Cracks are beginning to show in authoritarian rule – global issues

Himanshu Sharma
Credit: Himanshu Sharma/Photo Alliance via Getty Images
  • Opinion by Andrew Firmin (London)
  • Inter-Press Office

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has lost seats compared to the Elections 2019and lost its parliamentary majority. Modi remains Prime Minister thanks to coalition partners. It is a far cry from Modi’s supermajority of 400 seats proclaimed he wanted – which would have given him the power to rewrite the Constitution.

The outcome may be that Modi gains more control over his power. If so, it can only be good news for those he has consistently attacked – including civil society and India’s Muslim minority.

Modi’s crackdown

Under Modi, who has been in power since 2014, conditions regarding public space have remained the same deteriorated. The elections in India were accompanied by the usual headlines about the country being the largest democracy in the world. But Indian democracy has long been underpinned by an active, vibrant and diverse civil society. Modi has tried to contain this bourgeois energy, seeing it as an obstacle to his highly centralized and personalized rule.

Modi’s government has repeatedly used repressive laws, including the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, to harass, intimidate and detain activists and journalists on trumped-up charges. Law enforcement agencies have raided numerous civil society organizations and media companies. For example, in October 2023, police raids the homes of approximately 40 employees of the NewsClick portal and locked up his editor.

This was one of many attacks on media freedom. Independent journalists routinely face intimidation, threats, violence, arrests and prosecution. Last year the government forbidden a BBC documentary on Modi, followed by a tax investigation raids at the company’s Indian offices.

Authorities have also used the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act to block access to international funding for civil society organizations, targeting those critical of their attacks on human rights. In 2020, the government changed the law to make it even stricter, expanding powers to freeze bank accounts. Since the beginning of 2022, the authorities have suspended the registrations of almost 6,000 organizations.

Authorities have also unleashed violence against protesters. In 2019, citizenship legislation created a way for undocumented migrants to become Indian citizens – but only if they were not Muslim. Despite India’s secular constitution, the law introduced religious criteria in determining citizenship. The passing of this discriminatory law brought tens of thousands of people onto the streets. Security forces responded with beatings, tear gas and arrests, accompanied by the internet closures.

The same was the case when farmers protested in 2020 and 2021, believing that new farm laws would undermine their ability to earn a living. The farmers ultimately triumphed, with Modi repealing the unpopular laws. But several farmers died as a result of the authorities’ heavy-handed response, including by a minister’s car plowed into it a crowd of demonstrators. Authorities again cut off internet and mobile services, and police used batons and tear gas arrested many demonstrators.

As the new citizenship law made clear, those with the least access to rights are the most attacked. Muslims are the BJP’s favorite target as it seeks to redefine the country as an explicitly Hindu nation. The party’s politicians have consistently stoked anti-Muslim hatred, including around the world wearing hijabsinterfaith marriages and the protection of cows – a revered animal in Hinduism.

Modi is accused of spreading anti-Muslim sentiments hate speech and conspiracy theories, also on the campaign trail. During the elections he has called Muslims ‘infiltrators’, hinting at India’s version of a narrative often put forward by far-right parties – that a minority population is out to to replace the majority through a higher birth rate and the conversion of partners.

The BJP’s populist rhetoric has encouraged hatred and violence. In 2020, Delhi experienced its worst riots in decades, sparked by violence at a protest against the citizenship law. Groups of Hindus and Muslims fought with each other 53 people were murdered, most of them Muslims.

The unilateral violence was followed by institutional violence from above withdrawal of the special autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019. The lifting of constitutional protections for this Muslim-majority region was accompanied by a military occupation, a curfew, a ban on public gatherings, restrictions on movement and one of the world’s longest lockdowns the internet ever. The Indian government authorities have done that locked up thousands of Kashmiri activists and criminalized countless journalists.

Disinformation thrives

Ahead of the elections, the state arrested key opposition politicians as Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and the opposition’s bank accounts froze, included of the main opposition party, the Congress. Almost all Politicians under investigation by the government’s Enforcement Directorate are from the opposition.

Indian elections always take several weeks, given the enormous logistical challenge of allowing this 969 million people to vote. But this one, spread over 82 days, was unusually long. This allowed Modi to travel around the country making as many appearances as possible, representing a campaign that focused on his personality.

Disinformation was rife in the campaign. BJP politicians scatter claims that Muslims were engaged in what they called a ‘vote jihad’ against Hindus, accompanied by accusations that the opposition favored Muslims. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi was a special person goalwith false accusations of links to China and Pakistan and doctored videos in circulation.

But despite many challenges, the opposition coalition performed better than expected. The result suggests that at least some are fed up with the Modi personality cult and the politics of polarization. And despite all the BJP’s attempts to emphasize economic success, many voters do not feel better off. What is important to them is rising prices and unemploymentand they judged the sitting president accordingly.

It is hoped that the outcome will lead to a change in style, with less divisive rhetoric and more emphasis on compromise and consensus. That may be a tall order, but the opposition may now be better able to fulfill its accountability role. Modi has lost his sheen of invincibility. For civil society, this could provide opportunities to push back and urge the government to stop its attack.

Andreas Firmin is CIVICUS editor-in-chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS lens and co-author of Report on the state of civil society.

© Inter Press Service (2024) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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