Opinion |

India Under Modi Is Becoming a Brutal Authoritarian State

Modi's Hindutva populism, backed by naked threats against India's Muslim minority and the suppression of dissent, is crashing India's economy and its democracy

Shrenik Rao
Shrenik Rao
A supporter of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), wearing a mask with an image of India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, waves a BJP flag during a rally in New Delhi on December 22, 2019
A supporter of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), wearing a mask with an image of India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, waves a BJP flag during a rally in New Delhi on December 22, 2019Credit: AFP
Shrenik Rao
Shrenik Rao

Using all its tools of propaganda and tactics of intimidation, Narendra Modi government is broadcasting the message that all is well in India. It isn’t. The truth is that India, as a nation, is going through a great turmoil - economically, politically and socially. As the author and activist Arundhati Roy puts it, "an illness is upon us."

The Indian economy, once the world's fastest-growing economy, is now sick. As Arvind Subramanian, Modi’s former Chief Economic Advisor wrote this month, the Indian economy is "headed for the intensive care unit." He noted that growth has slowed "to just 4.5 per cent, the worst for a long time," and that economic indicators, from goods and services, exports, imports and government revenue "are all close to negative territory."

The Mossad, China's Trojan horse, censorship and state secrets on our podcast. Listen

India’s banking sector is in deep distress. Non-performing assets amount to Rs 9.2 lakh crores, around $135 billion, the equivalent to 9.5 per cent of bank assets, "the highest ratio of any major economy in the world, by far." Unemployment is at a 46 year high, household consumption is at a four-decade low. The agricultural sector, too, is facing a crisis.

And to make matters worse, in the last six years, about 30 million Indians have fallen below the official poverty line. Consumer food price inflation is nudging 8 percent. The price of a core foodstuff, onions, shot up by 173 percent in November. Unfazed, Modi's finance minister, Nirmala Sitaraman, haughtily dismissed concerns by announcing that she came from a family that doesn't eat much onion and garlic.

The Modi government has, with its asinine economic policies such as "demonetization," decimated the world’s fastest-growing economy, and brought it down to its knees. However, Modi boasts of saving the economy from disaster.

It’s not just the Indian economy that is facing a crisis. India’s democracy is in peril, too.

Thriving on communal politics, Modi and his Home Affairs minister, Amit Shah, have turned the world’s largest democracy into an authoritarian state. Under this regime, India is no longer a liberal democracy but is holding on by the skin of its teeth to justify being considered even a nominal democracy.

In reality, the current situation resembles an undeclared "Emergency," echoing the formal nationwide Emergency declared by former PM Indira Gandhi from 1975 to 1977, when she ruled by decree, political opponents were imprisoned, there were widespread human rights abuses and the press was censored.

After their Bharatiya Janata Party's landslide victory in 2019, Modi and Amit Shah have pushed through - bulldozed - legislation in an authoritarian manner, suppressed dissenting voices with brutal state force, and locked up political opponents.

In Kashmir, for instance, after scrapping Article 370 which ensured a special constitutional status for the region, the Modi government arrested three former ministers, democratically elected members of Parliament who opposed the change in Kashmir's status, invoking "national security" as a reason to keep them in detention for months on end.

Also in the name of "national security," the Modi government imposed a colonial-era law, Section 144, suspended the internet, blocked all telephone lines and imposed a total communications blackout in Kashmir. For months on end, the people of Kashmir have had to endure a great deal of suffering – but there is almost no free flow of information to the outside world, and therefore no way of holding the Modi government accountable.

A security personnel stands guard as demonstrators arrive to take part in a rally against India's new citizenship law in Bangalore on December 23, 2019Credit: AFP

Unfortunately, the Modi-Shah duo have not extended their concerns about "national security" to those accused of terrorism – as long as they’re proponents of their Hindutva ideology.

Ironically, Modi, who repeatedly states that "terrorism is the biggest threat to humanity" in international fora, chose to prop up a Hindutva extremist accused of terrorism, Pragya Singh Thakur to become a Member of Parliament representing his Bharatiya Janata Party.

Thakur is still on bail, charged with plotting a 2008 bomb blast in the town of Malegaon which targeted Muslim pilgrims coming out of Friday prayers. Seven died in the attack. Today, thanks to Modi and Amit Shah’s support, Pragya Thakur, the first candidate ever for national elections to be a terrorism suspect, is an "Honourable Member of Parliament."

Recently, Pragya Thakur was also nominated by the government to join the paliamentary consultation committee on defense. Not incidentally, Thakur is also a great fan of Nathuram Godse, the assassin who murdered Gandhi, and considers him to be a "patriot."

The Modi-Shah duo are also systematically destroying institutions that are meant to ensure checks and balances on unrestrained executive power. Under the Modi government, India’s Central Bureau of Investigation and the Enforcement Directorate have turned into weapons of mass harassment. In the recent past, business leaders have complained that "there is a climate of fear," economically, socially and politically. The judiciary, the press and other institutions are also under assault.

Members of the Karnataka Reserve Police Force swing their sticks to beat two men on a scooter who rode too close to a police barricade to prevent demonstrations on a street in Mangalore. December 20, Credit: AFP

Hindutva groups, dedicated to a strident and exclusive Hindutva nationalism, have been energized and empowered by Modi and Shah in their efforts to socially engineer communal hatred. Their modus operandi - fake news. Modi’s propaganda machinery, the BJP’s "IT CELL," a euphemistic term for a fake news factory, routinely manufacture anti-Muslim bigotry and spread them through social media channels. Since Amit Shah became president of the BJP in 2014, he has actively encouraged the BJP’s IT CELL to create and spread fake news.

Unfortunately, the virus of communal bigotry is engulfing the country. Modi’s politics, which thrive on communal division, are corroding the country’s social fabric. Ever since he assumed office, in 2014, his government has systematically pushed through legislation that actively discriminates against Muslims. In almost every election campaign, Modi has used anti-Muslim rhetoric, framing Muslim communities as "anti-national," or fifth-columnists, using explicit, populist dog whistles to win elections.

It is not surprising that, in the last six years, India has witnessed an unprecedented increase in hate crimes against minorities, particularly Muslims. Hindutva extremists have lynched Muslims on one pretext or the other. For instance, the lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq, in 2015, on suspicion of possessing beef in his fridge, is a point in case.

Far from chastising the perpetrators of the crime, a minister in Modi’s cabinet, Jayant Sinha (who holds an MBA from Harvard Business School with distinction) honored the convicts by presenting them with garlands, an attempt to legitimize and condone hate. Senior members of the BJP downplayed the killing as "an accident," or "a mistake committed by children."

None of the perpetrators of the crime have been brought to justice: They have been let out on bail. But a year after his murder, the local court opened a case against them, on the pretext that they had killed a cow. Fearing further intimidation and persecution, Akhlaq’s family has had to relocate to Delhi.

Today, with the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens, India’s Muslims, over 200 million of them, are at risk. Already, 1.9 million residents of Assam, a north-eastern state bordering Bangladesh where a third of the residents are Muslim, are at risk of becoming stateless because they have been excluded from the register.

The citizenship act clearly violates the fundamental principles of the Indian Constitution. Designed to discriminate against Muslims, it is a clear attempt at disenfranchising the country’s minorities, to tighten Modi’s stranglehold on the world’s largest democracy.

As spontaneous country-wide protests erupted against the unconstitutional CAA, Modi, Shah and their cohort of ministers have mobilized their social media trolls and party cadres. They have unleashed an information war against protestors, calling them "jihadists," "urban naxals,"[Maoist terrorists] and "separatists." Government officials call all those who criticize Modi as "anti-national" - acting against the national interest and national security, thus liable to censorship and serious charges of sedition and assisting terrorism.

As the protests have intensified, Modi himself has tried to cast aspersions on protestors and tried to brand them as Muslim arsonists setting fire to India: in one particularly infamous outburst, he declared, "Those who perpetrate violence can be identified by their clothes."

A minister of state in his government announced that protestors causing property damage should be "shot on sight." Taking their cue, a BJP legislator has warned Muslims: "If the majority takes to the streets, imagine what your situation will be. Don’t test the patience of the majority."

He went on to say: "Don’t forget Godhra." That is a reference to a 2002 fire on a passenger train full of Hindu pilgrims; Muslims were blamed for setting the fire, and the pilgrims’ deaths were used as a pretext for deadly communal rioting in Gujarat against Muslims, also known as the "Gujarat pogrom," in which thousands of Muslims were beaten up, raped and killed, and their property destroyed. The state's Chief Minister at the time was none other than Narendra Modi.

Modi’s supporters, those who support the citizenship bill, openly incite violence. They are roaming India’s streets shouting: "Shoot the traitors."

In the state of Uttar Pradesh, the radical Hindutva extremist turned Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath, has vowed to take "revenge" on protestors. The state police have seized on the tactic of confiscating Muslim-owned businesses to recoup the costs of damage to public property, randomly sealing nearly 70 Muslim-owned businesses so far, even though there is no law that justifies this purely punitive act.

Parts of the state are under orders prohibiting public demonstrations; the authorities have also cut internet access; so far, over 22 people have died across India so far in state-sponsored violence, 13 of them on one day in Uttar Pradesh alone.

In their book, How Dictatorships Work, the political scientists Barbara Geddes, Joseph Wright, and Erica Frantz argue that, "In established democracies across the world, the slow but steady undermining of norms and institutions poses a greater threat than sudden coups." Today’s India, with Modi’s slow strangulation of secular liberal norms, as well as his sudden imposition of unconstitutional and nakedly communal legislation, seems to prove that both dynamics can happen together.

Within six years, Modi and Shah have managed to do what India's worst enemies couldn't: to set India at war with itself.

Shrenik Rao is the editor-in-chief of the Madras Courier, a 233-year-old title that he revived in October 2016, and founder & CEO of 7MB, a digital media company. An alumnus of the London School of Economics and the University of Oxford's Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Rao writes about foreign policy issues. Twitter: @ShrenikRao

Click the alert icon to follow topics:



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.

Subscribe today and save 40%

Already signed up? LOG IN


Election ad featuring Yair Lapid in Rahat, the largest Arab city in Israel's Negev region.

This Bedouin City Could Decide Who Is Israel's Next Prime Minister

Dr. Claris Harbon in the neighborhood where she grew up in Ashdod.

A Women's Rights Lawyer Felt She Didn't Belong in Israel. So She Moved to Morocco

Mohammed 'Moha' Alshawamreh.

'It Was Real Shock to Move From a Little Muslim Village, to a Big Open World'

From the cover of 'Shmutz.'

'There Are Similarities Between the Hasidic Community and Pornography’

A scene from Netflix's "RRR."

‘RRR’: If Cocaine Were a Movie, It Would Look Like This

Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

Yair Lapid's Journey: From Late-night Host to Israel's Prime Minister