Professor Ashutosh Varshney gloomily predicted in 1993 that if Hindu nationalism were to come to power, it would mean the end of India as we know it—civilizationally, and even also territorially. To a certain extent, Varshney was right. India is slowly disintegrating—metaphorically—if not geographically. Under an approximate four-year rule of the Hindu nationalist party, Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), India is gradually transforming into a Hindu nation while losing core Indian values of syncretism, plurality, and tolerance.
Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power promising an agenda of inclusive development and to build a modern India. However, the discourse of development is being displaced with distrust among communities, and India is moving from a modern state to a regressive state. As we scrutinize some of the events under Modi’s rule, it appears that Indian democracy is in seriously troubled water.
Modi bragged about constructing bullet train railways in India, but he did not seem to care about those who died in several railway accidents during his tenure in office. His government has not bothered to strengthen the basic infrastructure of railways as these issues do not provoke people and do not bring votes to BJP. He did not even care about the more than 80 individuals who died in the aftermath of arbitrarily enforced demonetization.
Neoliberal policies unleashed by Modi’s government have painfully affected millions of poor and marginalized citizens. Corporate fascism is pervasive, penetrative, and has created havoc for the ordinary citizen. Modi’s close proximity and economic favors to big businesses such as the Adani Group are certainly questionable. This period has also seen the growth of crony capitalism symbolized by the roaring profits of businesses known to be close to those in power. The Adani group is the best example of this. With a rise of 124.6% in net worth during the calendar year 2017, the group was at the top of the list of big businesses who had made huge profits last year. Between 2015 and 2017, the income of the BJP increased by 81.18%, from approximately $81,768,000 USD to approximately $148,144,000.
Further, Modi has not organized a single press conference. He seems more interested in monologue. His radio program Mann Ki Baat is simply a one-way track during which time no one can question him. Modi’s army of fundamentalist supporters defame or paint opponents as anti-nationals those who question Modi’s leadership. Modi’s supporters have even accused opponents of sedition, an old legal tactic previously used in abundance in India’s history. Is Modi afraid of answering questions or afraid being held accountable? The answer is that either he does not believe in democracy or he has penchant for authoritarianism.
Political Chaos in India
Modern day India is characterized by mob lynching. Muslim and Dalits are being lynched on a weekly basis since Modi came to power in 2014. A new pattern of justifying mob violence among Hindu nationalist leaders is on the rise. Mob rule and the rule of fanatics have replaced the rule of law. People are publicly being killed for their faith. Minorities no longer feel safe in the country. Modi and his friends in the saffron brigade openly support such bigotry, and there is stoic silence over condemning such incidents. Even the Indian Supreme Court has pushed the government to take steps against religious violence.
In addition, corruption was the poster child of campaign issues in 2014 when Modi was running for office. However, since being elected, corruption is seemingly no longer an issue. Numerous bank scams and lucrative favors to big corporations have merely dot the news headlines. Interestingly, those who dare to question these scams face the investigatory machinery of Modi’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and Enforcement Directorate (ED). A case was registered by the banking fraud division of the CBI against NDTV’s Prannoy Roy and his wife Radhika. The ED and Income Tax department have been investigating NDTV since 2014 over allegations that Roy defrauded a bank, a move that the news broadcaster denounced as a “witch-hunt” to muzzle free speech.
The Wire, another prominent news source in India, was slapped with a defamations notice when they reported that BJP President Amit Shah’s son, Jay Shah, saw dramatic growth in some of his businesses since Modi became prime minister. Thus, political vendettas have become the order of the day.
More Money, More Problems
The Modi regime is further marked by an unprecedented self-promotion funded by public money. According to a recent Right to Information query, the government has spent approximately $621,738,000 USD on advertisements in different media outlets. Considering that the government has refused to raise widow pensions by a single rupee in the last four years due to an alleged resource crunch, such a huge expenditure on self-publicity seems obscene. The socio-economic problems do not end there. Indian youth are frustrated. Rising unemployment is indeed troublesome. The mass suicide of farmers no longer concerns the government.
Fabricating and manipulating academic institutions, the judiciary, and other government institutions to favor Hindu ideology are becoming the norm rather than the exception. People are being polarized on the lines of religion and hardcore nationalism. As a matter of deep concern, human rights activists and organizations engaged in promoting and defending human rights and fundamental freedoms frequently face threats, harassment, and suffer insecurity as a result of those activities. The anti-human rights attitude of Modi’s government is reflected in the cancellation of thousands of NGO licenses and increased restrictions on NGOs from receiving foreign donations.
Fear of bigotry, threat of physical violence, and government-backed support to Hindu fundamentalist elements that discourages free-thinkers—students, intellectuals, and journalists—are rapidly growing. With Hindu nationalists trying to purge all manifestations of “anti-national” thought from the national debate, self-censorship is growing in the mainstream media. Journalists are increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals. Fringe religious elements of the ruling party such as VHP (Vishva Hindu Parishad), Hindu Yuva Vahni, and Bajrang Dal are actively trying to censor opposing narratives in public discussions at local, regional, and national levels via physical and legal threats.
Despite all of these daunting developments, it is important to note that there are alternative voices emerging in Indian society challenging Hindu extremism, the caste system, patriarchy, and communal fascism. In the media circle, several well-known news outlets have been resisting the Hindu communal agenda of Modi’s government. On the ground level, such as in Varanasi—Modi’s parliamentary constituency—a resistance movement being led by Dr. Lenin Reghuvanshi is well noted.
The current drive by the Modi led government to force Bangladeshi immigrants out of India challenges the very notion of India as a tolerant country. It remains to be seen how core values of Indian society, such as pluralism and tolerance, withstand the forces of religious extremism and fundamentalism in the coming future. This is not just a question of a nationalist political party ruling over India. It is about India remaining as the India we know it to be: tolerant, multicultural, peace-loving, and syncretic.