Update, March 23, 4 PM: I haven’t studied law, but my first reaction on hearing that Rahul Gandhi has been found guilty, by a Gujarat court, of criminal defamation for this speech was: something smells.
Gautam Bhatia, on the other hand, knows the law, and practices it. And his reaction was:
Begs the question: Why? Former Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad of the BJP — who hasn’t had much to do or say after he was put out to pasture by Modi and Shah — likely let the cat out of the bag when he referred to Gandhi’s membership of the Lok Sabha, and said that was for the Speaker to decide. An added benefit (for the ruling party) is that Gandhi’s conviction could effectively bar him from contesting the 2024 elections, since his sentence is for two years.
I doubt that even this government, which believes it can get away with any act no matter how egregious, will suspend or revoke Gandhi’s status as a member of Parliament — but you never can tell; Prasad’s words indicate that the thought has certainly been mooted at the higher reaches of the party.
Update, March 24: I was wrong. This government is stupid enough to revoke Rahul Gandhi’s membership of the Lok Sabha. It did just that today. Vinasha kaale, as they say…
(The original post continues below):
The BJP’s real gain lies elsewhere: For the next few days, expect TV channels and their loudmouth anchors to hammer away at Gandhi in the name of “debate”, and to conflate this judgment with his recent speech on democracy in India, tarring it with the same ‘defamation’ brush.
Here’s what I wish, though — I wish Gandhi hadn’t asked for bail on the grounds of appealing the judgment (which has been granted, for 30 days). I wish he had just gone to jail, instead. With that one act, he would have irrevocably claimed pole position on the national political chessboard, and in the process triggered an avalanche of opposition and protests, not just from within the Indian polity but also internationally.
But, afsos — opportunity missed, so it is now a wait-and-watch situation. Meanwhile, I am reminded of a joke the late Rahat Indori-saab was fond of recounting. The way he tells it (I am translating, and paraphrasing from the original Hindi), he once said in public that the government is a thief (sarkar chor hai). He was summoned to the police station and asked what the hell.
Indori-saab pointed out that he had only said the government is a thief, he hadn’t specifically said which government is a thief. To which the senior police official responded: Do you take us for fools? Don’t we know it is our government that is the thief?
Below, the post written earlier today:
Democracy dies of a thousand cuts
Look, first of all, this is our problem (erosion of democratic institutions under Modi); it is an internal problem and it is India’s problem and the solution is going to come from inside, it is not going to come from outside. However, the scale of democracy in India means that democracy in India is a global public good. It impacts way further than our boundaries. If Indian democracy collapses, in my view, democracy on the planet suffers a very serious, possibly fatal blow. So, it is important for you too. It is not just important for us. We will deal with our problem, but you must be aware that this problem is going to play out on a global scale.Rahul Gandhi at Chatham House
Read the above quote, from Rahul Gandhi’s recent interaction at London’s Chatham House, carefully. Then read it again with a red marker in hand, to underline the bits you find false and or objectionable. And when/if you do use your red highlighter, send me the annotation, please? Because for the life of me, I can’t see what the ruling party and its sock puppets in the media (prime example here) are banging on about.
Is democracy in trouble in India? You bet your ass. What we have today is a psephocracy — a term Ashis Nandy is partial to, and one that authors Debashish Roy Chowdhury and John Keane use in their book To Kill A Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism to refer to a political system where elections are the be-all and end-all of democracy.
Talk of how Narendra Modi and his bully-boys have pushed us into end times for democracy in this country, and the inevitable counter is ‘Look, elections… world’s largest ever… robust democracy…” When you hear that next time, remember that the most enduring definition of democracy is “
elections government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Remember the term psephocracy. And note that this Saturday, Modi will be making his seventh visit to Karnataka this year, which is the next state to go to polls.
Go back to Gandhi’s words quoted above. He says this is our problem to solve. It is precisely that — by first recognizing there is a problem; then by using the basic tool of democracy — the vote — to solve it. (I’m not even remotely suggesting that we all vote for Rahul Gandhi, mind.)
He also says that the collapse of democracy in India can have a global impact, and therefore other countries should take note. This is also true — as true as saying that the collapse of any one of the major economies of the world can have an impact on the global economy as a whole.
So again, what is the right-wing noise machine going on about?
In any other age, we would notice — and question — the cognitive dissonance of the ruling party. Which, ever since Gandhi appeared for that unscripted interaction — a feat beyond the power of the prime minister — has been vociferously demanding that he apologize. And, more to the point, creating a ruckus in Parliament and ensuring that no discussion of any kind is possible — during, what is worse, the Budget Session. As good a way as any of proving that Gandhi spoke nothing but the truth.
Every leading light of the BJP has “condemned” Gandhi’s statement, twisting his words around to suggest that he had, on foreign soil, asked foreign powers to intercede in India’s affairs. That is exactly what he did not do — remember, he says this is our problem to solve.
Every member of what is increasingly becoming a Cabinet of Trolls spoke vociferously in Parliament, demanding that Gandhi apologize — and when Rahul Gandhi wrote to Speaker of the Lok Sabha Om Birla pointing this out and asking for the right to respond (he shouldn’t, in a functioning democracy, even have had to ask), Parliament was adjourned that day, thanks to a BJP-created ruckus, without even the formality of question hour.
QED –as cartoonist Satish Acharya showed with just one panel. And then there is this:
What democracy is this where duly elected representatives of 18 political parties are stopped, by the armed might of the state, from giving a petition to the Enforcement Directorate? (And while on this, the regime is trying to unring a bell that is peeling loud and clear — every other day brings a fresh story detailing some part of Adani’s shenanigans and, earlier today, Hindenburg tweeted that another major story will drop any time now).
But back to the main point: The BJP sees its tactic of refusing to allow the legislature to function as a win-win game. If Gandhi apologizes just to end the logjam (I sincerely hope he does no such thing), the BJP has “proved” that Gandhi was wrong and democracy is in no peril. If he does not apologise, the BJP gets to filibuster this session till its use-by date — and avoids discussion on not only the budget, but also on Adani’s shenanigans and Modi’s cosy connection to the industrialist, the OROP mess the government has landed itself in because it has no money to pay the full arrears, and other issues of import.
If, in the process, the legislature — which is estimated to cost the public exchequer Rs 2.5 lakh every minute when in session, and where the real business of democracy is conducted via discussion and debate — is neutered, who gives a flying fish?
Much of the analysis of this brouhaha suggests that the BJP has overplayed its hand and given Gandhi the relevance that he desperately needs. It has — by design, not by accident. With the 2024 general elections fast approaching, Modi and the BJP have one recurring nightmare — that the party will be forced into a fractured contest; that it will have to fight an Uddhav in Maharashtra, a Stalin in Tamil Nadu, a Nitish Kumar-Lalu Yadav combine in Bihar, and so on. That is the kind of contest the BJP cannot handle, because it has little or no grasp of state-based issues, no plank other than its nebulously defined notions of Hindutva.
What the party needs, therefore, is to convert the coming general elections into a personality contest — ‘Vishwaguru’ Modi versus ‘Pappu’ Rahul. That is the battle they can win, thanks to a captive media that will religiously puff up Modi’s credentials and trash Gandhi (as Arnab Goswami, for instance, does here).
An aside on Opposition unity: Earlier this week, Arvind Kejriwal invited the chief ministers of seven non-BJP-ruled states (excluding the Congress) for a dinner meeting to discuss the possibility of forging a national anti-BJP alliance. Not a single invitee showed up. It is easy to guess why — no major leader trusts Kejriwal, who is seen as a convenient spoiler for the BJP. And later the same week, he called Modi his “brother”, said he was tired of fighting with the Centre and wants to work with the Modi-Shah combine. This from the man who wants to lead an anti-BJP alliance — a man who self-confessedly has no stomach for a fight?
But to return to the point about the media’s relentless puffery of Modi: News agency ANI got the ball rolling when it claimed that the deputy leader of the Nobel Peace Prize committee had named Modi as a strong contender. Making up a fictitious quote is a sackable offense — or was, in any decently-run media organization.
You can’t use ‘ANI’ and ‘decently-run’ in the same sentence, though. Caravan magazine had, back in the day, devoted a cover of its issue to the agency and detailed how it carries water for Modi and his motley crew. And just last month, the Belgian NGO EU DisinfoLab had produced a damning indictment of ANI, citing with examples how the purported news agency had made a habit of quoting non-existent sources.
No surprise then that ANI made up a conversation. And in today’s times, no surprise either that the story of Modi’s supposed pole position in the Nobel Peace Prize stakes was picked up and carried by all mainstream media, including even pink papers like Business Standard.
What resulted was the inevitable national embarrassment — and here I am presuming that we are even capable of feeling embarrassed anymore, a presumption that is repeatedly belied by contemporary events — when Asle Toje, the deputy head of the Nobel prize committee, put out a video unequivocally denying both his quote and Modi’s supposed candidacy. (Note that despite the denial, the original ANI story remains on the agency’s website, and is one of the first results that you get if you google Modi and Nobel.)
That Toje had to do it off his own bat is the most crucial part of this fiasco. I’ve been a reporter and editor for 33 years now and counting and in this time, I have been part of, and even headed, various newsrooms in both print and digital. From this experience, I know two things:
The Nobel committee never, ever, talks up any single candidate for any of the prizes it awards annually and two, if such a quote had surfaced during my time working under Nikhil Lakshman, the editor I learned the craft from, he would have instantly deputed someone to call up Toje and ask him (a) to authenticate his quote and add context and nuance and (b) to provide the names of the other candidates in contention.
That every single media house swallowed the ANI fabrication whole; that not a single one of them felt the need to cross-check with the source, is precisely what is wrong with the media today — it has forgotten its prime role of speaking truth to power, and has shown itself to be ready, able and all too willing to pucker up at the sight of a powerful behind.
Indian democracy in action
There has been simmering discontent over the government’s revisions to the pension rules, and a growing demand for the reinstatement of the old pension scheme (OPS). The government has now issued an order to all government officials at all levels to refrain from going on or supporting a strike planned for this coming Tuesday to press the demand. The democratic right of the aggrieved to protest? You must be joking. (NB: In France, also this week, union leaders called for widespread strikes and protests against the pension plan President Emmanuel Macron has pushed through. Thus far, no sign of Macron and his government outlawing such protests — but then, Modi/Shah can get away with much more than Macron can.)
Elsewhere, the Delhi police has till date filed 100 FIRs, and arrested six individuals. The charge: plastering the capital city’s walls with ‘Modi hatao, desh bachao’ slogans. Since when, in a democracy, was political sloganeering — vocally, or through the medium of posters — an indictable offense?
In Secunderabad, where ward elections are due, the Secunderabad Cantonment Board deleted 35,000 voters for allegedly squatting on defense land. The alleged squatters claim they have all relevant documents to show they are bona fide. Point is, where is due process? It is of course purely coincidental that those voters who have been suddenly disenfranchised belong to the backward classes and the Muslim community.
In Karnataka, actor Chetan Kumar has been arrested and sent to custody for 14 days for a tweet. This one:
So much for free speech, the cornerstone of any democracy. This reminds me that in this “largest and oldest democracy in the world” (Hardeep Singh Puri said that recently; size is a function of population, but “oldest”?) it is time to do a round-up of the kind of speeches and actions that are permissible.
Hate, in words and actions
“I have closed down 6000 madrasas,” Himanta Biswa Sharma tells an election rally in Belagavi, in northern Karnataka. He promises that if the BJP wins the upcoming election, the party will shut down all madrasas in the state.
Interesting career, Sharma’s. Up until July 2015, the BJP was hammering away at Sharma’s alleged involvement in a water supply scam. The party even published a booklet detailing the scam. A month later, in August, Sharma went to New Delhi to meet the then BJP president Amit Shah, to express his desire to “work under the leadership of Narendra Modi”. He joined the BJP — and promptly joined the party.
The ploy of taking a dive into the purifying waters of the BJP did not quite work. In April 2016, Shah was still banging on about the charges against Sharma, and asserting that all charges would be probed.
Sharma got the message — he wasn’t being sufficiently saffron. And so he stepped up his hate in incremental stages (He is the guy who once asked Rahul Gandhi if he had any proof that he was Rajiv Gandhi’s son) to the point where he is now the designated hate-monger not merely in Assam, but also on the campaign trail, having in the process upstaged the likes of Adityanath.
He kicked off 2023 with a sudden “crackdown” against child marriage. In the face of allegations that this move was intended to target the Muslim community, he told the state assembly that the proportion of Muslims arrested to Hindus was 55:45. He made no bones about the fact that Muslims were the primary target but, as he told the Opposition on the floor of the Assembly, “because you politicize everything, I told the Dibrugarh SP to pick up some of our people as well.”
“Our people,” do note.
This is the Sharma who is now one of the BJP’s leading campaigners in Karnataka, particularly in those parts of the state that have been intensely communalised. So much so that at a rally in Belagavi prior to the Assam CM’s tour de farce, BJP MLA Basanagouda Patil Yatnal said that when his party comes to power in the state, it will “emulate Sharma’s example”.
In Karnataka (as also in Kerala and Tamil Nadu) the BJP’s gameplan has been to establish a bridgehead along the coast, and use that as a staging point to spread their politics of hate inland. Belagavi is thus one of the key battlegrounds in this inward move; Amit Shah and Narendra Modi have already held big rallies in the district, and we are still at least a month away from the formal announcement of elections in the state. (This Deccan Herald piece is worth reading for an overview of how hate is being fanned in the region).
Another key battleground is Shivamogga, BS Yediyurappa’s citadel. The BJP hopes that the veteran leader, who has formally quit electoral politics and whom Modi is now fawning over (see previous post) will sweep the region for the party — but a little hate can’t hurt. Besides, the party needs to keep its young “workers” occupied — and so reports have been coming in of random acts of thuggery. Thus, just this week, a group of Bajrang Dal “workers” barged into a club to stop a ladies’ party.
While on that, what baffles me is not that the Bajrang Dal has managed to rope in jobless young idiots by the thousands — it is that they can’t seem to make up their tiny minds. They barge into mixed-sex parties because that is against Indian culture, and they barge into ladies’ only parties because that too is against Indian culture. Reminds you of American journalist and satirist HL Mencken, who once defined puritanism as the “haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
Among the more bizarre incidents I came across this week is this one: A bunch of Muslim youth, protesting certain communal statements of BJP leader KS Eeshwarappa in Shivamogga, recited the azaan near the premises of the District Collector’s office. Hindu groups landed up to sprinkle cow urine on the premises to purify it. What to say?
The instances listed above are culled from Karnataka alone; elsewhere across the country, hate is being industrialized at a rapid pace. But the what, how and why is grist for another post, another day. For now, I’ll end this with a link to the most recent US State Department Report on Human Rights. The summary graf relating to India is damning:
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful and arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by the government or its agents; torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by police and prison officials; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; political prisoners or detainees; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; restrictions on freedom of expression and media, including violence or threats of violence, unjustified arrests or prosecutions of journalists, and enforcement of or threat to enforce criminal libel laws to limit expression; restrictions on internet freedom; interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on freedom of movement and on the right to leave the country; refoulement of refugees; serious government corruption; harassment of domestic and international human rights organizations; lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence, including domestic and intimate partner violence, sexual violence, workplace violence, child, early, and forced marriage, femicide, and other forms of such violence; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting members of national/racial/ethnic and minority groups based on religious affiliation, social status or sexual orientation; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex persons; and existence of forced and compulsory labor.
A lack of accountability for official misconduct persisted at all levels of government, contributing to widespread impunity. Lax enforcement, a shortage of trained police officers, and an overburdened and underresourced court system contributed to a low number of convictions.
Terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir, northeastern states, and Maoist terrorism-affected areas committed serious abuses, including killings and torture of armed forces personnel, police, government officials, and civilians; kidnapping; and recruitment and use of child soldiers.US State Department Report on Human Rights
The interesting bit here is the “dog that did not bark at midnight”.
The usual practice when organizations put out such reports is to attack them on the grounds that (a) the data is incorrect; (b) the conclusions are erroneous; and (c) the report is part of an international conspiracy — likely funded by George Soros — to malign India.
This time, though, as far as I can see, not a yip out of MEA S Jaishankar and the other motormouths who are usually deployed to drown out the negative report. Understandable — this is not some global NGO you can taint with Soros and “international conspiracy”; this is the US State Department, no less. And with China cozying up to Russia in recent days, the last thing the regime needs is to piss off the United States.
Tailpiece: This is for your listening pleasure (I’m using the word “pleasure” in a very loose sense. Because why should I be the only one to suffer?