The Next Five Years Could Change India Forever

If Narendra Modi returns to power, whatever we have seen so far will look like a benign trial run.

When Indira Gandhi suddenly announced elections in January 1977, indicating the end of the national Emergency that had been imposed in June 1975, the country was surprised. There had been no hint at all that the Emergency was going to be lifted and certainly nothing to suggest that normal democracy would resume.

Opposition leaders were freed from jail and restrictions on the media were lifted. The media rediscovered its spine, the leaders went into a huddle to plan how to fight the Congress and the young were galvanised. A new spirit of freedom was in the air.

The elections were crucial, if for nothing else than to show Mrs Gandhi that India would not accept any threats to its democracy and that all those who subverted fundamental rights would be discarded. Various parties came together under one banner and solemnly swore to put aside their differences and put up a joint front. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, whose Jan Sangh had merged with the Janata Party, said that it would not fall apart because the leaders had to keep the trust of the masses.

We know what happened eventually, but at that crucial moment, everyone understood the importance of those particular elections. A victory for the Congress would have legitimised the Emergency; that would have changed India in fundamental ways.

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The elections in 2019 too have the potential to change India as we know it forever. The last five years have seen unprecedented hatred, bigotry and assaults on not just individuals or communities, but on the whole super structure of what makes India what it is – a secular liberal democracy, with robust institutions that are supposed to uphold its democratic values. Those institutions have been under relentless attack and if they have held so far, it is because the foundations were strong. The next wave of attacks will be on the foundations and once that is achieved and the institutions subverted, a ‘new India’ will be created, one that will be completely different from what we have now.

It is sometimes difficult to recall what India was just half a decade ago. It was not a golden age, not at all, and there was no dearth of problems small and big, but it was not a time when a citizen could be hauled out of his home and killed for speaking, eating or simply being from the ‘wrong’ religion or caste. No one was an ‘anti-national’ – in effect, a traitor – for expressing a point of view that did not fit in with the ruling party’s views, no journalist was abused as a ‘presstitute’, and certainly no former prime minister was accused of plotting with the Pakistanis to defeat the current incumbent. The sorriest part was that such statements and allegations came from ministers, not from trolls, who should have known better. In fact, it was the complete surrender of any sensibility

A salesman watches Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing to the nation, on TV screens inside a showroom in Mumbai, March 27, 2019. Credit: Reuters/Francis Mascarenhas

The Indian media was obsessive in its criticism of the UPA government, especially in the last two to three years of UPA-II. It looked like a sustained campaign to discredit the Manmohan Singh government and, correspondingly, prop up candidate Narendra Modi as a fresh alternative. Nothing wrong with criticising the government, but that spirit vanished the moment Modi took power. Now much of the mainstream media not just vocally and shrilly supports Modi, it does everything in its power to undermine the opposition. Those who maintain a pretence of neutral professionalism – balance, objectivity, fairness, both sides and all that – do it in a way that legitimises the worst kind of behaviour.

Every institution, from the various cultural, social, educational organisations directly under the government’s control or dependent on government funding, has been taken over, some by stealth, others quite blatantly, some with threats of holding back the money, others by infiltrating the governing bodies. In almost every case, the government’s appointees are mostly mediocre time servers or apparatchiks, with little or no intellectual ability or heft. That is hardly surprising – the Sanghi, Hindutva obsessed right-wing has grown up on a steady diet of conspiracy theories, bogus mythology instead of history and hatred for a wide assortment of enemies, real and imagined. Formal education – in history, science, economics or indeed the arts – has always been anathema.

This has engendered a single-minded obsession of ‘righting the wrongs of the past’. This past could be as recent as the immediate post-independence period, when the much reviled Jawaharlal Nehru created the secular and modern Indian nation state, to the mythical past, when Bharatvarsh was a Golden Land, untroubled by Muslim invaders, where everyone lived peacefully and in perfect harmony in accordance with their caste and social status.

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Every effort to suborn an institution or lynch a beef-eating Muslim is one more step towards re-establishing that social equilibrium and bringing back Ram Rajya. Modern democracy is seen as a foreign import grafted on to a reluctant India; it is time to uproot it. When sundry BJP members say that the constitution will be changed, they mean it. Or when a leader, an MP no less, declares that this will be the last elections if Narendra Modi wins, he should be taken seriously. That is what they have been told all along and that is what could well happen.

It is not as if another party winning will change things around rapidly. The poison that has entered the Indian system will not vanish so soon, whatever the results the elections throw up. The other parties have not necessarily shown a robust commitment to protect institutions, nor do they inspire confidence in their total faith in democratic processes. The media is so far sold out that redemption is impossible – it will continue on its self-destructive path and can be disregarded in any serious discussion of Indian democracy unless it can show that it can uphold the professional principles of being a watch dog. And political parties, especially in the opposition but also in the government, are not suddenly going to change their ways of treating parliament with contempt.

But there is a qualitative difference. A repeat of the last five years will accelerate the destruction of Indian democracy and eventually, of India itself. Then whatever we have seen so far will look like a benign trial run; the real thing will be brutal and ruthless. That is what has to be halted at any cost. The Janata Party experiment was a disaster, but it acted as the brakes for any similar adventure for a long time.

The same situation has arisen now. As a people who want nothing more than peace, harmony, security and an economy that benefits everyone in a society that is inclusive, we have to think of not just the next five years but the next five decades and beyond. It is the duty of this generation to save the generations to come. A mistake now could prove costly for a long time.