Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chávez and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi belong to two different generations, contexts, and continents. They were reared in very different social, cultural, economic, and political circumstances. And yet, in terms of Venezuela and India’s democratic histories, there are some significant similarities between the two—at least in some instances.
It would not be odious or ominous to compare Chávez and Modi. There are some stark parallels between the two when we think about democratic erosion in those two countries.
The first similarity is, “using plebiscitarian strategies to transform Venezuela’s liberal institutional framework, concentrate power, and entrench himself, Chávez set about strangling democracy and putting competitive authoritarianism in its place. He remained as president till he died of cancer on 5 March 2013.” (Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way, Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
In a much similar stride, Modi has attempted to control or wield influence over institutional power in his first term as prime minister of India. He has manifested in more than one occasions to entrench himself like Chávez to some extent. Through his populist persona, Modi has shown putting competitive authoritarianism in its place—one way of communication. When he speaks in the cabinet or Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) meetings with all his commanding voice, all listen without any feedback or hardly an interaction.
Unlike Chávez, Modi may not be prime minister for life or till death, unless India’s Constitution is changed and re-written, for which Modi and his political party have dreamed of to do and waiting for the absolute majority in both the Houses of the Indian Parliament to change the Constitution, with the disdain of India’s democratic history.
Like Chávez and his most admirers in the Latin American countries—Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Manuel Zelaya of Honduras, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Modi aspires to prepare his own perpetuation in power—the way he functions and performs his democratic role, because Modi has established himself as unquestioned leader and as of now, no one to parallel his populism and political charisma in a given context of the country, where the Opposition is fragmented, and no signs of getting united to fight against Modi as a united front.
Chávez, Ortega, Zelaya, Kirchner, Morales, and Correa augmented their executive powers, allowed for presidential reelections whenever these were possible and weakened institutional checks and balances. From that position of strength, they made discretionary use of the law for political purposes. With this discriminatory legalism, they attacked, undermined, and intimidated the opposition in their respective countries, moving toward competitive authoritarianism as well.
Modi has followed the pretty similar pattern in India. Like Chávez, Modi has used discriminatory legalism against his opposition leaders to punish them for their corruptions with the adage ‘For my friends, everything; for my enemies, the law.” One example for this is against former Indian railways minister Laloo Prasad Yadav, a staunch Modi critic. Yadav has been jailed after being found guilty of embezzling state funds intended to buy food for cattle while he was Bihar state chief minister some years ago.
Besides, Modi has managed to sidelined or ignore BJP stalwarts and veteran Yashwant Sinha, seniors L.K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi who had objected Modi would be considered as a Prime Ministerial candidate in 2014 (before the general election). Once Modi was at the helm of affairs in New Delhi, he made it sure these leaders were sidetracked from political arena by him, and consequently, Modi has managed to establish his hegemony over his party and others.
The second similarity between, Chávez and Modi is that they deliberately identify themselves with the poor mass for political gain. Such identification with ordinary people and their plight is reinforced by the leaders’ affiliations with the popular sectors from which they spring (or with which they identify themselves). Chávez dwelt often on his humble upbringing and spoke in a popular (and vulgar) idiom not previously associated with presidents of Venezuela. Modi, in his part, has done the same. He often speaks that he is an ordinary person, (once upon a time, he was a tea sealer back home in his home province Gujarat, Western India) and now he has become prime minister of India.
The third similarity is that Chávez often managed to control the media and regularly addressed the country through on TV. Modi has followed this too, but his regular address is through state-owned All India Radio, which has much wider reach than TV in India due to demographic reasons.
The fourth similarity is that Chávez controlled the court, which is one of the institutional frameworks for checks and balances in a democracy. He managed to muzzle with the court in many ways. In a similar way, Modi has subtly managed to exert his control over the judiciary, though through proxy power. Using his executive pressures and powers, he wields influence to delay, forfeit or quash legal cases in which he was embroiled in criminal cases and communal clashes in Gujarat riots of 2002 before he became the Prime Minister in 2014. The same pattern for his party people, where they are implicated in criminal cases, but they have been acquitted. One recent case is Maya Kodnani, a BJP minister and Naroda member of Gujarat State Assembly at the time of the 2002 post-Godhra massacre, in which 97 people were killed, has been acquitted. (Read: https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/maya-kodnani-acquitted-bajrangi-conviction-upheld-in-naroda-patiya-massacre/story-bBhg7F8CVxwk0X0CHYo6EK.html)
The fifth similarity is that Chávez reengineered and re-scripted his political maneuvering as he sought to boost presidential powers, weaken checks and balances, and extended his control over the government while preparing his own reelections. “Modi, on the other hand, had to work much harder to re-brand himself, since he had been in politics for decades already. Yet he did so with quite spectacular success. The longer the time that elapsed since the Gujarat riots of 2002, the more easily was he able to persuade potential voters that (a) he had no personal culpability in the violence; (b) he had since focused relentlessly on development and development alone. Given Modi’s own past and his party’s own history, it is noteworthy that the 2014 election campaign did not foreground Hindu pride. Further, because he had spent so long as chief minister of Gujarat, Modi was able to present himself as an outsider to the world of intrigue and innuendo that is Lutyens’ Delhi.” (see: https://www.hindustantimes.com/columns/why-2018-feels-like-1988/story-dGswZzwNkQ12YQQEDnRikI.html)
Chávez tried to run Venezuela’s with the help of a set of old friends, cronies, and loyal officials; Modi has followed pretty much the same template.
Chávez’s competitive authoritarianism would likely persist and continue to hold appeal during his time and for his imitators in Latin America, as Modi has been trying to emulate in an implicit way in India. Following Chávez-style like, Modi claims to make democracy more direct and to be especially mindful of the poor, the right-wing populism has crafted an attractive message on the plank of development, which has been “shallow’ on the ground because his 2014 election manifesto and promises (“progressive rhetoric”) are yet to be fulfilled even four years have gone by and a year to go before the next general election in 2019, according to his critics and international observers.
One many pressing issues that affect the country, Modi has maintained his deliberate stoic silence.
Reading between the lines the silence of Modi, Indian journalist Kay Abey says, “Clouds of autocracy are here looming over India,” in her latest article “Fragile Democracy” in Indian Currents (Read more: http://indiancurrents.org/fragile-republic-2081.php and http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/modi-remains-silent-on-issues-that-really-matter-says-sharad-pawar/article23720567.ece?homepage=true)
The New York Times (April 17, 2018) reiterated, “Modi’s silence is as perplexing as it is distressing. The BJP won the elections in large part because Modi promised to make the government more responsive to the needs of Indians who were left behind by a government dogged by corruption scandals and widely considered rudderless. Instead, he has exhibited a pattern of silence and deflection that is deeply worrying to anybody who cares about the health of the world’s largest democracy.” (Read: http://twocircles.net/2018apr17/422647.html (Frequent tweeter Modi loses voice when it comes to a rape of minority women: NYT April 17, 2018)
Amidst his populism, there are several organized and systematic campaigns by Hindu nationalist forces (to which Modi belongs to) that want to terrorize women, Muslims, Dalits (formerly untouchables) and other underprivileged citizens. Modi as Prime Minister has a duty to safeguard and fight for all of the people of India, not just those who are allied with him politically.
The Hindu nationalists are trying to purge all manifestations of ‘anti-national’ thought from the national debate. Self-censorship is growing in the mainstream media and journalists are increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals (Read: https://rsf.org/en/india).
The Indian judiciary is in jeopardy as Modi interferes it the functioning of it, though independence of the judiciary is non-negotiable. The judiciary is one of the last institutions that are respected, but that is changing under Modi.
In sum, the parallels between Chávez and Modi are striking indeed and that helps explain how their authoritarian rule can be uncalled for the endurance of democracy. India’s democracy under Modi is in turbulent times. Is Modi India’s version of Chávez? Obviously, it is.
According to Kurt Weyland, the Chávez-style populism was a threat to democracy, so also Modi-style eschewed personalism and populism is dangerous to democracy in India (read:
http://odishatv.in/nation/democracy-in-danger-manmohan-2917340) It is alleged that Modi has managed to control and destroy democratic institutions (Read: http://odishatv.in/nation/all-sections-suffering-under-modi-government-sonia-gandhi-291696).
Weyland, Kurt. “Latin America’s Authoritarian Drift: The Threat from the Populist Left.” Journal of Democracy 24(3): 18-32.
Levitsky, Steven and Lucan Way, “Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War”, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
Photo credit: Financial Times