Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks to supporters during a campaign rally. Photo: TNS
Debasish Roy Chowdhury and John Keane
Debasish Roy Chowdhury and John Keane

India’s passage to despotism began long before demagogue Modi

  • A new book, ‘To Kill A Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism’ examines the failures of India’s dance with democracy
  • It argues the country’s problems are long in the making and not only linked to Narendra Modi’s brand of populism. Here is an excerpt from the book:

Experience teaches us that well-organised despots, unless stopped in their tracks by citizen resistance, robust watchdog institutions, unforeseen outcomes and plain bad luck, can quickly remould sickly democratic institutions into a different political order we call despotism.

Despotism isn’t old-fashioned tyranny or military dictatorship, or a single-ruler horror show the ancients called autocracy. It mustn’t be confused with 20th-century fascism or totalitarianism. Despotism is rather a new type of strong state led by a demagogue and run by state and corporate leaders with the help of pliant journalists and docile judges, a top-down form of government that has the backing of not just the law-enforcement agencies but also millions of loyal subjects who are willing to lend their support to leaders who offer them tangible benefits and daringly rule in the name of ‘democracy’ and ‘the people’.

Hungary, Kazakhstan and Turkey – to name just a few recent cases – show that a transition from democracy to despotism can happen rapidly, in not much more than a decade. India may be next on the list.

The local details of these transitions usually differ, but the result is generally the same: in the name of democracy, democracy is metamorphosed into a different political system. The butterfly of democracy becomes the caterpillar of despotism.

The lethal dynamics gripping the upper levels of Indian politics indicate what is at stake. India is showing how despotism happens, or might happen. Despotism feeds upon periodic elections and voter support. Despots take full advantage of rights of assembly and association, and they make use of media freedoms to spread their message.

Despotism also nurtures hopes of redemption. It raises expectations that ‘the people are entitled to expect improvements in their daily lives. It promises solutions to the headaches and heartbreaks of famine, joblessness, putrid air and water, mountains of rubbish, dysfunctional transport systems and poor health care.

When a democracy allows its social foundations to be torn apart, it encourages leaders to play the role of messiahs, and to experiment with the dark arts of despotic politics. Weak governing institutions tilted in their favour only feed such despotic trends.

Bharatiya Janata Party supporters wear masks bearing the likeness of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in West Bengal. Photo: AP
The current anxieties about India’s democratic decline are stoked by the flagrant violation in the Narendra Modi era of the freedoms guaranteed by India’s Constitution, and by the manifest capitulation of state institutions. But the social decay that allows despotism to take root has been at play much longer, predating Modi by decades. If the destruction of social life is a form of democratic decline, the story of India’s journey to despotism becomes much more complex.

Under India’s federal arrangement, it is the state governments that are mainly responsible for such areas as health, education, nutrition, mobility and environment, all of which have witnessed democracy failure for decades.

Modi’s supporters tend to lionise him as the saviour from Congress’s 55 years of these failures. It is a specious argument. Even as it managed to retain power in Delhi for much of India’s existence as an independent nation, the country’s Grand Old Party hasn’t ruled many states in ages.

Hong Kong is in India, Kashmir is in China. Right?

Many parties – national and local, left, right and centrist – have ruled in states and in Delhi, by themselves or in coalitions, and cannot escape responsibility for the social decay and the resultant dynamics of despotism.

On the other hand, the suggestion that Indian democracy was doing just fine till Modi showed up, is equally fallacious. Many of the old institutional pathologies have intensified under Modi, but neither the many curbs on fundamental rights and the dissolution of the checks and balances of power, nor the spate of unlawful arrests of the regime’s discontents are an entirely new phenomenon.

It was under Jawaharlal Nehru when one of the most flagrant exercises of mass detentions in India took place – during the 1962 war with China, when about 3,000 Indian-Chinese were rounded up from Assam and West Bengal and taken to an internment camp in the deserts of Rajasthan. The Nehru government deemed them a security risk simply because of their ethnicity. Their property was seized and auctioned, and many of them were deported to China, even though they were Indian citizens who had lived in India for generations.
Posters and cutouts of Narendra Modi in 2014, when he was chief minister of western Gujarat state and the prime ministerial candidate of the then opposition BJP. Photo: AFP

India’s colonial-era sedition laws and the draconian security and anti-terror laws designed in subsequent years have allowed rulers to attack their real and imagined enemies with impunity. To what extent the rulers use these provisions is subject to their inclination and legislative might.

Rights such as free speech and expression, assembly and movement can be – and regularly are – tempered by ‘reasonable restrictions’ on the grounds of protecting the inviolable but conveniently inexact notions of preserving ‘law and order’ and the ‘sovereignty, unity and integrity’ of India.

Modi is neither the first nor the only politician to define these conditions to his advantage. But the current concentration of power by a demagogue at the head of a legislatively unchallenged party with a fork-tongued strategy pushing a majoritarian ideology that is in open conflict with the country’s constitutional norms of secular democracy heighten the real dangers of a passage to despotism.

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The Biggest Boss

Killing a democracy and building despotism always requires big-mouthed demagogues, political bosses who play the role of earthly avatars of ‘the people’. Here again, it may be thought that demagogy is a recent phenomenon, all Modi’s fault, but the brute fact is the cupboards of Indian politics have long been stocked with power-greedy figures.

At local levels, despots abound. Mamata Banerjee, also called ‘Didi’, or ‘elder sister’, is a middle-class woman who plays the role of champion of the poor. She is a poet and painter dressed in simple saris. Banerjee, Chief Minister of West Bengal, delivers rousing speeches and offers municipal tax breaks for painting homes after her party colours, harbours few qualms about letting loose a vigilante cadre on her political opponents, and brooks no dissent within her party, or without.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Photo: AFP

Indian democracy also features figures like Kalvakuntla Chandrashekhar Rao, better known as KCR, the chief minister of the southern state of Telangana. Dressed in white and pink (the colours of his party), he ruthlessly uses the state machinery to gag the opposition and distribute patronage to the ‘true natives’ of his state. To those who complain about his despotic habits, he proudly replies that ‘KCR is definitely Hitler for dealing with thieves and the corrupt’ and boasts that if necessary, he can be ‘Hitler’s grandfather’ who does what it takes to stop ‘injustice’.

Demagogues of this kind are neither incidental nor accidental features of despotic politics. Since ‘the people’ is a fiction of the political imagination, an abstraction incapable of speaking and acting together with one voice, what is needed in practice is a Leader who is capable of simplifying things by performing the role of the equivalent of ‘the people’. The aim is to make the Leader and the People mirror images of each other. Despotic politics is ventriloquism. “When I see you, when you see me,” the Venezuelan despot Hugo Chavez liked to say during election campaigning, “I sense it, something says to me, ‘Chávez, you are no longer Chávez, you are a people’.”

Modi, arguably the biggest big boss in Indian politics since Independence, takes things further. The Big Leader sometimes claims he enjoys a mandate from the heavens, ‘chosen by God’ to undertake the ‘difficult tasks’ for the country.

His journey to political divinity has been eventful. Having risen from a humble family of a railway station chaiwallah in a small town of Gujarat, he became a preacher for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the massive Hindu supremacist volunteer organisation whose political wing is the BJP. He began his political career as a little-known BJP bureaucrat loaned to the party by the RSS and rose to become the chief minister of the state of Gujarat, before winning national power in 2014.

It is almost like he has transcended to a celestial plane of power far removed from the usual rules of politics

Having cemented his grip on power with a thumping re-election win in 2019, he has grown his beard longer in the manner of a Hindu ascetic king. He concentrates on lofty matters of nation building, political philosophy, and principles of high governance in his speeches, advises students how to beat exam stress, waxes eloquent on self-reliance, lays foundation stones and flags off major projects – and leaves policy details and politicking to his underlings.

With the opposition parties in disarray and no rival national-level leader of his stature in sight, he appears as the goliath of Indian politics. The BJP’s own grass roots cadres and social media, an obliging mainstream media that megaphones the government, a submissive judiciary, and a captured bureaucracy help insulate the new guru from the rigours of democratic accountability.

His popularity seems immune to the most egregious failures of his government – be it a whimsical and painful currency ban, or a poorly thought-out lockdown, a crashing economy, heart-rending epic migration by distressed workers, or even loss of soldiers to China. It is almost like he has transcended to a celestial plane of power far removed from the usual rules of politics. Like the despots of yore.

The above excerpt is from ‘To Kill A Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism’ by Debasish Roy Chowdhury and John Keane. Copyright © 2021 by Debasish Roy Chowdhury and John Keane and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. The book is available in book shops (except in India) and online through Amazon, Book Depository and other outlets. Order a copy here

‘To Kill A Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism’ by Debasish Roy Chowdhury and John Keane is published by Oxford University Press. It is available in book shops (except in India) and online through Amazon, Book Depository and other outlets

Debasish Roy Chowdhury, formerly with the South China Morning Post, is a journalist based in Hong Kong

John Keane is Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney and the WZB (Berlin), and author of ‘The New Despotism’