It's been three months since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept back to power and undeniably, there is a perceptible shift in India's polity. As the economic outlook has deteriorated since the election after the worst-received budget in recent memory, the BJP has doubled down on its core Hindutva agenda with increased authoritarian intent. As a result, India now finds itself in the international headlines for all the wrong reasons, whether it be the constitutional and security quagmire in Kashmir, the humanitarian nightmare of the National Register of Citizens in Assam, or the non-stop arrest and harassment of high-profile opposition leaders by the dynamic duo comprising the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate. The entry of Amit Shah to the Union Home Ministry has injected a certain brazenness and vengeful impetus to government actions. The opposition remains in a pitiful state and the courts have so far seemed unwilling to intervene. It bodes ill for the future of India's democracy.
This extreme form of chaos-inducing populist nationalism has spread to many major democracies of the world in this Trumpian era. The Economist in its current issue has warned that democracy is now more likely to be "strangled slowly in the name of the people" as opposed to "coups and revolutions." It takes the example of Viktor Orban, the right-wing Prime Minister of Hungary, describing his divisive rhetoric as "political theatre...designed to be a distraction for his real purpose, the artful manipulation of obscure rules and institutions to guarantee his hold on power." It is a playbook that sounds all too familiar to many around the world, whether it is in Trump's America or Erdogan's Turkey or Bolsonaro's Brazil or (for now) Boris Johnson's United Kingdom, and especially so in India, where Modi rules supreme amping up the siren song of Hindutva nationalism to ever higher frequencies.
These leaders blunder on from one self-created crisis to another, playing the victim to perfection, adept at winning elections but too busy grabbing power to govern properly. Questions of competence plays second fiddle to baser political instincts, weaponised by social media, resulting in all loss of rationality or honesty in the political discourse. They can't govern but the longer they stay in power and entrench themselves, the more difficult is to oust them from office.
We have seen precisely this scenario unspool ever since the election in India. First, parliament was reduced to a rubber stamp in the recent monsoon session as legislation after legislation was passed without debate or due consideration, as if on a conveyer belt, followed by the lockdown of the whole of Kashmir and detention of all its leading political leadership, the hounding of opposition leaders like Chidambaram by investigating agencies, the reluctance of judges to even hear habeas corpus petitions in a timely manner, and an ever-increasing hostility to criticism in all its forms.
The Indian constitution is amongst other things also a covenant between the Union of India and various states and categories of citizens. The argument has been made that Article 370 was meant to be temporary and was overdue to be removed after almost 70 years. Fair enough, but there are some other facets of the constitution that were meant to be temporary - for example, reservation was meant to expire in 1960, yet our MPs have renewed it every ten years without a moment's thought or dissent. No government would ever consider repealing it without wide consultation and consensus. Yet, Article 370 was repealed overnight without consultation with Kashmiris with the state unplugged from the modern world. It's not a good look for India.
There is no doubt that the Modi Government's repeal of Article 370 was a premeditated plan to tick off one of its longest standing core issues. The rest of the story created around it is just camouflage. An increased mandate and an opposition collapse has given the government the confidence to go ahead and brazen it out despite wide international concern for the way in which the Kashmiri people are being treated. If the idea of a 'muscular' policy is that you cannot differentiate between the small percentage of militants and the larger population, lumping them altogether, then it is already an admission of failure. All governments lie, especially when they are the only source of information, so questioning everything emanating through official channels about the condition in Kashmir is necessary, irrespective of what flag-waving faux nationalists have to say about it.
More than what the world thinks of us, it is far more important what we of Indians think of these recent authoritarian actions of our government. Apart from the interregnum of the Emergency, for the last 70 years, India has been one of the great beacons of democracy, especially for the developing world. Now we see ourselves sliding into this Hindutva-infused, semi-democratic theocracy where rights and rationality are being crushed by superstition and mass delusion.
This will not do. Part of the problem is that even opposition leaders are unable to enunciate what the idea of India encapsulates. The birth of India in 1947 was in part reclaiming the freedom we once lost, but it was also something entirely different from anything that had come before in our ancient land. In the newly constituted Republic of India, you were free to practice and propagate the religion of your choice, of course, but your status as a citizen and the rights accompanying it had no relationship with the circumstances of your birth. You were Indian first and foremost, everything drew from that, irrespective of your caste and creed. This was the secular ideal that was weakened by the Congress' short-sighted pandering and then demolished by the BJP's Hindutva onslaught.
To be Indian is to be proud of your past but also free from it. We are far from making this ideal a living reality for every Indian but the journey must continue and we must be prepared to fight to protect our hard-won freedoms.
(Krishan Partap Singh is a novelist and political commentator.)
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