Today’s authoritarian governance is far more ominous for democracy: Author Gyan Prakash

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Lunglei: Prime Minister and BJP leader Narendra Modi addresses a public meeting ahead of Mizoram assembly polls, in Lunglei, Mizoram on Nov 23, 2018. (Photo: IANS/BJP)

By Saket Suman  

New Delhi, Nov 23: That the nation is embodied in the Prime Minister is the telling similarity between the Emergency of 1975-77 under Indira Gandhi and the contemporary state of affairs in India under Narendra Modi; but unlike the former, Modi’s “authoritarian governance” is not based on “the assumption of emergency powers by the executive”, says Gyan Prakash, a professor of history at Princeton University and author of several highly acclaimed books, including “Mumbai Fables”, which was adapted for the film “Bombay Velvet”, and the just-released “Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point”.

In his latest book, that has just hit the stands with glowing endorsements by the likes of Sunil Khilnani and Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Prakash, who was a member of the influential Subaltern Studies Collective until its dissolution in 2006, is quite vocal when it comes to drawing a comparison between the regimes of Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi. He contends in the book that “Hindutva is fundamentally anti-democratic”, adding that “Hindutva ideologues target dissent as anti-national”.

Asked what made him reach this conclusion and what was its likely impact on Indian democracy, Prakash said that the two situations are not exactly the same but both the similarities and differences are revealing.

Modi’s authoritarian governance, Prakash said, is by a combination of two factors.

“First, the BJP government uses and abuses the centralising powers of the state to weaken institutions and stifle dissent by terming it anti-national. Second, unlike Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, which never enjoyed popular support, Narendra Modi’s government is able to deploy Hindutva forces on the ground to intimidate the opposition. In addition, it enjoys support from the corporate media, particularly electronic media,” Prakash told IANS in an email from New Jersey, recalling that there was no private electronic media during the Emergency, and the government-controlled media never enjoyed the reach and influence that the media does today.

“For these reasons, authoritarian power is far more ominous for democracy today,” he maintained.

He said that the gatekeepers of democracy are its institutions — political parties, the rule of law, an independent press, and avenues to express dissent.

“You cannot realise democracy’s substantive promise of equality without its institutions. Centralisation of power in one person or one office damages the health of these institutions. There were some people in India who welcomed the BJP victory in 2014 even if they didn’t agree with its Hindutva ideology. They thought that because the BJP was a proper political party with seasoned national and regional leaders, and not beholden to one family like the Congress, it would respect and strengthen democratic institutions. But the stunning depletion of its leadership to one oversized personality has meant that the space for the expression of multiple and divergent views in the party has contracted almost overnight. So has the possibility of the BJP playing its role, as a political party, as a gatekeeper of democracy,” he said.

In the book, published by Penguin Random House India, Prakash argues that the surge of Hindu nationalism has catapulted Narendra Modi into the kind of position that Indira occupied only with Emergency. Asked if he was suggesting that there is an undeclared emergency kind of a scenario in contemporary India, he said the term conjures up a false and misleading similarity.

“The Emergency was a very specific state action, a lawful suspension of the law. But Indira’s draconian laws and abuse of authority could never summon foot soldiers on the street to back her power. The very fact that she had to formally silence the press, meddle with the judiciary, and place over a hundred thousand people in prison were signs that her power lacked the force of popular support. The deployment of coercion to implement the 20-point programme, sterilisation drives, slum clearance campaigns, and efforts to break through the controlled economy, signified that all was not well with her regime at the ground level. This is why she resorted to the Emergency to salvage her regime and its policy agenda,” Prakash explained.

He said the situation today is very different.

“Today we witness an unprecedented combination of state power and populist mobilisation in the name of development and the nation. Yes, there is a growing centralisation of power, and attacks on institutions, abuse of authority, etc., but what makes the current context radically different is that moves at the top are joined by mobilisation from below. This coordination between state and society — deliberate or not — threatens democracy in a fundamental way, one that is not captured by the term ‘undeclared Emergency’,” Prakash maintained.

He said the Congress has never come to terms with the legacy of 1975-77, and needs to address it squarely, not with half apologies and part justifications.

“But more important than apologies and acknowledgments is to recognise the Indian political system’s deeper and continuing failure to realise the promise of democracy,” he said, pointing to several chapters in “Emergency Chronicles” that are devoted to describing how popular discontent with the shortcomings in this regard found expression in the JP movement.

“This is necessary to demolish the comfortable myth that permits us to believe that nothing is fundamentally amiss in India’s experience with democracy, and that all the problems began and ended with Indira,” he said.

Priced at Rs 699, the 439-page book is available both online and at bookstores.