A Closer Look at Modi’s Controversial Tactics

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In recent weeks in India, more concerns have been appearing in the news about the behaviors of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).  So I thought I would take a closer look to see what was happening, whether it was true, and how much it mattered.  While I might have dismissed a few individual actions as questionable, when I started looking at how the pieces came together, the bigger picture seemed more troubling.

I began my exposition by reading John Reed’s May 1st article in The Financial Times, entitled “How to understand Modi’s India.”  The Financial Times is a respected, well-researched, relatively centrist publication with an extremely educated readership in both the UK and around the world.   John Reed is an accomplished journalist and FT’s South Asia bureau chief, based in New Delhi, so he has first-hand exposure to Modi’s operations.  So when Mr. Reed begins his article by asking, “Is India enjoying a golden age or in a democratic decline?,” he’s not trying to be sensationalist.  Reed asks a serious, valid question, with which he acknowledges that international observers have raised alarms that India’s democracy “is in steep decline.”  In fact, Reed himself asks “will it [India] remain a democracy at all?”

While investigations can be necessary for accountability, the use of judicial investigations to silence political opponents is unfair and intended to create a culture of fear.  Reed and other independent press have reported on Modi and BJP’s recent imprisonment of two state leaders and their unjustified targeting of civil society groups, minorities, and even independent journalists.  Modi has used the hate speech of calling certain populations “infiltrators” and accusing such people, without evidence, of trying to debase and steal from his own Hindu nationalist voters.  Typically, politicians once elected to office a responsibility to protect all of its people, not just its own constituents, and act in the best interest of the nation as a whole.  I’m concerned that as Modi seeks his third term in office, that his continued reelections convince him that he has a public mandate to become more extreme, when his reelections are also a product of tactics that he and his party use to keep him in office.

Modi’s use of government to keep others out of government is expanding.  He has employed investigative agencies to use tax authorities and policing bodies to exert additional pressure and financially handicap his opponents during these crucial electoral battles.  Modi critic Arvind Kejriwal, who founded the anti-corruption AAP Party, was arrested on March 21 by the Central Enforcement Bureau of India, which is a governmental organization mainly responsible for economic crime investigations, but there were seemingly no economic crimes here.  A few days later, the U.S. State Department, other western countries, and organizations such as Amnesty International announced that they were paying closer attention to a string of seemingly specious, politically-motivated arrests made by Modi’s government in a disturbing pattern.  Modi’s bureaucrats went even further by freezing the election funds of the Congress Party, another Modi critic, and levying fines on such opposing parties as “tax terrorism.”  

The financial advantages that Modi has been leveraging also seemingly pervades his own campaign fundraising.  I think the average Indian citizen can see that the “election bonds” that Modi is promoting, where huge anonymous donations can be made to political parties, not only lacks transparency and accountability, but also create an unacceptable risk of undue influence.  Common sense dictates that donors are not giving vast amounts of money to politicians without wanting something in return, and those donors can clearly signal to such politicians that they are about to make such donations if they can get what they want.  The public, however, will not be able to find out or keep up with these numerous shadowy transactions and undocumented quid pro quos.  Newly elected members of Modi’s party announcing the selection of certain companies for government contracts, or declaring that there will be a change to an environmental law?  It’s impossible to know whether Modi is delivering on a donation pledge or doing what’s in the best interests of the citizenry.  That looming and pervasive question severely undermines public trust and is at the center of the very corruption that Modi tries to convince the public that he wants to eliminate.  

Politicians attacking each other in the public eye is nothing new.  It’s expected, and I would want any public figure to be able to stand up for him or herself if they’re also going to be able to fight for their public.  But for a politician to use the existing levers of government, to bend and exploit financial laws, and to turn public machinery against its own people, all so that that politician and his party could stay in power – that reminds me of that old adage:  power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.  

I read the Daily Mail this morning, and again, Modi made the news in a deeply disturbing headline.  I had heard of news stories for over a week now about Modi’s political ally Prajwal Revanna allegedly filming himself raping 400 women and then fleeing the country.  Modi had campaigned for Prajwal Revanna, and Modi remains close to Revanna’s family.  Anyone can make the mistake of endorsing someone and later finding out that the person was not who they thought they were.  But Modi has had an opportunity for over a week to sever ties with Revanna, to speak out that such heinous violence is something he unequivocally condemns.  Instead, he has remained bizarrely silent, and the Daily Mail article questioned why he has said nothing, despite video footage being released of these crimes.  Modi’s silence conveys that he might not want to admit his wrongs, or that he hopes this will blow over in the hopes that he will continue ties with Revanna or his family.  I hope Modi’s silence is not related to him potentially knowing about the tapes or even worse using them for blackmail, but it’s hard to not assume the worse when all you hear is deafening silence.   

A strong moral leader admits wrongs and if appropriate, asks the people who trusted him for forgiveness.  A leader of principle speaks out and prioritizes the relationship with the public more than being loyal to political cronies.  The Indian people must hold its leaders accountable, and continuing to allow the Prime Minister and his party to hold power is a vote of confidence in Modi’s tactics and values.  I once supported the change that Modi offered, but it’s become increasingly clear that those changes are merely to keep Modi in power.  Just a google search of news for “Modi” will reveal many more negative than positive articles from mainstream press, which is just further confirmation that the Indian people cannot continue their affiliation with its current Prime Minister and his party.

Edward Phillip Stevenson

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