Many new developments are taking place in Indian politics. One of them is an attempt to equate not just dissent, but even disagreement, dissatisfaction, simply thinking out loud, as sedition that can invite arrest and prosecution. Further, sedition is now being framed not just against citizens who sit on dharnas but against those who post on social media, even if most of what they write or share is just a factual statement, not even a strong opinion. Going way beyond ordinary citizens, the government in power is now charging Opposition leaders with corruption and under sedition laws. Even further, it is accusing its own Members of Parliament of these crimes, should they proffer any criticism of the Prime Minister or the BJP.
Two ministers of the TMC and four MLAs were arrested recently for corruption charges pending against them for a long time. Earlier, Member of Parliament Mukul Roy and a few others who faced corruption charges were threatened but ended up in a happy union with the BJP. After this, the accusation either disappeared or was just not pursued with any urgency. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee referred to this during the state Assembly campaign when she asked if the BJP is a washing machine that washes away all blots of corruption as soon as somebody joins it.
However, this practice is not limited to the BJP. It began much earlier, perhaps in Tamil Nadu, with the infamous incident of a late-night arrest of DMK leader Karunanidhi soon after Jayalalitha assumed power as retribution for getting her arrested over corruption charges. There was a repeated drama of this when Union Home Minister Amit Shah had Chidambaram arrested, yet again in a late-night drama.
This saga has taken on a new proportion altogether in Andhra Pradesh under Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy. It is indeed unusual that this comes from a Chief Minister, yet not too surprising. Reddy, the individual leader, is known to be a factionalist who has faced many criminal cases. His father and grandfather passed on this legacy of factional violence; Reddy perhaps cannot think anew to forge a fresh persona just because he has assumed a constitutional position. Instead, events are flowing in the opposite direction. Days ago, YSR Congress Party Member of Parliament Raghu Ramakrishna Raju was arrested after he criticised the Chief Minister. A large number of Telugu Desam Party leaders got served notices, including former chief minister Chandrababu Naidu.
It is the same state of affairs in Telangana with K Chandrasekhar Rao, who has got at least 13 mass organisations banned and muffled all voices of dissent in civil society and within his party. State Health Minister Eatala Rajender has been charged with corruption and land grab after he expressed discontent over the state of affairs in the party. All this is not news. Indeed these instances only demonstrate how KCR has been governing the new state of Telangana.
In Uttar Pradesh, BJP MLA Rakesh Rathore was unhappy with the way his government managed the Covid-19 pandemic. But even in his critique, he hastened to add that “saying too much”—criticism—could invite the sedition charge against him. The reasons may be different, but the culture cutting across the parties is the same. While the BJP espouses muscular nationalism and criminalised Hindutva majoritarian politics, Jagan has a factionalist legacy, and KCR, a feudal Velama-caste arrogance. And in Mamata Banerjee’s case, it could be the vulnerability that comes from being a woman leader.
The cult of personality drives all our parties. Most other leaders are either unknown or do not matter in this scheme of things. Mamta Banerjee alone matters in the Trinamool Congress. In the BJP, it is the Modi-Shah duo who rule, and so on. This leader-centric politics is laying bare individual instincts, and their insecurities are now on full public display. These events are neither about corruption nor institutional procedures. It is common knowledge and an open secret that this cult of personality is motivated by personal vengeance and the desire to preserve power.
Over time this cult and its motivations have become brazen since there is neither fear of public opinion nor anxiety about media coverage. Even the media is vertically divided, though attempts to polarise it further are constantly on. Investigative agencies have no internal checks either. Yes-men are picked and discarded when past their utility.
India has a top-down model of centralised power. The pattern starts with Modi-Shah and the PMO and flows down to regional governments. State power, governments, political parties and leaders, all have collapsed into one. The BJP puts pressure on the regional parties that are opposed to it, who, in turn, use the same tactics against state leaders of Opposition and mass civil society organisations. In complex ways, the situation is legitimising the use of force by powerful castes against the less powerful ones, and from there, it is permeating all other social hierarchies.
This phenomenon partly explains why we have failed to fight the pandemic—there is no collective sense left. It is exclusively predatory politics that is structuring the current situation. The price we paid during this pandemic should make us realise the limits of such methods, but human beings are perfectly capable of learning just the opposite lessons from it.
(The writer is Associate Professor at the Centre for Political Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. Views expressed are personal.)