Persistence of the Prime Minister’s detractors

The notable achievement of Modi’s critics lies in trying to hold the ruling regime to a semblance of accountability in an increasingly centralised power structure
Persistence of the Prime Minister’s detractors
Express illustration | sourav roy

They may not even consider themselves critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government. Only media professionals doing their duty. Or upholders of democratic values in India. Yet, certainly their detractors, even their admirers, see them primarily as Modi’s critics.

But criticism is important, even crucial, to global modernity, the prerequisite for improvement. So, now that Modi 3.0 is almost a certainty, might we look back to see how his critics have fared? What are their prospects in the next five years? To cut to the chase, my main argument is that, contrary to popular belief, most of them have actually done quite well. What this tells us about Modi sarkar or the nature of criticism in India, I hope to delve into later.

But, it might be best to begin with a caveat. I would have liked to call this column “All the Prime Minister’s Men”. Yet, that would have been so obviously misleading. For one, it would have harked back, at least for those in the know, to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s investigative exposé All the President’s Men. Published 50 years ago, the book recounted the unravelling of Richard Nixon’s presidency following the Watergate scandal.

While the Modi sarkar has been repeatedly accused of misusing the state machinery, especially the Enforcement Directorate, against its political rivals, there is no evidence let alone the likelihood of such excesses reaching anywhere close to the criminal actions of former US president Nixon. No. By “All the Prime Minister’s Men”, I mean something quite different. But such a title is also inappropriate for another reason. Women as much as men make up the list of personages and personalities I wish to talk about.

Indeed, this column is not about the henchmen or acolytes of the PM at all. In fact, quite the opposite. It is about critics of Modi and this two—and soon expected to extend to the third—term BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) regime. They include, more generally speaking, critics of the RSS, Hindutva, and all that has come to be associated with India’s rightwing politics. Who are some of these women and men? And, more importantly, what has happened to them?

By way of an answer, I wish to dispute, even refute, the proposition advanced by many, including these critics of Modi and their supporters, that the regime crushes those who oppose it. It is Modi’s Godi Media—that is, media that sits in the lap of power—or the highway. If you oppose him, you will be deprived of your professional position and privileges. You have to comply or face the prospect of extinction. Such is the crushing power of the regime and the dire consequences of defying it.

So runs the argument. But what do the facts on the ground actually show? Quite the contrary. Those who dared to criticise Modi have actually done quite well. Despite, at times, losing their positions or privileges, being sidelined or sacked. Despite facing the ire and heckling of fearsome Modi social media hounds. Despite suffering from marginalisation and neglect.

How and why has this been possible? What, moreover, does it tell us about our polity and society? Are there notable exceptions? What differences and distinctions can be made among those who survived after being, so to speak, in the doghouse?

Because in the complex tapestry of Indian politics, criticism plays a crucial role in shaping public discourse, holding leaders accountable, and safeguarding the principles of democracy. At the centre of this discourse in recent times stands Modi, a towering and, as the global media never tires of reminding us, polarising figure.

It is Modi’s tenure as PM that has been met with the most fervent support and vehement opposition in recent times. While Modi’s admirers extol his leadership and economic reforms, his critics never cease to oppose almost everything he does or says. Some of the latter have played a significant role in providing counterviews—I would prefer to call it ballast—from which he has made much of his political capital. Criticism, in other words, has only added to Modi’s stature in public opinion, policy discussions, and societal awareness.

In the eyes of their admirers, however, Modi critics have played a pivotal role in amplifying the voices of marginalised communities whose interests have often been sidelined. Their notable achievement lies in trying to hold the ruling regime to a semblance of accountability in an increasingly centralised power structure.

Moreover, the impact of Modi’s critics as also their support base extends beyond national boundaries, resonating on the global stage and shaping perceptions of India’s democratic health. As the world’s largest democracy, India’s internal affairs have implications beyond its borders. The international community closely monitors developments within the country, particularly concerning human rights, religious freedom and democratic governance.

Modi’s critics have therefore been accused of being hand-in-glove with foreign powers, even being on their payroll. They are instrumental in raising ‘anti-India issues’ and holding the government accountable on the global stage. Whether it is through international media coverage, diplomatic pressure or civil society advocacy, they have ensured our democratic deficits do not escape scrutiny or condemnation.

However, like any heterogeneous group, they are not immune to internal divisions, ideological biases or strategic missteps, and fact-checks that reveal their numerous sins of both omission and commission. Infighting, ideological purity tests and personality-driven politics have at times undermined their collective efficacy as the voice of the opposition.

Despite this, they have steadfastly pursued their mission to highlight governance failures, social injustices and erosion of democratic values under Modi’s leadership. Modi’s critics often lament over how difficult a terrain they have had to traverse, fraught with challenges, including political pressure, media censorship and even personal safety concerns.

Their demonisation has created a hostile environment where dissent is met with harassment, intimidation and legal reprisals. In such a hostile climate, sustaining a cohesive and effective counter-narrative becomes an uphill task. But they have persisted, and the results are for everyone to see.

(Views are personal)

(Tweets @MakrandParanspe)

Makarand Paranjape

Professor of English, Jawaharlal Nehru University

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