Voters stand in a queue at a polling station during the fifth phase of Lok Sabha polls, at Shey village in Leh, Monday, May 6, 2019
Voters stand in a queue at a polling station during the fifth phase of Lok Sabha polls, at Shey village in Leh on 6 May, 2019 | PIB/PTI Photo
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Global democracy watchdog Freedom House’s latest annual Freedom in the World report has confirmed what most analysts and observers have been saying for quite some time now: Democracy is on a dangerous decline in India.

The US-based think tank attributes the downgrade — from “free” to “partly free” — to “a multiyear pattern in which the Hindu nationalist government and its allies have presided over rising violence and discriminatory policies affecting the Muslim population and pursued a crackdown on expressions of dissent by the media, academics, civil society groups, and protesters”.

The Modi government has, of course, categorically rejected the report, calling it “misleading” and “incorrect”. The denial is hardly surprising. But unlike in the past, this damning report cannot be brushed under the carpet with ease.

Ever since it stormed into power in 2014, the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been conscious of how the world perceives its poster boy and his reign in New Delhi.

Given the stains of the 2002 Gujarat riots, it was only natural that the party wanted to shake them off from the past and project a Modi 2.0. The meticulously scripted speeches and engagements with the Indian diaspora abroad, an emphasis on Gandhian values of peace and cooperation on global platforms, and a carefully sculpted image of an “invincible” and “selfless” leader back home, are all ingredients of a carefully crafted image makeover and PR exercise.

In his heyday, Modi’s gift of the gab was enough to charm his audiences whether at home or abroad. Back then, highlighting the mess under UPA and selling an illusory yet irresistible promise of hope and change was slam dunk. Wherever he went, wherever he spoke, he made heads turn and even his critics took note.

Things, however, have begun to change and the cracks in this image makeover are fairly evident.

Brute power lulls you into believing you can do no wrong

This isn’t the first time that a global body has called a spade a spade and received a sermon in return from the Modi government.

Barring the odd Ease of Doing Business rankings, almost every other global report, even if mildly critical, has been brushed under the carpet because of vested interests or the handiwork of forces hell bent on stemming India’s rise on the world stage.

But a month ago the Modi government seemed visibly shaken by a pop star’s tweet so much so that it pressed the entire government machinery — from the Ministry of External Affairs to sycophants in Bollywood and cricket, and the party’s infamous social media cell — to rebut the celebrity’s innocuous tweet.

Aggression? No. This is nervousness. After all, why create a social media storm and amplify Rihanna’s tweet and its intended goal when half the country doesn’t even know her, forget pronouncing her name right?

But that’s what brute power does. It lulls you into believing that you can do no wrong and even if you do, you have enough people in enough places to spin it for you. And so you prop the bogey of an imaginary international conspiracy misleading everyone from farmers to students and NGOs to activists.

The ultimate aim is to halt India’s ascent on the world stage. This is not much different from what autocrats like Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin and their state-controlled media declare day in day out to justify their illiberal regimes.

Two options remain before India

In his first term, Modi could extol his performance on the global stage and revel in bringing pride and respect for India globally. Two years into his second term, he has run into an image crisis and undone the gains made in his first term.

From here onwards, only two options remain: To course correct, give up short-term petty political gains and arrest the democratic slide or to continue to live in denial and become more thin-skinned and insecure to global scrutiny.

The latter would only invite more global criticism and as the world watches in horror, the world’s largest democracy, speaks a language that mirrors authoritarian regimes, uses colonial era laws to clamp down on free speech, and openly discriminates between citizens on the grounds of religion.

Our USP — being a democratic counterweight to China — has taken a huge hit as we sleepwalk into illiberalism if not outright authoritarianism.

Perhaps the echo chambers of Lutyen’s Delhi that Modi once derided have intoxicated him and his party too. As Tulsidas once said, “Nahin kou asa janma jaga mahin, prabhuta pai jahi mada nahi (Never was a creature born in this world, whom power did not intoxicate).”

Abhishek Kumar is a student of University of Calcutta, Kolkata

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