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How will Modi's New India look?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed in Paris recently that the “New India” he is ushering in, will target corruption, nepotism, loot of public resources, and terrorism like never before. As his tenure is still an essay in writing, only history will judge his claims.

India, under the Modi regime, is being redefined in other ways as well. The noose also seems to be tightening around what was once a dynamic, vibrant and plural society, a culture that embraced rather than discriminated, the assurance of justice and freedom of expression. Instead, Indian society’s most violent and intolerant impulses have been let loose with impunity.

The sudden dismemberment of the state of Jammu & Kashmir, its surprisingly smooth legitimation in Parliament and the overwhelming public support for locking up an entire population of the state suggests that India was never the secular, democratic, federal utopia that many imagined it to be.

It will not be easy to undo the Constitutional, legal and other structural changes wrought by the Modi government. Its task was made easy by the electoral ouster of the left-of-centre parties from legislatures. The remaining “mainstream” political parties have became hostage to the Hindutva agenda and afraid to challenge its hard, religious and centrist definition of nationalism.

The concept of “New India” however will not take the path of military dictatorships as happened in many failed democracies in Asia and Africa, most notably under Zia-ul-Haq’s regime in Pakistan. Rather, the academic Sumantra Bose points out in a recent article in “The Conversation”,  Hindu nationalism will be “pursued, and accomplished, in a way compatible with democratic polity.” The comparison here will be with an “ethnic democracy” like Israel and, to some extent, with Sri Lanka and Croatia.

Yet the comparison with Pakistan is difficult to dismiss entirely. Votaries of the Right who rule India today see the Partition as a botch-up and through its persistent critique of Nehru they seek to go down the road not taken by advancing their religious definition of nation and citizenship. The Islamisation of Pakistan was completed under the military dictatorship of Zia ul Haq, in India it has taken the shape of a democratic project under Prime Minister Modi.

There are parallels with Zia’s Pakistan as the militarisation of society comes to define nationalism. Some observers have called it the crafting of the “citizen-soldier”, a qualitatively new identity which celebrates national security and the armed forces without fighting any actual wars or undergoing military training.

Prime Minister Modi’s “Main bhi Chowkidar (I am also a Guard)” campaign to counter allegations of corruption by the Opposition in the Rafale jet purchase deal, proposed the idea of the citizen-soldier who mentally commits himself to the defence of national security and thereby confers nobility on the citizen. In this ideological landscape, anything critical of the armed forces or the government’s actions in the name of national security can be ended by being branded anti-national.

If under Zia blasphemy laws were strengthened, in India now citizens need to jump through new hoops to prove their commitment to the nation – such as shouting Hindu religious slogans like “Jai Shri Ram” and respecting Hindu food taboos. Pakistan’s education policy was changed under Zia to induce loyalty to Islam and to Pakistan by promoting a religious interpretation of history that glorified war and conquest, demonised the minorities and vilified critical and secular thought.

Under the Modi regime, school and university curricula are being modified to teach a revisionist history which disparages the minorities and retells battles in a way that showcases the heroism of Hindu rulers. It reimagines the role of Hindutva ideologues who collaborated with British colonial power as freedom fighters and systematically deprecates the builders and icons of secular India such as Jawaharlal Nehru.

More frighteningly, like under the Zia regime, public universities under Prime Minister Modi are being purged of students who challenge the regime and of progressive teachers and critical thinkers who are replaced by the ideologically compliant. Institutions are being dismantled systematically so that the checks and balances crucial to a democratic state are weakened.

The BJP’s fragmentation of ideology based politics through advancing patron-client based politics has fragmented Indian polity to the point where political parties have no meaning. The wholesale defection of legislators of the Opposition parties to the BJP in state after state, and the ruthless bringing down of the coalition government in Karnataka are examples of the destruction of parties. Through this process India is slowly moving towards ‘party less’ democracy not so different from Zia’s aim of non-party elections.

If Zia ul Haq’s regime was allied to the US opposition to Russia’s expansion into Afghanistan, the Modi regime is now allied with the US effort to counter China’s influence in South-East Asia and the newly coined “Indo-Pacific region”. While Zia was adroit enough to manipulate the American fear of the Soviet communist regime to his advantage it remains to be seen whether Prime Modi possesses comparable savoir faire.

Some political analysts believe that India can never become like Zia’s Pakistan because democracy has deep roots in India, regular elections will not allow a single party to hijack democracy, and most importantly, there are a strong peoples’ movements and trade unions unlike in Pakistan. However these appear to be more like clutching at straws that are floating away one by one.

While India’s leadership is democratically elected and its minorities are not disenfranchised, the analogy with Zia’s Pakistan seems bit of a stretch. As Sumantra Bose, citing Israel, points out, “Ethnic democracies do not exclude or disenfranchise the citizens viewed as undesirable.” They only ghettoise them in deprived enclaves, relegate them lower in a hierarchy of citizenship and imagine the nation as a “homeland” for a particular religion. New India is in the process of doing all this and more.

There can be little doubt about India’s rapid transformation. Whether it will ultimately look like Pakistan or Israel may be an academic question in the end. For the lamb it is immaterial whether it will end up as halal or kosher.

Twitter: @Bharatitis

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