On the day Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government sent tax raiders, escorted by police with automatic weapons, to the offices of a feisty news channel, Bharat Samachar, and India’s largest-circulated newspaper, Dainik Bhaskar – which has relentlessly revealed thousands of Covid-19 deaths that the government tried to hide – a few other things happened that characterised the speed with which the government is crippling the processes of Indian democracy and pushing it towards the darkness.
One of Modi’s ministers, Anurag Thakur – whose main claim to fame was urging Bharatiya Janata Party cadre to shoot traitors – said the government’s agencies did their job independently, a claim as believable as his boss’s assertion that Lord Ganesha was evidence of India’s ancient prowess at plastic surgery.
Another minister, Meenakshi Lekhi, borrowed from WhatsApp forwards to defend the government, claiming the advocacy organisation Amnesty International had not released a list of phone numbers that had been illegally hacked into: Amnesty quickly called out that lie. Lekhi called the Pegasus expose “yellow journalism”, a “non-story across the world”. The inconvenient facts were that France ordered a parliamentary investigation, the German chancellor called for restrictions on the spyware trade. Even a dictatorship like Hungary has announced an investigation.
That same day, in the heart of India’s capital, the police stopped reporters and opposition members of Parliament from talking to protesting farmers (whom Lekhi called mawalis or hoodlums). No law allows such blockading of the democratic process unless there is a clear threat of violence, which there was not. Over at the Supreme Court that day, the solicitor general told Justice Sanjay Kaul not to comment on bail granted by the Delhi High Court to three student activists. “You can’t expect me not to speak,” said Justice Kaul.
This, then, is the state of India’s democracy: with Parliament in session, government agencies launch punitive raids against the media, ministers lie about or ignore illegal acts and officials meant to protect democracy do their best to stifle it.
And this just on one day.
Democracy – as the world has come to realise and India knows only too well – is a thing of fragility. It cannot be taken for granted. It must be protected and nurtured by its institutions and its people, all of whom must work for its well-being. Indians now show distinct signs of being unable or unwilling to do so.
A US political psychologist called Shawn Rosenberg in a 2019 paper that attracted much attention said that western-style democracies were kept stable by “elites” – journalists, academics, politicians, officials. These people, according to Rosenberg, had the motivation and power to support democratic institutions.
With the coming of social media, as is now evident, that power has passed to the people at large, who, Rosenberg argued, ignore the elites and tend to think in “linear” fashion, in a way that is easy to comprehend. Right-wing populism, he said, “offers the understandings the people can readily comprehend, the values they can readily appreciate and the direction of speech and action they can readily follow”.
Linear thinking in this age of social media makes more citizens more readily accept fake news, bigotry and conspiracy theories. In a sense, this is a condition of more democracy that, eventually turns on itself. Rosenberg’s conclusion was that “democracy is likely to devour itself”.
The argument that citizens in democracies do not have the capacity – either by way of intellectual capacity or information – to understand the complex governance mechanisms that underpin democracy and sustain their political structure has been made by many political theorists over more than a century.
In modern India, that incapacity is evident in the easy acceptance of fake, misleading and, often, bizarre WhatsApp forwards by a great mass of citizens, allowing politicians to greatly simplify issues of the day and propose solutions that adhere easily to biases and preconceived notions.
Modi and his party have abandoned reasoned democratic discussion to reduce governance to the quality and minimalism of a WhatsApp forward. What use then of democracy’s institutions, its checks, and balances?
When Parliament, the media, the election commission, the auditors, the police, tax officials and the judiciary are coopted, crippled or otherwise made ineffective, the rowdy democracy we know dissipates to a whisper.
If India continues down this murky path – and there is every indication to believe it will – the lights of its hard-fought for, painstakingly created democracy, however flawed and chaotic, will die in the darkness.
It can be dispelled, this darkness, but only if Indians are willing to defy their government and take the trouble and accept the risks of holding up the light of liberty. It is difficult today to find many who are willing to do this. Some farmers, students, political dissidents, judges and journalists refuse to let democracy’s flickering lights go out, but there are too few of them.
Too many of us are happy to swipe through and dismiss news of the gathering darkness, smile at falsehood and bigotry, and be narcoticised by the government and its fake-news factories into believing all is well.
Samar Halarnkar is the editor of Article-14.com, a project that tracks misuse of the law and the hope it offers.