Pavan K. Varma | A 10-point “toolbox” for an authoritarian democracy

It is a frightening but fascinating syndrome: how authoritarianism gradually suffocates the institutional and ideological brakes of a democracy. The process is not suddenly dramatic like the stroke of midnight, but creepy, insidious and gradual but sure. Each step of this undisputed journey sets the stage for the next step, further escalating the trend. Here is a 10 point “toolbox” on how authoritarian democracy works in India today.

First, in a democracy, authoritarianism swears by democracy. Its leaders call Parliament the temple of democracy and bow to it. The real intention is never clearly stated or expressly stated. It is camouflaged, to surprise opponents, like a planned subterfuge. Lip service to democracy becomes the catalyst for the underground attack on it.

Second, authoritarianism rises to power by wearing the badges of nobility. Its leaders claim the monopoly of patriotism. They proclaim themselves the torchbearers of the defense of the fatherland. Those who are not in their camp ipso facto become lesser nationalists; their powers are suspect ab initio. It follows that their democratic rights are less sacrosanct, and can be called into question or violated. National security becomes the scarecrow to devalue all other questions.

Third, the regime claims the monopoly of Hinduism. The regime’s soldiers project that “their” religion is in danger and must be protected against attacks from “outsiders”, within their own faith and from others. Armed self-defense groups are created to “protect the faith” and attack minorities. These are largely Lumpen elements whose evangelical zeal is inversely proportional to knowledge of their religion. Such vigilante groups are largely outside the scope of the law. The invoked need to defend the faith refines all fidelity to democratic principles.

Fourth, the mindset of “believers” is intolerant of dissent. Those who resist forced compliance are assigned urban Naxals, Pakis, left liberals, pseudo-secularists, the Khan Market gang, the Lutyens lobby and other such labels. The normal speech of democracy is thus replaced by a monologue between those who dictate and those who conform. All other voices must be muffled, pushed aside, violently attacked by armies of trolls, or, worse yet, silenced. Women, in particular, bear the brunt of this intolerance. Patriarchal, Orthodox and generally upper caste supporters of the state want to dictate to them what to wear, eat, drink, who they should meet or marry, and how they should behave in order to conform to the “chaste” idea. From Hindu nari. of their illiterate “mentors”.

Fifth, the state takes a deliberately ambiguous approach to the undemocratic behavior of its stormtroopers. It is both explicit encouragement and timely denial. Such an approach allows for political dividends, while allowing a conspicuous distance from outrageously lawless actions. In reality, the occasional soft scolding is of little use in ruling over such elements, while ostentatious silence or hidden encouragement only serves to further reinforce undemocratic behavior.

Sixth, the state subverts the autonomy of government institutions, and in particular of executive bodies. The police, the IT department, ED, CBI, NCB, etc., become complicit in the tolerance of democratic violations, or the perpetuator of the state agenda. In a carefully and constantly monitored operation, acolytes or ideological clones are vetted and handpicked for positions of bureaucratic authority. They are judged for following the government’s line, not for their impartiality. Particular attention is paid to how the independence of the judiciary can be compromised.

Seventh, a concerted campaign is launched to co-opt the media. Private media houses are mostly owned by corporations, and corporations are vulnerable to pressure and blackmail from the state’s predatory prowess. As far as possible, therefore, the state seeks to operate – and to project – an echo chamber of its own agenda. Independent journalists, or impartial critics, who have the temerity to resist the state, are hunted down. Press houses that do not stand in line are raided and harassed.

Eighth, the regime is extremely suspicious of civil society. The NGOs which claim independence and refuse to be co-opted are considered as agents of foreign powers, subversive to the “interests” of the country. Obstacles are put in the functioning of NGOs through regulatory processes; any independent opinion expressed by civil society groups is outright rejected. Organizations like Amnesty International are seen as the main drivers of an “international conspiracy” to undermine the state.

Ninth, authoritarianism feeds on the perception of a vindictive state that will use all extremes to silence critics. Comedians are arrested without cause; draconian laws, like the UAPA, are clearly misused to arrest without bail; several FIRs are filed to harass opponents; the act of sedition is invoked with innocent ease; income tax notices or ED surveys are freely used against “opponents” of the state. Any institution that refuses to fold, like the film industry, is intimidated over fragile cases and roughly tarred; fear of violence by non-state actors representing the state is very present; exhibitions are attacked, films are picketed, and advertising campaigns such as Fab India’s Jashn-e-Riwaaj are forced to withdraw for fear of violence. And an elaborate surveillance system is in place, even illegally, as the use of Pegasus seems to indicate.

Tenth, and finally, a carefully choreographed personality cult is built around the Supreme Leader. Those who question him are enemies of the state. He does not give press conferences. He only speaks in a monologue. His photo is everywhere, often even on non-political government releases. An aura of imperiousness surrounds him. For the faithful, it is the State, above all questioning and democratic responsibility.

The current regime has a gross majority in Lok Sabha and a ruled majority in Rajya Sabha. The executive, which is supposed to be apolitical and work impartially, has long bowed to the powers that be. The subordinate judiciary often seems to have forgotten its duty to uphold the rule of law. But the judiciary, especially the superior courts and the Supreme Court, remains our only hope. It must protect democracy from the organized stranglehold of an authoritarian state.

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