Has Indian democracy created its Frankenstein?
Mary Shelley’s (1818) novel, Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus, is a combination of horror and science fiction. It is the story of Victor Frankenstein, a Swiss student of natural science, who creates an artificial man from the body parts of dead persons. In the beginning, though the monster seeks affection, eventually it inspires loathing in everyone who meets it. Growing lonely and miserable, eventually, the monster turns upon its creator and devours him.
Though the story can be interpreted in multiple ways, here I use it as a metaphor to describe the state of the Indian democracy and the government that rules it today. This I do in the context of Congress MP Rahul Gandhi’s interview with Cornell University professor and former economic advisor to the Indian government, Kaushik Basu, on March 3rd 2021. In any other democracy and even in India at a different time before 2014, Gandhi’s interview should have created a storm of media reports, discussions, and reactions.
The issues he touched upon were so profound for the survival of our democracy that a media with even a semblance of commitment to democracy should have lapped it up and presented it before the people. But except for a few digital media platforms, the focus of the “mainstream”, corporate-controlled press remained on trivial issues and sensationalism.
This precisely is what Rahul Gandhi has referred to in his interview: a media owned by a group of corporates who fund a fascist organisation called Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) which has captured the nation’s institutions and bureaucracy and directs the policies of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is its political front, that works to promote the interests of its corporate sponsors. This is a self-supporting loop that has come to devour Indian democracy lock, stock, and barrel. In Rahul Gandhi’s view this self-supporting cabal functions to disrupt and destroy Indian democracy.
Gandhi’s shocking expose was in answer to Basu’s reference to global concern over the erosion of democracy, freedom of expression, shrinking space for dissent and muzzling of debate in the public sphere. In answer, here is what Gandhi said bluntly:
“It is much deeper than muzzling of debate. Muzzling of debate is one of the elements. The RSS is systematically attacking the institutions. Judiciary, media, bureaucracy, Election Commission are being filled with people of one ideology. It is not eroding, it is strangling. I didn’t realise how profound it is till I faced it…. It is a full-scale assault on democracy.”
With this statement, Mr Gandhi has said something that purports to indicate that, currently, India is run by a cabal or a deep state whose reach and entrenchment within the Indian system of government is so deep that even if an opposition party wins an election and manages to form the government it cannot function effectively. Citing an example, he refers to his conversation with Kamal Nath, the recently dethroned chief minister of Madya Pradesh, whose experience of bureaucracy not cooperating with the elected government due to its loyalty to the RSS, is a shocking revelation.
In another meeting with lawyers in Tamilnadu on February 27th 2021 Mr Gandhi said that for any opposition party to win less than a two-third majority is worthless because the BJP-RSS-corporate cabal destabilises the governments in every possible manner. They use governors to obstruct, use law enforcement agencies such as the Enforcement Directorate (ED), Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and even huge financial inducements to threaten or blackmail legislators (MLAs) to defect from the non-BJP ruling bloc.
Since 2014 the BJP has purchased or blackmailed opposition MLA’s (mainly from the Congress Party) in as many as nine states to form its government by bringing down duly elected Congress governments. According to recent findings by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), 44% of MLAs who switched parties, joined the BJP.
Mr Gandhi’s angst at such political immorality and destruction of democracy is evident when he said to Basu that today the entire Opposition is fighting to protect India and not for power. He said: “Before 2014, we were fighting for power. The game has changed now. What is India? It is a negotiation. We agreed on a free and fair fight for power. There is no free and fair fight now.”
For any keen observer of India since 2014, Mr Gandhi’s words are not a surprise. The current situation did not come about suddenly in 2014. Indian society, with deeply entrenched caste hierarchy, discrimination and economic inequality had been a fertile ground for the rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s authoritarian populism. The Congress party, with its neoliberal economic policies, adopted since the 1990s, was itself partly responsible for the rise of inequality and the emergence of a middle class whose material desires and aspirations became more and more insatiable as the nation became economically liberal.
While the economically left out communities sought recourse in caste identity politics, Modi became the neoliberal messiah of the upper-caste Hindus. The corporate funding and media support, the grassroots work of the RSS and the purported corruption narrative against the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) governments helped decimate the Congress and inflict permanent damage to the person of Rahul Gandhi himself. The “Pappu” narrative against Gandhi unleashed through the BJP’s IT Cell has been so successful that the Congress party has not succeeded to fight back and effectively rehabilitate him as its leader.
But Mr Gandhi is forthright in his opinion about the danger a socially regressive and economically neoliberal but legally opaque organisation such as the RSS poses to Indian democracy. According to him, the threat is both social and political. It is a social threat because, under Modi, the RSS receives an enormous amount of corporate and state funding which helps it penetrate institutions. He said that today, for someone to be appointed head of an institution one need not have requisite credentials. The only credentials required are his/her being a member of the RSS or pledge allegiance to it.
Modi’s offer of free reign to RSS to do whatever it wants with education, the bureaucracy, and other state institutions, has done immense damage to our democracy and the same capitalist cronies provide Modi for his destructive rule with political cover using their media. In the same interview Mr Gandhi described the negative effects of RSS’s social and political penetration into the Indian state thus:
“Beyond the bluster, what the RSS is doing is reinforce the concept of caste in India. It is reorganising society to show people their places — that the Dalit has this place, the Sikhs this place, women have this place.”
A stratified, hierarchical and unequal society fits RSS’s view of its purported Hindu Rashtra where Dalits, women, Muslims and other minorities remain second-class citizens. This regressive situation of Indian democracy is well noted by multiple international agencies.
In the most recent Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World” report India is downgraded from being a ‘Free’ country to a ‘Partly Free’ country. If the score was 75 in 2018, it slipped to 71 in 2019. This has sunk to 67 in 2020. The report cites “rising violence and discriminatory policies affecting the Muslim population” and “crackdown on expressions of dissent by the media, academics, civil society groups, and protesters” under the Modi government. The Sweden-based V Dem Institute’s report states that India is no longer a democracy but an “electoral autocracy”.
The entire system has failed to support the cause of democracy and succumbed to Modi’s fascism, which is giving such rankings to India. The failure of the judiciary to stand up to the discriminatory and unconstitutional manner of the government assault on citizens and institutions is one of them. Many eminent judges, even from the higher judiciary, are openly praising the personality of Modi and even passing judgements favourable to the government and Hindutva ideology have reduced people’s trust in the system. Instances of judges offered plum appointments post-retirement, blackmail and threats, etc, to recuse from taking up cases, etc, are quite common occurrences.
Judiciaries partiality against minorities and Dalits is also a matter of concern raised by activists and political parties. Besides the judiciary, the government’s new bill to control social media content providers also appears to exhibit its dangerous liaison with full-fledged fascism.
Whether one likes Gandhi or not, in the current period in Indian history, his observations and analysis are to the point. None doubts that India today has a government that is authoritarian and fascist in every manifestation. Every individual and section of society, if it does not fall in line with RSS’s and the current government’s socio-political, and cultural-ideological thrust, is traumatised continually. Laws are promulgated without involving the stakeholders and even the Parliament. Political opposition is being decimated using state machinery, the media smears, and corporate funds. This multi-pronged assault has made elections meaningless. All this points to one conclusion or question: has Indian democracy created its own Frankenstein which is continuing to devour itself? If one is to take Rahul Gandhi’s concerns seriously, then the answer is: YES.
Dr Samuel Sequeira is a Research Associate at Cardiff University, UK. A native of Karnataka, he had his MA at Mysore University (Karnataka) and had worked as an Editor of Konkani and Kannada newspapers. He has his PhD from Cardiff University where he researched on “South Asian Migrant Community living in Wales”. His current research is about the topic “Trauma of Civil War: Sri Lankan Tamil Experience”.