On May 28, 2014, just two days after the Modi government was sworn in, it issued an ordinance to ensure that the prime minister’s first choice for the job of principal secretary to the PM, Nripendra Misra, could be appointed to that post. Misra had been chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) and the law stipulated that a TRAI chief could not be appointed to any central or state government job. The law didn’t fit in with what Modi wanted, so it had to go. Waiting for Parliament to amend the law would take time, so Parliament would have to be sidestepped and an ordinance issued. This reasoning sent out an early signal of the contempt in which the Modi government would hold all norms of democratic functioning. If its very first act could be an ordinance to ensure that a relatively trivial whim of the PM could be enforced, what would it do when the stakes were higher?
The signal has been amplified in the two years since then and the answer to that rhetorical question provided unambiguously. Modi and his government would have their way, no matter what it took and how many democratic norms had to be trampled. Dissent would be given short shrift. This has been the mantra, whether dealing with Opposition in Parliament or outside it.
Within Parliament, the Modi government has adopted an attitude of out and out confrontation with the Opposition, making it clear it will ride roughshod over its opponents. The ordinance route was tried to push the land acquisition law but the law ultimately had to be abandoned because the government did not have the numbers in the Rajya Sabha. Having learnt a lesson in this, the government has adopted a patently unethical and arguably illegal route to get legislation passed that it knows will not find enough support in the Rajya Sabha. The Aadhar bill was turned into a money bill (which means the Rajya Sabha cannot block it) despite constitutional experts expressing shock at this misuse of the provisions governing money bills. This same tactic is being used to get the Goods and Services Tax (GST) Bill passed. Once again, if the law won’t let you do what you want, just ignore the law.
The same logic apllies outside Parliament. Consider the manner in which student protests have been dealt with at the Hyderabad Central University and the Jawaharlal Nehru University. In Hyderabad, a group of students protesting against capital punishment and in that context the hanging of Yakub Memon were deemed anti-nationals at the behest of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the BJP-RSS. With pressure from a BJP MP and the Human Resources Development Minister Smriti Irani, the university expelled some students leading to one of them, a Dalit student named Rohit Vemula committing suicide. In JNU, allegations, once again by the ABVP, of some fringe left groups raising “anti-India” slogans led to sedition charges being slapped on several student activists including the union president Kanhaiyya Kumar, who belonged to the All India Students Federation, by no means an ultra-left organization or one that supports a secessionist agenda, in Kashmir or elsewhere. Subsequent investigations established that the video clips on which the action was based were doctored, but the cases have not been dropped and everybody in authority from the Home Minister downwards has repeatedly asserted that a’anti-nationals’ will not be tolerated. We can and do disagree with some of the slogans raised in both cases, but that’s beside the point. What is telling is the manner in which the government has reacted to them, coming down hard to show it will not tolerate dissent. The law is amply clear that mere mouthing of slogans cannot be termed sedition, but the government has ignored that because the intent is to intimidate and curb democratic dissent.
The anti-democratic impulse of the government is evident also in the manner in which it has gone about dismantling Congress governments in Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand and is now reportedly trying to do the same in Meghalaya. In each case, differences within the Congress have been used to impose President’s rule and then try and form a BJP government or one amicably inclined towards the party. The ploy succeeded in Arunachal despite scathing comments by the courts on the manner in which the regime change was executed and only just failed in Uttarakhand.
Where hostile governments can’t be toppled, like in Delhi, the Modi government has used every opportunity to block their functioning. The Aam Aadmi Party government in Delhi may have its faults, but it is a government elected with a massive popular mandate. Yet, the Modi government has ensured at each step that this elected government is stymied by the Lieutenant Governor, the representative of the central government.
The Modi government’s anti-democratic stance is part of the larger agenda of the sangh parivar to force fit India into its vision of a Hindu rashtra dominated by male caste Hindus. It must be seen, therefore, in this larger context. It is evident that the agenda has received a fillip with the coming of the Modi government. The imposition of beef bans in BJP-ruled states, the lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq in Dadri in western Uttar Pradesh on the mere suspicion that he had beef in his fridge, the regular beating up and worse of people across states on similar suspicions by sangh parivar vigilantes are all part of this larger game plan. In each case, Modi, who is otherwise so fond of tweeting on anything and everything, maintains a stunning silence for weeks, often months before making a bland statement that does not condemn but merely seeks to distance himself for the record.
A less obvious part of this agenda is the drastic changes made to the rules governing panchayat elections in Rajasthan and Haryana, both states ruled by the BJP. In both cases stringent educational qualifications have been made mandatory for contesting these elections. The effect they have is to exclude the overwhelming majority of women, dalits and tribals from contesting. This has been repeatedly pointed out by analysts, but to little avail. As far as the sangh is concerned, that is not a problem with such rules, it is their real virtue. For, in the sangh vision of a well-governed society, women and the unwashed masses should not have any role to play in governing themselves. What better way to ensure that than to make them legally ineligible?