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Old Saturday, May 30, 2015
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Default is India still a democracy ?

Silly question, right? And a bit rich coming from a country whose history is replete with military interventions, wonít you say? Relax. I have no intention of robbing India of its democratic legacy or pride. On the contrary, the purpose here is to remind it of what it once stood for. Democracy is a soft power. If India enjoys a certain degree of oomph in the international community today it is down to this gift. However, since the rise of China, India has led itself to believe that its other soft powers like demographic dividend (read overpopulation), market (read consumerism), its culture industry (Bollywood, television and literature) and diversity (read a highly segregated society) are better tools to get what it wants. And it wants the role of a hegemon, global at best, regional at worst and a counterweight to China. It has pursued these goals with such wild abandon that the emphasis on maintaining its core values like secularism and democracy has taken a backseat.

Consider this. Indiaís secular project was useful in two aspects. Firstly, it was the most practical course of action for a country that has a sizable religious minority and a diverse mix of religions and cultures. Secondly, it helped India in overcoming the vulnerability syndrome that was brought on by the creation of Pakistan. A healthy denial of its religious majorityís extremist tendencies was woven into the fabric of the secular narrative. But given the nature of denial, it collapsed in the mid-1990s when the Bharatiya Janata Party emerged as a national challenger to Indian secularism. Since then, Indian society has radicalised behind the facade of cultural nationalism (Hindutva) which now threatens not just its secular ethos but democracy itself.

In the intervening years, we have seen four worrying onslaughts: growth of an angry and less tolerant Hindu majority; the creeping coup of a national security state; the equally baffling increase in the clout of the big business interests; and since the last elections, the disappearing political dissent from intellectual circles. I wish I could say that Narendra Modiís rise to power alone is proof that hate-inspired extremism is winning in India. The man until his electoral triumph was not even allowed to enter the United States and was not popular elsewhere either. While he may eventually settle for a more moderate outlook, his success due to his hardline stance now inspires an entire generation of Hindutva firebrands who are never shy of pushing boundaries of hate to new levels.

Meanwhile, in an environment of anger, the Indian Army feels more empowered. Indian policies towards China, Pakistan and other countries now accept more than usual and perhaps more than necessary input from the defence establishment. India now inhales the paranoia-infested security propaganda more readily where war with a nuclear-armed Pakistan is considered a legitimate option. That Pakistanís battle-hardened army has seen 14 years of action and hence, unlike Kargil, is now a force to reckon with, is of no interest to our Indian peers.

Likewise, the growing influence of corporate India over the countryís political discourse is now a permanent fixture. None of my friends from there have bothered to disabuse the notion that the likes of Ambanis and Adanis leaned on the media to project Modi as the only plausible candidate. And that big business muscle still tries to control the national discourse that has gone flat. You donít find much nuanced discussions in the Indian media these days. Consider the recent major topics that came to the fore: illegitimacy of cow slaughter; the wild claims that ancient Indians had invented technology on a par with modern-day inventions; how to tackle Pakistan and China through violence. And if some foreign well-wisher tries to highlight the challenges posed by the rising intolerance, the entire Indian media seems to interpret criticism as akin to meddling in Indian affairs.

So a confluence of these four factors threatens Indian democracy. As was seen in the Delhi elections, India is a democracy but only just. India should learn from our past bad choices for which we are still paying a heavy price.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 30th, 2015
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