Real Threat To Democracy Isn’t From Delhi But From The State Capitals Which Mini Autocrats Rule

by Arihant Pawariya - Nov 24, 2020 10:20 AM
Real Threat To Democracy Isn’t From Delhi But From The State Capitals Which Mini Autocrats RuleFrom left to right, Chief Ministers of Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Kerala and Odisha. (Illustration: Swarajya Magazine)
Snapshot
  • Whether in academia, media or popular cinema, those who fancy themselves as ‘defenders of democracy’ are no one but karyakartas of the Congress party.

    They aren’t worried about democracy, and are only concerned about setting narratives for their favourite political bosses.

Swarajya Editorial Director R Jagannathan recently wrote a tour de force piece on Indian democracy, an exercise he felt compelled to carry out after participating in a panel discussion, the proposition of which was that the largest democracy in the world was in danger.

Jagannathan rightly argues that the breaking up of monopoly on discourse, an exclusive preserve of Lutyens’ elite before the rise of social media and alternative ideology which the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) represents, cannot possibly be interpreted as a threat to democracy even if the elite may feel that way. In fact, the democratisation of free speech has helped strengthen the roots of democracy among the masses.

He hits the nail on the head when he says that our democracy is not a gift of a borrowed piece of paper from the British or the last Englishman who became India’s first prime minister. India is democratic because of the civilisational values of its Hindu majority rooted and invested in pluralism.

He makes several other good arguments and I recommend that everyone read his article in full.

Here, I want to focus on a point he made about one real threat to our democracy that is talked about very little by the usual suspects. He says that if democracy is under any threat, it is not in Delhi, nor did the threat emerge only after 2014.

“Our problem – which is largely a media problem – is an excessive focus on what the government at the Centre does, but its actions are fully scrutinised not only by the mainstream media, but also global media. It is the mini autocrats that rule the states that go under the radar, and our liberals don’t care what happens there unless they are BJP-ruled states,” he writes.

The threat, of course, didn’t emerge after 2014. Anyone with elementary knowledge of Indian politics will attest to this. Reams can be written in the contemptuous way the likes of J Jayalalithaa, M Karunanidhi, Om Prakash Chautala, Lalu Prasad Yadav and other regional satraps treated the media or any criticism from any quarter for that matter. People have been murdered for standing up to autocratic rule in many states before Narendra Modi even became the chief minister of Gujarat.

At the Centre, we needn’t go back to Indira Gandhi or Rajiv Gandhi era when journalists and media houses were hounded for speaking out against corruption of the family. There is enough evidence to prove one’s point by looking at the 2004-14 period, the administration of Manmohan Singh, the man of “passive integrity”.

Under the 66A section of the IT Act which was eventually struck down by the Supreme Court, Ravi Srinivasan was arrested in 2012 for sending a tweet on the then finance minister P Chidambaram’s son Karti.

The same Chidambaram is now a liberal icon who is found waxing eloquent on threats to democracy under Modi in his weekly column in the Indian Express. In 2012, Aseem Trivedi was arrested for making a cartoon mocking UPA’s corruption and the situation of Parliament.

In the same year, two Air India cabin crew members were arrested for making indecent jokes about Manmohan Singh. One can go on and on. The list is endless.

But all these cases were highlighted by the media and the government was rightly ridiculed for being so thick skinned as to not take criticism in the right spirit.

However, the situation in state capitals is far worse and excesses so great to put our democracy to shame. The Delhi-centric media ignores these real threats to democracy and the local media in the states is too fearful to take on regional autocrats.

We needn’t go back to the pre-2014 period to highlight the worsening situation of free speech at the state level. Just this year alone, governments led by thin skinned politicians such as Mamata Banerjee, Uddhav Thackeray and Naveen Patnaik have booked and arrested not just journalists but even commoners for personal vendetta.

We all know about Arnab Goswami. Despite being the most popular TV news anchor in the country, the Maharashtra government didn’t think twice before going on a blatant witch hunt against him and his channel. Such is the Chutzpah of these ‘mini-PMs’. The same government arrested Sameet Thakkar, a social media user who called Aditya Thackeray ‘penguin’. He spent weeks in jail for the ‘crime’ of mocking the Chief Minister’s son.

The West Bengal government, another notorious dispensation in suppressing free speech, booked a woman living in New Delhi simply because she criticised the state’s incomprehensible approach to lockdowns.

Naveen Patnaik’s government in Odisha has been working on a mission-mode to prosecute Jay Panda, the man who dumped Patnaik’s party after criticising him and joined the BJP. The Odisha government has filed 20 cases against OTV channel run by Panda’s wife. These cases include those against employees of OTV, its sister companies and even against Panda’s 84-year-old father-in-law.

Again, one can go on and on.

But the Delhi-centric media can’t bear itself to brand Patnaik, Banerjee, Thackeray et al as fascists, intolerant, autocrats — monikers it so easily slaps on the BJP leaders. If this is not proof of media’s partisanship, one doesn’t know what is.

It’s not that the mainstream media never stands up to such excesses at the state level. It certainly does when there is a BJP government in the dock. But the states become out of bounds for these journalists who love nothing more than standing up to power whenever the Congress and its allies gain control of the same states.

The tyranny of distance suddenly disappears if there is a story to be covered by some asinine statement by BJP’s Tripura Chief Minister. Don’t mind the fact that the same media never bothered about political killings of the BJP workers under the previous communist regime. If there is an atrocity on SCs in UP, that’s a big story. But if something similar happens in Congress-ruled Rajasthan, cats get their tongue.

Punjab was ‘Udta Punjab’ — the drugs capital of the country when the BJP-SAD alliance was ruling the state. But such a huge problem disappeared in a matter of days as soon as Congress came to power.

Captain Amarinder Singh was indeed right to promise drug-free Punjab in four weeks. He had full faith in his comrades in the mainstream media. Don’t be surprised if the same playbook is deployed in Haryana elections in 2024 because thanks to Punjab, it is now the next victim of the drug problem which is growing by each year.

Rajasthan and Jharkhand were ‘lynchistan’ when the BJP was in power but now they are apparently the lands of milk, honey and communal harmony after change in the ruling regime. No, that’s not what the data says. But those invested in creating mahaul can’t be bothered about small inconvenient things like facts.

Shiv Sena, the formerly regressive, anti-South Indian, anti-Muslim party with authoritarian tendencies is now suddenly the champion of ‘the idea of India’ side only because it dumped the BJP and allied with the Congress and Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party.

Again, one can go on and on.

The evidence couldn’t be clearer: those who cry wolf most about the imagined threats to democracy are found to be observing ‘maun vrat’ at the real threats to democracy. They aren’t worried about democracy. They are only concerned about playing the faithful comrades in setting narratives for their favourite political bosses.

Whether in academia, media or popular cinema, those who fancy themselves as ‘defenders of democracy’ are no one but karyakartas of the Congress party, faithfully executing the orders from their high command and they should be treated as such.

Arihant Pawariya is Senior Editor, Swarajya.
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