The coronavirus pandemic and the resulting lockdowns in many countries have led to a resurgence of authoritarianism because of which the liberal democratic model again finds itself at peril from reactionary forces
The coronavirus pandemic and the resulting lockdowns in many countries have led to a resurgence of authoritarianism because of which the liberal democratic model again finds itself at peril from reactionary forces. It is not exaggerating to say that the escalation of the COVID-19 pandemic traces its roots to such forces. Dr. Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital, informed his fellow doctors about the outbreak, following which he was issued a notice by the Public Security Bureau for making false comments that had severely disturbed the social order. The ‘solemn apology’ that the Communist Party offered to his family and that too after his death does not absolve the Chinese government of not being completely truthful, manipulating messages, behaving in a tyrannical fashion, turning the pandemic into a geopolitical football game of blame and shame, and not been forthcoming about how the virus spread and accept any responsibility for its consequences.
An important example of the liberal democratic order at peril is Hungary where the Parliament gave Prime Minister Viktor Orbán the power to rule by decree indefinitely. Another glaring example in this regard is India where the attack on civil liberties started by the nationalistic and majoritarian BJP government at the centre has aggravated amidst the lockdown. One needs to examine how authoritarian forces have used the coronavirus pandemic and the resultant lockdown to exacerbate their fight against civil liberties, political dissent and press freedom in the country.
To begin with, ever since the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic, social distancing became the norm and anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) protest sites like Shaheen Bagh in Delhi had to be vacated. While that is a legitimate demand, what remains unexplained is the reason behind the painting over of anti-CAA graffiti. The government has exploited the lockdown to the fullest by drowning out the voices of dissent completely. The BJP government, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, has targeted independent news portals like The Wire for reporting on the inherent Islamophobia in the administration and the signs of the proto-fascism present in governance. The government, post the lockdown, has arrested prominent human rights activists like Gautam Navlakha and intellectuals like Anand Teltumbde under the draconian UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act) laws reminding one of how Chancellor Adolf Hitler used the fire decree in Germany in 1933 to suppress political opposition in the country.
The media too hasn’t been spared from the authoritarian tendencies of the government. The coverage of the public-health crisis was all about publishing ‘positive stories’ and avoiding ‘negativity’. Pointing out things like lack of testing kits and personal protection equipment in certain states or the harrowing ordeal that the working class is undergoing at present does not qualify as spreading ‘negativity’. What qualifies as negativity though is letting news channels spew communal venom in the name of journalism at a time when working together is essential.
Another such instance of information control has been the manner in which press briefings by the health ministry were conducted. According to freelance journalist Vidya Krishnan, who herself has been subjected to an online hate campaign after her article appeared in The Atlantic, a US monthly magazine, on the "callousness" of India’s handling of the epidemic. Almost all science journalists in India are getting trolled for "unpatriotic coverage” of the lockdown.
The Modi government’s decision to sell the lockdown as a national project, one for which every citizen is responsible, allows him to evade accountability whether it be the mismanagement of the migrant worker’s crisis, the failure to release cheap food stocks to the states or the failure to acquire rapid testing kits. Political scientist Suhas Palshikar believes that the lockdown brings with it a suspension of politics in India, one in which people out of their own volition are about to lose their rights. The process will take place through:
1. Decision making without consultation
2. Overemphasis on quick decision making
3. De-legitimization of dissent
This process will finally result in a state of conformity where no dissent is possible, enhancing the spectacle of the cult of leadership with the possibility of ushering in an era of bureaucratic authoritarianism. Palshikar also notes that the lockdown has resulted in a gigantic suspension of democracy as the government has bypassed all democratic procedures of discussion, deliberation, and decentralization by focusing on the result-oriented approach based on an arbitrary exercise of executive authority. He states that although the opposition and the citizens have acquiesced to the decision, it remains a major point of concern as to whether Indian democracy in the future will not be curtailed by “this narrative of nationally necessary democratic curtailment”.
The coronavirus pandemic has also deepened the Hindu-Muslim divide in India as the irresponsible Tablighi Jamaat gathering was followed by the narrative of labeling Muslims as the perennial ‘other’ with hashtags like “corona-jihad” and the government taking no steps to reduce communal tensions. The lockdown has also increased the class chasm in India with the middle class' refusal to look to anything beyond itself as its support for the lockdown, even as harrowing stories of dislocation, destitution, and starvation as a result of this process has emerged. The existing narrative of distancing the rich from the poor is in keeping with the idea of restricting democracy and in a middle class-driven and majoritarian social universe, the place of democracy will be marginal if not nominal.
A few days after the nationwide lockdown was declared the prime minister while addressing the country requested everyone to stand in their respective balconies and bang their steel utensils as a show of support and solidarity to the doctors, nurses, and other health workers of the country. Ironically enough this is a method of protest that has long been in use to express displeasure and dissatisfaction against the government in various parts of the world. Since it is inappropriate at this time to get on the streets and protest, maybe we can go to our balconies once again and beat the saucepans.
(Dhritiman Banerjee is an undergraduate student of Political Science, Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University, Kolkata. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Supriyo Dey has completed his Masters in Sociology, Presidency University, Kolkata. The views expressed are personal)