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The Modi Method: How the Indian Prime Minister is Using Bureaucracy to Attack His Opponents

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

Deep Dive Article

By Jack Parkinson

PM Modi with then-US President Donald Trump - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“India: The Modi Question”, a documentary recently released by the BBC, charts Narendra Modi’s career long efforts to demonise India’s 200 million Muslims. It focuses on the 2002 riots in Gujarat, where the Modi was serving as Chief Minister at the time. The violent riots, which lasted 3 days and were stoked by inter-faith division are difficult to read about:

“Bystanders were tortured with acid; homes were electrocuted with families inside after being purposefully flooded.”

“Women got the worst of it … some 250 of women and girls were gang raped”

The documentary cites an unpublished report by the British government that described the violence as a well-co-ordinated and organised ethnic cleansing. It claims that police handed out addresses of Muslim households and turned a blind eye to the violence against Muslim areas. It held Mr Modi, now Prime Minister of India, “directly responsible” for a “climate of impunity” that allowed the riots to take place. Around 2,000 people are likely to have died, most of them Muslim.

The series should have been a must-watch in India, showcasing how Narendra Modi has enflamed inter-faith tensions and incited violence in the world’s largest democracy, but the state has cracked down hard. There is ample reason for Modi and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to not want people to see the documentary. First, the government invoked emergency powers to ban the documentary nationwide. Then, when student groups organised viewings of the controversial series, the police detained those who showed up. The police even shut off the power at one university when students attempted to stream it on campus. The climax came, however, when the taxman raided the offices of the BBC in Mumbai and Delhi, claiming fraud. “No one believes that for a second” one pundit said.

Since coming to power Narendra Modi has systematically co-opted the bureaucracy of the state, most notably, its tax-enforcement division, to attack organisations ranging from NGOs, opposition parties and news media and that trouble the party. Those who are unlucky enough to be raided by tax authorities know they are in for a time-consuming and bumpy ride. The BBC are expecting a long and arduous process, severely hampering their ability to conduct business. Yet, it is far from the first time Modi has used such attacks for his gain.

The offices of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Oxfam and other NGOs that raise irksome issues have all been raided. No one has been spared, with raids on those working on issues ranging from poverty relief to environmental protection. Some 19,000 NGO’s have closed their doors since Modi came to power in 2014 and this is just the non-profits. Annoying journalists have been detained in their homes for days on end, and troublesome news sites, that have exposed corruption within the BJP have suffered from a visit of the taxman. Some received a visit for exposing links between Modi and dodgy businessmen, others from seeking to prove the Indian Covid-19 death toll was 3 to 10 times the official figure of 450,000.

The attacks on media and other organisations that are a prickly thorn in the BJPs side have picked up in recent years, as it seeks to punish institutions that cross its path. The recent raid on the BBC is nothing new for media in India, yet it is the first time a foreign news organisation has been targeted. His victories over his domestic opponents have encouraged Modi to go after his foreign ones. The raid has received a lot of coverage and raised a lot of Western eyebrows, especially since India is due to host the G20. Regardless, Rishi Sunak, Britain’s post-Brexit PM has refused to comment on the issue. For America, Britain and the West what matters most is courting India for access to its booming market and strategic importance in the struggle for supremacy against China. Besides raising mild concerns, the self-proclaimed global defenders of human rights and democracy seem distracted.

By attacking the organisations that have brought the plight of the neediest Indians to the fore, and by restricting the ability of free media to criticise the government freely, he is harming India’s democracy. Reporters Without Borders claimed press freedom has fallen since Mr Modi came to power. The World Press Freedom Index has ranked India 150th of 180 countries, down 10 places since 2014.

The taxman is not the only tool in the Prime Ministers playbook, however. The opposition and courts have been bullied with inquiries, investigations, detentions, raids and even assassination. Laws have been tweaked, making party donations more opaque and less restrictive, while offering breaks for allied parties intwined in financial scandals. Restrictions on foreign funding have spelled the end for many meaningful charities. The BJP has corrupted respected government institutions, booting the boss of the central bank from office when he refused to do the party’s bidding. Volleys have even been launched at laws meant to de-politicise the armed forces and at independent education and universities. Racial and political violence has increased, human rights have been weakened.

Modi was elected by a rush of Hindu nationalism, riding promises of economic growth and national rejuvenation. Presenting himself as the strongman of India, willing to stand up to Pakistan and terrorism, he has stoked racial tensions between Hindus and Muslims, a significant minority in India. Modi personally appointed a Hindu cleric, who calls the election a ‘war of faiths’, as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. His number two regularly calls Muslim refugees “termites” while welcoming Hindu immigrants. During protests in Kashmir, Modi sent in troops and brutally cracked down, inviting insurgency, and alienating local minorities. The BJP see India as a distinctly Hindu nation. They are wrong.

India is likely to be the fastest growing economy in the world soon, with a booming tech industry and pioneering green energy firms. The BJPs efforts to reduce the informal economy and back direct welfare has certainly helped. The opposition have been relentless in their resistance, but with Modi in power, the economy growing, and the Indian National Congress, India’s only real hope at deposing the BJP, stalled with infighting, his reign looks set to continue for a while. Some are worried that Modi’s increasing belligerence could potentially harm India’s economy, scaring away investors. Hindenburg Research, a short seller, whose recent expose on the Adani Group, India’s premier firm, generated worldwide headlines, would have most certainly got a visit from the taxman if they were based in India.

Narendra Modi’s use of India’s bureaucracy to attack the institutions that protect Indian democracy is worrying. His attacks on India’s Muslim population, even worse. In a country as diverse as India, the BJPs desire to create linguistic and cultural uniformity is greatly destabilising. Its 200 million Muslim citizens are a testament to the case India is not a Hindu nation, but a beautiful melting pot of culture, language, and faith. But with crackdowns on the rise, and Modi becoming more confident in his assault on free speech, pundits are concerned. Any organisation that undermines his authority is at risk of a ‘punishment by process’. The raid on the BBC is the next step in the BJP’s crackdown in India. ‘The Modi Question’ is a question they don’t want people to know the answer to.


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