonstrate that press freedom is in crisis in “the world’s largest democracy.”
In recent times, this repression and intimidation has spilled over into the international media. After the BBC aired a documentary critical of the Modi government, authorities raided the BBC office in Delhi, allegedly for tax reasons.
The BBC documentary probably said nothing that Indian scholars and activists haven’t discussed since the Gujarat riots of 2002, when Modi was beginning his rise as chief minister of the state. Yet the Modi government has punished students who tried to screen the documentary at their universities, and called for emergency laws to ban the documentary.
Of course, the rise of authoritarian politics in electoral democracies is not confined to India. But given India’s sheer size, which is expected to overtake China as the world’s most populous country this year, and its reputation as an established non-Western democracy, the significance of Gandhi’s warnings and his ongoing treatment by the party at the government in India is a cause for great concern.
Gandhi has appealed his sentence, but his warnings – and those of countless other politicians, activists and public intellectuals – deserve to be taken seriously by the rest of the world. How the world reacts can determine whether India will remain the world’s largest democracy or become a focus for autocratization in the coming years.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
The authors do not work for, consult with, own stock in, or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.