Modi’s real test

His government will be judged by its respect for rule of law and social inclusion.

Written by Balakrishnan Rajagopal | Published:May 30, 2014 12:06 am
In the next year or two, the Modi-led government needs to proactively prove that it can honour and keep India’s proud but recent liberal democratic tradition. (Source: Express photo) In the next year or two, the Modi-led government needs to proactively prove that it can honour and keep India’s proud but recent liberal democratic tradition. (Source: Express photo)

India voted in what was the largest-ever act of collective franchise by any country in history, and several extraordinary feats were witnessed. An extra 130 million voters entered the electoral rolls and the Election Commission reinforced its reputation as an island of institutional competence in a country where paralysis seemed to be the norm in recent years. The rise of the AAP — despite its disappointing electoral results — heralded the arrival a new non-caste, issue-based, national party that tapped into reservoirs of civic activism. The decimation of the dynastic Congress party was a good step in the direction of real democracy, unanchored in the politics of familial piety and challenging it to transform or die.

Last but not least, the BJP, led by Narendra Modi, showed its ability to overcome the appeal of caste-based parties and fashion a national message couched in terms of development and good governance, tinged with communitarian appeal, although the BJP ended up getting only 31 per cent of the popular vote.

Despite these impressive feats, the election highlighted deep concerns about the majoritarian politics of the BJP, its campaign rhetoric and the legacy of Modi’s record in Gujarat. It raises questions about whether India may join the ranks of Putinesque illiberal democracies. In a region that has recently seen the rise of majoritarian governments that are ostensibly electoral democracies, such as Sri Lanka, but which are repressive, illiberal and anti-minority, this is no idle threat.

The last few years have seen a weakening of openness and rule of law in India, characterised most acutely in the challenges to the freedom of expression of artists, writers and critics, and a hardening of developmental nationalism that rides roughshod over the rights of dissenting minorities and the poor, mostly unaided even by India’s courts. Modi’s rise creates a serious risk that those trends will only get worse.

Although Modi’s campaign was based on “good governance” and “development”, it failed to address whether commitment to rule of law and the protection of human rights was part of their definitions. Instead, the Modi campaign stressed job creation, economic opportunity and growth. What his campaign rhetoric failed to acknowledge is that in the world of global development practice and thinking, “development” and “good governance” have increasingly come to include rule of law and the protection of human rights. Social inclusion of weaker sections and social protection are seen now as part of development and good governance.

On this, Modi’s record does not inspire confidence. As a book on the way the investigations into the Gujarat riots were botched describes it, the Modi administration lost no opportunity to derail every possible attempt to find accountability, even when monitored by the Supreme Court. Despite this, Modi’s former minister, Maya Kodnani, has been convicted of encouraging mobs during the 2002 riots and there are now open questions about the “encounter” killings that happened under Modi in Gujarat.

For those who believe that Modi received a “clean chit” from India’s courts, there is bad news — there has not been any such clean chit and even if there is one in future, accountability cannot be evaded so easily. Under the laws of most countries, and under international law, there is “command responsibility” for crimes against humanity and an additional level of responsibility for the failure to prosecute and for interfering with the course of justice.

What may happen to the current cases involving Modi’s Gujarat administration and to past cases that have been quickly buried is a matter of concern. How PM Modi will use the law enforcement agencies under his control to deal with past questions of accountability or future ones will also be a matter of good governance.

The push for accountability will have to come from either independent institutions, such as the courts or the CAG, or from civil society, including the media. The real test of democracy for the new government will be about how liberal and reasonable it is towards its critics from these two sectors, and whether it allows India’s public institutions to function independently.

In the next year or two, the Modi-led government needs to proactively prove that it can honour and keep India’s proud but recent liberal democratic tradition, what’s left of its rule of law, its ethos of openness and tolerance, its multiversity and represent all of India’s citizens, especially those who did not vote for the BJP, and who have been fearful of Modi, given his past. It needs to prove that it respects India’s institutions and will abide by the constitutional obligations of good governance and help build a just and democratic world order under the rule of law.

The writer is associate professor of law and development and founding director, programme on human rights and justice, at MIT, US

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  1. A
    May 30, 2014 at 2:06 pm
    I dont thin you feel the same about what congress has done for this country n people.. All parties should work for people who have & havent voted for them.. Worng way was led by previous dysnastic parties... We shouldnt promote a coterie so that dynasty can rule.. Itz against policies of valiant people who lost their lives for our country..
  2. A
    May 30, 2014 at 2:11 pm
    Real test is for the people like the columnist to stand up against dynastic , divisive forces who waste nd squander national wealth... They should promote new ideas for development... Challenge for them is to change their mindset & instil confidence among countrymen by their positive writings.. Reality among peiple in india is diffetent...Try to change balakrishnan sir.. Promote confidence among all indians..
  3. A
    Atul Atul
    May 30, 2014 at 12:23 am
    Just like other US based writers, this one starts bashing Modi for his supposed history and implies that Modi was somehow guilty as charged even when no evidence emerged. He then cites command responsibility as the reason to find Modi guilty.Did he ever write an article like this when congress government was in power and overlooked (may be even encouraged) numerous communal riots when it was in power for nearly 60 years? Did he write a similar article when Sikhs were cuted by congress leaders and there followers after Indira hi's murder and when Congress was in power? If his argument is to be taken at face value, then it appears that every congress prime minister and chief minister has been guilty of "command ir-responsibility" for communal riots. In fact, I would say that congress encouraged them so they could benefit from the Muslim vote bank.He forgets that Modi was clean and innocent before he was tainted by writers like him who did not do their homework and only reported one sided story. He does not write that Modi asked for help from 4 neighboring states - all controlled by Congress which refused the help but does not cite their chief ministers for "command ir-responsibility". He also does not belive in the dictum that "A person is innocent unless proven guilty", but he is not willing to accept that Modi was and is innocent of all charges against him since nothing has been proven. In his article he is already expressing doubts about what Modi will do to minorities - he should come out and say Muslims, why use the code words? I am sue he does not care anything about adivasis and dalits and others like them. Obviously he does not care about Hindus who were killed in the Gujarat riots as well.
  4. P
    May 31, 2014 at 3:19 pm
    How does one measure social inclusion? It hasn't happened since 1947 ..
  5. U
    May 30, 2014 at 2:20 pm
    I think I might as well get used to such nonsensical articles.
  6. A
    A S
    May 30, 2014 at 5:22 pm
    Several books published on Modi in general and 2002 riots mentioned that Modi did much better than most CMs in controlling riots. I find it interesting that Balakrishnan is silent on burning of about 60 kvaks and that the overall environment was difficult because of 9/11. Fact is that after 2002 there were no riots in Gujarat and law and order situation the best in several decades.
  7. A
    A S
    May 30, 2014 at 12:08 pm
    The writer is completely silent on investigations into 1984 riots and there was no accountability. And he referred to international examples. What was accountability for what happened in Vietnam or Afganistan or Iraq. Hundreds of thousands lost their lifes and the security situation in Afganistan and Iraq is still bad. In contrast there were no riots since 2002 in spite of fact Gujarat had a long history of riots. And now even women can go out freely late evenings without fear.
  8. H
    May 30, 2014 at 8:03 pm
    Modi would be better of falling into trap of defeated opposition. . He should understand that very reason people gave him majority is they are fed up of people living in ivory tower with well paid secure employment want to prevent them from rising up the ladder through economic development. He would lose next election if he starts behaving like Vajpayee.
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