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(First published on May 04, 2019)

The discussion began in a classroom. A young lady was presenting review of ‘How Democracies Die’ by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. I was sitting in the audience. The presenter said that although the authors considered Trump as one of the authoritarian rulers, to them Modi did not belong in the same category. This, in itself, is a mindboggling assertion. Consequently, I had to read the book. And there it was. Total absence of Modi from the frightful list. But I get ahead of myself. Let us consider the four warning signs of an autocrat as summarised by the authors.

An autocrat or a potential autocrat (1) rejects democratic norms like suggesting that the constitution needs serious modification, undermines democratic process or wants to muzzle the press, (2) undermines the legitimacy of his/her opponents by declaring them enemies of the people or criminal, (3) is tolerant towards and at times even encourages violence, (4) shows readiness to curtail civil rights. The book is designed to sound alarm in view of what the authors see as the erosion of democratic norms under Trump.

The description ostensibly is tailored to fit one man alone and other examples are meant to qualify the point. But if the purpose was to raise alarm then it stops at that. In Trump’s case we still are at the warning stage.

It is true at times he has issued statements or tweets which may tick all four boxes, but he has not muzzled the press, asked people to attack opponents particularly after the elections, Hillary Clinton is free to do as she pleases and civil liberties are not suppressed. It doesn’t mean things cannot change. They may. But for the past three years, three quarters of his first term, he has not done more to practically bring a dramatic shift.

This can be attributed to the resilience of the US democratic system. Or his impulsive instincts and statements made earlier can be dismissed as unsound advice of Steve Bannon who genuinely believes that darkness is good and dark reputation can make life easier for you. But in any case, in most of his first term in practice Trump has stuck to Republican Conservative Guide for Dummies.

Let us look at Modi for a minute. Modi is nothing on his own, of course. It is the leadership of the RSS (the real deal behind the ruling party BJP) that counts. But consider this: When he was nominated as the BJP-RSS candidate for premiership, there was a ban on his entering most of Western democracies. Why? Because when communal violence broke out in Gujarat in 2002, a state then under his rule, he did nothing as around 2,000 Muslims were butchered. If you listen to Sanjiv Bhatt, a police official working under him and a man now being persecuted, Modi ordered the police not to do anything.

Modi’s opponents and critics have all faced challenges, at times rigorous threats and ordeals, during his rule. He not only declares his critics and opponents criminals but often traitors or anti-national, currently the worst insult in Indian political lexicon.

The media under his rule either behaves the way he wishes or then faces mysterious outages. Since his crony capitalist friends have made most of the media businesses editors and journalists critical of him lose jobs and often voices. Communal hate is constantly on the rise and his party actively encourages open display of extreme prejudice. If you are a Muslim, you are a terrorist.

If you are a Christian, you are the last remnant of the British rule and essentially guilty of conspiracy to convert Indian Hindus to Christianity. Foreign elements which should be removed at all costs. And Kashmir. The token state election for a token state government has been suspended. Meanwhile, Kashmiri youth and children lose their eyesight owing to the brutal use of buckshot pellets by the security forces.

And Modi is not an autocrat, a strongman or authoritarian ruler. Of course, nominally all institutions still function. But they have been programmed not to notice Modi’s misadventures courtesy the hostile takeover of the state by the RSS, a voluntary religious identity group which has been banned more than once for its terrorist acts.

The opposition clarifies every other day that it did not coin the term saffron terrorism, which the RSS considers a slight against Hinduism. From sending warplanes into Pakistan to win an election based on projection of a muscular national security policy to shooting down a satellite, Modi does what he wants, and the election commission refuses to see his transgressions. He openly asks for votes in the name of soldiers killed at Pulwama and the army maintains resolute silence. And as pointed earlier the media has been thoroughly bulldozed. But of course, he is not an autocrat.

It is often discussed why does the Western media which grills President Trump daily, often takes Netanyahu to task and spares no one falls mysteriously silent when it comes to Modi. Are the two trends connected? Could one variable depend on the other? We are often told that the US has decided to use India as a counter-weight to China, that is why it doesn’t want to antagonise India.

If this were true, this would be the only American that has been spared. Also, if the American media was really that whipped it would have stopped short of criticising its own President. In fact, Trump is not the only American leader who has faced such hostility. Obama and Hillary also faced the media’s wrath. So did most of the state apparatus. Is it possible that the Western media has been programmed not to notice either?

When I look at this remarkable state of affairs, two literary references come to mind. The first is Douglas Adam’s ‘somebody else’s problem’. Self-explanatory, I think. The second is Grima Wormtongue from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

To understand what he does to King Théoden of Rohan you’ll have to read the second book of the trilogy. Just to ensure that this is not misconstrued as yet another dog whistle, let me hasten to add that I do not believe that the entire Indian diaspora is complicit in a conspiracy.

Only that a sizable majority, despite being very secular, does not mind how India is hijacked by the worst elements and the real dream of a progressing, pluralist, democratic India is lost forever.

All they are programmed to care about is how India is represented abroad. Consequence of this is the worst betrayal possible. They progress with the support of the government of India while their fellow countrymen/ex-countrymen go through hell. That, after all, is somebody else’s problem!

Published in The Express Tribune, May 4th, 2019.

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