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Emperor Wears No Clothes

Mathew John Mathew John
17 Apr 2023
Modi has done what Indira Gandhi attempted but failed to achieve: become synonymous with the nation.

Freedom as undaunted expression of the human spirit has been diminished through fragmentation and self-serving caveats, from Lenin’s cynical comment that freedom is precious, so precious that it needs to be rationed; Stalin’s insincere and duplicitous half-truth that real liberty can exist only where exploitation has been abolished; to Harold Laski’s heresy that without economic security, freedom was not worth having. Today, we have to contend with the mischievous rendition of freedom as a value that needed to be tempered by considerations of “national interest”. At a subliminal level, these various restraints, sought to be imposed on freedom, are used as justification to legitimize authoritarianism.

At birth, India pledged her troth to democracy. Emerging out of the vortex of a blood-soaked Partition, the nationalist elite recognized the imperative of building a State that would accommodate and live with differences, that would not be aligned to or identified with any one constituent of society. Only such a State could possibly sustain a democracy “by the people, of the people, for the people”. They knew that India could survive and thrive only if it nurtured and sustained the internal diversity of religion, language and culture that had accumulated over the centuries and constituted our most priceless heritage.

This ideal was stated upfront in the noble phrases of the preamble of the Indian Constitution. Going beyond the trumpeted American Declaration of Independence that promised every person the inalienable rights of “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness”, we resolved to constitute India into a democratic Republic that would secure for all citizens the four great values of justice, freedom, equality and fraternity. But given our multilayered ethnic, religious and cultural heritage, the Nehruvian idea of a modern, inclusive democracy of religious tolerance and cultural pluralism had to contend with the exclusive Hindutva vision propagated by Veer Savarkar and the Sangh Parivar of “one nation, one people, one culture”.  It was the responsibility of the State to abide by our constitutional commitment to be a “Socialist, Secular, Democratic Republic”.

But what happens when the State goes rogue, like it has, in the last eight years? The assault on the democratic framework began around the time of the apocalyptic Demonetization disaster. That was when this regime decided to give up all pretence of deferring to the secular principles of the Constitution and, instead, go ballistic on its majoritarian agenda of Hindutva that would pave the way to the ultimate goal of a Hindu Rashtra. 

Effective execution of such a radical, ideological transformation of society is possible only through the Orwellian route of creating an authoritarian State. This has been achieved in large measure through intimidation, coercion and dubious inducements that seem to work wonders in our troubled land. Employing a multi-pronged strategy, this regime has taken imperious control of every aspect of governance. The media, never self-assured or honourable, has become the proverbial stenographer to power. Every state institution has not only been undermined, but even worse for the long term, been infiltrated by lackeys of the regime.  The bureaucracy, always a pushover, has outdone itself as lickspittle. The law-enforcement agencies are the menacing hatchet men of the regime, deploying every below-the-belt tactic from arresting and terrorizing opponents and dissidents, burying inquests against comrades of the regime, weaponizing laws such as the UAPA, NIA, NSA and IT Acts, even allegedly pressurizing corporate houses to cede the advantage to cronies of this dispensation. One of the most important protectors of democracy, the Election Commission, functions as enforcer of this government’s dictates.

But the pivotal capture has been that of the judiciary which, in the last few years, has largely turned against justice,  promoting the cause of the regime over every other consideration, to the extent that it’s been dismissed as the “midwife of authoritarianism”. The Supreme Court’s controversial verdicts on high-profile cases that could have damaged the government – the Hiren Pandya and Judge Loya cases, the Sahara-Birla diary investigation, the Rafale and Pegasus scandals – have raised legitimate doubts about the fair-mindedness of the judges. Long pending controversial cases such as the validity of the CAA, abrogation of Article 370, the dubious Electoral Bonds scheme, the Vote discrepancies and Credibility of the Election Commission inquiry have been deliberately left to stew on the backburner.

Side by side with the coopting of institutions, there is the meticulous creation of the Modi cult, choreographed to perfection by publicists and event managers. Showcasing a saintly religiosity at every turn, complete with tilak, rudraksha and flowing saffron robes, an aura of mystery and distinction has been built around the high priest of Hindutva. He has used his charisma and oratorical skills to attract a huge following of blind worshipers who share his ersatz nationalist fervour, virulent hostility toward Nehru and what he represents, and pathological hatred of Muslims. Like with all narcissistic cult leaders, he has forged a beguiling image out of falsehoods – sold tea as a child at a non-existent railway station, was an itinerant seeker after the truth, earned a bachelor’s degree followed by a master’s degree in ‘Entire Political Science’, claimed to have gone to jail over satyagraha for Bangladesh’s Independence, et al. 

Modi has done what Indira Gandhi attempted but failed to achieve: become synonymous with the nation. Whereas the “India is Indira and Indira is India” slogan remained a grand delusion among the sycophants in the then Congress party, Modi is identified with the nation as its custodian and benefactor. Patriotism is measured by fealty to the king! How else does one explain the unabated idolization of a man who caused misery to millions due to demonetization and handling of the pandemic; in whose watch there has been unremitting persecution of minorities and dissidents, atrocities against Dalits, record unemployment? But apart from the emotional stranglehold that he has wielded over the masses, his grip on power has been cemented by his crony links to the business houses whose support is rooted in their understanding of their economic interests.

At some point, the most powerful PM ever began believing that he is omnipotent, the surest sign that we were heading in the direction of an autocracy. Hubris inevitably results in arrogant and reckless actions, which is what has happened. The rule of law has been substituted by the rule of one man. There has been a no-holds-barred assault on the Opposition. Apart from arrests and cases being registered against them on the flimsiest grounds, they have been silenced in the pre-eminent arena for political debate -- Parliament. For the ordinary citizens, Modi’s imperious advice, which he enunciated in his address on Constitution Day last November, was to fulfil their duties. “Be it an individual or institution, our duties are our first priority. Amrit Kaal is the era of duties for us,” the PM said, insinuating that fundamental rights are of secondary importance, a viewpoint espoused by authoritarian leaders in general.  

But of late, the ground appears to be slipping from under the Vishwaguru’s feet; something has broken his spell over us. One can’t help drawing an analogy with Hans Christian Andersen’s folktale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” about a vain emperor who spends lavishly on clothing at the expense of improving the lot of his people. Two ingenious crooks convince him that they would design for him the most magnificent clothes that would be invisible only to those who are stupid or incompetent, and the foppish emperor commissions them. They weave not a thread, and  those inspecting their work see nothing but pretend otherwise to avoid being thought foolish.

Finally, the swindlers simulate dressing the emperor who also sees nothing, but feigns that he sees the clothes. The emperor sets off in a procession around the city. The people go along with the charade, not wanting to appear inept or stupid, until a child blurts out that the emperor is wearing no clothes. The people realise their folly but the emperor, though taken aback, goes on with the regal procession, walking more proudly than ever.

A similar fate has befallen our emperor who has finally been exposed before his people. One fine day in January, Hindenburg uncovered the web of dodgy business practices of the Adani group, and instantly, without studying the details, every political observer knew that this humungous scandal would be Modi’s Bofors gun, and it has unraveled precisely as predicted. The most sanctimonious and loquacious sermonizer on corruption has been struck dumb by allegedly the biggest financial con in corporate history. 

Close on its heels comes the devastating revelation that the country’s Prime Minister has, in all probability, fudged his educational qualifications. Nothing can be more damaging to the image of a man who has been unrestrained in purveying advice and gyaan to space scientists, military specialists, doctors, engineers, not to mention students who have been regular recipients of his sage counsel on the recipe for academic success. 

There’s not a hope in hell of such an eventuality! Whoever has watched Modi perform on TV  will vouch for his chutzpah, which is defined as “audacity and the willingness to take risks in a highly shameless and confident manner”. Perched atop the biggest corporate scam in history, (about which he has not uttered a word), he unabashedly claims to be leading the fight against corruption, repeatedly accusing the Opposition of fostering criminality, and advising his puppets in the central probe agencies not to spare the corrupt.

But irrespective of his seeming self-assurance, he has been discomfited by the recent scandals, which a united Opposition refuses to let go. Insecurity has made him even more authoritarian, as evident in the injudicious ban on the BBC documentary that spurred viewership; the escalation in the persecution of the Opposition; the bullying of liberal NGOs and think-tanks; the brazenness in preventing Parliament from functioning, the first time ever that the ruling party has persistently disrupted parliamentary proceedings.

In this chilling darkness, some political observers believe that the swelling unity among the Opposition born out of desperation, coupled with the recent scandals, have shaken the regime and, for the first time, made it vulnerable. Significantly, instead of seeing these developments as a hopeful sign for the future, many are fearful that a ruthless dispensation will use every possible means to remain in power and, if need be, prevent a smooth transition of power. 

At stake is our democracy and we all need to worry! 

(The writer is a former civil servant. The views are personal)

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