Tavleen Singh writes: I marvelled at the passion with which Modi’s BJP fights elections. No election is too small.
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Let me begin by confessing that I was very impressed with the Prime Minister’s passionate speech in West Bengal last week. In answer to the Chief Minister’s taunt about ‘outsiders’ coming to try and snatch the state from Bengalis, he said in thunderous tones, “Didi, oh Didi, how dare you stand on the land that Gurudev once walked on and call anyone an outsider! Have you forgotten that it was he who wrote Punjab, Sindh, Gujarat, Maratha, Dravida, Utkal, Banga. Vindhya, Himachal, Yamuna, Ganga, Uchchal jaladhi tiranga.” It was well said.
The first votes in this election were cast yesterday. So last week saw the Bharatiya Janata Party send its biggest stars to campaign for what is clearly the most important election of this season. The Home Minister went personally to release the party’s manifesto, which he called a ‘sankalp patra’ or a list of pledges. He pledged to do things for the state that no BJP government has done in the states that it has already won. He pledged that 33% of the seats in the state legislature will be reserved for women. He pledged that the daughters of Bengal will have their education paid for from ‘KG to PG’ and pledged many other wondrous things that will happen to Bengal if it chooses the BJP over Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress. The proverbial icing on the cake came in the form of Yogi Adityanath who mixed religion with politics as only he can and declared that without Ram there can be no India and those who are traitors to Ram have no place in India.
Two things happened as I listened to the Prime Minister and the two men who his devotees already predict will get his job one day. The first was that I marvelled at the passion with which Modi’s BJP fights elections. No election is too small. Not long ago we saw all the party’s major stars descend on Hyderabad to fight a municipal election. And now they fight in West Bengal as if they were fighting for their lives. Assam has had some attention but the elections in southern India have been almost ignored. Amit Shah said Bengal has more seats so we had to come here more.
The second of the things that happened was that I realised that Modi’s BJP (and it is his alone now) believes that democracy only means winning elections. The current incarnation of the party of Hindutva appears not to have understood at all the deeper meaning of democracy. This deeper meaning is that in between election campaigns the party that wins needs to show its real respect for democracy by strengthening as best as it can the institutions that are the pillars on which democracy stands. On more occasions than can be listed here the Prime Minister has allowed his minions and acolytes to abuse unsupportive journalists in filthy language on social media.
On more occasions than can be listed here we have seen his government crush dissent by jailing dissidents on sedition charges. Sikh farmers who opposed the farm laws have been called secessionists. Muslims who opposed the new citizenship law have been charged with ‘masterminding’ the riots in Delhi and jailed under preventive detention laws. More recently two celebrated academics resigned from a prestigious private university because they felt their criticism of Modi was harming the institution they worked for.
When things like this happen, the watchdogs of democracy that exist in other democratic countries take notice and so India found its democratic status downgraded to ‘partly free’. When the Minister of External Affairs was asked about this at the India Today Conclave South, he said with a sneer that India did not need certificates of democracy from those who ‘have an agenda’.
This comment worried me more than almost any made by one of Modi’s senior ministers because it sounded as if he were the Foreign Minister of China, Turkey or Pakistan. It would diminish India to ever be in that club. If there is one thing we can truly be proud of, it is that we have remained a democracy through times of terrible hardship, poverty and tumult. We have remained a democracy because our leaders have ensured, except during the Emergency, that the pillars that hold up the edifice of democracy have not been damaged.
The Prime Minister has proved that when it comes to winning elections, the BJP that he has reimagined in the past seven years is truly unbeatable. It fights every election, small and big, with the passion he exhibited in the speech he made last week. What he has not done is bring that same passion into preserving the institutions of democracy, after the heat and dust of the campaign settles and the business of governing begins.
It is true that Modi has run welfare schemes and social programmes better than before, but when it comes to allowing what Zulfikar Ali Bhutto once called the ‘noise and chaos of India’s democracy’, he has failed. Bhutto hated India but conceded in his last months that it was this ‘noise and chaos’ that made India a country in which an elected prime minister could not be hanged by a military dictator. The noise and chaos can exist only when it is allowed to.
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 28, 2021 under the title ‘Democracy between elections’.
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