There is a great deal of sadness among those who lay store by democratic values and human rights in India today. The recent arrest of two highly respected activists in civil rights and media, following upon a long series of other shocks and setbacks seems to have struck a note of pessimism. How did we get here, is a question being widely asked.
The answer is not as elusive as many seem to think if one looks out at the world today.
In Brazil, criminal networks engaged in illegal deforestation in the Amazon and attacking forest defenders have been given a free rein by the weak enforcement of environmental law under President Jair Bolsonaro.
In France, the Emmanuel Macron administration has come under scrutiny for heavy-handedness against mass demonstrations. In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has systematically stamped out dissent through large-scale arrests and intimidation.
In the United States, a bastion of western liberal democracy where supporters of a defeated president staged a failed coup last year, the Supreme Court just overturned the constitutional right to abortion. Its transoceanic ally, the United Kingdom, which recently approved Wikileaks founder Julian Assange’s extradition also passed a bill arming the police with increased powers to control all kinds of public protests.
Reports of violence against racial minorities and refugees and the brazen killings of journalists from various places confirm the fact that citizens’ rights, once thought to be intrinsic to democracy, are being eroded everywhere.
Over the last four decades as country after country has fallen into the embrace of hyper-capitalism, or neoliberalism as it has come to be known, a new mindset has taken over the world.
An economic ideology which projects the market as the answer to mankind’s diverse needs and holds profit maximisation as its motto subsumes all other priorities. The state as the medium facilitating the neoliberal dream has demanded a strengthening of its powers and large enough numbers have lustily cheered it on.
India has been very much a part of the global trend. The decision to liberalise the economy in 1991 has always been discussed purely in economic terms but it affected every aspect of society, triggering off a proliferation of media, boosting consumerism and reshaping political ideals.
Some may recall, for instance, the media coverage of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s 2012 visit to Burma. The first such visit by an Indian prime minister in 25 years, where Singh made overtures to army generals who had held the iconic pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi captive, was described by domestic commentators as a necessary preference of pragmatism over idealism: a significant shift for a country which has always claimed the moral high ground in the world.
In the following years, Indians have willingly relinquished many rights, allowing encroachments on their privacy, on protective measures against environmental degradation and on their ability to organise as workers, to name a few. Any opposition to the reigning trend has been marginalised in the mainstream media. In fact, the media, once a powerful ally of citizens against the excesses of leaders, has largely abandoned its former role.
Public discontent, when it has surfaced even in the form of mass protests, has often failed to affect policy – a peculiar feature of contemporary politics the world over. On the other hand, a newly forged docility, particularly among the aspiring class, has seen Prime Minister Narendra Modi assume an increasingly paternalistic attitude, confidently asking the electorate to make sacrifices for the long term through demonetisation or to make a public show of their support by clanging vessels during the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020.
Most analyses have attributed his unwavering charisma to his appeal as a guardian of Hindutva. Religious majoritarianism, a weak opposition and failing institutions are credited with fueling authoritarian tendencies in the country.
Almost nothing is said in the mainstream media about the economic model within which these phenomena have thrived, a curious lacuna given the wealth of literature by international and domestic scholars on ethnic and class polarisation and religious conservatism fanned by neoliberalism.
Whatever its merits, and its enthusiasts believe fervently in its ability to generate economic growth, neoliberalism’s pernicious effects on society have caused enormous concern around the world, even filtering into an influential journal of the International Monetary Fund, the bulwark of the free market, in 2016.
Yet, outside of a limited circle of academics and developmental activists, neoliberalism finds hardly any mention in India. The media and ordinary Indians talk blandly of development and privatisation, as if they are standalone activities not part of a powerful multidimensional ideology currently dominating the world.
The result of this omission is an inaccurate representation of India as an outlier, distinct from the global trend. It skews the formulation of the challenge involving democratic and human rights. It also makes for a denial of the extent to which the lure of a lucrative future has led to the rewriting of the democratic contract between Indians and the state.
Protecting liberal values in this difficult environment needs at the very least, a clear understanding of the new terrain.
Amrita Shah is a columnist and writer living between Mumbai and Bengaluru. Her books include Ahmedabad: A City in the World (2015) and Telly-Guillotined: How Television Changed India (2019).