Full Text | 'Damage to Indian Democracy Under Modi Is Lasting': Pratap Bhanu Mehta

In an interview to The Wire, Pratap Bhanu Mehta says India has transformed into an illiberal, majoritarian and intolerant country with an authoritarian regime under Narendra Modi.

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On December 17, The Wire published a video interview of Pratap Bhanu Mehta by Karan Thapar. The interview covers a broad sweep of topics to understand how India has changed politically, socially and economically under the prime ministership of Narendra Modi in the last seven years.

Mehta does not mince words in slamming how the current regime has actively participated and aided communal forces in vitiating the harmony among religious and social groups in the country for the ruling party to reap electoral dividends. He also notes with lament how the media and the judiciary have also “caved in” to government pressure, instead of holding the executive to account.

Below is the full transcript of the interview. It has been slightly edited for style and clarity.


Mehta, some people say that during the seven years Narendra Modi has been the prime minister, India has transformed socially into an illiberal, majoritarian and intolerant country, and politically, it has become authoritarian. The prime minister is almost deified, institutions are weakening, vigilantism is growing, and the media is either suppressed or is sycophantic. Others say this is simply not the truth, but this is a manufactured view designed to denigrate the prime minister, the government, even the country. What’s your view?

I think the description you gave is accurate. India has become more communal; India has become more authoritarian. And I don’t think anybody actually can contest those descriptions. I mean, and you know we don’t have to sort of get into what the prime minister’s intentions are, but we just have to look at the behavioural attributes of institutions: when the Supreme Court refuses to take habeas corpus seriously; when most or at least the television media (I mean, you know… as you know better than anyone else in a sense…) ceases to play the role of the fourth state, I mean you can just go institution after institution, right.

When, as you just saw, in Kashi Vishwanath, the prime minister in a sense is projected as a combination of Shankaracharya and Shivaji. I mean, the entire liturgy is structured around him. This is not just a recasting of Indian democracy, but it is a kind of recasting of the religion and religious forms of Hinduism in a very radical way. You can just pick any attribute and it is very hard to contest the impression that, you know, India has become more communal and authoritarian.

Also read: By Raising Aurangzeb-Shivaji Binary at Kashi Vishwanath, Modi Indicates Divisive Agenda

I think, the only qualification I would give to this, and I think that’s where the BJP supporters will push back, is that there is a genuine democratic energy to this authoritarianism which is to say that it does have popular roots and that’s what makes it more disquieting in some ways. Modi is a popular figure he has managed to, in a sense, transform India’s institutional landscape by winning elections. And I think that’s what makes this moment much more complicated to think about.

When you say that this communalism and this authoritarianism has democratic roots, are you actually suggesting that the people of India, are actually, supportive of the majoritarian nature of this government and its policies? As well as the almost authoritarian way in which he rules this reflects the way they want to be ruled?

I think it reflects three things. I certainly, at the level of elite opinion, I think Modi and the communal and authoritarian agenda have deep widespread support. This would not be, for example, possible without the support of Indian capital and the organised and systematic way in which the information order is created and controlled.

It won’t be possible without in a sense the complicity of India’s professional and middle classes. I think, as far as the electorate goes, what we can say is they’re certainly not punishing him for it.

Let’s put it this way: If you look at civil society discourse, the fact that, for example in a city like Gurgaon, Friday prayers can be disrupted week after week and there is absolutely no serious civil society opposition, suggesting at least there’s a lot more complicity to this even if there’s no active participation.

I’ll come to details in a moment’s time, but let me ask you one more general question. Has all of this happened over the last seven years coincidentally? Or, is the government and Modi responsible for the transformation that’s happened?

I think that question can be taken at two levels. At one level, these developments are a product of a long history. You know if you want to understand Hindu nationalism, we have to sort of look at the last hundred years of kind of conversation about the nature and identity of Indian civilisation, and particularly in the sense the place of Muslims in it. So, at one level, it does have long roots. And, I think it’s an interesting counterfactual question if Gandhi had not been assassinated would you have seen this kind of phenomenon much more apparent in the 1950s than we actually did.

I think the sense in which Modi and the BJP are responsible is that they have not just legitimised it, but they have, in some senses, promoted it at every forum. It’s one thing to say that these are latent tendencies in society, and it’s one thing to say that there will always be 15% to 20% people who believe these kinds of things, who are willing to engage in acts that subvert our constitutional democracy. It’s another for people who occupy the highest offices in the country to legitimise this continually, provide dog whistles for it and give succour to this.

Let’s, at this point then, come to details. I can’t go through all the points I made in the first question, but I’ll pick on four that strike me as being the most important first. There’s no doubt that India continues to hold free and fair elections, and there’s no doubt that quite frequently governments change. But equally, would you accept that critical institutions like parliament, the cabinet, the election commission are weaker than they’ve ever been since the Emergency? How do you view the state of Indian democracy?

The state of Indian democracy is very perilous: Parliament has become more or less a rubber stamp, as most of the significant bills are passed without discussion; the supreme court’s abdication has been the most spectacular and disappointing. I think, in some senses, it’s even worse than the Emergency, because now it stretches across a whole range of judicial issues, where the Supreme Court is simply not willing to challenge the government on constitutional basics. The press – of course, you’ve already sort of talked about –  and the election commission are at the margins.

Yes, I don’t think it has yet reached a level where people are questioning the legitimacy of the elections. But yes, there are worrying signs.

I’ll come to the Supreme Court in a moment’s time, but let me drill a little deeper into the state of our politics. Something that is happening is that whilst checks and balances are diminishing, the dominance of the prime minister is increasing – and I’m talking both about the dominance of the prime minister’s office which is by far the most powerful institution in our government, greater than it ever was – but also the cult of personality that’s emerged around Narendra Modi. How worrying is this combination that makes him, both the person and the PM, so dominant?

Well, I mean look we’ve had cults of personalities in the past: Indira Gandhi, most notably. There’s a kind of long tradition of that, and to a certain extent culture, personality actually does accompany democratic self-expression.

I think the worrying thing is what does he [Modi] use this incredible popularity and power for, and if he uses it to support institutions, as he is at every step that doesn’t portend well for India in any respect. He’s not a natural democrat, his instincts are to subvert rather than to promote. More importantly, I think, giving dog whistles to communalism which is, you know, a kind of poison that is spreading across our civil society in ways that are actually quite unprecedented in recent years.

There is a flip side to this, which is also worth noting at this point is that we also know from history that cults of personality over the long run find it difficult to govern.

And one of the things you’re seeing in the Indian civil society as we saw in the farmers’ movement is that a lot of politics that would have been channelled through political parties and institutions is now coming out in the streets: the CAA movement and the farmers’ movement. In some ways, the prime minister had to concede that a politics centred around just his office without processes of democratic consultation cannot in the long run actually provide the kind of governance we need.

Has he suffered an image dent? I won’t put it stronger than that by the way he had to cave into the farmers?

I think he has suffered an image dent, interestingly, in his own base. It’s the first time that I think his base is disappointed, because they thought they had elected him to suppress precisely these kinds of movements. But, I don’t think it’s going to have a long term political significance, because his base is not going to defect.

But in the eyes of his admirers his invincibility has lost a bit of its sheen?

Yeah absolutely. I think it also makes it a dangerous moment because he will try and make up for it somewhere. And, I don’t know what that strategy is going to be.

In a democracy, one of the fundamental checks on the power and influence of the government as well as the prime minister, is, of course, the opposition. Secondly, it’s actually the MPs within the governing party…if they have the capacity to stand up and say ‘we disagree…we don’t want to do this’. In Britain just this week we’ve seen how Kier Starmer and Tory MPs have actually reduced the efficacy of Boris Johnson even to the point of undermining his prime ministership. Those checks and balances are missing in India, and as a result, Modi rides supreme over his party and over the opposition.

I think, Karan, that question deserves more reflection, because, in India, the problem has been the anti-defection bill. To be very honest, because what it did was it reduced the power of individual MPs or small groups of MPs.

It makes party leaders as dictators.

Exactly, they simply cannot revolt unless they’re in kind of sufficient mass. I mean you need to have about half the party revolting so it makes collective action actually very difficult. So, I think that is a structural problem.

I think there is another problem. The opposition is actually simply not being united enough, at a time, when you think, Indian democracy is facing an existential crisis – at least, you’re saying, it’s facing an existential crisis. If in such a moment, you cannot come together and put aside what seem like short-term considerations, for this the great battle for Indian democracy doesn’t speak well for the opposition.

Also read: How Differently Is Parliament Functioning Under Narendra Modi?

To sum up this bit of the interview, would you accept that democracy under Mr. Modi over the last seven years in India has diminished – the prime minister has emerged authoritarian, discussions have ceased, parliament barely functions, select committees don’t even operate. So, India’s democracy has diminished and shrunk?

You have put it very eloquently. I agree completely. Yes, absolutely so.

This is one minus against his [Modi] political calendar.


The second thing I want to bring up with you is the state of dissent and difference of opinion. Let’s first focus on the media. Do you think they are doing anything enough to challenge and question the prime minister? Would you agree with something… I think it was the chief justice that said the other day, that investigative journalism has virtually ceased to exist in India as he says “everything in our garden appears to be rosy”.

Well, in part, it ceases to exist because the Supreme Court does not provide adequate legal protections for expression. I mean that institution is complicit in it. But I think the problem, the challenge with the Indian media, is actually more serious.

It is more serious in the sense that there are historical instances where the press does not challenge the government forcefully for a variety of reasons; partly because it is dependent on the government for revenue, which has always been the case with the Indian media. I think what is more disturbing and insidious is the fact that the Indian media openly disseminates hate and prejudice.

If you read a Hindi newspaper, most of the Hindi newspapers – there are a couple of honourable exceptions though – every page is full of communal dog whistles. If you look at the television channels that officially, at least, seem to garner the most viewership, most of them are actually propagating hate against minorities in covert or overt forms. That’s a very different order, in a sense, of the media’s destructive role in Indian democracy than simply a kind of abdication or, at least, not taking on the government.

So, not only are these media supportive of Modi and not critical of Modi but they’re further taking and promoting the very communalism and the authoritarianism that he symbolises.

Absolutely, and look, Modi may, at some point, will leave office. But the damage that I think is happening to Indian democracy and Indian civil society is the pervasiveness of communalism and its open legitimisation in the media. I think it is something quite unprecedented.

Again, is this a reflection of what they believe the majority of the people of the country want? Are they in a sense pandering to the latent communism that, in a way, Modi also panders to?

Look, it’s very hard to determine what the majority of the people in the country want. I mean it is not clear how we actually read that. I would say both propositions are true, which is that there is a latent tendency, but in a sense, the information order and media institutions can magnify it and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is because, in a sense, if you think enough people think this, more people start thinking it.

And the media is guilty of magnifying?


But look for a moment of what happens to those small, perhaps reduced, sections of the media that are still critical. I mean it seems that an army of trolls that descends on you if you criticize the government and not just Modi? State governments too have increased the use of sedition by 165%  between 2016 and 2019 and it’s now used against journalists, cartoonists, historians, students, even actors and sometimes directors, and little children.

In fact, it is said jocularly but I’ve actually heard people say that in India what counts is not freedom of speech, but freedom after the speech, because chances are if you say something critical, someone or the other will arrest you and you will be in trouble.

You know I think this government has been very clever in some ways that it has not formally declared a state of emergency. So you don’t have mass arrests, but the examples you’re all pointing to are exactly the modus operandi that makes the government very effective. From time to time, it sends the signal the right kinds of signals that can intimidate journalists, academics, civil society, actors.

But I will go back to the issue of the Supreme Court, because I think it is important because, you know, media can take risks, private actors can take risks if at some point they know that there are other institutions where they can expect a degree of fairness and justice.

Representative image of anti-CAA protests in the country. Photo: PTI/Files


So the Supreme Court’s failure or refusal to stand up for the rights of journalists means journalists become vulnerable to authoritarian leaders.

You cannot take bail for granted. You cannot take a habeas corpus hearing for granted. I think the pattern the Indian polity set in Kashmir has seen the largest number of UAPA cases against journalists. For example, that pattern is going to be increasingly replicated all over the country and the Supreme Court can set that matter quickly to rest by hearing all those cases and proving to the world that you know there is still a judicial system where even if the government harasses you, perhaps, it will be a pain for one or two years, but at least at some point you can expect justice.

I mean one of the consequences of the Supreme Court not stepping in is people like Ajit Doval, the national security advisor, can actually publicly say to the police that civil society now is the new frontier of war. I mean that attitude reflects that the government or some of its thinkers have begun to see civil society, opponents, dissenters people who think differently as enemies.

Well that’s not just an accidental, you know. I think the sort of statement that it represents is at the very core of their ideology. This is because, in a sense, if you think about the core ingredients of that ideology is that the people have to speak with a singular will. If anybody deviates from that singular will, the only explanation can be not that people have legitimate disagreements, not that life is complicated to look at diverse viewpoints, but the only legitimate explanation can be that they must be enemies of the people.

This is what in a sense is legitimising surveillance. I mean the pegasus scandal could also have been handled much more swiftly. I think the Supreme Court did waste enormous amounts of time constituting a committee. But the war on Indian civil society, and this war by attrition, is now the dominant ideology of the ruling party.

Also read: Locating Pegasus in Doval’s Civil Society as New Frontier of War

In fact, what you’re saying is that this regime looks upon opponents, dissenters, people with different viewpoints, as enemies?

Absolutely, and that’s what makes it undemocratic in a deep sense because one of the things that keep democracy going is a sense that even those who disagree with them are all citizens in a common enterprise trying to figure out with us what is good for the country.

But the Modi regime doesn’t accept them as citizens with the right to differ. And this is what you meant, I suppose, when you suggested that we may not have an official Emergency, but we have an insidious Emergency where opposition is treated as enemies to be pushed beyond the pale?

And it is an insidious Emergency in one more sense which is that it is not averse to using institutional power. It is not using it in the sense that it was used in the Emergency. You arrest hundreds of people, but whenever it is necessary you can get people denied bail, you can get people arrested so it is not averse to using state power to intimidate.

In this context, how worrying are the Pegasus revelations, and how worried are you by the fact that the government in its response was distinctly evasive and, I would actually say, dishonest?

The Pegasus revelations are worrying, but we shouldn’t have been surprised. Frankly not just about this government to be very honest, I think in this tension between surveillance and democracy, democracies all over the world are actually losing. I mean I wouldn’t be surprised if the governments in Britain, the United States are also using spy software on their own domestic citizens.

Illustration: The Wire

It is just that I mean this government got caught. But are you not worried about the fact that the range of people stretches from Rahul Gandhi’s friends, who may in some sense be political opponents for government, through to journalists through to lawyers through to ladies who worked in the Supreme Court who raised allegations against the then chief justice and a whole range of other ordinary people?

Look, the surveillance was deeply worrying. It is intrinsically worrying and frankly humiliating in some ways. I think because it diminishes our status as citizens. I mean privacy is not about in a sense the sense I have something to hide. It is a basic right. The pervasiveness of this is surprising. But, as I said, if you look at democratic histories in the past, for instance, the FBI’s work in the 1960s on the civil rights movement was a kind of template. I think it should have been a warning that democratic governments are not averse to widespread surveillance. The only question is how smart they are.

We were shaken by it in India because we didn’t think it was likely to happen except that we should have known it was happening?

I actually was not surprised. I mean I’m surprised that anybody was surprised that it was happening. I think the surprise was that they got caught out actually.

 Let’s now come to something I’ve deliberately held back on and you’ve been talking about it frequently and that is the third area of concern: the judiciary, and in particular, the Supreme Court.

Let me put it like this, after ADM Jabalpur in the mid-1970s everyone assumed that the Supreme Court would be a great bulwark standing in support of the liberties and rights of the Indian people, but increasingly in recent years on critical issues that have fundamental constitutional importance, the Kashmir issue, electoral bonds, habeas corpus or even for instance CAA, the Supreme Court is deliberately refusing to hear cases, kicking the can down the road, presumably because they sense that the outcome could embarrass the government. How worrying is it that this court is ducking its duty on constitutional issues?

It is very worrying, but I think we need a slightly more nuanced historical view of this. I mean my own personal scholarly view on the Indian judiciary has been that the Indian judiciary’s capacity to take on the government and hold it to account was grossly exaggerated. I think its performative bark was way worse than its bite. It has never practically never taken on the political establishment.

I think the PIL revolution, for example, was a performative compensation for its failure in ADM Jabalpur, but even there the pronouncements are far more grandiose than in a sense the actual remedies that it provides. So there is, I think, that history to it.

So we have overpraised the court?

Completely. We should never look to a judiciary to save democracy. If you’re looking to a judiciary to save democracy, chances are you’ve already lost the battle.

Having said that, even by those standards, the kind of abdication we have seen in the last four or five years where the Supreme Court refuses to stand up for what is, in a sense, the core constitutional values, number one; number two, its own internal functioning the collegian system, the way in which judges are promoted, the way in which judges are transferred, are setting such a horrendous example of how institutions should be run that it’s very hard to argue that it has any legitimacy left.

Also read: Constitution Day: What Nine Pending Cases Say About the Rights India’s Citizens Enjoy

Let’s take the point about habeas corpus. It’s a fundamental right perhaps the most important right any citizen in any democracy has and even there the judiciary’s track record in recent years is inconsistent. I know they gave Arnab Goswami bail in 24 hours, right, but Siddique Kappan has been languishing in jail for over a year without a charge sheet and no one seems to be concerned. In the case of Kashmir which you mentioned scores, if not hundreds, of habeas corpus cases simply weren’t heard, some have now lapsed with time but they remain unheard and last year the Supreme Court was blind and deaf to the plight of tens of millions of microns. I mean these are citizens of India who the court seems to be unconcerned about.

I mean, frankly, it just defies comprehension how a Supreme Court that claims to be the Supreme Court of a liberal constitutional democracy cannot just abdicate its duties in this kind of way, but as you said sort of even the orders that it passes occasionally are so inconsistent. I mean you know justice gentry’s grandiose pronouncement in Arnab Goswami’s case. It has not set a precedent for anything. If anything the practices of even granting bail, withholding bail have probably gotten, you know, gotten worse.

So it is very hard to shake off the impression that either under pressure or perhaps because there are true believers in the Supreme Court, it maybe it’s possible that they are actually you know ideological converts to the government’s cause. The Supreme court is simply not performing the function it should.

supreme court

The Supreme Court of India. Photo: Pinakpani/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0


The Supreme court is letting us down?

That’s putting it mildly.

What about the relationship between judges and the executive under the collegial system which you were criticising a moment ago, and rightly so but under that system judges choose themselves?

But starting with September 2014 and Gopal Subramanium, this government has repeatedly either refused Supreme Court nominations or simply stole them and done nothing about it, and in no instance, has the Supreme Court insisted that its nominees be accepted. They’ve actually accepted the fait accompli of not being cleared. Instead, the government keeps giving post-retirement jobs to several chief justices and many judges have taken publicly to praising the prime minister. Is this relationship which should be one of arm’s length difference becoming worryingly cosy?

Once again I will provide a little bit of historical perspective, even though the collegium always chooses its own judges. Informally, it always had one eye towards the executive.

If you will remember, Justice P.N. Bhagwati’s incredible public letter which was praising former prime minister Indira Gandhi and calling her “saviour of the nation”. So, there is a precedent set to what you are witnessing today.

However, the scale and intensity have drastically changed. Now a government executive simply holds up the appointment of a hundred judges for around 16 months, till the Supreme Court relents on dropping one name which was inconvenient to the government. That is a scale that we have not witnessed. If we take the example of the conduct of a former Chief Justice of India, Justice Gogoi, I think in annals of any judiciary in the world, it is difficult to find an instance where somebody was a judge in their own cause. The basic presumption of justice has been put aside.

Justice Gogoi then goes on to become a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha and before him, there was, Justice P. Sathasivam who went on to become the governor of Kerela.

Absolutely. I think this practice will continue.

Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi. Photo: PTI

Judges are now openly praising the prime minister while sitting on benches, there is no “arms-length” difference?

Not only is there no arms-length difference, but there is ideological legitimation of what the government is doing. Justice Arun Mishra, the chairman of NHRC, openly, ideologically legitimises the government.

Therefore, I say, critical cases of constitutional importance, where everyone senses the government could be embarrassed are simply not heard because it is a way of avoiding the embarrassment.

It is a way of avoiding embarrassment. However, it is also a refusal to hold executive powers accountable.

So once again, all of these are instances of the Supreme Court letting us down. It lets down citizens when it fails to hear Habeas Corpus cases, it lets down the constitution when it fails to hear, expeditiously, Kashmir, Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) or electoral bonds or any other issue.

Absolutely and when it is inconsistent in its orders.

The worst consequence of this is that when you don’t hear constitutional cases, then a constitutional impropriety is accepted as a fait accompli and at times it is too late to change it.

Not only is impropriety accepted as fait accompli but the pervasive climate of fear it generates. As I was saying, people were willing to take risks. They believed, “If the executive goes after me at least the judiciary will give me justice.” However, now I am aware that I cannot even get bail for months or years. If we take the case of Sudha Bhardwaj, she got bail after almost three years. The calculus of risks changes dramatically in a civil society. Hence, it is an instrument of fear as well, not just legitimising impropriety.

The responsibility, or I should say, “the guilt of the Supreme Court” is huge, because their lack of constitutional response enhances the sense of fear and the sense of unease that all of us feel as journalists, activists or lawyers. We all feel this because that final recourse and redressal is not available through the courts.

The guilt is even worse in the case of the Supreme Court because it is the one institution, which has all the powers and is the most independent. All other institutions are in some ways dependent on the government for a variety of reasons. This was an institution that was supposed to be entirely self-perpetuating even appoints its own, at least in principle. In that sense, the complicity is even more surprising.

So, the “caving in” of the Supreme Court is the worst “caving in” of all?

It’s the worst “caving in” of all because it is entirely self-application.

Let us come to the fourth area of concern that I want to take up with you, which is the treatment of Muslims. We first accused them of Love Jihad”, then we subjected them to “cow lynching”. Now, vigilantes and mobs won’t let them pray in Gurgaon. They won’t let them operate non-vegetarian food stalls in Gujarat. They won’t even let bangle sellers, food vendors and vegetable sellers operate in Uttar Pradesh. Do you feel that not just the government by its silence and failure to act but the society is making Muslims second-class citizens in India?

Absolutely. Look, the BJP’s ideological project plays the theme of Hindu victimhood. If you ask the question, “How does one overcome victimhood?” The answer is straightforward; you overcome Hindu victimhood by either overturning Muslim symbols of domination. Hence, there is an obsession with temples and re-establishing the cultural hegemony of Hindus over Muslims. There is no pussyfooting around this ideological project. I think most of civil society is not rising up enough, in anger against this. Partly, because many of us think it is not going to affect us. 80% of Indians think they are safe. Now, this may turn out to be a delusion, it often is- Authoritarian governments don’t stop at one community once they start. But I have to say that in my lifetime, I have never seen the kind of legitimization of communal poison that is openly espoused. Not just in the political circles, but in circles of people we know- our friends and families and India’s powerful elites.

Has the Modi government brought this to the surface? I presume, that this was latent and always there. However, it was suppressed and was not considered acceptable, people did not voice it. Modi has somehow made it acceptable for it to be spoken about and at times even boasted about.

Modi has not just made it acceptable. In fact, it has now become the route to political success. Take Anurag Thakur, Kapil Mishra or Sadhavi Pragya. Frankly, there is history within the BJP like Yogi Adityanath. These are all veterans of rising through the power structure by exhibiting this type of communal poison. So, in some senses, the entire set of incentives about what is not just acceptable but also what will provide you with avenues for upward mobility in our political circles have changed dramatically and increasingly, in professional circles as well.

One thing which has become very apparent in the last seven years- is the resort to communal dog whistles which has now almost become a normal thing in India. Yogi Adityanath frequently talks about, “Abba Jaan”, we know what he means. The prime minister dredges up Aurangzeb, it’s the same attention in his mind. Now, I notice that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) chief has declared publicly that “Islam is cancer” and needs “chemotherapy.” In our childhood or even 20-30 years, this type of behaviour would have been unacceptable. It would not have been tolerated in public, but today it seems to have become the norm. Is this a sign of the extent to which India has changed?

It is a sign and not just India. Putting this through a historical lens, I think the entire settlement in South Asia. If you look over to Pakistan and see what is happening there, in some senses we all thought the Islamisation of Pakistan would diminish. It would run out of steam. However, it is gathering a pace in the steam. So, we all need to step back and ask this question, “What is happening to South Asia as a whole?” The settlement of 1947, where we thought India would be a secular republic and Pakistan would be an Islamic State but hopefully a moderate Islamic state with at least professional modern institutions. That whole project across South Asia, including Bangladesh which at the moment is basking in the glory of its economic success is under severe ideological pressure, internally.

Is that true of Sri Lanka as well?

For Sri Lanka, it has been true for a long time. What is happening to that settlement in South Asia? Where a modern, social contract where we honour each other’s freedom and individual dignity is completely held hostage to collective narcissisms everywhere.

I take your point completely that majoritarianism is sweeping through this part of the world in way which was unimaginable 20-30 years ago. But, just to limit ourselves to India, can you remember an earlier time when politicians like the prime minister or the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh referred to Muslims as, “Abba Jaan” or taunted them by making references to Aurangzeb and everyone knows to whom the finger is being pointed towards. That was not considered acceptable when we were young but now it is the norm.

Well, there are two instances, I certainly think that in the 1930s and 1940s it had become quite pervasive, and we know the result of that civil society.

Mercifully, that was before we were born?

Yes, but mobilisation has lessons for us. Their instances during the Ram Janmabhoomi Movement- in some senses, the entire movement was a dog whistle. However, we never thought that it could gain the kind of electoral legitimacy and widespread acceptance that it has achieved.

That’s the gift Modi has given it.

That is the gift Modi has given it and the interesting question is – how much of it is because people trust Modi and his personality which is, in a sense driving the ideology and how much of it is a genuine ideological conversion?

Clearly what seems to be happening as the campaign in Uttar Pradesh starts to get underway, is that the appeal is going to be in terms of demonising Muslims. Polarising and dividing between the 80% Hindus and the 20% Muslims in that state. It is not economic performance, it is not good governance, it is not the way they managed COVID-19 which matters to the public, it is simply scratching at the surface of the communal relationship between people and exacerbating that problem.

They are already attempting that communal polarisation. But I think we must be cautious about one thing. I believe it is here where we underestimate Modi which is – it is not an “either-or” situation. It is both. A lot of people don’t see an inconsistency between talking about economic issues and talking about communal issues at the same time. We shouldn’t be under any illusion that somehow if we just get the conversation back to economic issues, this latent, communal polarisation will simply fade away.

This “latent, communal polarisation” has now come to the surface, and I take that this is going to live with India for decades, it will not just disappear?

This is a poison which is very difficult to extract. As I said, why keep thinking about the 30s and 40s, that process resulted in not just the partition of India but also the horrendous violence that accompanied it.

Something similar could happen again?

Not only something similar could happen again. In fact my reading is that violence would not have probably stopped had Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination not occurred and I think we shouldn’t be complacent about what this poison, once instituted in civil society can unleash.

Representational image of Hindutva groups. Photo: Reuters.

So, India is fracturing itself by this?

India is deeply fracturing itself. I have never been more worried about India. I frankly have nightmares about where these processes of communalisation can end up.

What is your worst nightmare? Balkanisation of some sort? Civil war?

It is large-scale violence but if it takes a political form. I think given the population distribution of India, it will not take conventional forms like the secession movements or another partition. That is not politically feasible. However, we could have a country which is prone to increasing violence, instigated by the state. Significant sections of our population could be completely alienated who are not “allowed” to think of this country as their own. That’s the most important thing; they actually do think of this country as their own but are not allowed to do so. That could set in a process or a dynamic of violence of a kind—

Remember we are talking about 200 million people. Just the Muslim population.

I think this type of violence once it is institutionalised, it doesn’t just target particular communities. It seeps into the fabric of society and will become common sense.

This is, I suppose the biggest “legacy” that Modi will leave behind. The overt communalisation of India.

If this trend continues, then absolutely.

Two things before I end. Increasingly what we are also seeing, as I would look at it, is the Hinduisation of public life. You referred to what happened at Kashi the other day, the Prime Minister’s close association with the celebration of the Hindu faith but there is also something similar happening when you look at the renaming of cities, the rewriting of history and even the playing of aarti at army parades. Is India’s constitutional commitment to secularism steadily unravelling?

Well, the constitution’s commitment to secularism is certainly unravelling in all the ways you just described. However, it is important to distinguish two kinds of dangers. India is composed of a majority of Hindus. I think it is inevitable that when democracy deepens, when there is a certain kind of vernacularisation of democracy which is more inclusive, you will get a lot of churning, there will be a lot of debates on how to represent India’s historical past and many of those debates are legitimate. There will be a desire in some sections to reclaim, public culture. We can agree or disagree, but I think these are processes all societies go through. What makes this moment insidiously dangerous is the use of systematic political power to direct and redirect what should have been open civil society debates.

Let’s debate on medieval pasts. Certainly, it will be fun to have schools of historian’s content, if only you could be reassured that there will be no bloodletting of citizens at their interfaith. So that alignment of political and cultural power is dangerous not just because it started to hit minorities. It is dangerous because the political parties are now saying that “We are going to be the mediators of who counts as an authentic hindu as well.”

You said “political parties” in plural but actually, it is only one party – BJP.

Every other party is following…what is Arvind Kejriwal doing running Tirth Yatra Trains? Even Rahul Gandhi, I think his intention was fine, but for a political party to get into the position of saying “we are going to start defining who counts as a true Hindu and who doesn’t” is very dangerous territory, no matter the intentions.

So, what’s happening is the increasingly overt involvement of a religion with politics. That distinction and that separation are eroding.

It’s virtually collapsed in our public sphere.

This is where secularism has unravelled?


Increasingly, our public life will be “Hinduised”?

If it were spontaneous free expression, just as there is nothing wrong with Muslims expressing their religion in the public culture. However, the fact that it is aligned to organise political power by government is what makes it so dangerous.

So far, Mehta, we have talked of a process, which has been happening over the seven years of Narendra Modi being prime minister. If the BJP and Narendra Modi win the 2024 election, as many believe they will, what will India be like at the end of this decade?

There are two cautionary notes which we must keep in mind. One, we have learnt from history, and I think a lot will turn on their ability to govern. My reading is that if this trend continues, India will become less governable. A lot of our conflicts will spill out into extra-constitutional forms which we are beginning to see. I think the economy does matter; I don’t think people vote only instrumentally for the economy. However, if you had an economy with very high inflation and very high unemployment then at some point, even in Modi’s base, it is going to express itself in the form of some political opposition or resentment. We should not take it for granted that there is no political opening, that there are things about this regime you could legitimately point towards as things people would care about. I believe inflation is one of them, I think it has got the BJP nervous.

The question is, “Will you have an opposition formation, that is smart and credible enough to tap into these opportunities?” I find it hard to believe that a nation as big and complex as India can be as systematically controlled as Modi is going to try. There are going to be pockets of opposition and as the famous song goes, “the light can always come through the cracks”.

Unless the opposition can get up – I am putting it colloquially, “pull its act together” – Modi will have a free run despite his misgovernance and his mishandling of inflation and the economy.

Absolutely. The level of his handling of the economy would have to be extremely catastrophic to produce a backlash. But I think that given his current performance, it is unlikely to produce the kind of backlash the opposition is hoping for.

We are ending by suggesting that the failure or the inability of the opposition to get its act together is another strength to Modi’s bow.

They are the biggest gift to Modi.

Thank you very much for this interview, Pratap Bhanu Mehta. It has been eye-opening. It has been fascinating, but it has also been deeply depressing. I note in particular that you have nightmares about where things could go.

I wish I didn’t, but I have to speak the truth on your show.

Thank you very much indeed. Take care, stay safe.