Month: May 2024

Should we fear for India’s democracy?

There are at least three reasons to worry about the future of the country.

Weeks before the general elections in India, opinion polls were already showing that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a fair chance of returning to office. He was riding on the crest of militaristic nationalism which gripped the nation after the military escalation with Pakistan in February.

But few had expected the tidal wave with which Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept the opposition aside to win a second term. The official results released on May 23 revealed that the ruling party had gone beyond even what Modi and his most-trusted aide and party president, Amit Shah, had set as a goal: going above the 300 mark in the 543-member Lok Sabha, the Lower House of Parliament.

The BJP, along with allied parties, won 353 seats, paving the way for Modi to become the first prime minister in decades to return to government with another majority after completing his entire tenure in office.

With this electoral victory, the prime minister has not only secured another term in which once again he will pay little heed to coalition partners but has also won a popular mandate to push forward with his politics of Hindu nationalism.

At this point, there is sufficient ground for trepidation over what awaits India.

In March, Sakshi Maharaj, one of the saffron-clad BJP legislators representing the fringe section of the Hindu right-wing, made an ominous declaration.

“Modi is a tsunami that has brought awakening in the country. I believe there would be no elections in 2024 after this election is done,” he said.

Some have taken this statement to mean that in the coming five years Modi will consolidate power to the point where no other political power would manage to dethrone him. It has stirred fears that the BJP could consider pursuing changes in the law to jettison the parliamentary system, replacing it with a non-elective one.

First, Modi has made it clear that he would not rein in the Hindu far right. The BJP not only renominated Maharaj and a number of others like him who have a penchant for particularly toxic statements, but it also fielded a candidate who is currently facing “terrorism” charges.

Pragya Thakur, who is accused of organising the Malegaon bombing of 2008, ran in Madhya Pradesh state and won, becoming the first Indian MP facing “terror” charges to secure a seat in parliament. Despite nation-wide outrage, BJP’s senior leaders, including Modi, defended their decision to nominate her.

Thakur proceeded to embarrass them by glorifying the right-wing assassin of Mahatma Gandhi and Modi will have to decide in the coming days whether to expel her from the party or not. Inaction against her would suggest the party leadership speaks with a forked tongue and will continue promoting far-right activists into its second term.

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The second reason for concern over Modi’s scale of victory is that the BJP does not have a good record of preserving the integrity of democratic institutions. During his first term, there have been a number of infringements against the judiciary and law enforcement. Judges and investigators have publicly complained about growing chaos within the system and increasing political pressure.

Modi has also made clear his exasperation with institutions, especially constitutional watchdogs, if they stand in the way of the executive’s unbridled powers. With an excessively centralised system of administration, introduced in 2014 and likely to be entrenched even further, there are worries that the checks and balances in the Indian democratic system would be weakened.

The future of the electoral process is also under question at the moment. During this election season, the election commission also came under the spotlight; by the time the vote concluded, it had become as much the subject of media reports, as political leaders and parties.

The third reason for apprehension over the future health of Indian democracy stems from Modi’s ideological roots and links with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological fountainhead of the BJP, which Modi was a member of for years. The RSS runs on the principle of “ek chalak anuvartitva”, Sanskrit for “follow one leader”, and eschews democratic principles.

Modi is also a follower of RSS ideologue Deendayal Upadhyaya, whose treatise, Integral Humanism, is one of the philosophical guidebooks of the party. In his thesis, Upadhyaya emphasised the need to Indianise “western concepts of the nation, western secularism, western democracy”. Although he accepted political dialogue within the framework of Indian democracy, he wrote that “if we carry it to the other extreme, it could prove troublesome.”

All three factors – the promotion of the Hindu far right, the subversion of democratic institutions and the subscription to undemocratic ideology – will play an important role in the likely transformation of the country towards an authoritarian ethnic democracy under Modi’s second tenure. Those who will suffer the most in the process will be the minorities and disadvantaged groups.

Although sectarian strife is not new in India, since Modi took power in 2014, attacks – both rhetorical and physical – against religious minorities have intensified and have further alienated them from the state. Muslims, in particular, have increasingly become a target, as BJP’s Hindu nationalist stance has fuelled Islamophobia and encouraged “cow vigilantism” and conspiracy theories about “love jihad“.

Unsurprisingly, the BJP has not felt the need to provide political space or representation to Muslims; its strategy so far has been to politically bypass them and not recognise them as a distinct demographic group.

As Modi presses forward with majoritarian policies shaped by his Hindu nationalist views, multi-ethnic India will become increasingly divided. Attempts to homogenise the nation and secure the dominance of the Hindu majority and by extension, the BJP will have disastrous effects for the future of the biggest democracy on Earth.

dhruv rathee(a major youtuber and a critic of NDA) put a post about manipur and PM MODI

Who is Dhruv Rathee? From Modi fan to Indian PM’s most formidable critic

When the 29-year-old YouTuber attacks Modi, he gets a bigger audience than any opposition leader. What’s his secret?

New Delhi, India — An ominous soundtrack serves as his backdrop as YouTuber Dhruv Rathee appears on the screen. His trademark collarless shirt – red on this occasion – and knowing half-smile are his only introduction before he launches straight into a troubling question: “Is India becoming a dictatorship?”

On the surface, the 29-year-old says, India appears to be a democracy: Citizens can choose from among a range of parties and decide whom to vote for. But the reality, he suggests, is more complex. He dives into allegations of corruption, misuse of supposedly independent institutions and subversion of democratic processes levelled by critics against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.

It’s an intense 29-minute video, packed with Rathee’s monologue, slick animations and infographics, as he accuses the Modi government of systematically attacking the media and opposition. Issues like the year-long ethnic violence in the northeastern state of Manipur, where more than 200 people have been killed, have disappeared from the public discourse, Rathee says.

Like the music and animated caricatures he uses to drive home his arguments, the picture of India that Rathee paints is grim. It is a portrait far removed from the success story that Modi and his team insist they have turned the country into: A nation with growing global clout on the cusp of a $5 trillion economy.

As India’s giant national election, with 970 million eligible voters, winds towards its conclusion, with the final phase of voting scheduled for June 1, and results on June 4, nowhere has that clash of narratives played out more sharply than on social media. On WhatsApp, for instance, Modi’s Hindu majoritarian Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) reportedly runs 5 million channels: 400 million Indians are on the platform.

But if WhatsApp is big in India, YouTube is even bigger: With 460 million users, the country is the video platform’s biggest market. In one corner are a slew of YouTube channels, many with millions of viewers, that purport to be bringing viewers news but that often peddle disinformation and Islamophobia. In the other are Modi critics like Rathee, who too are accused by their opponents of selectively parsing data and facts to criticise the prime minister, while whitewashing embarrassing details about opposition leaders and parties.

At a time when studies show that more Indians trust news they get on YouTube and WhatsApp than what they source from mainstream news channels, Rathee has emerged as a formidable digital force. Polls suggest that Modi’s popularity remains high. But they also reveal that inflation and joblessness, issues of the kind that Rathee hammers on about in his shows, worry Indians the most.

And the YouTuber’s messaging reaches far more Indians on the platform than any opposition party or leader’s campaign slogans. Consider the numbers: On YouTube, Rathee has more than 20 million subscribers, nearly four times the BJP channel’s count. The Congress, the principal opposition party, has a little more than 5 million YouTube subscribers, while its biggest leader, Rahul Gandhi, has 6 million.

Rathee’s count, by comparison, is close to the man he often tries to take down in his videos:  Modi, who has 23 million YouTube subscribers. In some cities, opposition parties have taken to screening Rathee’s videos in public, on mobile vans.

“We will bring a Tsunami that will destroy the whole IT Cell,” Rathee wrote on X last month, referring to the social media arm of the BJP that its critics accuse of driving political disinformation.

It was all very different a decade ago. Back then, to Rathee, Modi symbolised hope.

dhruv rathee’s first video criticizing modi and his NDA

‘A very shocking moment’

When Narendra Modi first came into power, Rathee had just finished high school and moved to Germany to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering.

This is when he also started his YouTube channel. Rathee’s first video was a travel vlog shot on his iPhone 5s, which he says he edited for more than two months. It was the logical extension of his childhood passion for videography – in 2003, he says, he created a claymation video using a simple webcam.

In 2011, he, like millions of India’s youth, found themselves politically drawn to the first major nationwide movement the generation had seen – huge anticorruption protests against the then government of the Congress party that roiled the nation and paved the way for Modi’s national rise.

Like millions, Rathee also saw hope in Modi’s passionate advocacy against corruption in politics and black money in 2014. Rathee was a Modi supporter who welcomed his ascent to power.

But soon, the doubts started creeping in, and reached breaking point in 2015. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), nationally in the opposition but in power in Delhi, had introduced an anticorruption helpline. The Modi government at the centre battled with the AAP state government for control over the helpline, leaving Rathee disillusioned.

“That was a very shocking moment for me. I realised that he was not interested in removing corruption from India,” says Rathee, speaking of Modi, in an interview from an undisclosed location.

Rathee says his frustrations were compounded when he saw many mainstream TV channels demonstrate a deep bias in favour of Modi and the BJP.

It was against that backdrop that Rathee uploaded his first political commentary on YouTube, on September 16, 2016. The video, shot entirely on his phone, focused on the BJP’s IT cell and the alleged use of information – and misinformation – in shaping political narratives, through edited photographs, manipulated videos, fake quotes and paid posts to make a theme trend on social platforms. Rathee worked alone at the time and compared with what he puts out now, it was relatively crude in its production quality.

He has not looked back since then. Over the past eight years, he has published nearly 650 videos on his main YouTube channel – he still also maintains a separate channel with travel videos – many of them viewed by tens of millions of viewers. Some of the videos unpack history, such as what unfolded during World War II, or the heatwave searing through large parts of India. But for the most part, his focus is on politics.

“I like doing my educational videos and travel vlogs more but this is not the time to remain unaffected,” he tells Al Jazeera.

The secret sauce

Driving the success of his videos is a cocktail of ingredients, say Rathee and other YouTube influencers and political satirists who have tracked his work.

The heartland of the BJP’s support base is north India, where the party swept several states in 2014 and 2019, and has dominated many others. Hindi is the primary language in the region, with large rural belts. Rathee, who is himself from the agrarian state of Haryana, speaks simple, everyday Hindi in his videos.

That Rathee was a former Modi supporter himself gives him a cachet with others who have backed the prime minister at different times, but might now be wavering. And Rathee carefully uses the same nationalistic language that the BJP employs — a powerful communication strategy, says Akash Banerjee, a political satirist on YouTube, who also runs a channel called Deshbhakt (“patriot” in Hindi) that is often critical of the Modi government.

“He speaks to people in a language that appeals to them [Modi supporters and fence sitters] and also reaffirms the fact that the message is not ‘antinational’ – its anti-hate and anti-party worship,” Banerjee says. “The idea is to educate people that worshipping your country or religion is not equivalent to worshipping political leaders or parties.”

Rathee also accepts that his videos have evolved with time – and that he has learned in the process. Today, his videos have a self-assurance and confidence that he says have come through trial and error over many years. And though he is no journalist, he tries, he says, to bring journalistic rigour to his videos – which he insists are rooted in facts.

“I take criticism from well-meaning people seriously,” he says. “In some of my earlier videos, I mixed facts with opinions but that has changed now.”

Until 2020, he was doing everything – from research and scripting, to shooting and editing – on his own. “The disadvantage was that I also made a lot of mistakes in my videos,” he says.

Today, Rathee works with a team of researchers, scriptwriters and video editors. “We have made different systems to ensure factual accuracy. The overall production quality has also improved incredibly.”

Over the years, Rathee also developed a signature presentation style, shooting all his videos wearing a solid-coloured crewneck T-shirt. The videos all start with Rathee greeting his viewers with the words, “Namaskar doston” (Welcome friends).

Banerjee says Rathee’s ability to explain complex topics in simple words while keeping the facts intact and the production value high is what helps him grow his audience.

“In terms of reach, it’s quite unprecedented,” Banerjee says of Rathee’s success. “It signifies that there is definitely a disquiet. There are people who are willing to listen to facts. It’s a signal that the propaganda of the IT cells on social media is definitely failing.”

But Rathee himself believes the secret to his success lies, at least in part, in something simpler: His personal, emotional, almost boy-next-door approach in videos, which makes him more relatable to audiences and marks him out as different from more traditional, political hacks.

A lighter side

That approach is complemented by the other YouTube channel that Rathee runs: Dhruv Rathee Vlogs. It has 2.7 million subscribers, a fraction of the audience that comes to his political channel. But it offers insights into Rathee’s other obsession – travel.

The channel maps trips that Rathee and his German wife Juli take around the world, documenting their adventures: Meeting baby turtles at the Great Barrier Reef in Australia in one video, visiting a remote tribe in Mongolia in another; relaxing at a beach in the Seychelles and having a meal at one of the world’s highest hotels in Oman; visiting a London film set where a Harry Potter film was shot and diving into the world’s deepest pool in Dubai.

As with his political videos, Rathee speaks to his viewers in Hindi. Unlike his political channel though, Rathee’s approach here is light, relaxed, and meant to take his audience on a holiday, vicariously.

Sometimes, that lighter, less intense touch creeps into his political content. Like when the BJP released an election advertisement in which an actor depicting an Indian student stuck in Ukraine amid Russian shelling gratefully tells her father that Modi rescued her and her friends by “stopping the war”.

Rathee sarcastically responded by mimicking the actor. His “war rukwa di paw paw” (Modi ji stopped the war, Papa) turned the advertisement into a meme that went viral, turning the Modi government’s claim – which the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs itself has disputed – into a subject of ridicule.

For the most part, though, Rathee deals with darker themes. In 2023, after Modi promoted a controversial film, The Kerala Story, that claimed a conspiracy to convert non-Muslim women to Islam to send them to West Asia as fighters for the ISIL (ISIS) armed group, Rathee released a 23-minute video debunking the movie’s assertions. Following criticism, the filmmakers accepted that the movie was not entirely fact-based and that they had exaggerated the scale at which women from the southern state of Kerala had travelled to the Middle East to join ISIL (ISIS).

Rathee has his critics. In late May, Swati Maliwal, a member of parliament from the AAP, who has fallen out with the leadership of her party that governs in Delhi, alleged that Rathee had amplified a campaign against her that had resulted in her receiving death threats. Rathee has rejected those allegations.

Others have accused him of parroting opposition talking points selectively. And earlier in May, the Modi government’s minister for earth sciences and food processing, Kiren Rijiju, referenced an early video from Rathee that criticised corruption during the Congress government’s rule from 2004 to 2014.

Rathee hit back with a video, telling Rijiju that his earlier comments proved that he was no mouthpiece of any party, before then pointing out instances when the cabinet minister had apparently flip-flopped on his own comments.

Their sparring – a federal minister vs a YouTuber – continued on the social media platform X. “You’re a bright young man. Use your energy for nation’s growth,” Rijiju posted.

“No need to run down others to become more popular. Nothing wrong in being the spokesman of Congress & AAP but do spread positive vibes to create a better image of India.”

ONE OF DHRUV RATHEE another post on X about modi