Era of Dictatorial Democracy | Pieter Friedrich
“In the west, we have labels,” commented journalist François Gautier on WION TV, during a panel about the results of India’s 2019 general election. “Right, left. Far-right, far-left. We keep applying them to India, where they’re not applicable. We cannot apply to India labels we use in the West. To say that the BJP is far-right is completely wrong.”
The election was over. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had won a resounding victory, seizing power once again, with a seat-count in India’s Lok Sabha that surpassed even its decisive showing in the 2014 elections. Meanwhile, Gautier—described by India’s National Herald as a French-born “BJP cheerleader”—was speaking truth. The BJP is not far-right. But it is authoritarian and fascist.
Moments after Gautier spoke, WION’s political editor Kartikeya Sharma shed some light on how the BJP may have defeated the opposition: it has infrastructural strength. It is backed by hordes of apparatchiks. “People who are not married, who don’t have families, who have dedicated their lives completely to the party,” said Sharma. “They land up in a state two years before [the election]. They are living in rented apartments. Along with them, they have an army of youngsters. This is the way. How are you going to compete with that kind of a thing?”
Indeed, fueled by such fanaticism, the organizational power of the Modi wave (a term coined to describe the tsunami of support for BJP Prime Minister Narendra Modi) has floated a second BJP victory. India is now on the brink of another five years of subjugation to an authoritarian regime. By 2024, the country will have endured a full decade of BJP rule.
I joined Sharma, Gautier and others on WION to offer my take on the election. “This is a disaster for democracy,” I began. “We have to remember that democracy doesn’t just mean taking two seconds to push a button once every five years and pick somebody to rule the country. Democracy’s actually about the society. It’s more than the act of voting. It’s about democratic rights, and those democratic rights are in short supply in India today. We can see that India is fast becoming what it has already progressed far along the path towards becoming, which is an organized, centralized, authoritarian democracy—which is fascism.”
That’s when WION cut my mike and severed the interview. “This is not even acceptable that India is becoming an authoritarian state,” responded Sharma. “India is one postcolonial nation which has very successfully demonstrated its ability to transition from one regime to another regime through peaceful elections. I think this comment is unacceptable.”
The irony that fascism involves restricting free speech only to “acceptable” answers was lost on him. However, Sharma’s choice of the word regime—which is generally defined as an authoritarian government—was deeply appropriate.
Last year, an Indian high school teacher was arrested for writing on Facebook, “Voting for Modi is like garlanding a dog.” Perhaps such rhetoric is neither the most respectful nor the most constructive way to promote dialogue about the country’s political problems. Yet the arrest exemplifies the nature of life under the Modi regime, where expressing discontent, contempt and especially dissent can land an Indian citizen behind bars.
“India’s claim to democracy, rather as the world’s largest functional democracy, solely rests on its record of regularly held elections,” notes jailed Dalit activist Anand Teltumbde. “Although they are more of a ritual observed with massive money and muscle power than the expression of the will of the people, they have sustained the illusion of democracy.” Teltumbde argues that “the de jure democracy has always been de facto plutocracy, the rule of the money bags.” He concludes that it was only “a matter of time” before that plutocracy would become exactly what I told WION it was—“an organized, centralized, authoritarian democracy, which is what fascism is.”
The emergence of India as a fascist nation ruled by the BJP with Modi as its figurehead is no surprise considering the origins of the BJP. Nor is it a surprise considering the identity of those unmarried, fanatically devoted party workers and their army of youngsters who provide the BJP’s infrastructural base. Nor is it a surprise considering the history of Modi himself.
The Rise of Modi: RSS Pracharak to Prime Minister
Milestones marking the route to the May 23, 2019 results were laid both a century and a half-century ago.
In 1925, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was formed. A paramilitary force, uniformed and armed, it was dedicated to the idea that all Indians collectively constitute a Hindu race; committed to basing the entirety of Indian society, culture and politics on religion; devoted to the notion that only a race traitor would vote for anyone but a Hindu nationalist; and convinced that it was treason against the mother nation for an Indian to be anything but a Hindu.
The second milestone happened in 1971, when Narendra Modi joined the RSS as a pracharak—a full-time worker sworn to celibacy.
Modi joined in Ahmedabad, the largest city (and then capital) of Gujarat. Modi’s home state, Gujarat, lies just north of Maharashtra, the state in which the RSS was founded and in which it maintains its headquarters. At the time, M. S. Golwalkar was nearing the end of his tenure as the RSS’s longest-serving and most influential leader. Golwalkar had just excited controversy with a keynote speech at a 1968 RSS rally in Ahmedabad, in which he demanded that India be declared a Hindu rashtra (nation). The following year, his petition was sealed in blood when the RSS led riots that left over 400 Muslims dead.
When Golwalkar died in 1973, the RSS was just becoming a political force and Modi was just beginning his public life. In 1980, the RSS founded the BJP as its political wing. Its principal apparatchiks were drawn from the ranks of RSS pracharaks. Thus, in 1987—only two years after another series of riots in Ahmedabad—the RSS assigned Modi to help build the new party.
For months, beginning in February 1985, mobs led by members of the RSS and BJP first attacked lower caste communities and then Muslims. Survivors accuse even the police of joining in the violence, which left hundreds dead. Modi was definitely present in Gujarat during the violence. His role, however, remains unknown. Yet his work within the BJP soon precipitated even deadlier riots.
In the early 1990s, Modi began to validate the party’s religious nationalist credentials and emerged as a key organizer of its Ram janmabhoomi (Ram’s birthplace) campaign.
After Golwalkar founded the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) as the RSS’s religious wing, the VHP initiated an aggressive movement to reclaim the site where the mythological figure Ram was supposedly born. On that site, they insisted, now stood the sixteenth-century Babri mosque. Claiming that the mosque was built following the demolition of a Ram temple, they demanded the temple be rebuilt.
Recognizing the political potential of this move, the BJP joined the VHP’s campaign and adopted the construction of the Ram temple as a plank of the party’s agenda. In 1990, BJP President L. K. Advani began a Ram rath yatra (Ram chariot procession), criss-crossing India in a minibus decked out as a chariot. He was trailed by thousands of kar sevaks (volunteers) from the RSS, VHP and other affiliated groups.
Violence, unsurprisingly, plagued the procession. Riots broke out along the way. Hundreds died in conflicts between Hindus and Muslims. Yet this seemed to prove a successful strategy for the BJP. Despite not actually securing power, they performed exceptionally well in the 1991 general elections. In 1992, however, the movement spun out of control.
In December of that year, Advani headlined a rally outside the Babri mosque. He was joined by Murli Manohar Joshi, who had succeeded him as BJP president. As they spoke, the 150,000 strong crowd moved towards the mosque and began to tear it down. The demolition quickly devolved into a massacre. Nationwide riots, lasting for months, left up to 3,000 Muslims dead.
When India’s central government briefly banned both the VHP and the RSS, Modi joined Joshi on a trip to the US. They were greeted on arrival by Suresh Jani of New Jersey, who had in 1991—on Advani’s orders—co-founded the Overseas Friends of the BJP (OFBJP) to counter the negative international press the party was receiving as a result of its Ram janmabhoomi campaign. During his US tour, Modi stayed with Jani, as well as with Bharat Barai of Indiana, who was then a governing council member of VHP America.
Back in India, Modi swiftly advanced up the BJP hierarchy. By 1995, he was working out of the national party headquarters in New Delhi. He did not, however, forget his friends in the OFBJP, returning to the US for another tour in 1997. When the BJP emerged victorious in the 1998 general election, he was rewarded with the powerful position of party organizing secretary.
Then he got his hands on real political power.
In October 2001, Gujarat’s chief minister Keshubhai Patel was in failing health and had lost his party’s political confidence. He resigned. Modi was appointed as his replacement. Thus, the backroom apparatchik—unmarried, with no family, whose life was wholly dedicated to the party—assumed his first ever political office. For four months, he remained an unelected executive. Finally, on 24 February 2002, he won a seat in the Gujarat legislative assembly.
Three days after the election, carnage engulfed Gujarat.
On 27 February, a train was set on fire in the city of Godhra. The passengers were mostly Hindu pilgrims returning to Gujarat from a journey to the Ram janmabhoomi. Fifty-nine people (including women and children) died in the blaze.
Modi immediately labelled the conflagration an act of terrorism and blamed it on Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). That day, his government transported the charred bodies over 100 kilometres from Godhra to Ahmedabad. Footage of the uncovered corpses was televised before they were handed over to the VHP. With BJP backing, the VHP launched a state-wide shutdown on the 28th. Then the blood began to flow.
For three days, mobs ran rampage throughout the state. Over a dozen cities witnessed major incidents of violence. By the end, up to 2,000 (or more) Muslims lay dead.
Ten years later, a special investigation team (SIT) submitted a report to the Supreme Court. It concluded that there was “not enough evidence” to prosecute Modi for involvement in the pogrom. Indeed, there was little direct evidence proving that he sanctioned the violence—although there was no exculpatory evidence either. There was, however, a mountain of circumstantial evidence.
Eyewitnesses claimed that the attackers were armed with voter lists naming Muslim victims. Witnesses identified BJP state legislator Maya Kodnani as a leader of the assailants and even claimed that she had issued weapons and given orders. Phone records later showed that she was at the scene of the crime and in frequent contact with police and government officials, including Modi’s office.
A few months after the pogrom, BJP state minister Haren Pandya told Outlook magazine that he—along with other state and police officials—was called to a meeting at Modi’s home on the night of the 27th and ordered to stand down so that the mobs could “vent their frustration.” Sanjiv Bhatt, a high-ranking police officer, later made the same claim. Survivors say that, when they appealed to police, they were sometimes told by officers, “We have no orders to save you.” Witnesses claim police even fired on victims.
Pandya was murdered in 2003. “My husband’s assassination was a political murder,” asserts his wife. In 2005, his alleged assassin was murdered. BJP state minister Amit Shah—a confidante of Modi’s—was accused of orchestrating the assassin’s killing after hiring him to murder Pandya.
In 2007, Tehelka magazine conducted a sting operation. Speaking with over a dozen perpetrators of the pogrom, they secretly filmed them not only confessing to their involvement but implicating Modi. Interviewees included a BJP state legislator as well as leaders of the RSS and VHP. “He had given us three days to do whatever we could,” said legislator Haresh Bhatt, describing Modi. “After three days, he asked us to stop and everything came to a halt … We had three days and did what we had to in those three days.”
The evidence was enough to convince the British and American governments to turn their backs on Modi. In 2002, the UK imposed a diplomatic boycott on him, forbidding its officials to deal directly with the Gujarati government. In 2005, the US denied him a visa after he was invited to speak at an Indian diaspora event in Florida.
What most politicians would have interpreted as a nail in the coffin of their political career, Modi and his supporters instead perceived as laying a firm foundation for his future. In the US, Bharat Barai set to work promoting Modi within the Indian-American diaspora. Rather than the butcher of Gujarat, he was cast as an economic messiah who introduced the world to the Gujarat model of development. Every Gujarat Day, beginning in May 2007, Barai began hosting video conferences in which Modi addressed the diaspora.
Meanwhile, in India, saffron terror—a phrase coined to describe terrorism perpetrated by the RSS or its ideological affiliates—was on the rise.
In 2006, a bombing at a Muslim cemetery in Malegaon, Maharashtra killed forty. In 2007, someone planted a bomb aboard the Samjhauta Express, a train running between Delhi and Lahore. Seventy people, mostly Pakistanis, died. A bombing at the Mecca mosque in Hyderabad killed sixteen. Then a bombing at a Muslim shrine in Ajmer, Rajasthan claimed the lives of two. In 2008, another bombing in Malegaon killed nine. As the investigation into the attacks developed, evidence implicated Swami Aseemanand (an RSS pracharak), Sadhvi Pragya Thakur (a leader of RSS-affiliated groups), and a number of other Hindu nationalist activists. In a filmed confession, Aseemanand not only named Thakur, but claimed the violence was directly sanctioned by RSS head Mohan Bhagwat.
Back in the US, as Barai continued to help Modi grow in popularity, Suresh Jani became president of the OFBJP. Fifteen years after the two American devotees of India’s BJP hosted the young apparatchik in their homes, they were now conducting a systematic campaign to boost his image and name recognition abroad. Their efforts were to prove fruitful.
By 2011, Modi was rumored to be the BJP’s candidate for prime minister in the 2014 general election. His name was floated at least a year before the Supreme Court’s SIT supposedly cleared him of guilt for the 2002 pogrom. In 2012, his backers declared the SIT’s conclusion that there was “not enough evidence” to prosecute to be a “clean chit” and treated it as a green light to push the RSS pracharak into India’s highest office.
Modi’s Regime: Birth of an Authoritarian Democracy
Modi was elected in May 2014.
His election followed a three-year campaign by OFBJP operatives in America, which began with training camps in 2011, followed by tours of the US by RSS and BJP executives in 2012. In 2013, then BJP president Rajnath Singh toured the US and Modi gave three video conferences. OFBJP sent activists to India to canvass for the BJP in the state elections. Their campaign culminated in 2014, when thousands of volunteers staffed US-based phone banks, while nearly 2,000 activists—including a team of 650 led by Barai in person—traveled to India.
After floating to power on a Modi wave for the first time, the BJP wasted no time implementing its agenda to saffronize the country.
2014 witnessed joint strategy sessions between the BJP and the RSS as they sought to rewrite the history taught in the Indian school curriculum. Then controversy broke out, as RSS-affiliated groups were accused of forcibly reconverting hundreds of Muslims to Hinduism. Subsequently, Rajnath Singh (who had transitioned from the BJP presidency to a ministerial post) and Amit Shah (who had replaced Singh as BJP president) suggested that the country adopt a national anti-conversion law to criminalize religious conversion without state permission.
2015 saw the lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq, a Muslim man, who was dragged from his home at night and beaten to death on the suspicion that he had slaughtered a cow. Local BJP activists were implicated in Akhlaq’s murder. This was one of the earliest and highest profile of what were to be many beef-related mob lynchings. Over the ensuing years, similar killings of Muslims and Dalits were replicated time and time again. Meanwhile, states like Maharashtra and Haryana responded by criminalizing cow slaughter—Maharashtra made even the possession of beef punishable by five years in prison, while Haryana imposed a ten-year sentence for cow slaughter.
2016 opened with the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit PhD student at the University of Hyderabad, who took his own life after he was suspended for protesting an RSS-affiliated event. Protests over Vemula’s death continued for months and even spilled over onto the international stage. In India, mass student protests bookended the arrest of Jawaharlal Nehru University student union president Kanhaiya Kumar, who was charged with sedition over the slogans allegedly used by some protestors. Kumar later claimed that the country was in the “clutches” of the RSS. As protests continued to spread, Modi expanded the central government’s cabinet, stacking a third of it with members of RSS-affiliated groups, including at least a dozen pracharaks.
In 2017, Yogi Adityanath was appointed chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. While previously serving as a member of parliament in 2015, he had promised to install statues of Hindu deities in “every mosque.” Earlier, while campaigning, he had promised to kill 100 Muslims for every Hindu killed by a Muslim. His claim to fame included organizing the reconversion—voluntary or otherwise—of thousands of Muslims and Christians to Hinduism. Soon after Adityanath took office, Chhattisgarh’s chief minister Raman Singh called for the hanging of anyone who slaughtered a cow.
Meanwhile, dissenting voices were being stifled. “If you speak anything except for singing praises for the government, you risk your life,” wrote Teltumbde that summer. “You could be easily charged under sedition or under any of the many draconian laws and sent for life imprisonment, if not hanged.” The state, he concluded, “has raised jingoist nationalism above people and unleashed the Hindutva gangs to carry out its writ reminiscent of the black shirts of Mussolini and brown shirts of Hitler … For the last three years, we have seen a working prototype of what a fascist regime is like.”
The truth of Teltumbde’s warning was brutally demonstrated when Gauri Lankesh, a journalist known for her candid criticism of the RSS and BJP, was assassinated in Karnataka. The investigation implicated an RSS-affiliated activist. It also connected her murder to the 2015 killings of rationalists Govind Pansare and M. M. Kalburgi.
2018 began with a rally of hundreds of thousands of Dalits in Bhima Koregaon, Maharashtra. The gathering devolved into chaos as Hindu nationalist outfits launched an attack. In response, Dalits called a bandh (shutdown), blocking roads and railways.
The unrest, asserted attorneys Arun Ferreira and Colin Gonsalves, was the result of “three and a half years of belligerent Hindutva rule at the center and in various states, with its rabid cocktail of blatant communal polarization, increasing atrocities against Dalits, lynching of minorities, gender violence and bans on inter-community love enforced by ruling party stormtroopers, state crackdown on dietary choices, and clampdown on universities—all accompanied by a shrill pseudo-nationalist discourse that paints all dissent as anti-national.” They argued that Modi’s regime bore “similarities with Nazi Germany” and “more and more people are coming around to identify it as a form of fascism.” Because the danger was “more long term,” they warned against exaggerating the importance of the 2019 general election and urged people to instead “forge a front against fascism.”
Then, in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, an eight-year-old Muslim girl was abducted, held for a week, and repeatedly gang-raped before she was murdered. When her killers were arrested, Hindu nationalist outfits staged rallies in their support. Two BJP state ministers joined one of the rallies: they later claimed that their party had instructed them to do so.
Meanwhile, unrest expanded across India as Dalits launched a bharat bandh (national shutdown) later that year. A teenage girl set herself on fire outside Yogi Adityanath’s home to protest his administration’s refusal to arrest a BJP state legislator whom she accused of rape. Eight men convicted of lynching a Muslim man for allegedly transporting beef were released from jail—and immediately escorted to the home of Jharkhand’s chief minister Jayant Sinha to be honored with garlands.
There were staggered waves of arrests of prominent activists, writers and attorneys in multiple Indian states. Ferreira and Gonsalves, having warned about rising fascism, were among those taken into custody. K. Satyanarayana, a professor at a Hyderabad university, was not arrested but his home was searched. Afterwards, he reported that police had interrogated him about why he was “reading Marx” and keeping photos of civil rights icons like B. R. Ambedkar “instead of gods and goddesses.”
These actions informed Teltumbde’s conclusion later that year that “the country’s pretensions of being the largest democracy in the world have been fast falling apart.”
In 2019, Swami Aseemanand, the pracharak who had confessed to a string of terrorist attacks in the mid-2000s, was acquitted. Sadhvi Pragya Thakur was nominated for a seat in parliament—despite the fact that she was still facing trial for the same terrorist acts in which Aseemanand was implicated. BJP President Amit Shah sparked outrage when he referred to illegal immigrants from Bangladesh as “termites,” while Adityanath accused the opposition of being “infected” by a “green virus” (a reference to Muslims).
Also, in 2019, at the height of the Modi regime’s crackdown on dissenters to date, Anand Teltumbde was arrested. Only one year previously, he had accused the government of criminalizing dissent, writing, “The message is loud and clear to all others: to not speak against the government.”
Over the years since Modi first took office, countless students, teachers, activists and common people from all walks of life have been arrested—often on sedition charges—for sharing political memes and posting comments on social media variously labeled by the state as defamatory, derogatory or obscene. Some face charges for creating—or simply disseminating—pictures mocking Modi, other officials or even the RSS itself. Others are accused of nothing more than calling Modi names.
A Dictatorship Retaining the Form of Democracy
On May 23, 2019, after a month-long election process, in which the OFBJP again played an instrumental role, the BJP emerged victorious with 38.5% of the total vote.
“It’s not a victory of BJP,” comments Dr. Ashok Swain, professor of peace and conflict research at Uppsala University. “It’s a victory of Modi and Modi’s politics … After Modi came to power in the last five years, this has been turned into a personality cult. BJP is now a one-man party.” Swain describes Modi as “near to a god for a large number of his followers.” The pracharak’s divine status, he asserts, was cemented by the Gujarat pogrom. “Modi became Modi because of the 2002 killing of 2,000 Muslims,” he states. “RSS realized Modi’s value to take over the leadership, to be their prime ministerial candidate, after 2002.” Seventeen years after the pogrom, Swain believes this election was about electing a leader “for the majoritarian community to control the minority.”
Modi’s rise from obscurity was no accident. He is the result of a fifty-year project on the part of the RSS, a man who was groomed to be prime minister. He rode to victory on the backs of gangs of apparatchiks who are unmarried and completely dedicated to the party—pracharaks from the RSS, among whose ranks he got his own start in public life.
Modi’s re-election was a referendum on fascism, lynching, and the unrestrained violence against minorities, dissidents and the marginalized which has been repeatedly perpetrated with impunity by the troops of the RSS and BJP.
The 2019 Indian general election demonstrated that democracy is about more than the simple act of voting or the peaceful transfer of power from one regime to another. It illustrated the truth of the words penned by Ambedkar in 1949: “It is quite possible for this newborn democracy to retain its form but give place to dictatorship in fact.”
The essence of democracy is a free and open public forum that encourages, cultivates and protects discussion, debate and dissent. The electoral process is the least important part of a democracy. Without social democracy, political democracy is virtually irrelevant—in fact, even dangerous, because it legitimizes tyranny.
Ambedkar defined social democracy as “a way of life which recognizes liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life.” He warned, “Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy.” Quoting John Stuart Mill, he admonished India that maintaining democracy necessitates that the people refuse to “lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man.”
His words, written the year before Modi was born, were perhaps never more prescient than today. “In politics, bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship,” he declared. Modi epitomizes Ambedkar’s prophecy.