India’s political system is veering towards a full-blown tyranny. The targeting of Opposition leaders leading to the farcical disqualification of Rahul Gandhi, the hounding of civil society and research organisations, censorship of information, the suppression of protest, are harbingers of a full-blown system of rule where all the interlocking parts add up to the one objective of tyrannical rule: To create pervasive fear.
These actions are alarming, not because this or that leader has been targeted. They are alarming because the current BJP government is signaling not just that it will not tolerate the Opposition. It will not, under any circumstances, even contemplate or allow a smooth transition of power. For, what these actions reveal is a ruthless lust for power, combined with a determination to use any means to secure it. Neither the form of power the BJP seeks, nor the ends they deploy to achieve it, knows any constraints or bounds. That is the quintessential hallmark of tyranny.
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In a democracy, a smooth transition of power in a fair election requires several conditions. The ruthless crushing of the Opposition and the squelching of liberty erodes these conditions. The first is that professional politicians treat each other as members of the same profession, not as existential enemies to be vanquished by any means. Once a regime does that to its opponents, it fears the consequences of losing power. It can no longer rest in the comfortable belief that democracy is a game of rotating power; transitions should be routine. Can you now imagine Prime Minister Narendra Modi or Amit Shah or their minions calmly contemplating the prospect that they could ever be in the Opposition, after the hubris they have deployed against opponents and critics? The hallmark of tyrants is impunity in power and therefore an existential fear of losing it.
The issue is not whether the government is popular. It may well be. Tyranny can be a stepchild of democracy, as Plato knew so well. The insatiable show and assertion of power the BJP is engaged in traps them in a logic where they will seek to create the conditions in which a fair and open contest is no longer possible. Their institutional imagination is paranoid — desperately trying to shut out even the slightest opening from which light might appear. What else but a paranoid system would target small think tanks or civil society organisations that do social service? What else but a paranoid system would appear to politically orchestrate a disqualification of an Opposition MP?
And this same paranoia will make the prospect of even risking a fair electoral contest from now on a non-starter. Paranoia is the seed of all repression and we are now seeing it in full measure.
Political parties that situate themselves as unique vanguards of a majoritarian national identity find it difficult to relinquish power. In normal politics there are many sides to an argument, and we can all pretend that different sides are acting in good faith even when we disagree. But when the ideological project is singularly communal and wears the garb of nationalism, every dissent is treated as treason. Ideological parties like the BJP will play by the electoral rules when they are not in a position to wield power, or when they feel electorally secure. But once this regime is entrenched, it will think it is its historical destiny to act as a kind of nationalist vanguard, no matter what the circumstances.
In its own imagination, this nationalism will justify everything: From playing footloose with the law to outright violence. It has institutionalised vigilantism, violence and hate into the fabric of politics and the state. But this culture is not just difficult to dismantle. It is also part of a preparation to exercise other options in case a purely political hold on power is no longer possible. Parties that have institutionalised structures of violence are less likely to give up power unless they are massively repudiated.
But the logic of tyranny goes further. Increasingly, the issue is not just the weaknesses of the Opposition parties. Even in the wake of this disqualification, Congress’s political reflexes, the willingness of its members to risk anything, and its ability to mobilise street power, is seriously in doubt. Opposition unity is still a chimera, more performative at the moment than real.
But has the psychology of tyranny now been internalised by enough Indians to make resistance more difficult? India still has the potential for protest on many issues. But what is increasingly in doubt is whether India wishes to resist deepening authoritarianism.
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To take one example, India’s elites, broadly understood, have gone well past the quotidian fear of those in power. This kind of fear often expresses itself in a gap between public utterances and private beliefs. But what is happening is something far more insidious, where a combination of fear or outright support for government is so deeply internalised that even private demurring from blatantly authoritarian and communal actions has become rare. Ask any victim, who has been the object of the state’s wrath, whether they are at the receiving end of horrendous violence, or targets of administrative or legal harassment. Even the private shows of support will disappear as swiftly as the state intervenes. This suggests either a deep-seated cowardice or a normalisation of authoritarianism.
The hallmark of a successful tyranny is to induce a sense of unreality in those who support it. This sense of unreality means no disconfirming evidence can dent their support for the regime. In this world, India has little unemployment, its institutions are fine, it has ascended to the glorious heights of world leadership, it has not ceded any territory to China, and there is no concentration of capital or regulatory capture. But the unreality centres mostly on the lynchpin of this system of tyranny, the prime minister. In his hands, repression becomes an act of purification, his hubris a mark of his ambition, his decimation of institutions a national service.
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Institutionally and psychologically, we are already inhabiting a tyranny, even if its violence is not in your face. A regime that is paranoid and full of impunity will overreach. But what is the threshold of overreach? The threshold seems to be shifting higher and higher. Communalism was unleashed. No reaction. The information order collapsed. No reaction. The judicial heart stopped beating. No reaction. The Opposition is being vanquished by unfair means. No reaction. Such is the logic of tyranny that the ogres of oppression roam free, while we look on indifferently as justice and freedom are tied in chains.