Narendra Modi’s re-election invokes the dark side of India’s democracy

Narendra Modi
Narendra Modi won a landslide victory in the recent Indian election. But in his last five as Prime Minister, the country's minorities feel threatened and the economy is flagging. Flickr/G20 Argentina
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Elections are India’s largest spectacle. They are a time for grand rallies and colourful processions on the streets.

With two-thirds of the country’s 900 million eligible voters casting ballots this spring, more people turned up at the polls than the populations of the United States and Europe combined — marking a record for voter turnout in the country’s 68-year democratic history.

But what does this historic election mean for the world’s largest democracy?

The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won the election, continuing their control of parliament, increasing their share of votes, and cementing party leader Narendra Modi as Prime Minister for five more years. The re-election of the BJP with an overwhelming majority threatens the core values that once defined a tolerant and liberal democracy.

In his first five years, Modi and his party took India down a path where basic freedoms and the rule of law are no longer guaranteed, transforming the secular foundations of India’s democracy into a violent, authoritarian regime.

The endgame of the BJP is nothing short of changing India’s constitution and making it a Hindu nation where minorities — mainly Muslims and Christians — are treated as second class citizens.

India’s Hindu Taliban

Since his youth, Modi has been a faithful member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an all-male Hindu nationalist organization. The RSS, mostly comprised of individuals belonging to the upper levels of the caste system, has a myriads of affiliated organizations that are collectively called the Sangh Parivar, of which the BJP is the political wing.

The RSS has been banned three times, most notably in 1948 when one of its members assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. Even today, there are several Hindu terrorist groups affiliated with the Sangh. Now, it’s extremist brand of politics is becoming ever-more mainstream.

During this election, the BJP handed a ticket to Pragya Thakur, a Hindu ascetic, despite her being accused of terrorism for plotting a bomb attack on Muslims. The party even managed to get her out of jail on ‘health grounds,’ but she was fit enough to fight a demanding election campaign. And she won.

The founders of the RSS were inspired by Italian and German fascists in the 1920s, and modelled the organization along similar principles. The RSS has an organized grassroots network — it hosts training camps where its volunteer members are indoctrinated with its divisive ideology, and taught the art of engineering a ‘riot,’ rifle shooting and other forms of combat. It is these political workers and vigilante groups who are out on the streets targeting minorities, organizing protests and campaigning for votes.

Due to its terror tactics, the Sangh has often been referred to as the ‘Hindu Taliban.’ Some rogue groups loosely connected with the BJP are also known to terrorize minorities, mainly Muslims, Christians and Dalits, a lower caste in India.

Under the guise of enforcing Modi’s new law banning the slaughter of cows for beef – a sacred animal to Hindus — Muslims and members of lower castes have been lynched by mobs consisting mainly of upper caste Hindus.

Cattle are an essential component of the rural economy, and besides providing a source of protein, they also provide labour, transport, fuel and fertilizer to Indian farmers. The beef ban has affected thousands of cattle farmers, traders and tanners, and mainly the poor lower castes and Muslims whose lives depend on the trade.

Moreover, Sangh activists have spread false fears about Muslims forcibly marrying Hindu women, and have used this as a pretext to kidnap thousands of Hindu women because they married outside the Hindu faith. Such is the Sangh’s twisted interpretation of Hinduism, a religion that embodies tolerance and acceptance.

Billionaire buddies

Modi’s politics of hate rhetoric is funded by powerful billionaires in India who fill his election coffers and give him their private jets to travel during campaigns.

Meanwhile, inequality, unemployment and farmer suicides are at record highs. The nine richest individuals in India now have as much wealth as the bottom 50% of India’s population, equivalent to more than 600 million people, according to an Oxfam report.

Rather than bridging the divide, Modi has only further entrenched crony capitalism in India.

Though Modi boasts he is incorruptible, several questions have been raised about deals he has signed to favour his billionaire friends. During five years of his tenure, the wealth of India’s richest billionaire, Mukesh Ambani, more than doubled from $23 billion to $55 billion. Modi also seemed keen to endorse the billionaire’s ventures by featuring on front-page advertisements to launch Reliance Jio, a telecom company owned by Ambani. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has gone as far as bending rules to put Ambani’s company on track to monopolize the sector.

Like several fascist regimes, the BJP’s tactic is to create fear of a false enemy — in this case, Muslims, Pakistanis, pacifists, intellectuals and dissenters — to distract attention from the real reasons why the majority remain poor.

Similar to Trump and several other right-wing populist leaders in places like Brazil, Turkey, and Austria who have gained power in the last few years, Modi’s presence is larger than life. You can’t escape him on billboards, TV, newspapers or social media. His propaganda is loud and at times hateful. He also has a tactical PR machine that uses WhatsApp and social media very effectively.

But when engaging with journalists, he has been rather timid — Modi did not hold a single press conference where the media could ask unscripted questions during his five year stint.

Tainted rise to power

Modi started his career in politics as chief minister of Gujarat in 2001. A few months later, he was accused of ‘criminal conspiracy’, in a massacre of Muslims in 2002. More than 1,000 people were killed, and over 100,000 were forced to flee their homes.

For nine years, Modi was denied a visa to visit the US because of “severe violations of religious freedom.” This ban was lifted after he became Prime Minister in 2014, where he campaigned on the promise of prosperity for India. His tainted past did not sway voter perceptions or affect election results and he won that election with an overwhelming majority. The people saw him as a strong leader who would further development in the country.

In order to appeal to his voters, he portrayed himself as a poor ‘tea seller’, part of the working class. In contrast to his privileged Cambridge-educated opponent Rahul Gandhi, head of the Indian National Congress (INC) party, part of the Gandhi dynasty. The family has dominated Indian politics for four generations since India gained independence from the British in 1947.

With Modi’s win in 2014, his supporters heralded a new era for India. The stock market soared. But not for long.

Flagging economy and false promises

Several of Modi’s touted reforms resulted in major disruptions in people’s lives and slowing down the economy. The most devastating among them was the demonetization drive. In November 2016, Modi stunned the nation by announcing on live television that 500- and 1000-rupee notes, then the highest denomination in the country, would no longer be legal tender. In order to deal with illegal wealth or “black money” stowed away as cash, people were given several weeks to exchange their currency for new 500 and 2000-rupee notes at banks.

One of Modi’s most controversial moves involved removing 500- and 1000-rupee notes from circulation.

But these were not printed fast enough, and it sparked a long currency shortage. The poor who rely on cash for their daily transactions were adversely affected.

The policy cost India a 1% drop in its GDP and at least 1.5 million jobs. And it failed to deliver on its promise to deal with unaccounted wealth.

Modi also introduced a Goods and Services Tax that was poorly designed as it added to bureaucracy, and had a huge negative impact on small businesses and jobs.

His initiatives made bold promises to reach neglected parts of the society. He announced a dizzying array of schemes to tackle poverty and improve infrastructure, such as rural electrification, supply of natural gas, housing, skills training and toilet construction. Two months before the 2014 election, the government announced a direct income support scheme that would transfer funds directly into farmers’ bank accounts. Several poor families voted for Modi hoping they would benefit from this support plan. But the actual reach and effectiveness of these policies are yet to be known.

State capture

Since coming to power, Modi has leveraged his power to capture key institutions of Indian democracy such as the Supreme Court, Reserve Bank, Election Commission and universities. Several Supreme Court judges and Reserve Bank officials have spoken out against his abuse of power, which undermines the independence of these institutions.

Journalists and activists have been killed or jailed on false charges under Modi’s governance. University and school textbooks – especially in some BJP-ruled states – have been changed to teach the Sangh’s skewed version of history.

In the absence of a strong opposition, the BJP has untrammelled power. In this year’s election, Congress party, the main opposition, were unable to inspire confidence in voters. They could not unite opposition parties into a coalition, leading to the division of votes in favour of the BJP. Rahul Gandhi even lost in his family’s traditional constituency, Amethi – a huge blow to the Congress and a clear signal that it is time to change dynastic rule and bring in new blood.

The new normal

For now, Modi is all-pervasive. It would take another larger-than-life personality, with a grassroots network that is as organized and dedicated, to counter his might.

Until then, the concept of a “Hindu Rashtra” — a nation designed to favour the Hindu majority and suppress its majorities — will get further entrenched over the next five years, spreading hatred and misinformation.

This is the new normal.

An entire generation will grow up with the Sangh’s twisted notions of Indian history, culture and nationalism, unable to discern the truth from false propaganda. Living with fear and hatred, instead of love and generosity – ignorant of what they have lost.

Putin and Trump meet at G20
A meeting between Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump took place on the sidelines of the G20 summit. Office of the Russian President

Putin’s Century

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On the last day of the 20th century, Boris Yeltsin stepped down as first president of post-Soviet Russia, and handed the reigns of the country to a former KGB officer named Vladimir Putin. Yeltsin had been a reckless alcoholic who ran a chaotic administration that opened the doors for the most brutal members of his society to take over Russia’s industry and government. Robert Mueller’s newly-released 488-page report found insufficient evidence to bring conspiracy charge again President Donald Trump and his campaign officials, but it does confirm just how corrupt and expansive Putin’s kleptocracy has become.

The first time I visited Moscow was a couple months before Putin took office, and I was struck by what I saw: Western chain stores, clean roads, well-dressed people, and a semblance of peace and civility on the street. I grew up raised by my uncle Joe, who had spent five years in a Soviet prison camp in Siberia during and after World War II. He painted a picture of Russia as a grim country that fed him soup made from rotten cabbage, caused him to lose several toes from frostbite, and let his brother Rudy to die in his arms as he wasted away from tuberculosis. As a small child, I knew the few Russian words and phrases my uncle learned in prison, like golovorez, gavno, mudak, yob tvoyu mat. You can look them up, but trust me that Russians – who heard me as a pre-schooler utter these words – used to blanch. Needless to say, from an early age, I had developed an unflattering impression of Russia.

So in 1999, I was surprised by the country Russia had become in the years after the crumbling of the Soviet empire. At the time I was working on a 60 Minutes investigation about how the Russian mafia, colluding with authorities, had kidnapped a young Moscow businessman named Alexander Konanykhin, who was threatening the power grab of the new oligarchs. Konanykhin escaped and fled to the United States, and shortly after settling down in Washington, he began warning U.S. and Russian officials about the emerging “mafiocracy” in Russia. Then, a knock at the door – U.S. agents showed up at his Watergate apartment and took him into custody. It turned out the FBI had issued a memo to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (precursor to ICE), asking them to find an excuse to deport Konanykhin back to Russia. The FBI had just opened a bureau in Moscow, and Russian authorities presented them with a quid pro quo – get us Konanykhin back, or the bureau closes.

How far we have come from those early days when our own government felt comfortable colluding with Russia to repatriate – and presumably execute – a whistleblower of Russian corruption.

As soon as Putin took over, he ushered in a new era, and he has quietly pushed the envelope of what the world would accept from him and his country.

When Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, U.S. and European leaders stood by impotently. Putin went from drawing a civil servant’s salary to amassing billions in wealth. If prominent Putin critic, Hermitage Capital Management CEO Bill Browder, was right in his testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, Putin could be worth as much as $200 billion, which would make him the richest man on earth – and yet, Russia rarely makes the list of most corrupt countries in the world. And when – as U.S. intelligence agencies and the Mueller report make exceedingly clear – Russia manipulated the U.S. election to get Donald Trump elected, the most that came out of it was indictments of a couple dozen Russians who will never end up arrested or in prison.

While the 20th century was one dominated by the United States, the common wisdom is that this century is China’s. It is, after all, the most populous country in the world, an economic powerhouse that is exerting more political influence by the day. But Russia is a bad boy behind the curtains, powerless to make a real difference at centre stage, so it makes trouble from the sidelines. In addition to the now-well-established role Russia took in helping Trump get elected, it ran similar phishing campaigns against politicians in Germany and Norway. Russia funded far-right parties in the run-up to France’s last election, and it played a role in pushing England towards Brexit.

There is little doubt Putin has been behind these guerrilla political tactics, fostering chaos in many of the world’s most stable democracies. Like a punk kid making trouble in at the back of the classroom, he is quietly manipulating things and occasionally launching a spitball. Putin is the ultimate golovorez.

UPDATE: This story was originally written prior to the release of the redacted “Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election.” It has since been modified to correctly reflect the report’s finding of insufficient evidence to charge conspiracy, as opposed to no evidence of collusion, as Attorney General Barr had originally stated.

Demonstrators in Venezuela's capital Caracas
Demonstrators in Venezuela's capital Caracas urge the global community to send humanitarian help. The sign reads: 'We need you.' Alexcocopro / Wikimedia Commons

Starving Venezuelans pay the price for Maduro’s arrogance

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“Wow! You look amazing! You’ve lost so much weight,” I said while greeting my best friend’s mom. As those words rolled off my tongue, I realized I made an embarrassing mistake.

She responded with a smile: “You know… diet and stuff.”

But I quickly realized that was far from the truth. She wasn’t following any dietary regime to shed some pounds. Like many low-income Venezuelans, she simply wasn’t getting enough to eat.

When I travelled to Caracas and Puerto Ordaz to visit home in 2016, I saw that Venezuelans were regularly skipping meals or eating less because they couldn’t afford food. And even when they could afford staples like rice or corn flour, the shelves at grocery stores were often empty.

According to a 2017 study, Venezuelans have lost 25 pounds on average. This is a crisis I can see every day when my friends and relatives share photos on social media or visit me in Canada.

This crisis is often referred to as the “Maduro Diet” — a joke that highlights the consequences of President Nicolas Maduro’s mismanaged “Socialism of the 21st century” policies he inherited from his predecessor Hugo Chávez.

The scheme involved heavy state intrusion in rigging the currency exchange rates. Farmland confiscated by the government remained abandoned, and the number of private enterprises dwindled. The economy was propped up largely by soaring oil prices, but that landscape unravelled when global oil prices collapsed in 2008 and 2014. Even the state-run health infrastructure suffered under hyperinflation and shortage of resources. This, coupled with corruption, propped up a model of socialism that didn’t work for Venezuelans.

Sweet treat, bitter truth

Savoy chocolate, a prized possession of Venezuelans, is now a measure of the country’s astronomical inflation — the bar almost costs three-quarters of a person’s income. Photo Credit: Hugo Londoño / Flickr

The classic Savoy chocolate bar is a prime example of Venezuela’s stark reality.

Savoy was a symbol of Venezuela’s prosperity in the 1970s. Travelling Venezuelans would carry the candy as a prized possession and share it with others.

This 130-gram bar now costs almost 12,000 bolívars, which is about $3.60 USD, while minimum wage in Venezuela is 18,000 bolivars, or $5.40 USD, per month. In other words, everyone’s favourite chocolate bar costs almost three-quarters of their monthly income — a bitter reminder of Venezuela’s astronomical hyperinflation, which reached an all-time high of more than 2.6-million per cent in January.

Even six minimum wage hikes since 2018 have been unable to help Venezuelans catch up with soaring inflation. According to the Parliament’s Financial Commission, prices are continuing to increase by 3.5 per cent every day.

This dire economic situation has cascading effects. According to the Venezuelan Health Observatory, 80 per cent of Venezuelan households don’t have enough food to meet their daily nutritional needs. This has resulted in a population that is struggling to fight off common diseases.

For example, in the eastern Anzoátegui state where I was born, 12 children have died of dehydration and diarrhea this year.

Eighty per cent of medicines that should be sold in pharmacies are not available. And hospitals only have 20 per cent of the medical resources they need to treat current patients.

This lack of resources is now a reality for many families, including mine. While the world was ringing in 2019, I received news that one of my cousins in Venezuela died of liver cancer, because the medicine she needed wasn’t available.

In these dire circumstances, accepting humanitarian aid should be an easy choice. But that’s not the case for a President looking to flex his political muscle.

Food, not ideological fodder

In February, the world offered a lifeline to Venezuela. Countries like the U.S., Netherlands, Puerto Rico, and Brazil attempted to transport humanitarian goods into the country. But President Maduro denied entry to the shipments — an arrogant decision that has fatal consequences for people who are reeling from chronic hunger and healthcare shortages.

The first batch of U.S. aid supplies arrived at the border between Venezuela and Colombia. The kit included food items and hygiene products that could feed a family of five for up to 10 days. It also included supplementary food and replacement biscuits for malnourished children.

But according to Maduro, the relief efforts carried out by the U.S., Puerto Rico, Colombia, Canada, and some European countries were part of a plan to undermine his government. Maduro saw the aid as a Trojan horse, concealing American infiltrators and political meddlers who want to take over Venezuela’s oil-and mineral-rich reserves.

He blocked the entry of the humanitarian aid with barricades, and the armed forces that he sent to the border burned down two trucks carrying supplies. Whatever wasn’t destroyed is now piled up in warehouses in towns bordering Colombia.

People in the country need food and medical supplies, not ideological fodder from a politician whose decisions are serving his illegitimate grip on power at the expense of human lives.

Venezuela also needs new political leadership to move past the current crisis.

Some 40 countries now, including those that didn’t recognize the 2018 elections that brought Maduro to power again, have backed Juan Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela. Guaidó has recognized the dire needs of Venezuelans, urged humanitarian assistance and promised to protect the country’s assets.

The ‘Las Tienditas’ bridge used to transport humanitarian from Colombia to Venezuela is blocked by President Nicolas Maduro.

From the sidelines

For those inside and outside the country, the biggest fear is that all this noise will fail to produce any change.

Looking at these events from the sidelines, I fear the continued sickness and death of people due to malnutrition and lack of proper medical care. I also fear for Venezuelans who show discontent through protests and have to meet the brute force of the regime. This year already, two died and 300 were injured as a result of the clashes that erupted over humanitarian aid. Saying “no se aguanta más” — “we can’t resist any longer” — comes at a price.

The possibility of a military intervention by another country is also chilling, as ‘civilian casualties’ are all too common in such scenarios.

What’s happening in Venezuela is not just a story of politics – it’s an abuse of the rights of Venezuelans. Soaring inflation, inadequate social services, impaired communications systems, and lack of food supplies and medication have crippled the society.

Can you imagine what it is like to know that all of this is happening in a country where your family lives? For me, it’s my mom and grandma. For others – some three million Venezuelans who have fled the country in the wake of this crisis – it is their children, their spouses, their relatives.

Recently my grandma had two medical emergencies related to high blood pressure and she was rushed to the hospital. I barely knew the details because internet services are unreliable and international calls rarely go through.

The doctors would not treat my grandma until my mom could prove that she could afford what little medicines were still left in the ER. Thankfully, we had the money to get my grandma the treatment she needed.

Humanitarian aid can alleviate some of the pressures on the healthcare system. And there does seems to be some progress.

The Red Cross increased its budget to deliver kits with food and supplies into Venezuela, after the organization previously committed to help 650,000 people.

Venezuelan MPs are also working along the Venezuelan-Colombian border to consolidate essentials donated by Canada, the European Union, and the U.S.

Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chrystia Freeland, said that the country is focusing its aid on both the western and southern borders flooded by refugees, while the House of Representatives of the U.S. passed three bills to expand the reach of humanitarian assistance in Venezuela.

While this progress is encouraging, the real test of these efforts will be in ensuring that humanitarian aid can actually pass through the border and reach Venezuelans.