Debate: In Today's India, We Cannot Compare the Gandhi Siblings With Modi-Shah

Is a Hindu rashtra in which the minorities are marginalised and banished to ghettoes comparable with a secular democracy?

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Indian democracy faces an existential crisis as it navigates the turbulence created by the forces of Hindu majoritarianism, and the RSS-BJP pursuit of a Hindu rashtra.

Swedish organisation V-Dem classifies India as an “electoral autocracy”. Majoritarian India appears determined to shrink the political, social and economic spaces for it minorities, especially Muslims. Freedom of the press is under unprecedented assault. The 2021 World Press Freedom Index produced by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), placed India at the 142nd rank out of 180 countries.

However, the political debate in India is not about the transitioning of India from a liberal constitutional democracy into an illiberal electoral autocracy, as V-Dem has termed it. Instead, it continues to be framed around the personalities of Narendra Modi-Amit Shah vs the Rahul Gandhi-Priyanka Gandhi siblings.

In his article for The Wire, Harish Khare refers to this political contestation as G2 vs 2G, as if the choice between a liberal democracy and electoral autocracy is merely a voter preference between Modi-Shah and the Gandhi siblings.

Why do eminent political columnists and opinion leaders so blatantly ignore the larger issues of individual freedom and liberties, equality before law and the ghettoisation of minorities, to reduce politics to a personality contest, ignoring the political philosophies and ideologies of BJP-RSS on one hand, and of the Congress on the other?

Could it be that if the contest were so framed in ideological terms, the BJP-RSS would fare poorly in comparison to the Congress? Is this one more sleight of hand in which our opinion leaders seek to tilt the electoral playing field, in favour of majoritarianism that they prefer, while pretending to be fair minded? Can their angst against the Gandhi siblings, for whatever reason, justify overlooking the threat to democracy that RSS/BJP majoritarianism undoubtedly poses?

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It is these questions that came to my mind as I read Khare’s incisive exposition. My thoughts are mixed. Let us first see what he has to say in his essay.

Firstly, he compares Modi and Shah (G2) with Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi (2G) as individuals in a team, framing their leadership styles and philosophies in the context of Angela Merkel in Germany. He rightly commends Merkel for her stewardship of German democracy over 20 years with stability, reliability, moderation and centrality.

But there is something missing here. Merkel doesn’t come alone, without the Christian Democrats. The Christian Democrats have a well-grounded ideology and philosophy of their own, that Merkel is a product of. You cannot simply take Merkel without the party in which she is rooted.

Similarly, G2 (Modi-Shah) come with the RSS, BJP, Hindu rashtra, private militias, fascist lumpen, communal politics and a contempt for a liberal democracy, governed by a liberal Constitution.

2G come with a party that gave us a liberal Constitution, a liberal polity, no matter how flawed, and belief in the rule of law and rule by law, and have played the political game by the rules of democracy, by and large respectful of its institutions.

Are the two things that Khare is comparing actually comparable?

Is a Hindu rashtra in which the minorities are marginalised and banished to ghettoes comparable with a secular democracy?

Is a fascist regime that openly seeks to throw out the liberal Constitution that India has, and replace it with one inspired by medievalism, casteism and a regressive patriarchy that privileges family over the individual, comparable with a democracy based on liberty, equality and fraternity of individuals?

Can Khare really argue that you can separate G2, Modi and Shah, independent of the ideology that they espouse and practice, from the party and institutions they are embedded in, and the goals they set forth for the polity?

Yes, you can compare Christ with Satan. There is some validity to comparing Lord Ram with Ravana. But to pretend that both come with the same Kingdom of God is high folly.

One G2 wish to set you on the road to perdition. The other 2G may not be that astute politically, but at least aren’t choosing the road that directly leads to perdition.

This flawed assumption that Khare implicitly makes – that you can compare G2 with 2G, without taking into account their ideological baggage and their explicit political goals, leads him to a conclusion utterly shorn of nuance, no matter how well argued.

Khare’s final thesis, that the Congress minus the Gandhis would be just fine, ipso facto concedes my argument that the Congress is far more preferable to the RSS/BJP approach to politics. But do Modi-Shah come without the BJP-RSS? Khare has no answers.

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Leadership is always, but always, situational. Merkel was a great leader, and Khare says that. Right. So Modi-Shah embody stability, reliability, moderation and centrality, as in avoiding ideological extremes? Really? In which world?

Let us take the Gandhis.  They don’t have much of a track record, but their party does. Between the RSS-BJP, which party can claim stability, reliability, moderation and centrality?

Let us turn to Khare’s implicit assumption that the siblings’ stewardship of the Congress party over the last seven years is somehow comparable with Modi-Shah’s governance of India over the same period. For the nonce, we will ignore that conflating a political party, that too in opposition, with a country of 1.3 billion is incongruous.

2G are in government. For seven years, they have ridden roughshod over every institution in the country, grinding them into dust, to eliminate any checks on their power. They selectively use the law to protect the party faithful, and hound the opposition. They own the media. Dissent is squelched. The opposition and press live under the overarching threat of raid raj.

For all these wonderful gifts to our struggling democracy, Khare blames 2G as much as the G2. Hallelujah. This is false equivalence on an epic scale. What prejudice is at work here that enables such a senior writer to make such an invidious comparison? Frankly, I don’t know.

But many in public life came up in a culture of opposition to the Congress, when it was the only game in town, warts and all. And they haven’t gone back and revisited those congealed feelings of revulsion, even after the Congress has all but been vaporised. Frankly, it bothers me that such a brilliant intellect can make such an erroneous comparison.

Congress was no paragon of virtue, but you can’t keep blaming the present cohort for past sins. They are not in power and never have been. They can’t get TV slots at primetime. How can they monopolise any public space like G2?

One however has to concede the point that the siblings’ handling of Punjab left much to be desired. Navjot Singh Sidhu is an irresponsible populist demagogue. Admitting him into Congress from the BJP was wrong. Backing him against Amarinder Singh was injudicious. A general like Amarinder, who has served the party well, is usually given the honour of choosing his own successor. That’s the decent way to retire good people.

The Gandhis’ handling of the episode lacked grace and finesse. They have retrieved some ground with Charanjit Singh Channi, but the dark shadow of Sidhu looms large. Sidhu is the wrong man in Punjab at the wrong time. Congress may yet come to regret the choices it has made.

Demagogues such as Sidhu (and Modi) are kryptonite to any democracy. No quarrel with Khare there. A high command in a political party is unavoidable. But nevertheless, there must be transparency to the process. Else it becomes capricious over time. Undermining your own chief minister is a very foolish and shortsighted game. It cripples the chief minister and shows your own ineptitude. The siblings need to make the party governance process more transparent.

Khare and many other thought leaders like him see the beef ban, random lynching of Muslims, “love jihad”, the shrinking of jobs and economic space for Muslims, their characterisation as potential terrorists etc. in isolation, and not as a grand design of the Sangh parivar to marginalise Muslims despite the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. The selective application of law – one set for the party faithful, no bails for others – is just the thin edge of the fascist wedge. Increasingly, the distinction between party and the state, is being deliberately blurred, as the the Sangh pursues a party-state as its model of governance. This policy goal of the Sangh can no longer be overlooked.

I wouldn’t like to accuse Khare of normalising fascism. But the import of his commentary is just that. The resort to privatised political violence against dissent and protest is not opportunistic, as Khare implicitly assumes here. Instead, it is an integral part of the strategy to use private militias, to enforce RSS-BJP party writ.

In case you didn’t notice, the private militias are in uniforms. From the beef ban to love jihad, they police everything.  They are an integral part of RSS-BJP governance. Take the Aryan Khan case. The party was actually supervising a police raid in Mumbai. It is Khare’s failure to intuit the larger picture that leads him to see politics as G2 vs 2G.

Not just him. Many senior journalists are guilty of having this blind spot. They note the crime, but fail to see the criminal behind the crime, the system that supports his criminal activity, and the use of such criminal activity to further a dangerous ideology. They see the tip but not the iceberg. Some unwittingly, some because they themselves believe in the ideology that makes such criminality necessary and useful.

“The tension between constitutional liberalism and democracy centres on the scope of governmental authority. Constitutional liberalism is about the limitation of power, [electoral] democracy about its accumulation and use,” warns Fareed Zakaria, in a seminal essay on the shrinking space for a liberal democracy. Under the Sangh parivar, governmental authority threatens to snuff out the individual citizen, fundamental rights notwithstanding.

Minds like Khare’s cannot afford to miss the woods for the trees at this critical juncture. Indian democracy will not survive their failure to recognise the larger threat of an illiberal electoral autocracy that can sink our polity.

Sonali Ranade is a political commentator based in the US. She tweets at @sonaliranade.