Why I'm not celebrating Modi's birthday (and you shouldn't either)

A hard look at where world's largest democracy and its liberal values stand today.

 |  5-minute read |   17-09-2017
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Today is India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi's 67th birthday. His government is celebrating the day as "Seva Divas". Celebrities, brand ambassadors, and dignitaries have been roped in to spread the message of "swachh bharat" to contribute for the construction of toilets and the upkeep of public places.

On his birthday, besides the usual photo-op with his mother, Modi decided to dedicate the Sardar Sarovar Dam as his gift to the nation. It is another matter that this gift has brought immense misery to many ordinary citizens living in the Narmada Valley, who are being evacuated without being rehabilitated.

However, the most worrisome part of this celebration is taking place in Modi's home state Gujarat, where BJP youth wing workers are urging ordinary citizens to pledge that they will not criticise the government "that is formed of the people, by the people and for the people". 

This clearly shows that dissent against Modi government has become dangerous in Indian democracy.

Modi's centralised style of leadership and his commitment to the ideals of "Hindu Rashtra" have reduced the scope of dissent and deliberation in the country. Indian democracy is using coercive powers to suppress any dissent at the grass-roots level under the pretext of national security.

Narendra Modi has carefully cultivated a "strong man" image by using the rhetoric of democracy and displaying closeness to the masses.

The world is currently experiencing a rise in the number of demagogues. Narendra Modi adds to the global list of so-called strong men: Vladimir Putin of Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Prayut Chan-o-Cha in Thailand and Donald Trump in the US. They are charming, charismatic and cunning and, at the same time, extremely self-absorbed and possess a huge lust for power. They play with people's fears, create scapegoats and offer easy solutions.

sardar-sarovar-690_091717035809.jpg To sell himself as a messiah to Indian voters, Modi seized upon the growing despair among the people and their need to centralise powerful political authority to solve their problems. Photo: PTI

India under Narendra Modi, instead of focusing on internal peace and stability and economic development, is busy fostering and highlighting foreign enemies. There is no hesitation to curtail the political freedom and civil liberties of masses and to regularly project minority communities as internal enemies. India is presently witnessing unprecedented control of the media and blatant manipulation of public opinion. Those in the media who do not blindly toe the government line and dare to criticise it pay a heavy price, as seems to have been the case in Gauri Lankesh's murder.

Modi got a massive electoral mandate in 2014 at a time when ordinary citizens in India were fed up with endless political bickering and wanted an end to the coalition-era corruption under the Congress.

A large number of Indians had begun to believe that the basic fault lay with themselves, their lack of discipline, their selfishness and lack of commitment to the country's progress and development. To sell himself as a messiah to Indian voters, Modi seized upon the growing despair among the people and their need to centralise powerful political authority to solve their problems.

In a country that has grown weary of its corrupt partisan politicians, the cacophonic media and exploding protest movements, a substantial section of the society still appreciates the "strong man" approach to governance that the Modi regime seems to exemplify. But the consequences of silencing all dissent and criticism have proved too costly for India.

PM Modi's abrupt whimsical decision on November 8, 2016 to invalidate 86 percent of cash in circulation in the country caused immense hardship and terrible pain to millions of Indians, especially the poorer sections of the society. More than 100 people died while standing for days in front of banks to get their own money. This "strong man" decision has nowhere eradicated the country's corruption or terror problems, nor has it turned India to a cashless society.

Rather, it has eaten up two percent of the country's economic growth.

Similarly, at a time India's railways infrastructure is facing serious crisis and train accidents have become a routine affair, Modi has made a grand political spectacle of starting a short route bullet train project from Ahmedabad to Mumbai. This project is being undertaken with a massive loan of Rs 88,000 crore from Japan.

Indian Railways is almost bankrupt. Moreover, 800 people have died in around 450 accidents between 2013 and 2017 due to poor maintenance of rail lines. Unfortunately for the country, no one in Modi's Cabinet or party is bold enough to give him an honest and critical view of where the country is headed under his leadership.

At present, with massive majority in the Parliament and the total control of his party, there is almost no constraint on Narendra Modi's authoritarian style decision-making. No one in his party or government has the power to hold him accountable for his flawed policies. He has appointed friends and cronies to important offices and these handpicked, politically rootless insiders have strong incentives to remain loyal to and uncritical of him.

Like any country, India's history does not follow a straightforward path. Nowhere is there an easy road towards freedom. In spite of the odds, for seven decades, India has been hanging on to a fiercely democratic structure and liberal values. No doubt the threat of authoritarianism had remained persistent all along, but under Narendra Modi, it is resurging. To appropriate power, he has unabashedly promoted Hindu nationalism over secular democratic values, curtailing individual freedom in the name of state security and used majoritarian emotion to ignore reason.

India under Modi's regime is sliding further and further down from its path towards democratic consolidation. Modi is gradually eliminating opposing forces in the political system, the judiciary, the media and even the business houses. As this is a gradual process not a spectacular coup - much like the boiling frog - the civil society does not rise up to agitate and the international community does not forcefully oppose it.

How could a country celebrate the birthday of a leader who is ruining its democracy and trashing its liberal values?

Editor's note: This piece was modified upon being published.

Also read: On Narendra Modi's birthday, how not to clean up India's rivers

Writer

Ashok Swain Ashok Swain @ashoswai

The writer is professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden.

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