Narendra Modi's Mass Appeal, And Risks For India's Democracy

Modi in New Delhi on May 25
Modi in New Delhi on May 25
Pralay Kanungo

NEW DELHI — The great Indian electoral war of 2019 ended with Narendra Modi securing a historic mandate to rule India for another five years. The divided opposition should not have expected anything better as it had no national narrative, no credible agenda and no alternative leadership to contain a colossal opponent like Modi.

It is ironic that in a parliamentary democracy like India, people have voted for the "leader" Modi, rather than members of parliament. No doubt, the president of his BJP party, Amit Shah displayed a shrewd strategy that helped secure this victory. Yet he still has a hyphenated identity — the "master strategist" has value as the "Modi-Shah combine," i.e. as an appendage to Modi rather than as an autonomous entity or propellant.

Further, the entire campaign was only about "NaMo" – as Modi is known — both on and off the ground. The BJP sought votes only in the name of Modi, even in social media campaigns like "nri4 Namo" to "academics4 namo." Thus, in a real sense, people have voted neither for their representatives, nor even for the BJP, but only for Narendra Modi.

What made matters even more difficult for the opposition is that the 2019 election was not only substantially presidential, but also significantly cultic. The Modi cult overshadowed every other political leader and political party, from his own to the opposition. It has also dominated every constitutional and democratic institution due to his sheer political weight. And now with resounding popular approval, this cult has been legitimized as all powerful.

The Modi cult — "Moditva" — which sprouted in Gujarat, harping on Hindutva and "Gujarati Asmita," came out of its regional cocoon in 2014 and was launched with fanfare in Varanasi, with the chanting of "Har Har Modi." Later, systematically crafting an enigmatic persona, with astute use of the media, it slowly acquired a large national following.

Using modern technologies of communication and governance, Prime Minister Modi reached out to a large national constituency, primarily Hindu, cutting across region, class, caste, and even gender. While he came to power with a narrative of development targeting the burgeoning aspirational class, particularly the youth, he went on to introduce a plethora of development schemes promising to bring changes in the lives of marginalized sections, the middle class, rural women and the urban poor. True, his economic misadventures like demonetization had disastrous effects on the nation's economy and on people's lives. Yet, he could overcome the negative economic fall-out politically, as many did not doubt his good intentions.

Modi is an incredible political campaigner.

While one side of the cult was shaped around development, the other side was a narrative on aggressive Hindu nationalism and national security: anti-terrorism, Pakistan, Kashmir, secularism, "appeasement," "tukde-tukde gang" and now, the latest, "Khan Market gang." Whenever the development narrative appeared weak for some reason, the cult did not face any setback as the latter side was too powerful to absorb any shock.

The main opposition Congress party, under Rahul Gandhi's leadership, tried to build a bold narrative to counter Modi. He tried to pin down Modi on the Rafale fighter jet deal, rising unemployment, farmers' distress and autonomy of institutions. This failed miserably as the moribund party organization, factionalism, and a trying leadership were no match to Modi and the BJP.

Modi is an incredible political campaigner. Though he follows a script, he can shift with precision the nature of discourse anytime if he anticipates adversity and a swing in public mood. Of course, he utilized the Pulwama terror attack to push his failings on the economic front into the background. His response to Pulwama — the Balakot airstrike — changed the entire discourse, making everything else less relevant for many. Nationalism became the mantra and the NaMo cult became unrivaled in many states. Modi's campaign on aggressive nationalism, national security, and anti-terrorism greatly convinced a large part of the electorate that only a strong leader like him could defend India's national interest.

Despite his cultic status, Modi did not take the people for granted, and worked hard to earn this huge win. He emerged as the only national leader as others look markedly provincial. The Congress has again failed to secure the requisite number seats needed to claim the status of Opposition in parliament. Similarly, the BJP also emerged as the only party with an extensive national outreach; the Congress again failed to open its account in more than half of the states. With such a scenario, all powers will obviously be concentrated with Narendra Modi. As critics have warned, this win is a death bell for Indian democracy. India, which is already divided, will be divided further. Modi will promote majoritarianism and undermine the constitution and all institutions which are meant to serve as checks and balances on the exercise of executive authority.

Modi acknowledges that this historic win bestows on him a great responsibility. As an astute politician, after victory, he has extended an olive branch to his opponents, and has asked his followers to accept this victory with all humility. He also knows his exalted status will be quickly compromised by the pursuit of a divisive agenda. Perhaps he understands that nationalism and divisiveness will not guarantee another victory if he fails to win the trust of the people by meeting their aspirations this time around.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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