Editorial: Emergency Recall
Like Indira Gandhi, Putin or Erdogan, if you think that media criticism is part of a larger foreign conspiracy then your perception of democracy is flawed
Hardnews Bureau Delhi
Why is it that, nowadays, there are so many people remembering the excesses of the Emergency and talking about the possibility of its reimposition in some form or the danger of a more authoritarian style of government coming into being? This question seemingly weighed on the minds of Time magazine editors too; in an interview with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, they asked whether he would like to have the “kind of authoritarian power China’s leader has” While many of his detractors would have thought his reply would encompass references to the delays implicit in decisionmaking in democracies and how he was unable to make much headway in attempts to speed up the growth of the economy and, again, how the absence of a majority in the Rajya Sabha was hampering his legislative agenda, Modi chose to be predictable. Democracy may be messy and noisy, but no politician tries to trash it or disown it. Even dictators, after enjoying power for years, look for democratic endorsement from time to time. So Modi said, “If you were to ask me whether you need a dictatorship to run India, No, you do not. Whether you need a powerful person who believes in concentrating power, No, you do not. If you were to ask me to choose between democratic values and wealth, power, prosperity and fame, I will very easily and without any doubt choose democratic values.”
Every sentence in this reply seems to respond to growing fears in India and abroad about how Prime Minister Modi is displaying authoritarian tendencies and concentrating power around himself. Top publications in the West have begun to compare him with the likes of Turkey’s Recep Erdogan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. For a person who rode to power on a huge wave of popularity and helped his party win an absolute majority in a first for any party in the past 30 years, these suggestions are uncharitable. Modi also won Gujarat Assembly elections three times.
All these successes burnish his democratic credentials, but many political and media observers are unimpressed. They assert that democracy is not just about winning elections. There is far more to it. How do you conduct yourself in a socially and religiously plural society? How do you handle dissent and criticism? How do you handle the media? Do you think it is a nuisance and needs to be reined in? How a leader measures up vis-à-vis such indicators shows how hardcore a democrat he is. Like Indira Gandhi, Putin or Erdogan, if you think that media criticism is part of a larger foreign conspiracy then your perception of democracy is flawed. Many illiberal democrats populate our universe, using elections to come to power and then engaging in self-aggrandisement and trampling various constitutionally mandated freedoms of civil society.
Ironically, while concerns about Modi’s actions are growing now, during the Emergency, when he was an RSS pracharak, he had worked hard to ensure that Mrs Gandhi could not quash democracy in the name of fighting Right-wing forces. In his book, Modi says, “When there is Democracy in this country, there can be no room for the diktats of one individual.… Individuals come and go but Democracy in India shall remain for posterity.”
These are compelling words, but Modi and his impeccable track record of defending democracy are today providing no comfort to all those who do not subscribe to his party’s ideology. These include the secular and liberal intelligentsia, minorities who feel increasingly marginalised by the rising tide of Hindu nationalism and many other sections who believe that there is no other option but democracy to run this country of 1.25 billion people.