The Prime Minister said last week that ‘parivaarvaad’ or hereditary politics weakens democracy. He was speaking in Telangana which is currently ruled like a family estate, so his words had resonance. But whenever he reminds voters that the political dynasties that rule many Indian states represent feudalism not democracy, his words strike a chord. They always strike a chord for me personally because in this column I have campaigned tirelessly against the princelings and princesses who enter public life only because Mummy or Daddy bequeathed them a constituency or a party.
My role as a ‘Modi Bhakt’ ended a while ago, but as a fair-minded person, I praise him when he says or does the right thing. Electoral feudalism weakens democracy. It no longer even works. Voters have learned to differentiate between those who enter public life for public service and those who enter for the glamour, power, and those ‘perks’ that make poor men very, very rich.
One reason why Narendra Modi found it easy to win a second term in 2019 was because the only card that the Congress party had left to play was the dynastic one. Five years of sitting on the Opposition benches taught Congress leaders nothing new, so all that they had to offer was Priyanka Gandhi. Dynasty devotees wandered about telling everyone who would listen that this ‘trump card’ was going to change the face of Indian politics. The ‘fascist usurper’ from Gujarat would not become prime minister again.
Priyanka herself seemed certain that the power of the Nehru-Gandhi name was enough. As soon as Mummy anointed her general secretary of the Congress, she trotted off to Varanasi. She prayed at temples, drifted in a boat down the Ganga and made speeches evoking her grandmother many times. It did not work. This ‘trump card’ proved to be a dud. Today, more than halfway into his second term, Modi remains undefeatable because his opponents from Kashmir to Kanyakumari nearly all represent parties that are in fact family firms.
Opinion polls tell us that Modi’s approval ratings are higher than those of every other world leader. In my own chats with the average Indian voter, I hear that this is because they have seen real change happen in their villages. Those who do not like him admit grudgingly that he has given them things they never dreamed of. Roads, reliable electricity, Internet access, gas stoves, bank accounts, and loans to build rural homes and toilets. They are also convinced that the pandemic was handled better than anywhere else. Memories of last summer’s awful Delta wave appear to have faded because Modi redeemed himself by the efficiency with which the vaccination campaign has reached the remotest parts of the country.
So why does Modi continue to be disliked by the ‘Khan Market gang’ and by the foreign press? It is because he seems not to understand much about those other things that weaken democracy. When journalists are jailed under laws made for terrorists, it weakens democracy. When dissidents are locked up for months without being found guilty of any crime, it weakens democracy. When the Enforcement Directorate, the CBI and the Narcotics Bureau are weaponized and used against political opponents, movie stars and pesky websites, it weakens democracy. When bulldozers appear the day after a riot and demolish the homes of ‘rioters’ without proof that they rioted, it weakens democracy. When BJP ministers celebrate these demolitions and tweet their support for the police when they thrash Muslim suspects, it weakens democracy.
The PM in his exalted bubble may not hear enough about these things because, as this column has pointed out before, the media is more afraid than it has ever been. There was press censorship during the Emergency, but because it was openly imposed, everyone knew what was happening and everyone opposed it. This time the methods being used to silence disobedient journalists are more insidious and more effective. It is not for nothing that journalists themselves admit that most ‘independent, private’ news channels have been reduced to ‘lapdog media’. When respected, international, watchdogs draw attention to what is happening, the BJP’s social media army reacts with hysteria and conspiracy theories about a campaign to weaken India. These hysterical supporters damage Modi.
What puzzles me is why the Prime Minister needs to be so thin-skinned about criticism. His personal popularity remains intact. The image of his government in the eyes of the average voter is that of one untainted by corruption. When he travels to foreign lands, he is greeted with warmth and friendship by the most important leaders in the world, so why does he feel the need to lock up dissidents and journalists?
India’s journey as a modern nation state has been damaged by our inability to end extreme poverty and by other economic and social failures. But through it all, if there has been one thing that we can be rightly proud of, it is our democracy. Anything done to weaken it weakens India. Since those who have perpetuated electoral feudalism grow more irrelevant every day, it is the other things that weaken democracy that need to be paid more attention to. Dissidence and dissent are the very lifeblood of democracy. They should be celebrated. Not crushed under a brutal jackboot.