Wednesday, 29 March, 2023
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BJP is remodelling India as a one-party state. And there’s a striking resemblance to China

Modern China gave the world capitalism without democracy. Now India looks set to give the world a one-party state in a multi-party polity.

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Is India’s political order today best described as a party state? I am all too aware that  A for ‘Authoritarianism’ is the favoured currency of commentary and analysis for describing it. If authority is the hallmark of today’s political culture, then the absence of liberty is its manifest and lamented condition.

The branding of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government as authoritarian only amplifies its power if with a negative shade or two. However, in what is usually the weakest moment in a government’s cycle of power or the dreaded ‘mid-term’, the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party appears to be stretching out rather than curling into its comfort zone. I am not even a novice at martial arts let alone an expert, so my gambit here is not to use the power of the opponent against them. My newfound suspicion of ‘authoritarianism’ as a label to describe Modi is not to underestimate his power. It’s simply inadequate. I am spending this summer researching for a new book and devoting long hours in the University Library’s China section that has brought a thought I can’t quite shake off—India’s new political trajectory shares remarkable features with its outsized Himalayan neighbour.

If modern China could give the world capitalism without democracy, then, is India set to give the world a one-party state in a multi-party polity?

The party-state is synonymous with China as it refers to its one-party rule. But that is not of the essence. Instead, party-state refers to a relationship between State and society. More precisely, party-state implies the absence of boundaries between state, society, party and indeed cadre. By contrast, modern liberal states prize and thrive on the distinction between the different organs of government and their policing via checks and balances and, above all, seek to represent rather than overwhelm society.

The difference between modern China and India’s political order—best captured by its two founders, M.K. Gandhi and Mao Tse Tung—is now perhaps becoming less distinct. To be sure, this distinction is not about violence or ideology alone but is crucially about the relationship between the political party and society that they forged.

Also Read: Can you beat Modi’s BJP? Not impossible, but only if you win back enough Hindu voters

C for China

Mao rose to power first by overwhelming the formidable Chinese liberal, nationalist party, Kuomintang or the KMT. The KMT was dominated by intellectuals, westernised men and women primarily from southern China, with Shanghai as its locus, as embodied in its cosmopolitan leader Sun Yat Sen. At the same moment, Gandhi converted a sleepy but noisy, and an all too elitist, Congress Party that was dominated by English-speaking lawyers of Bombay and Calcutta into the world’s largest mass party.

Both Mao and Gandhi made this dramatic change by courting and privileging a restive and highly mobilised peasantry as the prime and correct agent and mover of history. But to divergent ends. By 1950, both had kicked out foreign powers, and while India became the largest democracy, China became a revolutionary state thanks to the surging cadres of Mao’s peasant army or the People’s Liberation Army. Over the next sixty years, as India became a multi-party democracy, China became a party-state, notably under Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping, who decisively updated Mao’s vision at critical moments.

At least four core features of China’s party-state resonate with India in the Modi Age. It is not about any institutional capture or the now pliant mediascape alone. Significantly, the ruling BJP is producing a tight coalition that seeks to brook no boundary between society, culture, ideology, and the State.

Aggressive incorporation

In installing Draupadi Murmu as the first tribal woman to India’s highest office, Modi did much more than create the current off-the-charts inspirational (or is it aspirational?) buzz. The BJP is breaking the barrier between party and society via full-spectrum assimilation of social order.

If India’s Other Backward Class (OBCs) parties competed against and blocked the rise of the BJP thirty years ago, a re-branded BJP is on the path of their aggressive assimilation. India’s social order, which is in fact a series of sub-castes, offers rich pickings for a political machinery attuned to it.

The absorption of selective sub-castes from Dalits to the tribals now, and increasingly, the Muslims (the Pasmandas, for instance) while not challenging upper caste power, is deepening the party’s social footprint. The BJP now poses the greatest challenge to India’s regional and smaller political parties not only because of the Enforcement Directorate. But precisely because regional parties have effectively been caste parties and primarily OBC parties. Pacification of social opposition through incorporation has been key to the endurance of China’s party-state too.

This form of social engineering reflects a BJP-led party-state in the making. It implies more than mere voting behaviour. This is already leaving India’s much-indulged data crunchers (who double up as political analysts) reeling for answers. While data surveyors and commentators breathlessly declare each such move to be a BJP ‘masterstroke’ they are unable to identify the big picture, let alone explain its effects on India’s polity.

Also Read: BJP, Modi’s ‘total politics’ stems from insecurity. They still don’t rule the power elite

End of autocrat/bureaucrat conflict

Authoritarian regimes are marked by leaders who routinely confront the civil service or the faceless figures of power behind any government. As a well-honed good cop/bad cop routine, this conflict between political leaders and bureaucrats allows for both whistleblowing and the airing of grievances essential to any but especially authoritarian governments. Recall the near-daily fracas between Anthony Fauci and Donald Trump at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Closer to home, the rise of the cult of T.N. Seshan, for instance, was directly owed to the preceding era of Indian Emergency’s political excesses.

By contrast, Modi’s eight years of rule has produced a supplicant bureaucracy. Tellingly, Modi has rarely chastised India’s civil service. It would be too conspiratorial to imagine that Indian bureaucrats are fully paid-up members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Even if this were the case, the proof of complete political alignment with the bureaucracy lies in policymaking and its enactment. Look no further than India’s foreign policy, which, having been steadfast over changing political dispensations, has now gone saffron.

New prestige or liberalism as (bad) westernism

The ruling BJP offers new values of prestige and represents the maturing of a new symbolic and cultural capital. The image and culture wars in India today are less about freedom of expression and more about creating a dominant political culture that desperately needs its anti-hero. Be prepared for more controversies on history wars, name changes of cities or streets, and cases against naked actors and dancing divas because the now-dominant political culture demands not merely fear but uniformity. Daily denunciations of India’s so-called ancien regime through the media, and cultural output are further geared towards shoring up the ruling party’s self-identity.

As BJP and Hindutva become the default political setting in India, liberal ideals are being dismissed as habits of the old elite rather than hard-won political virtues or first principles of a democratic polity. Liberalism is now deemed a cultural artefact. It is not only associated with the West, and therefore not native, but is above all, scorned as downright odious for its association with a declined and decadent old elite. This has crucially allowed the BJP to emerge as a party of protest or of the underdog—and not only of identity—even as it has been nothing but aggressive in its pursuit of majoritarian power.

Also Read: Opposition on their knees but BJP has troubles brewing within

From ideology to technology

The 2014 election that installed Modi’s BJP was dubbed an ‘economy election’. Throughout that long campaign, the decibels on Hindutva were low if muted. Oscillating between the two poles of Hindutva and on the other, a commitment to a new economy or technology softens the totalising power of the party that demands loyalty. This could potentially drain out political opposition.

In a series of articles in The New York Times, political scientist Ming Xia argues that both Chinese elites and the aspirational are increasingly anti-political. Even though Communism is but hyper-nationalism in China, ideology has been supplanted by a fixation on infrastructure and technology. As global successes, these are attributed to the Chinese party-state that, in instilling pride, help discount political debate.

Modi’s India is marked by a zeal for infrastructure and connectivity. Whether it is expressways or Digital India—they look imposing and can be awe-inspiring. What is less clear and worth investigating is whether this fixation on the digital and infrastructure like China is allowing technology to trump political debate in the ‘new India’.

Whether or not these four key features of the party-state will strip all social and political agency essential for true democratic politics will depend entirely on India’s opposition parties. Democracy is defined by deliberation, debate and above all, conflict of views and visions. A giant lotus currently seems to be on course to envelop India.

If India is to avoid the fate of the party-state, its opposition parties will first and foremost have to forge a new political language that can capture and contest the zeitgeist. Otherwise, like the original party-state of China, authority in India will soon be considered a political virtue and coercion will be experienced as voluntary submission and national duty.

Shruti Kapila is Professor of Indian history and global political thought at the University of Cambridge. She tweets @shrutikapila. Views are personal.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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