Modi, Gandhi have taken Indian democracy hostage

Modi, Gandhi have taken Indian democracy hostage

No matter which way the election swings, the next Indian prime minister will be a false democrat, writes columnist Chandrahas Choudhury. (AFP)

The long-awaited results of India’s six-week-long general election, which are due to be announced on Thursday, will give us a picture of what kind of state, society and nation the Indian voter has chosen for the next five years.

It says something for the robustness of Indian democracy that, despite having won the 2014 election by a landslide and enjoying the advantage both of incumbency and a vast war-chest of campaign funds, it seems only likely — and not certain — that Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will be voted back to power. Most observers still credit the possibility that the coalition of opposition parties led by Rahul Gandhi of the Indian National Congress may stage an upset, or at least drastically reduce the BJP’s majority. This sort of uncertainty is a good sign in a democracy; evidence that the field is competitive and that Indian voters are hard to please and cannot be taken for granted.

There’s only one problem with this scenario. And it’s a big one.

No matter which way the election swings, the next Indian prime minister will be — there is no polite way of saying this — a false democrat. While he will stand at the crest of Indian democracy for the next five years, his immense power and reach will likely corrode, and certainly not improve, the institutions and political culture over which he will preside.

To be sure, democratic leadership all around the world today is in a state of decline. On several continents, first-rate constitutional systems have been ambushed by a series of devious populists, majoritarians and opportunists. Nobody could seriously call Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Jair Bolsonaro or Recep Tayyip Erdogan paragons of democratic integrity.

With his bellicose manner and his need to centralize power relentlessly, Modi is an obvious candidate for membership in this club of disingenuous democrats. Gandhi less so, although he is as yet untested, having never held an office other than a party one. But, within an Indian context, both are deeply compromised personalities, unworthy of the history and ethos of the political system to which they nominally subscribe.

Let’s start with Modi. From demonetization to mobs of vigilantes visiting violence on minorities, the excesses that have been perpetrated on the watch of India’s former, and likely next, prime minister have been documented in great detail. To repeat them here would be merely tiresome.

The larger point is that not only is Modi’s authoritarian personality, contempt for other points of view and unwillingness to face questions without a script profoundly anti-democratic, the very philosophy of his Hindu nationalist party — in what is one of the world’s most multicultural societies — reeks of majoritarian arrogance and rancor. Handed the reins of power, such a regime was always more likely to damage democracy than to nurture it, to treat its majority in parliament as license to enforce a majoritarian agenda, as it has done, and thereby polarize Indian society itself.

Five years as prime minister of India seem not to have changed Modi’s beliefs as a human being or expanded his moral awareness by an inch. He remains a prisoner to the beliefs of the party whose ideology shaped his worldview as a youth. No new insights have come to him other than those that lead to a further consolidation of power and capture of institutions. What excites him most about democracy is the prospect of winning electoral majorities, not shaping new solidarities and rooting out old antipathies. The damage he could inflict if given a second term could take decades to repair.

No matter which way the election swings, the next Indian prime minister will be a false democrat

Chandrahas Choudhury

And now to turn to his opponent. Both at the level of individual personality and party ideology, Gandhi’s relationship to democratic civility and constitutionalism is much more benign. But, in his case, the benign conceals the banal. In the long run, the challenge that he presents to the health of Indian democracy is just as serious — and more insidious.

Briefly, there is no reason for Gandhi to be Modi’s main opponent in this election but for the favorable facts of his lineage: He is the great-grandson of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the grandson of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and the son of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. He incarnates a serious contradiction, now stretched to the point of crisis — of all Indian political parties, the Congress is the one closest in ideology and spirit to the core values of Indian democracy, and yet, because of its inability to transcend the dynastic principle of succession, no party better illustrates the decadence of a great political tradition and the persistence of that deep-rooted entitlement and elitism that Indian democracy was supposed to banish.

In a country with a serious employment crisis, nobody enjoys greater job security than Gandhi as president of the Congress. Should he lose this election, one sees him being Congress’ candidate for prime minister in 2024, 2029... for as long as he pleases. It’s a gilded life, but what of all the other political talent who could have genuinely taken India forward because their commitment to Indian democracy came from some personal store of experience and insight, not from being handed the keys to the family business? Will India 100 years from now still have to deal with a Gandhi at every election? I wouldn’t rule it out.

Between them, then, Modi and Gandhi embody all the pathologies of Indian democracy today: The demagogue whose “nation” is something much smaller and shabbier than the secular democratic state he seeks to rule, and the dynast propped up by history and party, repeating threadbare truisms and seeking to win what he has done nothing to deserve.

They fight each other but, between them, they have effectively taken Indian democracy hostage. Below them, meanwhile, tens of thousands of Indians — whether in law or journalism, the arts or the nongovernmental sector — continue to do amazing work to break down prejudices, fight injustice and advance the dream of Indian democracy: A renewed social compact where power is both shared and scrutinized and all may live in freedom and dignity. Honestly, I’d so love to see one of them become prime minister. And, when I close my eyes, I do.

• Chandrahas Choudhury is a writer based in New Delhi. His work also appears in Bloomberg View and Foreign Policy. Twitter: @Hashestweet

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