The first Narendra Modi-led government (2014-2019) is guilty of “killing the constitution by a thousand cuts”, while the second Modi government has taken the process insidiously further in significant ways, says professor Tarunabh Khaitan, one of the foremost scholars of India’s constitution and its democracy.
Professor Khaitan said that many of India’s political parties and institutions have “sleepwalked into (Modi’s) authoritarianism” while others “are complicit” in Modi’s undermining of democracy.
He added that many people “didn’t realise it was happening” while “huge swathes of constitutional machinery” were aware [of it] but let it happen.
In a 50-minute interview to Karan Thapar for The Wire, Khaitan, who is professor of public law at the London School of Economics, presented an analytical framework for studying when a democracy is in peril.
It comprises three elements to do with how accountable is the executive. First, its accountability to the people. Second, its accountability to other state institutions like the opposition and the judiciary. Third, its accountability to the media, academic criticism and civil society institutions.
Professor Khaitan said this framework is “fair to the ruling party in power” because it aims to distinguish policies in terms of their framework and not their ideology. In the interview, he discussed how the Modi government has failed to be accountable in each of the three respects that make up his analytical framework, i.e. to the people, to state institutions and to the media and civil society.
He argued that the first Modi government’s deliberate assault on democracy was corroborated and enhanced by the way “the political opposition was constrained, especially by targeting the offices and institutions in which it still held sway (such as the upper chamber in the federal parliament, state governments it controlled and the office of the Leader of Opposition).” He said it was also permitted by what he calls “design flaws in the constitution”.
Asked how the Modi government’s assault on Indian democracy compares to Indira Gandhi’s Emergency of 1975, he said it’s less upfront and more insidious. It creates fear, which often leads to people self-censoring their actions. This applies particularly to the media.
Speaking about the second Modi government, he spoke about its Hindutva/Hindu Rashtra agenda. “We’re very close to Hindu Rashtra if it has not already been achieved,” he said.
Later in the interview, he added: “Hindu Rashtra is already here and only its formal announcement is awaited.”
According to him, the Modi government’s policy of Hindu Rashtra is not simply imperiling India’s democracy but “redefining who we are as a people”.