India’s Parliamentary Democracy Must Be Saved from Being Turned into a Presidential Tyranny
by Dipankar Bhattacharya

It was the month of December thirty-one years ago. The BJP was yet to win power in Delhi, but it had found its way to power in Lucknow. In broad daylight on December 6 it demonstrated before the whole world what it could do with a slice of state power. The BJP government in Uttar Pradesh empowered a mob led by veteran leaders of the Sangh Parivar to demolish the Babri Masjid even as the dispute was being heard by the Supreme Court. The BJP even provided a ‘logical’ justification for this brazen act of vandalism. The court, according to the BJP, could not adjudicate on matters of faith concerning the majority community.

The message was loud and clear. If the BJP could throw such an open challenge to the Constitution while in power in a state, it was not difficult to see what it could do on the basis of  control over state power at the centre. Ten years later Gujarat 2002 gave us a louder and clearer warning. The UP BJP government had been dismissed for its complicity in the demolition of the Babri Masjid, but in Gujarat the BJP government remained ensconced in power despite overseeing a carnage that was internationally condemned as a pogrom or genocide of Muslims. The term ‘double engine government’ had not yet become fashionable, but we had a clear forewarning about the shape of things to come.

Twenty-one years down the line, December 2023 will go down as the clearest glimpse of the Modi government’s vision of India’s political future. Emboldened by the BJP’s victories in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan elections, the government decided to bulldoze the opposition in Parliament. The assault that began with the summary expulsion of TMC MP Mahua Moitra on the basis of a dubious Ethics Committee report has reached absurd lengths with the mass suspension of MPs from both houses of Parliament following the December 13 breach of parliament security. And in the absence of opposition MPs, the regime has been ramming through? one bill after another, bills of far-reaching import that threaten to convert India into a veritable police state with the executive armed with sweeping powers of surveillance and coercion and citizens left with hardly any constitutional safeguards. 

India’s parliamentary democracy now truly resembles a royal court running at the whims and mercy of a tyrant. In Mahua Moitra’s case there was hardly any discussion on the Ethics Committee report and Moitra herself was not even allowed to speak and respond to the allegations and the report. While Mahua Moitra has been charged with jeopardising India’s national security by sharing her parliamentary login credentials with others, BJP MP Pratap Simha from Mysore on whose recommendation protesters secured passes to the visitors’ gallery and managed to enter with smoke canisters has not been subjected to any kind of parliamentary scrutiny. Earlier in the previous session of Lok Sabha BJP MP Ramesh Bidhuri was allowed to get away with virulent Islamophobic abuses and threats against BSP MP Danish Ali.

In a parliamentary democracy, the government of the day is ultimately accountable to the people and when the parliament is in session, the executive is firstly accountable to the parliament. The Modi government has made it a habit to avoid the parliament in every possible way. The Prime Minister hardly attends Parliament except to deliver speeches that sound more like rhetorical demagoguery full of false claims, distorted and twisted references about past events and leaders without any historical foundation and not-so-veiled threats against political opponents and dissenting citizens. The opposition had to come up with a no-confidence motion to get him to open his mouth about the violence in Manipur. And now the demand for a statement from the Home Minister on the December 13 breach of Parliament security has resulted in wholesale suspension of members from both Houses of Parliament.

The Modi government is fast completing its arrangements to secure a total and tight grip on the state without any check and balance within the system. The Supreme Court verdict on the appointment of Election Commissioners has now been overturned by effectively vesting the entire power of appointment with the government. Without neutrality of the ECI the notion of free and fair elections can only become a pipe dream with electoral bonds and EVMs making the whole process increasingly opaque. The three new criminal bills passed with the dubious claim of decolonising India’s legal architecture actually reduce free citizens in a free republic to the status of disempowered subjects. Going beyond the Emergency era suspension of democratic rights, what we are witnessing now is a fundamental restructuring of the Indian polity – conversion of parliamentary democracy into a de facto authoritarian presidential system in a republic of fear. We can call it India’s rapid descent into Modicracy which negates every tenet of the preamble to India’s existing constitution. The 2024 Lok Sabha elections will be India’s last chance to stall this descent and save our constitutional democracy. India will have to win this decisive battle.

India’s Parliamentary Democracy Must Be Saved from Being Turned into a Presidential Tyranny