General elections! Yet rendered somewhat joyless by the creeping authoritarianism which seems to have taken hold across the political spectrum. Students who cheered Pakistan at a cricket match were charged with sedition. Journalists have been threatened with physical attack on social media for expressing contrarian political views. On the day polls were announced political parties engaged in street battles. A politician visiting the state that prides itself on stable governance had his car windows broken.
The institutionalisation of goon power in India is a trend as old as the Emergency, but today more than ever, goons are jump-starting the political process not only because they are seen as invaluable in galvanising core voters but also because they feel protected by the deafening imperial silence of the top leadership across parties from Sonia Gandhi to Narendra Modi.
AAP plays the politics of street protest and allegations. But why does AAP not have the democratic right to play politics in Gujarat? Given the BJP’s unquestioned dominance in Gujarat, why should BJP supporters stone Kejriwal’s car? When bombs went off at Narendra Modi’s Patna rally, the Nitish Kumar government was justly taken to task for its failure to ensure law and order. When Modi journeyed to Delhi to publicly tear into Sheila Dikshit as nothing but a “ribbon cutting” chief minister, the criticism was echoed by many Delhiites frustrated by a powerless executive.
If Nitish Kumar and Sheila Dikshit were rightly held accountable for the failures of their state governments, then when Arvind Kejriwal’s car is repeatedly stoned or AAP supporters were threatened during Kejriwal’s Gujarat tour, should the Gujarat state government not be equally accountable for these acts of unruliness in a “shining” state? For the first time in a general election, a particular state — Gujarat — is being held up as a role model for the entire nation. Did Gujarat show exemplary democratic governance during Kejriwal’s visit?
We still haven’t heard from Modi exactly how the fiscal deficit is going to be controlled but he’s running a well-organised campaign promising an end to indecisiveness and graft. But have Modi’s followers internalised his message of good governance? Any faint criticism of Modi on social media brings out an army of foul-mouthed Modi bhakts, raging against a “biased” media and threatening death and rape. Are these bhakts believers in good governance?
The AAP’s protest at the BJP headquarters in Delhi was wholly unwarranted and senior AAP figures like Ashutosh overstepped both political lines and political walls. But in retaliation BJP karyakartas hurled bricks, chairs and even called in the police to water cannon fellow politicians! Was this the behaviour of a party promising good governance? In Lucknow, BJP supporters armed with lathis were seen on camera ferociously raining down blows on AAP members. Is such ferocity a mark of commitment to good governance?
Every political party in India has institutionalised the power of the goon squad (legitimised as political activists) and also institutionalised structures of fear and authoritarian leadership cults. War on dissent, war on journalists, and war on the Opposition was taken to its height during CPI(M) dominance in West Bengal in the 1970s and 1980s. When Indira Gandhi jailed her political opponents and muzzled the press, the Emergency was cheered on by the order-loving middle class. The Indira-led Congress was a force of so much fear that self-censorship became a reflex action. Today, Left and Right may differ on economic policies, but there is a fundamental convergence on philosophy and method when it comes to the institutionalisation of fear and the increasingly salient role played by apparatchiks, whether dressed in saffron, red or green.
Why has Penguin withdrawn copies of Wendy Doniger’s book? Because it fears the goon squad. Why do journalists exercise self-censorship? Because they fear the goon squad. A senior journalist’s home has been visited by goons. Cases have been filed against the Kashmiri students who cheered Pakistan, but why has the Samajwadi Party government not filed cases against those who threw stones at their hostel and broke window panes? AAP leaders were arrested and rigorously questioned by the police on activities at the BJP office, but why were BJP karyakartas who threw stones and leaders like Nalin Kohli who led the BJP’s “counter-attack” also not questioned in as rigorous a manner?
The BJP-led NDA is heading for a possible victory in the general elections. Like all victorious parties, like the Congress or the CPI(M), the BJP too must introspect on the institutionalisation of its violent fringe. Indira Gandhi turned a blind eye to the Sanjay Gandhi goon squad. The CPI(M)top leadership in Delhi remained aristocratically aloof from the depredations of the commissars in the Bengal countryside. As every Bollywood script writer will tell you, to manufacture a hero, you always need a villain. Left-wing extremists created a villain in ‘Tata Company’ and ‘Birla Company’ against whom they were the people’s heroes. Similarly, Right-wing extremists today have created villains of ‘pseudo secular elitists’ and ‘anti-India’ minorities, against whom they are the heroes.
The striking parallels of Leftist authoritarianism of the 1970s (both of the Indira and the CPI(M) variety) and the rightist authoritarianism of today should make every democrat pause sharply in his or her tracks. Even AAP has developed an authoritarian knack of creating a ‘them’ versus ‘us’ mindset: if you are not with “us”, then you must be corrupt.
Why don’t political leaderships speak out against goons? Why doesn’t Modi distance himself from the bhakts on social media who try to prove they are More Loyal than the King by abusing in his name? The remote silence of Sonia Gandhi emboldened Congressmen to wreak havoc on structures of governance. The disturbing silence of Modi on the foot soldiers, who act in his name, may prove similarly hazardous for democratic freedoms.
Sagarika Ghose is Deputy Editor, CNN-IBN
The views expressed by the author are personal