What Gauri Lankesh’s murder tells us about declining democracy in the country?

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18th-Main1The message, loud and clear, is out for everyone to read. India is at a critical crossroads and the threat of vengeance is lurking over those who pick the unfavourable side. Independent journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh’s murder has brought to the fore yet again proof of the prevailing discordant scenario in the country. This time we are a people unbelievably divided over the reasonableness of a horrific murder.

Soon after Lankesh was shot dead outside her home on September 4, ideological battles and vicious name calling spun out of control on social media and TV debates. Prominent BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad was quick to condemn the rejoicing of her death and distance the government from it, only to soon give in to party supporters who rebuked him on twitter for condoling the death of an enemy.

RSS workers have been killed in Kerala and West Bengal so what’s so special about Lankesh’s murder, the BJP asked. Well, every killing is abhorable. The murders in both states are results of nefarious rivalries between political parties. Just because some people don’t vocally deplore them doesn’t mean they rejoice them.

The murder of Lankesh, a left-leaning liberal, was met with an unsavoury sardonic elation by those on the other end of the political spectrum. It’s the overpowering pungency of this reaction that has shaken the country’s liberal ethos. Lankesh’s murder and the reactions to it serve as a reminder of the grave threat to our freedom of expression in India today.

Except the Emergency, it has never been so blasphemous to criticise the government. In democracies across the world — US, UK, Israel, Germany, Spain, France, Belgium, Australia and many others including our perpetual foe Pakistan — citizens and the media rightfully question and criticise their governments and leaders. In India, this trend has been going on since before independence when the press played a significant role in mobilising the masses against the British. Post-independence, successive governments and elected representatives have been freely scrutinised by media and people.

However, since the BJP-led NDA came to power in 2014, its staunch supporters have associated the ‘anti-national’ tag with those who question the government and its members as a matter of their rights. The media is constantly criticised for doing its duty of seeking accountability from an elected government.

During UPA-II it was the media that had played a significant role in exposing the multi-crore 2G and coal mine allocation scam cases which had led to the Congress’ disastrous performance in the general elections. Former PM Manmohan Singh, an erudite economist, was often harshly criticised by it for being a puppet in the hands of UPA chairperson and Congress leader Sonia Gandhi.

So why is it so wrong today for the Prime Minister to be questioned about his duties by the very people who elected him? What is so wrong about questioning the credentials of the RSS and disapprove of its influence over the government? These were among the issues that Lankesh regularly raised in the Kannada daily that she published.

No one can be held guilty for her murder unless proven by law. However, it is evident on social media that all those celebrating her death subscribe to an increasingly menacing Hindu fundamentalist ideology. Many of them constantly troll and abuse those with divergent views. Surprisingly, a large number of such trolls are followed by PM Narendra Modi.

Our PM has showcased himself as a self-righteous man who is out to transform the country into an economic superpower. When he follows on twitter a large number of people who troll with abuses, rape and murder threats those who they disagree with, it’s shocking and distasteful. The fact that he has not unfollowed any of these sinister persons despite several media reports is an encouragement to this troll army to carry out their spiteful jobs.

Hindu right-wing goons have been constantly getting such encouragement from the government that has failed to timely reprimand them for their atrocious hooliganism. Thus, the administration has been supportive of an atmosphere where illiberalism and divisive hatred thrive, rather than openly propagating it.

Bengaluru: The body of Senior journalist Gauri Lankesh, who was shot dead by unidentified men at her residence, Rajarajeshwari Nagar being taken away; in Bengaluru on Sept 5, 2017. (Photo: IANS)Our freedom fighters not only gave us the gift of independence but also ensured that our Constitution, laws and political system perpetuate a liberal democratic setup. However, today democracy in India is being undermined and we must be very, very afraid. It is disappointing that most people in the country are unable to notice this change. The approach to most instances of infringements of rights, such as killings over religion and stifling of dissent, is to not perceive them as imposition of a fascist ideology but as mere law and order problems. Totalitarian tendencies such as imposition of the government’s will on the masses without consulting them, for instance demonetisation and Hindutva agenda, have also been given the benefit of doubt. There is a ‘let’s wait and watch if things get worse’ approach that is dangerous because by the time things get worse it will be too late to put up a resistance.

Democratic principles are highly underrated today in our country by a people torn between liberalism and economic aspirations. The belief that Modi will in a few years make our economy grow by leaps and bounds has been ingrained in the mindsets of a large part of our population thanks to the PM’s spectacular PR and marketing skills and dearth of leadership that could pose a challenge to him. Indians have for decades taken their rights and freedoms so much for granted that they are willing to barter them for an economic development that they believe will transform their lives. What must be realised is that economic progress with controlled rights and freedoms can prove to be stifling.

For instance, people in Hong Kong have been putting their lives in danger to demand a transition to democracy despite being a well-sustained economy. In 1989, hundreds of students lost their lives while demanding democratic rule during the Tiananmen Square massacres in China. The urge for democracy in the communist autocracy, despite its economic success, is evident even today as Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo campaigned for democratic rights till his death recently due to cancer.

Let’s also consider the examples of three world leaders — Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Vladimir Putin in Russia and Victor Orban in Hungary — who claimed during their first years in office that they wanted to strengthen their countries’ democratic institutions. As they eventually began to tactfully consolidate power the people of their countries waited and watched for things to get worse before putting up an effective resistance, by which time irreversible damage had been done.

It’s ironic that after the Arab Spring created years of turmoil in many countries — Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Saudi Arabia among others — where people rejected autocratic systems of governance and sought liberal democracies on lines of those existing in the West, there has been growing cynicism in India towards a democratic value system that many religious fundamentalists, both Hindu and Muslim, like to term as negative Western influence.

The decay of democratic values in India is not taking place in a cataclysmic way but by sneaking in totalitarianism in bits and pieces in a discreet manner, as part of a long-term strategy that will be unleashed at a faster pace in the likely scenario of the BJP winning the election in 2019 (or 2018 if the polls are preponed).

The RSS, the ruling BJP’s parent organisation that yields enormous influence over most of its leaders, has an ideology of promoting majoritarian sectarianism as against our fundamental values of equality, liberty and plurality. The conservative organisation, that made no contribution to our independence struggle and on the contrary was subservient to the British, is now attempting to wipe out the legacy of our freedom fighters by encouraging a hyper-nationalist fascist culture.

The corporatisation of Indian media has put it largely under the influence of pro-government groups with many media persons competing with one another for the ‘best propagandist’ trophy from the ruling party. Who decides which journalists are honest to their profession? The answer is simple — those who straightforwardly uphold the values enshrined in our Constitution that form the bedrock of our nation, without leaning left or right.

The lesson that real journalists must learn from the chilling murder of Lankesh is not what the culprits want us to learn but to be exactly what they do not want us to be. The consolidation of courageous journalists is the only power that can prevent them from killing another audacious writer.

Another worrying trend in India is the erosion of a credible Opposition. While the current dispensation has pledged to rid the country of Opposition parties, the grand old Congress party is also responsible for the pitiful state of the Opposition in our legislature today. By sticking to regressive dynastic politics and sycophancy, the Congress has failed to allow deserving party leaders to take over an incapable Rahul Gandhi. The same can be said about the Left that has stubbornly stuck to its obsolete ideology rather than modifying it. Irresponsiveness of Congress and Left has led to the scattering of small regional parties that could very well have come under a common umbrella to form a strong Opposition.

The Congress is also responsible for people’s shattering faith in democratic institutions through its scam-laden and corruption-ridden governance. After two successive Congress governments (UPA-I and UPA-II), there was a corrupt system, bureaucratic red tape, economic uncertainty at a time when the country’s aspirations were very high.

At that time it was very convenient for people to pin the blame on democracy. Democracy became everyone’s punching bag. Popular discourse was that democratic values haven’t worked and should be shunned in order to achieve economic success. Democracy became like an undervalued homemaker whose indispensability is
often forgotten.

It is this loss of faith in democratic institutions that has always, in different parts of the world, made democracy fragile and dictators powerful. Modi took advantage of this vulnerability and promised to rid the country of corruption and economic hardships, appealing to the people’s hopes and aspirations. This has further interrupted the democratic process as ministers and bureaucrats have been controlled and all decision-making power has been consolidated in the PM’s own hands.

An Us vs Them match has ensued in which every citizen is either a patriot or an anti-government, anti-national, anti-Hindu Maoist and terrorist supporter. In this match, democracy is being dealt blow after blow and it is to be seen till when can it sustain itself. It is hoped that at least in India people get out of their delusions and realise the value of democratic rights before it’s too late to lament.
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