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Many developments in present-day India – critics and dissenters being silenced, independent institutions being compromised and a pliable media – last occurred during the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1975.
Professor Christophe Jaffrelot, who teaches South Asian Politics and History at Sciences Po, France and King’s College in London, has written two recent books – one about the Emergency (India’s First Dictatorship: The Emergency, 1975–1977) and another on India under Narendra Modi (Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy).
The Wire‘s founding editor Sidharth Bhatia spoke to Jaffrelot for The Wire Talks podcast, which was published on July 5, 2022. This is the full transcript of the interview, edited lightly for style and clarity.
Your two recently published books: India’s First Dictatorship on the emergency and Modi’s India seem to be somehow now connected in some way. Are we seeing signs of another dictatorship?
Well, if we use the categories of political science, we could say that India is today experiencing what is known as ‘competitive authoritarianism’ or ‘electoral authoritarianism’. These are concepts that we use in political science to describe regimes which are Januslike: on the one end, there are elections, and the citizens choose their rulers. But on the other end, elections are not a level playing field anymore.
In the particular case of today’s India, there are two reasons why elections are not a level playing field anymore: one is because the BJP is in a position to spend much more money than any of the other opposition parties. In fact, in 2019 it spent more than $3.5 billion, which is much more than all the other parties for saturating the public sphere among other things. And secondly, this electoral scene is not a level playing either because of media coverage, which is massively favouring the ruling party. And again saturation of the public sphere in 2014 and 2019 made the competition very difficult for the opposition parties.
But what I would add is that we need to go beyond elections, and we need to look at what is politics in India between elections. Because democracy is under attack for more serious reasons when you look at the way checks and balances are not working anymore. Most of the institutions have become instruments of the executive. There are the usual suspects: the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), but you can now add the National Investigation Agency (NIA), the Election Commission, the Central Vigilance Commission and, even more importantly, the judiciary – because the judiciary was the pillar, the main pillar, of the rule of law, as it has to be.
But we see now the Supreme Court of India not taking any decisions against the Modi government for the last six years, you can’t name one except possibly the appointment of the new CBI chief which was probably lately the only indication of some independence. But otherwise, the Supreme Court either validates very controversial measures: we have seen in the past the Aadhaar Bill considered as a money Bill, electoral bonds that the EC itself considered as not so good as an idea. And if it does not validate measures of that kind, it sits on the issues – and for years. [In the petitions challenging] the Citizenship Amendment Act and the dilution of Article 370, no decision has been made on these key issues that are two-three years old. So that’s clearly why, beyond the bias in the election competition, we may say India has entered a new phase and is experiencing a new kind of regime.
What you are saying Christophe, is that not only is there no level playing field during the elections but during the five years between elections, everything seems to go in favour of the ruling party. There is hardly any resistance worth the name and any resistance that does happen doesn’t get recorded in any significant way – in fact, it gets rubbished and dissidents who raise their voices find themselves, you know, either in jail or harassed with cases. So, this is a) an untenable situation for everybody else but b) this creates another kind of future scenario in which no other party can ever win.
Well, this is a very important question. And I suppose, political parties sometimes decide not to contest when they realise that there is no way they can win. I do not only suppose – I saw. Bangladesh is a case in point lately. Opposition parties just give up.
The situation is not that bad in India at the moment, simply because at the state level, we see a different kind of scenario. And in spite of the recent elections, Uttar Pradesh especially, we have to remember what happened in West Bengal, what happened, of course, in the South and Punjab even more recently. You have states, interestingly at the periphery of the core, at the periphery of the Hindi belt – except Rajasthan, most of the Hindi belt is in the hands of the BJP. But at the periphery, there is some hope for political parties, opposition parties, to win. So, they continue to contest and for good reasons because there is so much power at the state level.
Except that, we have seen on many occasions, the loser becomes the winner. The BJP may lose elections – in Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and more recently in Maharashtra – and still succeed in getting back. This is where money power plays a big role, of course. Every man has a price. You can also offer portfolios, ministerial portfolios. We have a very strange situation in many states, where a large number of ministers are not from the BJP because you have to bring them in and that’s what attracted them in the first place.
So that’s what we can call “predatory politics”, which means that even if you can win elections you may not govern the state. And in spite of so many rules and regulations, you will never prevent parties to take MLAs to a hotel – that’s not something you can pass a law against. Well, the day India passes a law against MLAs in hotel rooms, we will have reached a different level.
I don’t know whether you have got news of the latest development. A new government is being sworn in in Maharashtra and it is not a BJP government, because the BJP will support from outside – which is a win-win situation in many ways. But you’re right, it happened in Assam, it happened in Gujarat. One-third of BJP MLAs are from the Congress, which depletes the other parties that much more. And it happened in Rajasthan.
So, when you say that on the periphery, these parties continue winning and West Bengal was an example, Tamil Nadu also, attempts are made to dislodge, it happened in West Bengal with riots, the governor constantly saying there is mayhem on the street. So all these parties have to do two things in their states: they have to win handsomely and second, they have to constantly be on their guard because somebody or the other will be thrown in jail or raided. In that scenario, I think the federal system, therefore, is what is keeping the Union government from getting two big bites.
Certainly, certainly. I would just qualify that by saying that yes, federalism is probably the last bastion of democracy especially now that the judiciary has receded into the background. But it is not what we used to have as a system. If you remember the UPA 1 and 2, you had a federal system that empowered the state parties in a really dramatic manner.
By contrast, today you can have demonetisation without consulting the chief ministers; you can have the lockdown declared in five hours without consulting the chief ministers. So, there is clearly a centralisation of power at the expense of federalism.
And I would add one thing in the same vein: even social welfare programmes are presented as coming from New Delhi, coming from the prime minister himself – many of them are named after the prime minister. When you look at what happened in the previous government, under Manmohan Singh, the states could draw benefit from that and they were credited by the citizens as being responsible for welfare programmes. So, yes federalism is a very important element of what’s left of democracy but it is not the federalism we used to know 15 years ago.
We have talked about institutions and political parties. Coming to individuals, that seems to be another front the BJP seems to be operating on in full strength. They’ve gone after activists, they’ve gone after – Teesta Setalvad and Mohammed Zubair in the past few days, the Bhima Koregaon case, where activists are still languishing in jail, they’ve gone after journalists in Uttar Pradesh.
But what do you make of Teesta, who’s long been a critic and a thorn in the government’s side and the BJP’s side and the arrest of somebody like Mohammad Zubair, who is not an activist as such. How do you see the sudden arrests back to back, more or less, of these two?”
Well, first of all, let us recall that this is taking place in the wake of a Supreme Court decision. And that takes us back to the judiciary question: why is the judiciary behaving the way we see it behaving? And I would suggest three explanations: one, the judges aren’t appointed the way they used to be and the collegium system is different. By the way, that was the first reform the Modi government wanted to introduce, as early as July 2014. It failed to change the way theoretically, on paper, judges are appointed – they are still supposed to be appointed by the collegium but in practice, they are not.
Chief Justice of India T.S. Thakur fought that battle and lost that battle because three of his successors in a row resigned themselves not to appoint the judges of the Supreme Court by resorting to the collegium. Now de facto, the government appoints the judges and promotes its sympathisers. Especially, because the Sangh parivar has infiltrated the judiciary for a long time. So that’s one very important change, a long-term change. It has probably reached a point of no return in terms of the composition of the Supreme Court.
But there are other reasons, ideology is not the only one. Judges are getting post-retirement jobs now without any cooling-off period and they prefer to please the government before retiring. It’s very simple. And last but not the least, judges are also blackmailed, government has files on everybody, including judges. Do not forget that justices were targeted by the Pegasus malware as well.
So, I would re-contextualise the arrest of Teesta Setalvad and R.B. Sreekumar in this context. Now, that precondition – the judiciary made it possible – has been considered. But why has it happened? Well, I think that there is a clear attempt to erase the 2002 pogrom from the story of India and to take revenge against those who fought for justice.
In fact, this pogrom is not even mentioned in history books anymore. It has to leave, it has to go, it has to disappear from the past and many of the Gujaratis who are ruling India today do not want to be remembered in history for what happened in their state when they were ruling it. So to suppress the memories of 2002, they need to silence those who are still speaking for the victims. And that was the case with both of them, Teesta Setalvad and R.B. Sreekumar.
They are the last ones on a long list as you say the others – the Bhima Koregaon accused that you mentioned – were also arrested because they dissented and we are in a situation where no dissent is acceptable. This is exactly what an authoritarian regime does. When someone indulges in repressing dissent, any dissent has to be repressed. There is no limit – especially when you know the dissenters tell the truth. The truth has to disappear, like the memories of 2002.
All authoritarian regimes work that way. That’s why they gradually become police states, resorting to surveillance, phones are tapped and files are created to blackmail friends and foes – because friends too need to be controlled, some of them cannot be truly, fully trusted. So, gradually you see control becoming an end in itself. State power becoming an end in itself.
Today, you wonder why does this government want control, full control? What are the policies you can implement by being so much in control? It has nothing to do with policies: it’s a reflection of a quest for power for the sake of power and possibly also because of the sense of insecurity. These leaders have never been so sure, so secure. By the way, that’s why they never give press conferences: they do not know how to respond to questions to which they have not prepared in advance. The sense of insecurity is very deeply rooted and makes this repression reflex even more important. And you can go back in history and say that Hindu nationalism itself is rooted in a deep sense of insecurity. There is an inferiority complex, because of the fear of divisions in Hinduism based on caste and class; because the elite of the country has never been on their side, the intellectual elite has never been on their side; and last but not the least, because you only have 37% of Indians who voted for the BJP. So how can you be so sure that you are the hegemon? You are not. And it makes repression even more necessary, repression of dissent at least.
This insecurity complex in the present administration, the present ruling party, is a little counter-intuitive. You have a large number of MPs; you have an opposition which is in no position – at the moment at least – to win; the media is on your side; every institution has been compromised; the elite, the business class, even if they want to say something are scared; most ordinary people, the middle classes believe it is not safe to criticise openly; in that case, why this insecurity about a small fact-checker?
Well, for all the reasons that I have listed, I think they explain to a large extent this obsession with repression, to suppress the truth, to suppress dissent and this fear of not being such a strong hegemon, because you are not.
But I would add one reason that I think will become more and more important. The economy is not doing well, the economy is in a crisis, and this crisis is probably bound to gain momentum. And it is affected not only the economy but also society. Well, the economy, just to give one example, the rupee has never been so low despite the $50 billion already spent by the RBI and this is the beginning of a crisis that will deepen because of the Ukraine war. Inflation is on the rise and India is allergic to inflation like many other countries because that hits the poor immediately. And joblessness is clearly all pervasive and the mobilisation of young jobless Indians who set trains on fire [to protest against the Agnipath military recruitment scheme] shows that everything can happen now and therefore the government needs to distract the public opinion from this kind of crisis. So, not only do you suppress dissent but you raise issues of a different kind to make people forget that the government’s policies are taking the country in a direction that will not create jobs; that will not make the life of the poor and the middle class easier. So, that’s clearly a good reason for being insecure. When you do not deliver, you can not be really sure of your followers.
On the economy, no matter what you do and you distract people, that’s a short-term measure. And maybe you can keep on doing it, but ultimately that will be their legacy. I mean, it still may not affect your electoral chances, but that will be the legacy that will be left behind. That he was a poor manager of the economy, which he had promised to improve.
Yeah, but I do think that for Narendra Modi you do not win elections based on economic reasons. It is really something he learnt in 2004, when the ‘Shining India’ slogan was not sufficient for the BJP to win. So, that’s an additional problem, he doesn’t pay attention to the economic issues because that’s not a priority for winning elections. Polarisation works much better than economic successes for winning elections. And that’s an additional problem.
We just discussed two individuals, but when you have a juggernaut, a machine which is operating full time, 24/7 at your service like the media and the chances of the media changing its tune is next to zero, why would you be worried about what a couple of small digital sites – with hardly any following – say?
Well, I think that these small media actors represent much more than you think. First of all, we are following them abroad systematically. They are the most reliable sources of information that we can think of. Secondly, social media can also amplify what these small outlets say. And thirdly, even if it is not a mainstream message, a mainstream actor, when someone, even a lonely voice, says something true it has to be suppressed. Because these truths can become popular and if it spreads, then the king is naked and the first person who says the ‘king is naked’ makes the others realise that he is naked. And all of a sudden the king is ashamed and cant cope with the situation.
As I said, authoritarian regimes have to suppress everybody in the end, because only one dissenter, dissenting voice can undermine their authority rather quickly. Now a caveat to that, the way people are brainwashed makes them less and less accessible to truth and the fact that you have been bombarded by propaganda for years makes it very difficult sometimes for simple explanations to percolate. This is something which I am realising with my students, who have not heard about what happened in India not only in 2002 but on many other occasions. You have to train them in everything and that’s a big challenge which makes the kind of work we are doing much more complicated than before. Because we have to not only counter prejudices but we have to inform, to go back to the basics, the basic elements of Indian history. Maybe one day nobody will believe in anything except lies.
That applies to other societies also. As we saw in the US, where people actually believed that the 2020 Presidential election was “stolen” and now it emerges that President Donald Trump wanted to join the [January 6 Capitol Hill] rioters. Do you think, this has been intriguing me quite a bit, but do you think that the BJP is in a bit of a hurry? Because particularly from 2019 onwards, things have moved rapidly, much more than in the first five years. Do you think there is a sense of urgency to achieve something?
I don’t know, this is a difficult question. There may be reasons for being in a hurry, we don’t know. The social and economic crisis may be a good reason for suppressing dissent and also for distracting people from other realities, that’s clearly one possibility. There may also be the need to pacify outliners and it is something you see when you surf on social media. There is now, I would say, a right-wing, in the BJP, a right-wing dimension of BJP or people who are out of BJP, who are asking for more. Always more. So you have to defuse this kind of tension. But frankly speaking, this acceleration is very relative, because the speed of events since 2014 is already quite remarkable when you think of all the campaigns we’ve seen. And if you look only at the ones directed against Muslims, we have the “anti-love jihad”, gharwapsi and of course, cow protection-related campaigns, “anti-land jihad”. You know, every six months or so there is something new – only in this domain. So, there may be a sense of precipitation now, acceleration, but there is, in any case. a trend and I am not sure it is really announcing something qualitatively different. There may be a difference in degree but the sense of direction is the same.
So just when these arrests were happening, PM Modi was in Germany meeting world leaders. And everyone, at least by reports appearing in the Indian media, everyone gave him a warm welcome, they went out of their way to shake his hand. French President Emmanuel Macron also was very warm. Again, I must clarify that this is what has appeared here, and the gifts he gave to all these world leaders.
But the fact of the matter is that world leaders, especially western countries and developed countries, are not calling out the Indian government for all that is happening. What could be one reason? What could be the reasons for this warmth, this extra mile that they are walking just to be warm towards India?”
Well, I would say two things there. This warmth is clearly a legacy of the idea that India would be necessary to balance China. That was an idea that crystallised, well along with the idea of the Indo-Pacific, five years ago. That has been reinforced now by the idea that the West may win over India in the new variant of the Cold War, the relations between the West and Russia. The idea that India may not remain neutral is still there and there is some hope in the West that eventually India will realise that to get its weapons from Russia only or mostly is really not a good idea, first of all, because these weapons are not terribly effective in Ukraine itself. Secondly, some of the supply chains will be delayed if not destroyed by the condition of Russia in the near future.
So these are the two reasons – China and Russia – where there is certainly a kind of reflex of forgiving or forgetting what is going on in India.
Secondly, there is still this idea that this is a huge market and we have lots of things to sell, including weapons. And that’s an additional reason for not interfering with domestic policies or events in India.
Now, that said, what I could see in the US, the UK and even in France is a new sense of agitation – and that’s a recent development, I must say. We are approached as scholars by ministers and ministries of foreign affairs and defence, and asked where is India going? What is the next flare-up? When? Where? Very precise questions, interestingly. This is new. It is not public but it is reflecting a new awareness that was not there only six months or 1 year ago.
So this warmth may not be forever and with the Ukraine war – the relationship of India with Russia – may play a different role, if the West realises that there is no way India can become a friendly country or partner even an ally. That’s the kind of response I would give which is not an easy one, but reflecting some changes, some evolution.
So, that sense of alarm about what was happening in India was always there but it has begun to be articulated that much more forcefully. Because we are already importing a lot of oil from Russia and that you can justify, because we need oil and we don’t have too much money to pay, so if it is coming at a cheaper rate, why not take it? But if that continues, then I think as you said, there will be some rethinking in Western capital.
There will be a sense of uneasiness, definitely. That is already palpable and quite understandable. There was a trust that seems to have been betrayed. There is a disappointment and it remains to be seen how that will translate in concrete terms. It may have minimal effects, for instance, some transfers of technology may not take place simply because of the fear of seeing this technology elsewhere in the hands of friends but also enemies of the West, which may be one of the fears. So that would have a minimal impact.
You may have larger consequences in terms of trade deals and all the free trade agreements (FTAs) that are supposed to be negotiated at the moment. This is a difficult process, for many reasons, including in terms of flows of data. India doesn’t have any credible personal data protection law and you know that’s only one of the problems and challenges that will be met when the FTAs will be negotiated. So that can have larger consequences. But it is too early to say, really too early. This war will last for a long time and the consequences it will have on the economies of our countries will impact geopolitical relations inevitably. How far? Really, it is too early to say.
So not to sum up, but to look forward, where do you see India heading – socially, politically, economically? You ended that particular answer with a reference to the Ukraine-Russia war and if that continues for a long time, there’ll be an impact everywhere. Where do you see India heading in the next few years?
There is hardly any moment when you say, “Well, we’ve reached a point of no return.” Things can change. What we can predict is that the economy will not recover easily in the context of today. That’s almost certain. And that will be a big, big challenge. Stagflation is around the corner and that is very bad for job creation. That’s for the economy.
Society will definitely remain polarised because this is the dominant style of politics and society will have to resist polarisation as much as it can. Politically, the state elections of 2022-23 will be interesting to follow. Elections in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh will prepare the ground for the 2024 elections. If the opposition parties realise that it is only by joining hands that they can dislodge the BJP from power and if they show that in practice – if they experiment at the state level – there may be some alternative in the making. That’s what happened in places like Turkey and Israel. It took 15 years for opposition parties to join hands and finally, at least temporarily, dislodge Benjamin Netanyahu from power in Israel. If that does not happen…
Do you mean Israel?
You mentioned Turkey.
Well, Turkey is also a place where you see opposition parties joining hands and Recep Erdogan may have a tough time next year winning the elections once again. Even in this very authoritarian regime that Turkey has become, you can see a possibility for an alternative, because of this new attitude of opposition parties. That’s why I say a point of no return is not easily reached. There are many “ifs” but the sense of direction can change for sure. I am not considering that it is game over. It is not game over.
Okay so on that note, I will not say whether it’s a hopeful note, a pessimistic note, or an optimistic one. But on that note, we just heard a very very academic yet very grounded assessment of what is happening in India at the moment and where it is likely to go. Thank you Professor Christophe Jaffrelot for talking to us.
Thank you, Sidharth.