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India: Rahul Gandhi’s defamation trial highlights drift away from democracy under Narendra Modi

Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi
Disqualified: Indian opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi, has been ousted as an MP following a conviction for defamation. EPA-EFE/Rajat Gupta

Rahul Gandhi, India’s most prominent opposition leader and the principal adversary of the country’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, was recently disqualified as a member of parliament. This came after Gandhi was found guilty of defamation for comment he made about Modi’s surname at a rally in 2019.

Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party had also run a furious campaign demanding “Rahul Gandhi maafi mango (Rahul Gandhi, apologise) after comments Gandhi made during his recent visit to the UK. The scion of India’s most prominent political dynasty made several remarks alleging that India’s democratic institutions were being deliberately undermined by the current government.

This, BJP members said, amounted to “defaming” India itself. Their reasoning was that criticising the state of India’s postcolonial democracy in the halls of the former colonising country crossed the line. But this hypersensitivity equates to evading scrutiny if it means that democratically elected leaders cannot voice their opinions freely in any forum.

Modi and the BJP’s brand of politics has thrived on the sustained use of deliberately contradictory speech and policies as part of what I have termed his “postcolonial neoliberal nationalism”. This political project has been divisive for its weaponisation of colonial history, its failure to act on crony capitalism, and for claiming a monopoly on what it means to be nationalist.

The space for raising these concerns within India is shrinking rapidly, as shown by the decline in civil and political liberties that has led to Indian being ranked as only “partly free” in the latest Freedom House Index.

Gandhi, along with other opposition leaders and scholars like ourselves and others, in and outside India, have been pointing toward this democratic backsliding or worse occurring in India. Such criticisms are routinely met with political labelling of being “anti-national”, “anti-India” and “foreign funded”.

In various speeches and forums during his visit to the UK in March, Gandhi asserted – as he does regularly in India – that Modi and the BJP are pursuing an unprecedented campaign against political opposition, civil society, and dissent.

In this, they are doing the bidding of the far-right Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) (National Volunteer Organisation). Gandhi has described the RSS as a “fundamentalist” and “fascist” movement that “has basically captured pretty much all of India’s institutions”.

Gandhi is not alone in his criticism of the RSS. Writer and activist Arundhati Roy has said the same of the movement, arguing that the century-old paramilitary movement was supported by much of India’s corporate sector.

Democracy in decline

The RSS is a nucleus of the “Sangh Parivar” umbrella movement of various right-wing organisations and an ideological parent to the BJP. It has been quite open about its desire to transform India into a strongly militarist nation based on extreme Hindu nationalism.

Narendra Modi leads Japanese prime minister Kishida Fumio into a room.
Hindu nationalism: Indian prime minister Narandra Modi with Japanese prime minister Kishida Fumio. EPA-EFE/Harish Tyagi

Institutional capture by the BJP is evident in its control of India’s senior bureaucracy, the regular use of the Enforcement Directorate (a law enforcement agency under the Ministry of Finance) for political targeting of the opposition, and the installation of controversial leaders of academic and cultural institutions. Thanks to longstanding pressure from Sangh Parivar, even school textbooks have been revised to present a selective and Hindu-centric view of history and science.

With the support of many in the business sector and media, the BJP has built a cult around Modi based on the idea of one leader, one party, one (Hindu) nation. This resembles what many would see as bearing the hallmarks of modern fascism.

Political Labelling

The BJP’s reaction to Gandhi’s criticisms only backs this assessment. Rather than engage with the substance of Gandhi’s arguments, the party and its supporters have instead focused on criticising him personally. They portray Gandhi and other critics as “anti-national” and as part of a “foreign conspiracy” to weaken India.

Indian Youth Congress supporters with a sign reaqding: Indian Democracy
Freedom House has downrated India to only ‘partially free’ in recent years. Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times/Sipa USA

This contempt for opposition by no means stops at political figures such as Gandhi. In March, justice minister Kiren Rijiju referred to “some retired judges” being “part of the anti-India gang”.

The BJP also has a poor record when it comes to free speech in India. The international media monitor RSF said in its current report that:

The violence against journalists, the politically partisan media and the concentration of media ownership all demonstrate that press freedom is in crisis in “the world’s largest democracy”.

In recent times, this suppression and intimidation has extended to the international media. After the BBC aired a documentary critical of Modi’s government, the authorities raided the BBC’s Delhi office, purportedly for tax reasons.

The BBC documentary arguably said nothing that Indian scholars and activists have not been arguing since the riots in Gujarat 2002 when Modi was beginning his rise as the state’s chief minister. Yet the Modi government punished students who tried to screen the documentary in their universities, and invoked emergency laws to ban the documentary.

Of course, the rise of authoritarian-style politics in electoral democracies is not confined to India. But given the sheer size of India, which is tipped to overtake China as the world’s most populous country this year, and its reputation as an established non-western democracy, the significance of Gandhi’s warnings and his ongoing treatment at the hands of the ruling party in India is of major concern.

Gandhi has appealed his conviction, but his warnings – and those of countless other politicians, activists and public intellectuals – deserve to be taken seriously by the rest of the world. How the world reacts may determine whether India will remain the world’s largest democracy or become a bellwether for autocratisation in the coming years.

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