On 24th March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a major announcement, declared a nationwide lockdown for three weeks, adding that “Every state, union territory, village and district will be a part of this lockdown.” With this unprecedented move, more than 1.3 billion Indians went into a state of frenzy. What followed was a trail of laws and orders attacking rights and freedoms of the public, media, and minorities, and before anyone realized; Hindu nationalism slowly degenerated into a form of authoritarianism, subtly disguised as ‘pandemic democracy’.
Last year in December, the Indian parliament passed a controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill that would grant citizenship to immigrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh so long as they are not Muslims . A wave of nation-wide protests ensued and the situation got pretty ugly when 28 people were killed, including an eight-year-old child, by the Indian police force . The protests only stopped when the government cleared them amid measures to curb the spread of coronavirus in the country; the protesters called the government ‘lucky’ as they had intended to continue their demonstrations otherwise. Perhaps, the government was in fact lucky and not just PM Modi’s government but many others’ around the world which have abused the current pandemic in order to further their authoritarian acts in the name of democracy. And since India has already witnessed serious democratic backsliding in the last decade, the pandemic has only made the authoritarian side of PM Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party, more conspicuous.
PM Modi’s government has taken several measures during this crisis in the form of laws, orders and practices which potentially reflect democratic erosion in the country. In the state of Karnataka, government has directed all suspected and confirmed corona patients to send a “selfie” of themselves every hour from their homes, failing which they may be quarantined in government-created mass centers. In addition to this, the locations of such persons in other states including Delhi, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, and Maharashtra are tracked constantly using a mobile app . Moreover, the government has also demanded prior approval from relevant government health authorities for publicizing information about the coronavirus . The government of Maharashtra state has also announced a policy to stamp the hands of individuals required to self-quarantine . On top of these measures, the government has directed the police to break up a months-long sit-in protest, including tents and billboards, against India’s recent anti-Muslim citizenship law, using bulldozers . And finally, PM Modi’s government has recently suspended the Member of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS) for two years, a fund launched to enable Members of Parliament aid development work in their respective constituencies and create durable community assets based on local needs . This particular measure has further centralized powers to PM Modi’s government and by appropriating these welfare functions to the Executive, the particularist nature of Indian democracy has been undermined.
Where each of these steps has the potential to destabilize Indian democracy, which has already started slithering into what can be called authoritarian populism; these measures collectively pose a much bigger challenge to the world’s largest democracy. Being taken as necessary procedures in the time of a global crisis, these actions have to be apprehended in the context of PM Modi’s government’s prior activities in the country. Repealment of Article 370 leading to the removal of Kashmir’s special status under the Indian government, detention of Kashmiri political figures, complete media blackout and arrests, and the recent anti-Muslim citizenship law all point to democratic backsliding during his rule. The reason why understanding the context is so important is because the concealed intents behind current measures can only be captured this way.
Now that the context is more perspicuous, PM Modi’s recent pandemic measures can be better understood as signs of creeping authoritarianism. The increased control over media definitely violates media freedom but could be easily disguised as a necessary measure to prevent the spread of misinformation and panic among the public. With their lives at risk, the people are bound to accept totalitarian surveillance over citizen empowerment and give in to centralized monitoring and invasion of privacy. The destruction of protest sit-ins is a clear abuse of this pandemic to restrain the possibility of these protests in the future, on top of police’s brutal attacks on peaceful demonstrators before coronavirus. Moreover, echoes of hatred towards Muslims are being heard again with the rise of Hindu nationalism amid the situation in Kashmir and the anti-Muslim law. These freedoms once lost, are not easily regained. In fact, such measures can be continued for the sake of prevention of another global pandemic. With increased limits on the media and free speech, high surveillance, and invasion of privacy, Indian democracy is on a clear path of democratic backsliding in the light of the previous context. And when it comes to downgrading democracy, ‘the right to free speech tends to be the proverbial canary in the coal mine.’
In addition to the potential consequences of these measures, India is already witnessing a rise in domestic violence. Migrant workers, stranded fishermen, and displaced Delhi riots’ victims are looking directly in the face of uncertainty, unemployment, lack of basic necessities, and panic. In the midst of these circumstances, PM Modi’s government has only emerged as an abuser of power in this pandemic democracy: yet another attribute to the democracy with adjectives. However, it is yet to be seen if PM Modi comes out stronger and more powerful out of the crisis, or the Indian people decide to be done with his authoritarianism disguised under pandemic democracy.
 Ganguly, Sumit. 2019. Secularism is Dying in India. Foreign Policy.
 Shankar, Soumya. 2020. India’s Citizenship Law, in tandem with National Registry, could make BJP’s discriminatory targeting of Muslims easier. The Intercept.
 2020. Those in home quarantine in Karnataka directed to send selfies every hour to government. The Economic Times.
 2020. Government of Maharashtra: Public Health Department Notice.
 2020. Maharashtra to stamp hand of home-quarantined coronavirus suspects. Business Today.
 2020. Shaheen Bagh anti-CAA sit-in removed amid coronavirus lockdown. Al Jazeera.
 2020. Government of India: Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation Notice.