Democracy is in decline across the world. Freedom House reported that democracy around the world was ‘under assault and in retreat around the globe’. Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, also noted that the abdication of the United States of America, champion, and defender of liberal democracy, from its historical commitment to protect and defend democracy across the world has created more space for China and Russia to exert their influence. However, this is an academic debate to assess the impact of non-democratic regimes on the existing global political order. This piece is an attempt to critically examine the state of democracy in India, once famous for being the world’s largest democracy. While dealing with India’s democratic downfall, intellectuals and scholars are quietly mulling over an intriguing question; what happened to secular India?
There may be various reasons ranging from structural inconsistencies to cultural peculiarities behind the ongoing de-democratization of the world. The case of India is, however, an interesting example of how much a strong man can transform a country. This piece offers an agency-centric explanation of India’s retreat from a secular democracy.
My argument is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a hardliner Hindu nationalist, is concerned about his legacy. He strives for power not to get famous but to institutionalize his own morality—a political order based upon some religiously defined principles. He wants power, and popular support, to reshape India and completely alter the meaning of what it means to be an Indian. He is on an ideological project much bigger than his stated political program. Admittedly he failed India on economic fronts but he is successfully offering new meanings to his supporters across the country.
From an ideological standpoint, Modi sees Muslims and Islam as remains of invaders who captured not only the territory but also converted Hindus into Muslims. He defines himself in historical terms and desires to transform his country.
PM Modi, a representative of RSS?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been a member of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an extremist Hindu organization founded by a doctor named Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, a contemporary of Mohandas Gandhi, nearly 100 years ago, since 1970. RSS founding fathers said to have ‘besotted with Mussolini’s fascists’. The organization had a holistic approach to structurally transform a Hindu society into a Hindu-state. With the help of at least 4 million volunteers, efforts are underway to train young students to become part of the movement through the Akhil Bharatiya Vidya Parishad (ABVP), a youth wing of the RSS. Notably, RSS volunteers swear oaths of allegiance and take part in quasi-military drills.
The RSS members fundamentally believe that “centuries of non-Hindu rule — British colonialism and the Mughal Empire before that — have left Indians without a strong sense of their culture and heritage”. The organization holds a revivalist ideology.
Notably, the group’s mission statement describes it as “firmly rooted in genuine nationalism” and decries an “erosion of the nation’s integrity in the name of secularism” and “endless appeasement of the Muslim population.”
Mahatma Gandhi, an Indian statesman revered by many across the globe, was assassinated by an RSS man, Nathuram Vinayak Godse. The RSS, however, claimed that the murderer had left the organization by then. However, Godse’s last words shortly before his execution on November 15, 1949, help us understand his state of mind and the worldview he held.
Namaste Sada Vatsale Matrubhume
Twaya Hindubhume Sukham Vardhitoham
Mahanmangale Punyabhume Twadarthe
Patatvesh Kayo Namaste, Namaste!
O affectionate motherland, I eternally bow to you
O land of Hindus, you have reared me in comfort
O sacred and holy land,
May this body of mine be dedicated to you and I bow before you again and again!
Modi’s ultimate goal: A Muslim-free Hindustan?
A sequence of events from Babri Masjid’s conversion into a Ram Mandir, strict implementation of the Citizenship Amendment Act, BJP’s demonization of Muslims, revocation of Article 370, campaigns against the free press, to the frequent lynching of Muslim youth is indicative of the fact that the BJP leadership is convinced that Hindustan is best served if expunged of Islam and Muslims. For many across the world, this is causing India’s democratic downfall. Dr. Subramanian Swamy, a senior leader of the ruling party and a member of India’s parliament, said in an interview that “where the Muslim population is large, there is always trouble”.
Similarly, Bairia MLA Surendra Singh told reporters that “there are a very few Muslims who are patriotic. Once India becomes a Hindu rashtra (Hindu nation), Muslims who assimilate into our culture will stay in India. Those who will not are free to take asylum in any other country”.
In contemporary India, the RSS intends “to bring Hindu scripture into Indian law and strip Indian Muslims of equal rights, or even expel them.”
Assertive Hinduization of India?
India is currently experiencing a kind of ‘assertive Hinduization’ where an ambitious leader, Modi, seems to be confident to get accomplished in imposing his own morality despite relentless criticism from some segments at home and abroad. Needless to say, the premier is concerned about outcomes, appreciation or condemnation doesn’t really matter!
Political Scientists are generally of the view that weaker institutions often give enough space to strong leaders to become too dominant to be controlled. However, in an interesting 2001 article, Dan Byman and Ken Pollack argue that “an exceptionally charismatic leader can overcome even strong institutions”. PM Modi is an example of how strong and ambitious leaders transform democracies into absolute majoritarian regimes, and make every liberal institutions virtually dysfunctional. India’s democratic downfall validates theoretical assumption of Byman and Pollack.
It is to be seen how liberal Indian journalists who are often labeled as ‘Presstitute’ and ‘Sickular’, vibrant Indian civil society, and globally respected Indian public intellectuals deal with India’s democratic downfall where liberal institutions appear to be broken amidst the rise of majoritarian politics.
Farah Adeed is an Assistant Editor in GVS. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s Editorial Policy.