The world has changed since the Prime Minister of India last made an important foreign visit. The pandemic grounded him. In that time political leaders changed and the man whom Narendra Modi endorsed when he last visited the United States is no longer President.
With Donald Trump there was a friendship so special that Modi said at ‘Howdy! Modi’ in Houston, ‘Ab ki baar, Trump sarkaar’. Then, holding hands, the two men took what looked like a victory lap. Six months later, even as Covid had begun to spread, there was another vast gathering, for Trump in Gujarat, at which the American President and his family were treated like royalty. Then Trump lost.
The man who won instead has indicated more than once that he sees the world as divided into autocracies and democracies. In his speech to the UN General Assembly last week, President Biden said that he did not want a new Cold War to start but that he fully intended to stand on the side of democracy. If this happens, the world could become a place in which democratic rights are as valued as economic and military strength.
When our Prime Minister met Vice President Kamala Harris, she also talked of the importance of democracy, although this part of her speech was played down by Indian government spokesmen. It is silly for them to have done this because the other things that Modi would have talked to with the new leaders of the United States were obvious.
Jihadi terrorism, Afghanistan, climate change and Covid would naturally have been discussed. But should the Indian Prime Minister worry about this new emphasis on democracy? He should. This is because the ‘new India’ that he speaks of with the pride of its creator, is being seen as an ‘illiberal democracy’ that punishes dissidence. Sometimes brutally.
When the Prime Minister returns home he would do well to spend an afternoon with his media team and find out why it is only ‘friendly’ journalists that get to meet him. And, why newspapers like Dainik Bhaskar and news portals like Newslaundry and NewsClick have been recently subjected to tax raids.
He should also ask the Home Minister why so many dissidents have spent months in jail simply because they were arrested under preventive detention laws that do not require specific charges before an arrest is made. Bail has been repeatedly opposed by his officials on grounds that the courts have begun to question. No country that treats dissidents and political opponents this way counts as a liberal democracy.
The word ‘liberal’ is used as a term of abuse so often these days by Modi’s devotees on social media that it is time for us liberals to stand up and speak out. Modi’s followers appear to have limited political understanding.
So, they usually use ‘liberandus and lefties’ in the same vituperative sentence. They appear not to have noticed that there are liberals, like your columnist, who are politically conservative and economically way, way on the right.
My point is that if India is to avoid ending up in the autocracies corner, liberals need to make their voice heard louder than they have in the past seven years. We need to speak out against the brutal suppression of dissent in the ‘new India’.
In that old India in which Indians of my age grew up, tax raids were usually reserved for businessmen, movie stars and political opponents. But a high degree of dissidence was permitted as long as you did not pick up a gun to make your point.
Democratic freedoms include not just the freedom to speak and dissent but the freedom to worship. In the ‘new India’ this is becoming difficult because gangs of thugs have started wandering about our cities seeking out helpless Muslims and ordering them to say ‘Jai Shri Ram’ or risk being beaten within an inch of their lives. Sometimes they are beaten up even as they say ‘Jai Shri Ram’ in voices trembling with fear.
The police look the other way in states governed by the BJP, but when arrests are made, the thugs are nearly always found to be linked to the Prime Minister’s alma mater. The RSS does not ever admit that they encourage young Hindus to fight against Muslims but there has never been any attempt to deny that the Bajrang Dal is one of the Sangh Parivar’s uglier spawns.
Indian reporters who travelled to the United States to cover Modi’s visit appear to think that one of the greatest achievements has been India’s inclusion in the Quad. Some foreign policy ‘experts’ have actually boasted about this as a major triumph since Pakistan has not been included in this group. What they forget is that the Quad is a grouping of democratic countries that has been formed specifically to challenge autocratic China’s malign influence that sadly continues to grow and spread.
India’s credentials for being in the Quad may be many, but possibly the most important among these is that we remain a democracy. It is time for liberals to stand up and speak out to ensure that we remain not just a democracy but the liberal democracy that we have always been. Every right guaranteed to us by our Constitution needs to be defended publicly against ‘nationalists’ who make it very clear that they see liberal democracy as a nuisance.