The invisible coup

Democracies don’t turn into dictatorships overnight. Quite often there is no big-ticket assault on the democratic setup but a continuous and concerted effort to deal one minor blow after another before the system collapses from within, thus, necessitating an all too powerful leader or political party to take control and steady the waters.

A coup can, therefore, resemble military tanks rolling into the capital, detaining elected leaders, and curtailment of fundamental freedoms as witnessed recently in Myanmar or it can resemble the Trumpian assault where most freedoms stay intact, the military doesn’t intervene, but a fanatic mob is fed a barrage of lies, half-truths, hatred, and egged on to hold democratic processes hostage.

India had witnessed a mix of both backs in June 1975 when PM Indira Gandhi imposed an internal emergency on the pretext of an imagined threat to India’s integrity. Staying true to its tradition, the military didn’t intervene but other institutions including the apex court succumbed to political pressure, fundamental freedoms were stripped, and an authoritarian rule imposed. But history does not always teach the right lessons. Ask ordinary Indians if they think 1975 like emergency can be imposed again.

An overwhelming section would rule out any possibility for the political cost seems too big to take a gamble. This stream of thought makes two basic assumptions: one, institutions like the judiciary and media are harder to tame today than in 1975 and second, popular support for such moves is impossible given the horrors of the past experience. But as I said, history does not always teach the right lessons. You can impose an emergency without actually announcing one.

There may not be an overt coup, no blanket ban on individual freedoms, no overnight proclamation of emergency, and no diktats to the press. What replaces this is far worse. A climate of fear, intimidation, self-censorship, and unquestioning loyalty to the government is encouraged. Those who fall in line have the protection of the state while those who don’t face its full might. So draconian laws are invoked and the process made the punishment.

The idea is never to punish but to harass, not to hurt but to frustrate, and not to eliminate but to make you irrelevant. A comedian spends over a month in jail for a joke he didn’t crack.

Journalists face sedition charges for reporting an alternative version of events. A mob is let loose to teach morals and impose its bigotry on creative thinkers. Communities are vilified and any dissent dubbed as treason or betrayal. A pliant media cheers on, working overtime to manufacture consent for this slow and steady erosion of civil liberties and constitutional values.

The biggest problem with this invisible coup is that you cannot reach out for help. After all, you go to a doctor only when the underlying disease shows visible symptoms. But when the virus is stealthily lurking in your body and silently killing you from inside, you can hardly call yourself sick. The larger picture is still somewhat rosy: elections are still taking place periodically, the courts are still stepping in every now and then to come to your rescue, and a few media outlets are holding their own. Those who see the coup coming and cry for saving democracy can then be accused of fear-mongering. It is reminiscent of that tragicomic story where a young shepherd boy grazing his sheep on the hillside cries “Wolf” to raise a false alarm.

The villagers rush to his rescue on two occasions but after finding it to be a prank on both occasions, they refuse to come to his aid the third time when the wolf attacked in reality. Except that this time around the threat to democracy is real although not visible. The intention is not to play a prank but to see the warning signs while we have time. History tells us that if there is something more worrying than the extermination of millions of Jews at the hands of the German dictator Adolf Hitler, it is the fact that ordinary Germans were convinced that this had to be done.

As Prima Levi, an Italian chemist and a holocaust survivor said, “Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.” And so the fact that so many Indians are convinced that those protesting in the bitter cold on the borders of New Delhi are traitors and enemies of the state much like the anti-CAA protestors, must worry us all.

Once this enemification is complete, hatred for our own people normalised, and protests criminalised, it won’t take much to justify howsoever a brutal and repressive a step to deal with these so called enemies. You can still choose to think that nothing would happen and all this is mere fear-mongering. But you didn’t think that farmers would one day be called terrorists either. Yet it’s happening. Because democracies don’t slip into dictatorships overnight. Not all coups require military tanks. Some are invisible yet inevitable.



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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