NEW DELHI — Among the many homilies in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's speech to the nation on Tuesday — which many astute observers summed up as telling the citizens, "you are basically on your own" – was the mention of youth groups, Yuva Mitras, who will be installed in every neighborhood to ensure people follow COVID-19 and lockdown protocols.
As always, no further details were provided, and this allows us to speculate. What exactly will such groups do and how will they accomplish their tasks? What powers will they have to enforce the rules? Will they urge, request, implore or threaten with word and deed? Will they patrol the streets or go from house to house? Will they work as an arm of the police or with the various Residents Welfare Associations etc., which are often more deadly than the cops?
Now, think about what it would have been like if the prime minister had said, "There should be youth groups who help people get groceries, medicines, hospital admission and oxygen"? Such groups could be at the service of vulnerable people, especially the elderly, and be of great assistance to their respective neighborhoods and the nation (because, in the end, we are all at the service of the nation).
What could have been a call for benign citizen participation now looks menacing. History buffs will instantly see comparisons with the youth brigades of Germany, which were initially set up for a whole range of religious and social issues but eventually gave way to a massive, well-organized body of young men imbued with Nazi ideology. They spied on people and institutions, and were trained to become future political and military leaders.
The idea of vigilante groups is very appealing to political leaders who want a support base outside the existing structures. Modi's party, the BJP, already has the RSS, a paramilitary volunteer organization, but it was the latter that spawned the former and party leaders have always found that total freedom from the RSS is almost impossible. Modi has managed the RSS particularly well as the organization needs him in order to fulfill its agenda, but even he has constraints. If the kind of youth groups he mentioned in his speech are set up systematically, they could be very loyal to him. This would give him not just political but social control.
People do not know what is good for them — they need to be told.
Control is, ultimately, what all of this is about. Not just around social behavior or political thought — though those are critical — but also on freedom. The freedom to organize, to think, to speak and even to eat is a cornerstone of democracy. That troubles political leaders, especially those with autocratic tendencies.
Nor are only politicians concerned; Even businessmen and technocrats find that unbridled freedom is an impediment to progress — their progress. I was once at a gathering where a famous legal-eagle, representing corporate interests, was chafing at the activism stalling a certain project and said, "The problem with India is that it has too much democracy." This same person had passionately argued in freedom's favor in the 1970s, during a state of emergency induced by mass strikes and protests.
Recently, the government's favorite bureaucrat, Amitabh Kant, was reported to have said that India had "too much democracy" because these freedoms made it difficult to institute "tough" reforms.
The impulse to control extends much beyond all of this. The Brahmins (the highest Hindu caste) were once custodians of knowledge and ensured that their wisdom was imparted in Sanskrit, keeping it out of reach for other groups. India's bureaucracy may have been set up by the British, but is in consonance with the Indian genius in its ability to hold back goods, services and information from others. The unspoken reasoning is that the people do not know what is good for them — they need to be told.
Modi addresses a public rally in Kolkata, on April 1. — Photo: Imago/ZUMA
One of the most recent, troubling examples of this came frome the Minister of Commerce and Industry, Piyush Goyal. Keeping in line with his Darwinian ideas, he wagged his finger at state governments because they kept asking for more oxygen cylinders instead of controlling demand. There is just too much wastage, he felt. The implications here are troubling, as his statement could be taken to mean that those who have a minimal chance of living should be deprived of precious oxygen, and the cylinders should be limited to those with a long, productive life ahead of them.
Pillars of democracy – the judiciary and the media among them – are already under governmental control. The troublesome civil society, from NGOs to activists, are now being targeted. There are well-known, high-profile cases but behind the scenes, scores if not hundreds of small NGOs have found their accounts frozen without recourse. These organizations are, for all purposes, finished. Others are being careful not to come under the government's eye. Laws are being specifically designed to impose executive oversight on digital news platforms, which are mostly independent-minded. The international platforms who rank India low on internet and press freedom don't really matter to this establishment.
This middle class doesn't believe in abstract notions like freedom of expression.
We have been here before, when Indira Gandhi imposed the aforementioned state of emergency in 1975, throwing her opponents in jail and censoring the media. Although she was initially applauded by the middle class but when the elections were held in 1977, she was thrown out of power.
This time is different. The new Indian middle class – aspirational Indians – has cheered all these controlling initiatives and is in complete sync with the political class. This middle class doesn't believe in abstract notions like freedom of expression. All its fantasies are coming true – greater control over troublemakers, be they of the wrong religion or advocates for the poor and the marginalised. Indeed, they see these disenfranchised groups as a drag on the economy and on India's future trajectory as a super power. Nothing would give them more satisfaction than the poor, the vulnerable and the unhealthy simply disappearing.
The pandemic is hitting people irrespective of religion, caste and privilege. Will this death and destruction change citizens' minds, perhaps resulting in a demand for more governance and accountability? Will Goyal's seeming insensitivity upset and anger them? Will they finally see that incompetence is costing lives, including those of their loved ones? We shall see, though I wouldn't place a large bet on it.
As far as the Indian establishment is concerned, it definitely knows the best course ahead: curbing and controling both democracy and oxygen. The youth vigilante groups will guarantee it.
See more from Coronavirus here