Manmohan Singh is not a better politician than Narendra Modi, but if there is one thing the former Indian prime minister understands that his successor doesn’t, it is the essentialness of dissent to any democratic society. At a conference in New Delhi early in November, Singh invoked Jawaharlal Nehru to remind that an open society and a liberal polity, where individuals are free to pursue their ideas, are prerequisites for entrepreneurship, innovation and competition. Suppression of dissent, Singh cautioned, poses a “grave danger” for economic development.

I’m not sure how much Modi respects democratic values, but he certainly values economic growth.

Ever since his ascent to power at the Centre, his centralised style of leadership and his commitment to the “Gujarat model” of big industry and manufacturing have reduced the scope of dissent and deliberations on the country’s development path. Consent of the people is now deemed an obstacle to economic progress and it is suggested that the government knows best what is good for all. Any social activism that challenges the government’s idea of development is branded anti-development or, worse, anti-national.

In just 19 months, the Modi regime has cancelled or restricted the foreign funding of nearly 9,000 non-governmental organisations. It alleges that many of these groups were promoting a liberal western agenda to obstruct India’s economic development by campaigning against large infrastructure projects. The government has, at the same time, rammed through a few big infrastructure projects in disregard of the affected populace.

The government doesn’t realise that its manipulative actions may suppress dissent at the surface level, but it will not bring the planned mega projects any benefits. As Manmohan Singh warned, squashing dissent can be a major deterrent to economic growth: if it is not allowed to express itself in a democratic setup, dissent can explode in a more violent form. We have already witnessed this – against Tata in Singur, West Bengal, and against POSCO in Paradip, Odisha.

Violent rebellion

The nature of protest, in fact, reveals a vital feature of the relation between the state and society.

Democracies typically have more widespread, but less lethal, protests than authoritarian states. A multi-party democracy like India provides a fertile ground for dissent to emerge and organise because its inherent structures are well adjusted to respond to limited challengers in a conciliatory way. In a democracy, an assuaging gesture reinforces the utility of peaceful protest over violent rebellion.

But whenever this conciliatory method is rejected in favour of an authoritarian approach – as the Modi government is currently doing – rights-based opposition has the tendency to become violent. In India, the Maoists have used oppressions to garner support and legitimise their struggle. In Central America, particularly in Peru and in Colombia, when the government sided with mining and foresting companies in the face of local opposition, it resulted in violent agitations and serious internal security challenges. There are many similar examples in South Africa and Indonesia as well. Violent protests forced many of these projects to not realise their potentials and, in some cases, led to their closure or suspension.

The Modi regime too is likely to face sudden mobilisation of dissenting voices and violent protests against its economic policies if it doesn’t abandon its authoritarianism. By restricting political opportunities or issuing threats, it won’t stop protests. Rather, the dissenters are likely to include violence into their repertoires to protect their rights.

Internationalising issues

For the Modi regime, participatory policy-making is a utopian notion. Its authoritarian way of governance, which suppresses mobilisation of dissent, might in some cases effectively implement policy decisions. But the suppression may not get rid of the conflict altogether. In a democratic structure, there is a good possibility of dissent erupting at a later stage when the contested project is being built.

When the affected people get a political opportunity, their opposition can even close the operation of the completed project. This happened in the Enron power plant project when a new government took over in Maharashtra in 1995. In Thailand, the military authorities built Pak Mun dam in the 1990s, ignoring local opposition. But once the country received a spell of democracy in the last decade, the protests forced the authorities to leave the dam gates open.

Another lesson the Modi regime should remember is that rights-based protests are no longer confined to a state boundary, less so in India. Over decades, social and environmental activists in India have formed ties with national and international networks to obtain information and resources. If threatened and coerced further, these activists in India can easily exploit smart communication networks to circumvent local restrictions and internationalise their issues by coordinating with the global groups. (India saw this recently in the case of the Kudankulam Atomic Power Plant.)

This won’t help the government’s cause. International networks become particularly vigorous in their support for a national group when its ability to influence its government is hindered by undemocratic barriers. For instance, countries like Brazil, Ethiopia, Myanmar and Cambodia – where restricted are placed on local NGOs’ activities and their attempts to garner international support – are targeted more by global networks. Campaigns by global networks not only target the rights violations but also name and shame the engaged multinational corporations. These negative campaigns can very well dissuade the companies to invest further in the country, limiting its economic development.

Accommodating varying interests

Development policies are difficult to implement efficiently and properly if they are not understood, accepted and supported by the populations directly and indirectly affected by them. The Modi regime may force through a few large infrastructure projects, disregarding the interests of the local population. But the social and political churning in the country may provide the affected people possibilities to counter these non-consultative policies. They might even mobilise large-scale violent opposition and internationalise the issue.

India has always surprised theorists of democracy. It has consistently defied those who prophesied its imminent demise. Crucial to the survival of its democracy has been the nature of the Indian state and its willingness to bargain and accommodate varying interests despite the divisions in society. The implementation of economic policies through democratic process involves complicated handling, which may take longer to achieve. Nevertheless, this process is more beneficial for the nation, society and government in the long run. When dissenting voices are democratically managed, it breathes life and energy into policy implementation and its enduring success.

In the last decade, Indian democracy has helped expand the mobilisation of groups that were historically discriminated against or suppressed. The previous United Progressive Alliance government’s greatest achievement perhaps was allowing these groups to fight for their rights. Now, the Modi regime is changing course by suppressing and silencing dissenting voices. No doubt, the next few years will be a testing time for Indian democracy. A dark cloud looms over India’s hyped expectation of rapid economic growth as well as Modi’s political future.

The writer is Professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden.