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The push for simultaneous elections, saffronisation of criminal laws, talk of quashing the basic structure and a new Constitution, secrecy about parliament agenda...what is really happening in India?

When Recep Tayyip Erdogan was ‘re-elected’ Turkey’s president in May this year, Narendra Modi was among the first to congratulate him. Erdogan, whom western analysts call an elected dictator, has been continuously in power for 20 years, first as prime minister and then as the country’s president.

In 2017, he held a referendum to force a presidential system of government and won. Since then, he has continued as the country’s all-powerful president. A closer look will reveal how Modi has taken Erdogan as a role model and heavily borrowed from him things like minority bashing (Kurds) and a Hindutva vote bank (orthodox Islamists), and now a ‘system change’, too, appears in the works.

Like Erdogan, Modi made all statutory watchdogs and constitutional positions ineffective by simply appointing favourites. This is the reason Modi’s India finds itself in the same unflattering lists as Turkey – a position no democracy would like to find itself in.

Beyond what is quantifiable, Modi has also borrowed from his fellow dictator’s playbook three further elements: stealth, subterfuge and surprise.

This is the background in which one has to assess the recent series of gambits by the Modi regime. Look at the way the special session of parliament was called and how the country was kept in suspense over its purpose. The very strength of parliament is its openness. Yet suddenly on August 31, the parliamentary affairs minister parliamentary affairs minister Prahlad Joshi announced, rather oddly, through social media, that a special session of parliament would be held from September 18 to 22 without question hour.

The agenda of the session was kept a secret till Wednesday, September 13, leading to much speculation about the agenda. Even now, the stated agenda – to ‘review the parliamentary journey of 75 years since the Samvidhan Sabha ‘ – is vague. And the government has already said the published items of business should not be considered ‘exhaustive’.

Also read: Simultaneous Elections: Why Now?

As if the the secrecy about the agenda was not bad enough,  Joshi announced the formation of a panel headed by Ram Nath Kovind to study the possibility of one-nation one-election. The next day, an eight-member panel which included Amit Shah was formally notified.

The announcement had all the trappings of an archetypal authoritarian style. Kovind was in fact deputed by Shah as early as June 2 — soon after the BJP’s Karnataka shock defeat. Moreover, that was a time when a formidable opposition alliance was taking shape. Kovind had accordingly met the chief justice of India, D.Y. Chandrachud, Lok Sabha speaker Om Birla, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat and a dozen state governors. A highly unusual schedule for a former president.

This means the official notification came several weeks after considerable spadework had already begun. Why this secrecy? To upstage the opposition? And all the eight members on the committee constituted in a dictatorial style are known to be government supporters. The only member from the other side, Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chaudhary, resigned.

Three days after Modi’s one country one election gambit, came another surprise. Suddenly, we found President Droupadi Murmu’s invitation for a Rashtrapati Bhavan dinner for foreign dignitaries describing her as ‘President of Bharat’. This was another display of a typical authoritarian trait. Subsequently, documents relating to Modi’s visit to Indonesia also had ‘Bharat’ instead of India.

Is such a display of unannounced ‘nationalism’ only for the foreign ministry and the Rashtrapati? Will ‘Bharat’ replace ‘India’ everywhere? In orderly democracies with wide linguistic and cultural diversities, such decisions are taken after due deliberation, not via authoritarian PMO decrees.

Clearly, the impact of the triple jolts seems to have badly shaken the Modi establishment — consolidation of the opposition into a formidable challenge, the shock defeat in Karnataka and the Adani entanglement. Consider the panic moves which came in quick succession, to remove the remaining hurdles in the way of total power.

Former CJI Ranjan Gogoi, now a nominated member of parliament, in his only intervention in the house to date, questioned the very maintainability of the basic structure of constitution. And he got ready support from TV anchors and various regime-friendly writers in media.

Then came the proposal for a new constitution for India. Bibek Debroy, chairman of the PM’s economic advisory council, in an article floated the idea that India needed a new constitution.  He cited the changing requirements as reason for this. “We should go back to the drawing board and start from first principles, asking what these words in the Preamble mean now: socialist, secular, democratic, justice, liberty and equality,” he said

Official circles later clarified that this was Debroy’s personal view. But what fuelled suspicions that this was not is that Debroy’s views also got support from many other pro-establishment writers.

Last month, the Election Commission Act was amended to create a selection panel – as mandated by the Supreme Court – but the government decided not to include the chief justice of India as a member, as the court had suggested. The amendment ensures a majority for the government side paving the way for filling the Election Commission with favourites – now through a supposedly legitimate search process.

After establishing full control over the Election Commission, it is the turn of saffronisation of law. In true authoritarian style, Amit Shah introduced the Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita, Nagrik Suraksha and Bharatiya Sakshya bills to replace the Criminal Procedure Code, Indian Penal Code and Indian Evidence Act without consulting the opposition, legal stakeholders or public debate. Law experts have already found several provisions of the badly drafted bnew bills excessively harsh compared to the colonial era Acts.

Also read: Vishwaguru and the Crisis of Democracy

Discussion on the duopoly’s tightening control will not be complete without a reference to the unprecedented Modi build-up in the name of the G20 summit. The garishly painted city walls with calendar-like mythological figures, large Modi portraits with the G20 insignia every hundred meters, lurid decorations — all of this resembled the lavishness of a big fat Indian wedding.

Watch how India’s godi media, which had merrily criticised the official extravaganza during the Commonwealth Games, now meekly obeyed official dictates and paid scant attention to all these stories:

  • Thousands of vendors lost their livelihoods after they were evicted and herded beyond sight of foreign delegates. Many of them held demonstrations in protest. Over 9,000 gig workers were prevented from entering VIP zones.
  • Bulldozers arrived and cleared large jhuggi clusters all along the VIP areas, bundled up the dwellers meagre belongings and chased them away. In some places, residents were pushed back and tall cloth screens put up to keep the ugly face of Delhi from foreign delegates and their entourage.
  • All educational institutions, markets, and major establishments remained shut for the great Modi show — as in the Covid shutdowns.
  • Swaminathan Aiyar in a foreign publication says advertising cost to the exchequer for the G20 Modi show was Rs 10 billion (Rs 1,000 crore). Indian media companies, meanwhile, made large amounts of money from running Modi’s advertisements.
  • Another estimate put the total expenditure at over Rs 4,100 crore. However, according to unofficial estimates, overall spending will be double the amount.
  • The US media covering the G20 summit had a taste of the media freedom under Modi government. Humera Pamuk of Reuters tweeted: “Something quite unprecedented. As Modi and Biden met, the US press Corp was sequestered in a van out of sight of the two leaders.” This is not the practice in the US.
  • To showcase India’s glorious heritage and rich culture, hotels have been directed to serve meals to the foreign delegates in silver and gold utensils in Maharaja style
  • Finally a Bharatiya touch. Those foreign delegates who wish to consult the Bhagwat Gita to resolve their worries were given a ChatGPT-like AI Chatbot for answers and a ‘history’ book full of howlers, inaccuracies and mistruths.

In any democracy worth its name, the media would have been busy connecting the dots that the Modi regime has provided in rapid succession. But not in Naya Bharat.

P. Raman is a veteran journalist. He is the author of Tryst with Strong Leader Populism.