Last week, ‘Civil Service Day’ was observed with the customary address by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Vigyan Bhavan. To a captive audience of the country’s seniormost babus, Modi delivered a sermon with his familiar cockiness. That, of course, is the privilege of the prime ministerial pulpit.
But the message Modi delivered was meant for a larger constituency. And the message is not only dangerous but it also reveals an authoritarian persona hopelessly overloaded with extraordinary delusions of infallibility.
It is one thing for a prime minister to sing his own songs of self-congratulation, it is quite another for him to instigate the bureaucracy against the political class. That is precisely what the prime minister ended up doing at Vigyan Bhavan.
The crux of his exhortation was that all political parties – except his own, the Bharatiya Janata Party – are self-serving instruments of self-serving leaders, and that these organisations are intrinsically pitted against the collective good and cannot be trusted to guard and advance common welfare, public interest and national well-being. And, though political parties cannot be wished away in a democratic set-up, it was the bureaucracy’s “duty” to sit in judgment over all policies proposed by duly elected governments. More significantly, the prime minister suggested that senior bureaucrats must be vigilant against any tinkering – by a newly elected (state) government – with the existing policy regime because the change could be at the behest of the new ruling party’s business friends.
His Orwellian double-speak apart, the prime minister seemed to be manufacturing an ethical narrative to justify his government’s pervasive and demonstrative use of the Enforcement Directorate, the Central Bureau of Investigation and other coercive instruments against the BJP’s political rivals and opponents. A classic case of cooking up legitimacy for political vendetta.
The prime minister’s tirade against political parties must be music to the newly-empowered technocratic elite, which is ipso facto impatient with democratic constraints and is intellectually anti-people. This new elite compliments Prime Minister Modi’s self-serving righteousness. Just as he believes that whatever he does (or does not do) is guided and motivated by genuine concern for the national interest, the new ruling class wallows in its own partisan definitions of public good.
Running down political rivals is every politician’s trick of the trade. But Modi this time appears to have crossed one more rekha. Speaking in Hindi, after listing all the possible ways in which political parties could misuse their mandate, he suggested it was up to the bureaucracy to step in: “Ye aap logon ko dekhna hi hoga, doston (You will have to look into this, friends).” In other words, an open invitation was extended to the bureaucracy to join a kind of conspiratorial jugalbandi against non-BJP parties and governments. This is a new low point in our already much debased politics.
Of course, these last nine years, the prime minister has diligently used – on a massive scale – the resources and instruments of his office to build himself up as the sole national saviour; neither his party nor his cabinet colleagues nor the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh nor the Vishwa Hindu Parishad nor crony capitalists are allowed to share the frame. He stands alone and tall on a self-commissioned pedestal.
On a parallel track, his vast propaganda machine has corrosively undermined all other political leaders and their parties by labelling them as contaminated and corrupt. A newly devised dogma renders illegitimate the very existence of opposition to his regime. Already, civil society and its democratic voices of dissent have been obliterated out of the public imagination. The Great Demagogue stands between order, stability, prosperity and chaos, confusion, contention.
This, of course, is not the first-time individuals, external and internal forces and circumstances combined to destroy public trust in the political class and its ability to steer the ship of the Indian State. In 1991, we ended up collectively putting our faith in the curative power of the market, with a capital M. The political class had lost its self-confidence and willingly ceded dominant space and moral aura to the purveyors of “animal spirits” of our business community and to civil society, which ritually chanted the “good governance” mantra. A chief minister even preferred to be called a CEO.
The long and short of this confusion was that the political class never recovered its old elan nor the public’s trust The judiciary, other institutions and civil society muscled their way into the domain of political parties. The old certitudes were gone but the new forces, individuals, ideological pretensions and interests sought to impose themselves in any manner.
And, when the “terror” era began, Indian society began pinning for a “strong” dispensation that would firewall us from external dangers and internal enemies. This clamour for a “strong” and “decisive” ruling arrangement was clearly at the expense of conventional democratic ways of negotiation, bargaining, adjustment and consensus-building among disparate sections of our society with its multiple fault-lines. Finally, in 2014, the Narendra Modi Project was sold to a vulnerable electorate as the answer to our polity’s fears and disenchantments. The unambiguously decisive mandates he won, in 2014 and 2019, were in expectation of a new democratic vitality and social harmony.
Nearly ten years later, however, the Modi experiment is running at the level of inefficiency inherent in any despotic arrangement. But the prime minister and his drum-beaters are wilfully denigrating the achievements of all pre-2014 governments, all of which were anchored in democratic mandates and constitutional sanctions. From this negation of previous regimes it is only the next logical step that the prime minister and his hit-squads should seek to delegitimise all constitutional institutions – the judiciary, parliament, political parties – as dens of anti-national sentiments. Unsurprisingly, the lawlessness of the police in Uttar Pradesh is being touted as a much-needed short-cut.
This markedly anti-politics disdain is gradually congealing into a new national religion, with Modi being the only high priest. This begets a deeper mischief. Whereas the much-maligned Nehruvian years ensured that India acquired a democratic culture that came handy in sorting out various succession crises, the exaggerated accent on one man today is depleting the polity of its republican vitality. If Modi’s anti-politics narrative is allowed to acquire traction on our national imagination, we shall be trading only one strong man with another when the time for change comes.