With less than two years left for the 2024 general elections and the economy tumbling rapidly downhill, the Modi regime is desperately working on its tested and trusted strategy of communal scapegoating to divert the people’s attention from the most burning issues facing the common Indian – soaring prices, vanishing jobs and dwindling income. The NIA raids in Phulwari and elsewhere in Bihar in July, the release and felicitation in Gujarat of the rape and murder convicts in the Bilkis Bano case on the very day India celebrated the seventy-fifth anniversary of Independence and now the ban on PFI and allied organisations, all these tell us how the Sangh-BJP brigade is preparing for the forthcoming elections - Gujarat and Himachal later this year, several Assembly elections due in 2023 and the crucial battle of 2024.
In the wake of the 2002 post-Godhra Gujarat genocide, Modi had portrayed the global condemnation of his regime as an attack on the very identity and honour of Gujarat and made ‘Gujarat gaurav’ or the pride of Gujarat his election plank to retain power. Twenty years ago the balance of forces and the character of the mainstream media discourse were still quite different – while Modi managed to retain Gujarat, Vajpayee and Advani had to pay the price despite their high-voltage ‘India shining’ campaign. Apart from the disturbing reality of farmer suicides and economic distress, the genocide in Gujarat was a key reason that led to the demise of the Vajpayee-Advani era.
Within Gujarat, Modi however managed to secure the loyal support of India’s big corporates who rallied around him under the banner of ‘vibrant Gujarat’. The power of the state – an arbitrary police state driven by an unbridled executive – completed the fusion of communal ideology and corporate interests and turned it into a vice-like grip. This Gujarat model is now being replicated on an all-India level to ensure an uninterrupted reign of the RSS-anointed supreme leader. Periodic surfacing of alleged threats to the supreme leader and to the Hindu community and India as a country is central to this script.
During the declared Emergency of the mid 1970s we had heard a slogan stating the equivalence of India and Indira, the then supreme leader. Now the equivalence is stretched to insert the Hindu identity in the middle because the leader is also known as the ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat’ (emperor of Hindu hearts). Critics of the regime and its vicious politics and disastrous performance are now routinely accused of being both anti-national and anti-Hindu or Hinduphobe. This of course follows from the Sangh brigade’s definition of India as a Hindu nation. The government is constantly talking of either external or internal threats and classifying dissenting citizens into various categories of designated internal enemies. The rant against ‘urban naxals’ has already led to the arrest and even custodial death of some of India’s most active human rights defenders and now the ban on PFI and allied organisations indicates the beginning of a new stage of the indiscriminate witch-hunt against Indian Muslims.
During the Emergency, India’s press was subjected to censorship and a large spectrum of opposition leaders and activists were put in jails. Restoration of democracy therefore became a key slogan and widely felt need. The lifting of Emergency and the defeat of the autocratic regime also witnessed a spirited campaign for release of political prisoners and reinstatement of employees whose jobs were terminated during the 1974 railway strike. This time round, much of the mainstream media has effectively been transformed into a propaganda tool for the regime and the incarceration campaign still remains largely confined to non-party activists with the exception of Jammu and Kashmir, where following the deactivation of Article 370 the entire political opposition was put in jail or under house arrest.
This may partly explain why the ending of the witch-hunt and the release of prisoners of conscience have not yet emerged as core demands of the parliamentary opposition. There is also the old mistaken belief that the opposition only needed to remain focused on the economy. Narsimha Rao had famously thought that the market would deflate the BJP’s communal agenda, but the rise of the Modi phenomenon has clearly revealed the high compatibility quotient in the marriage between market fundamentalism and communal fascism. It is time India’s parliamentary opposition woke up to the pressing need to make political liberty a key item on its agenda. When the BJP is bent upon subverting the Constitution and turning India into an opposition-free one-party polity, the opposition must rise unhesitatingly in defence of democracy and the Constitution. There can be no deferring or truncating the democratic agenda in the battle against fascism.