Who can crush Indian democracy?

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INDIA’S ageing right-wing ideologue L.K. Advani has warned of a bumpy ride ahead for the country’s democracy. The former ‘iron man’ of Hindu nationalism has reportedly hinted that the future autocrat could be his own former protégé, Prime Minister Modi. Or some other strongman of a similar political persuasion from within the Hindutva fold could lead an assault. There are a few in the religious stable that can answer to the description.

Religious bigots, however, may not necessarily succeed in subverting India’s constitution though they could become the trigger. Significantly, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh too has counselled its storm troopers to not derail the prime minister’s development plans by campaigning violently as they do for parochial agendas. The signal seems to have come in response to calls from troubled business captains even if some of them claim to have Indian politicians in their pockets.

The dire need for recourse to any future harsh measures is thus more likely to be pushed by the business community if things evolve for the worse. Advani fears they could. In the absence of a genuine industrial culture with a penchant for market-driven innovation, India’s mercantile capital-led assembly plants pass for the manufacturing sector. The sector is going through a crisis of credibility.

Never before in the history of Indian business has a chief minister of a state had the courage to file an FIR against a leading business captain, which is what Arvind Kejriwal has done with Reliance head Mukesh Ambani. The emerging nexus between leading politicians and discredited officials of national cricket bodies too has deepened the mistrust of the people who voted Narendra Modi for his promise of fighting corruption. The yoga fetish notwithstanding, there is little to show for the major promises made in the election speeches.

Moreover, Kejriwal’s shining victory in Delhi has given voice to the otherwise demolished opposition parties. Now they too have begun to speak up, leading with a frontal attack on the regime’s quest to acquire arable land and forests for Modi’s development mission. A combination of environmentalists and opposition groups has managed to thwart the effort though not always without paying a price for the resistance.

Kejriwal responded to Advani’s second emergency warning by publicly wondering if Delhi would be the first target. Some would say the assault is already under way in the Indian capital. Kejriwal has been denied the choice of officials he could pick and some were thrust on him allegedly with a view to keeping an eye on his anti-corruption strategy. If he does manage to step up the speed in the Ambani case, it would be an unwelcome precedent for the already troubled business community.

To their chagrin, however, even the World Bank, which doesn’t usually hesitate to align itself with the worst anti-democratic politicians across the continents, has expressed reservations over the squeeze being applied on the more outspoken NGOs.

Mutation of popular bigotry — be it racially driven or religiously couched — into a business proposition is not uncommon in history. As it transpired in 1930s Europe, a right-wing German Reich crushed its own right-wing dissidents, including the ones led by the all-powerful SA chief Ernst Rohm. The blood-caked event is remembered as ‘the night of the long knives’. Rohm thought that National Socialism was about socialism. Hitler, now funded by big capitalists, found the assertion embarrassing.

“At the present point of time, the forces that can crush democracy, notwithstanding the constitutional and legal safeguards, are stronger,” Advani told a newspaper to mark the 40th anniversary of Indira Gandhi’s suspension of civil liberties this month.

He had spent the entire stretch of the emergency regime in prison together with other Hindutva politicians as well as Muslim revivalist leaders. What Advani didn’t say in the interview, though, was that as a free man subsequently he didn’t show much respect for the constitution he claims to defend. By whipping up communal hysteria across much of India, he sought to funnel the lethal energies unleashed by his Ayodhya campaign into his quixotic notion of a Hindu nation. Emperor Babar’s memories were summoned, reviled and assigned the role of Cervantes’ windmills. Had Babri Masjid not existed it would perhaps have been created to be razed.

Right-wing movements need traction that is easy to ply. Beef ban, religious conversions, social vigilantism, righting real or imagined wrongs of history have worked well for Hindu revanchists since the early 20th-century in India. Advani gave it a new direction by leading the charge on Ayodhya. There is little to indicate he regrets the carnage his chariot ride unleashed.

I’ve used the description right-wing emergency to describe what may happen if Advani’s fears come true. The future autocrat would be distinct from Indira Gandhi or with her 1975-77 suspension of constitutional rights and her jailing of opponents. Supported by her mainstream pro-Soviet communist allies, Mrs Gandhi’s dictatorship principally targeted the right-wing threat to her left-of-centre regime.

Bearing in mind the history of the era — from Chile to Egypt, from Vietnam’s victory against the US to the short-lived triumph of the oil embargo against Israel’s supporters, Mrs Gandhi’s moves had an international context.

One of the main indicators of the bumpy ride ahead referred to by Advani is the tinkering under way with the judiciary. Mrs Gandhi’s entire political career appeared to have been laid low when the Allahabad High Court unseated her as prime minister over a relatively minor corruption issue. She had built a dais for her election speech with public money. A move is on, therefore, to render the judiciary pliable. Advani’s prophecy will be tested by any success or failure in co-opting the courts. –Dawn

The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi. Email:  jawednaqvi@gmail.com

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