Ashish Khetan: Look beyond the CBI raids on NDTV. Indian democracy itself is under siege

The Narendra Modi regime is systematically weakening all opposition to build a dissent-free, one-party state.

I stand with Prannoy Roy and have plainly condemned the Central Bureau of Investigation raids on his home on June 5. Not only is the CBI case claiming corruption in a loan taken by NDTV extremely dubious, the high-handed manner in which the Roys were searched smacks of a witch-hunt.

However, I am disappointed with the speeches made at the Press Club, Delhi, on June 9 to express support for Roy.

Former Bharatiya Janata Party minister and journalist Arun Shourie, lawyer Fali S Nariman and Roy all spoke about the necessity of a free press. I wish they had also spoken about the unprecedented assault on the opposition, liberal student groups, the CBI raid on human rights activist Teesta Setalvad, who is pursuing cases against senior BJP officials for their role in the 2002 Gujarat riots, police cases against MLAs of the Aam Aadmi Party (of which I happen to be a member) and the hounding of civil society groups such as Greenpeace and the Lawyers Collective.

This is not the first time a government has attempted to intimidate the Indian press. What happened during the Emergency was horrendous. But what we are witnessing today is unique. Earlier, abuse of power came with a political price. The Emergency of 1975 led to the ouster of Indira Gandhi two years later. The witch-hunt against Tehelka in the early 2000s earned Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was prime minister at the time, a great deal of public opprobrium. However, the present regime has been getting away scot-free. Prime Minister Narendra Modi believes that no wrongdoing by his regime will ever backfire on him. For the moment, it appears that he is right.

During the Emergency, the forced sterlisation programme made Indira Gandhi very unpopular. By contrast, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has become more highly regarded even as the so-called anti-Romeo squads established in his state to protect women have actually ended up attacking consenting couples. In 1974, student protests in Bihar and Gujarat culminated in the Sampoorna Kranti movement of Jayaprakash Narayan that rattled the Congress government. Today, the BJP has divided college campuses along communal lines. Student organisations that dare to question the BJP are dismissed as anti-national and pro-Pakistan. Questioning the Modi government or its initiatives such as demonetisation is considered treason. Indira Gandhi had state agencies at her disposal. Modi not only has the CBI, the Enforcement Directorate and the Income Tax department, he also has an army of online trolls. Over the past two years, Rs 1,100 crore has been paid to media houses for advertisements carrying Modi’s pictures.

Ideology of power

At the Press Club meeting on Friday, Shourie recited an Urdu couplet to make the point that powerful rulers of the past who believed they were God eventually fell. But that is not much of a consolation.

The present regime is supremely organised and extremely methodical. It has unmatched financial resources. It is backed by top corporations. Unlike previous regimes, it does not rely on the staid state-run Doordarshan to spread its message. The job is done by private TV news channels producing slick news shows – Zee TV, India News, India TV, Times Now and now Republic TV.

If some sections of the media are on the regime’s payroll, others have bought peace by refusing to ask tough questions. Some newspapers fill their pages with articles written by Union minister Venkaiah Naidu. Many editors had access to the Sahara-Birla diaries alleging corruption in the BJP government but not one had the courage to report on them. Even NDTV dropped Congress leader P Chidambram’s interview on the government’s surgical strikes in September because “our army cannot be doubted or questioned”.

Modi has a committed bureaucracy. The Union home secretary, Army chief and Mumbai Police commissioner appointed by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance regime later joined the BJP and became Modi’s MPs and ministers. There are no leaks against the government, only against the Opposition. Officers manning key positions in the CBI, the Enforcement Directorate and the police are ideologically committed to the BJP.

Prannoy Roy is right. The raid on him carries a message for the press: crawl or we will come for you. Similarly, the arrest of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s principal secretary in July 2016 also had a message. It was for Delhi’s bureaucrats: if you work with Kejriwal, we will come for you. Even if you are innocent, we will fix you. With one raid the agency paralysed an entire government.

Today, there is no Vinod Rai holding the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General to calculate the loss caused by rigged coal auctions. There is no Justice SH Kapadia to stand up for institutional integrity and strike down the appointment of a Chief Vigilance Commissioner. If things work as per plan, there may soon be a committed judiciary to work in tandem with the committed bureaucracy and the committed press.

There is the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act to fight corruption but there is no Lokpal to administer it. Anna Hazare is not threatening a hunger strike against the government on the issue of Lokpal as he did in 2011 but against Kejriwal. Spiritual entrepreneur Baba Ramdev is not in Ramlila Maidan as he was in June 2011 to demand that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of the Congress bring back the Rs 500 lakh crore allegedly stashed in foreign banks. He is organising yoga camps, giving tips to BJP ministers.

There is no Ramnath Goenka, doughty founder of The Indian Express, only business houses pretending to be news organisations. The wrong and the malevolent are the foundation of a new righteousness.

In March 2016, the Centre dismissed the duly elected Congress government of Uttarakhand but a year later, the state voted the BJP to power with two-thirds majority. Even as more than 100 people lost their lives because of the government’s decision in November to demonetise 86% of India’s currency and tens of thousands lost their livelihoods, the people of Uttar Pradesh gave the BJP three-fourths majority in state elections earlier this year. An easy explanation could be that the opposition is weak. The fact is that the regime is systematically weakening all opposition, FIR by FIR, case by case, raid by raid, to build an “opposition-free India”. A dissent-free India. A one-party state. A one-leader India.

The attack on NDTV is only a small part of a much larger assault on freedom and liberty. Indian democracy itself is under siege. It is time to take the debate beyond NDTV.

Ashish Khetan is chairperson of the Dialogue and Development Commission of the Delhi government and a leader of the Aam Aadmi Party.

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