How an Aspiring 'Vishwa Guru' Has Brought the 'Third World' Back to India

Only three emerging trends should suffice to indicate the regression which has taken place – the mauling of the criminal justice system, of parliament and of civil society.

Sometime in late 1999, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was prime minister, a senior official in the PMO sternly told me that it was no longer appropriate to call India a “developing country”. His rebuke continued: “Nor, for that matter, are we a Third World country; please note that we have moved into a higher league.”

His was the boast of a country that had just gone nuclear and was experiencing a sense of national resurgence. In neighbouring Pakistan, a general had told the politicians to pack up and go home; whereas India could preen itself in the sunshine of electoral democracy. Whatever his wider ideology and beliefs, Vajpayee was seen as someone with a sense of commitment to India’s democratic institutions – and the global liberal community applauded him for that.

Two decades later, we have regressed joyfully back to the politics of a stereotypical authoritarian ‘Third World’ country of the mid-1970s; except that today, the state has acquired sharper and more sophisticated tools of intimidation and coercion, and the government has no qualms about flaunting its contempt for the common citizen. Only three emerging trends should suffice to establish this reality.

Mauling of criminal justice system

It has gone mostly unnoticed that in far away London, a former judge of the Supreme Court was recently telling a magistrate’s court that “fugitive” Nirav Modi, if extradited, will not get a fair trial in India. It is easier to agree than disagree with Justice Markandey Katju’s contention that the criminal justice system in India had become thoroughly politicised and, worse, comprehensively vulnerable to the verdicts already pronounced in (recklessly conducted) media trials. The political junta, for its own self-serving ends, has become frighteningly adept at converting the criminal justice system into an arena for settling partisan scores and whipping up political prejudices rather than for establishing the truth.

In the fashion of a ‘Third World’ country, we have convinced ourselves that an electoral mandate entitles the ruling regime to seek subservience from the entire judicial system; and regrettably, the judiciary seems only too eager to privilege this assertion over its own constitutional mandate. Some in India probably still believe in ‘achche din’ but the outside world may not be so easily impressed by our rulers’ pretensions. The British legal system should not be faulted if it were to conclude that if extradited, Nirav Modi’s fate will be decided by irate mobs in the studios of television anchors whose own inclinations are set by the electoral needs of the political junta.

The external world is baffled as to how easy has it become in our “New India” for a police investigation to degenerate into a ritual of witch-hunting, be it the matter of the death of a Bollywood actor or the inquiry into the violence in North-East Delhi – where matters look less like a police probe and more like a political project aimed at discrediting what was a peaceful protest movement against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.

Media personnel surround Bollywood actor Rhea Chakraborty as she arrives at the NCB office for questioning, in Mumbai, September 6, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Francis Mascarenhas/File Photo

And, when someone like the distinguished police officer Julio Ribeiro reminds the Delhi Police brass of their obligations to their professional dharma, he is instantly confronted by a clutch of retired police officials who accuse him of siding with ‘anti-national’ forces. A classic bread-and-butter tactic in any old-fashioned ‘Third World’ country.

Worse, it would appear that very many police officers who till the other day were manning the national security state have fallen for the politician’s “Hindu, good; Muslim, bad” trap. And to complete the circle of Kafkaesque absurdity, any suggestion that we could be becoming a banana republic is met with a shrill demand to shut down such anti-national talk. Welcome to Idi Amin Dada’s infamous promise to guarantee freedom of speech but not freedom after speech.

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Mauling of parliament

The just concluded and, drastically curtailed monsoon session of parliament would go down in history as the week when the Modi government’s familiar impatience with the tediousness of parliamentary democracy finally took an authoritarian turn. External observers are bound to ask — If the treasury benches indeed had a majority in the Rajya Sabha, why did the government shy away from a formal vote on the farm bills?

It is not enough for the parliamentary minister to argue that “people have given a mandate to Prime Minister Narendra Modi” and that the opposition’s protest amounted to “an insult to the people’s mandate.” Of course, liberal democracies are defined by an insistence on observing the rites of accountability; and, only in an authoritarian country can it be asserted that once elected, the government has licence to do what it pleases, no questions asked.

Rajya Sabha MPs of various political parties stage a protest after the passing of two farm bills in the house by a voice vote, September 20, 2020. Photo: PTI/Kamal Singh

Except for saying a few words of felicitation to Harivansh on his re-election as deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha, the prime minister made no substantive intervention in either house during this session of parliament. He propounded, twice, on the merits of the farm bills, both times outside parliament; but he would not deign to make the same case inside the house. Nor was he present when the raksha mantri made his wishy-washy statement on the PLA’s ingress into our perceived territories on the India-China ‘border areas’.

The government of “new India” makes no secret of its impatience with having to subject itself to any kind of questioning; now even the parliament is being given a cold shoulder. Such cultivated disdain for constitutional protocols. Welcome to Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt.

Mauling of civil society

A classic Third World leader grows so fond of his own voice that he wants to shut down contrary voices from civil society. In our “new India”, we are getting quite sophisticated at choking civil society of space, funds and opportunity.

In the archetypical Third World country, everyone exists for fulfilling the great leader’s political needs. No group, fraternity, association, party or solidarity is encouraged to operate independent of the government’s approved preferences and prejudices.

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The changes made during the monsoon session to the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act reinforce the suspicion that the Modi government is out to constrict the NGO sector. Only a liberal regime has the confidence to hear and acknowledge the voice of civil society. But, make no mistake, we too can summon a Third World country’s determination to be intolerant and uncivil, if need be, towards all those who point to our incompetence and failures.

In the classic mould of Third World authoritarianism, leaders believe all that is needed for national greatness and global respect to come their way is to mesmerise the domestic public, and they are quite prepared to use violence to this end. If the institutionalisation of intimidation has a very familiar ring to it, it is because Indians have seen this story play out all around the world.  Yet we keep preening ourselves as the new ‘vishwa guru’.

Harish Khare is a journalist who lives and works in Delhi.