Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Picture: REUTERS/EDGARD GARRIDO
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Picture: REUTERS/EDGARD GARRIDO

Narendra Modi, India’s Hindu nationalist prime minister, has probably never read Lord Hailsham. But he should. The former lord chancellor’s 1976 BBC lecture contains perhaps the most penetrating assessment of parliamentary democracy, of which India is its largest version.

Lord Hailsham’s argument carries a constitutional lesson at an opportune moment for Modi. The Conservative peer warned that Britain risked becoming an “elective dictatorship”, in which a government’s parliamentary majority is merely tempered by political realities and MPs’ consciences.

Modi swept to victory in elections in 2019. No rival party gained enough seats to have its chief named leader of the opposition. The judiciary has been cowed by Modi. Modi has an autocratic style. He takes decisions without forewarning and expects them to be rubber‑stamped by a pliant legislature.

Last summer Modi enacted major farm laws that threaten the livelihoods of two-thirds of India’s 1.3-billion people without discussion, during the Covid lockdown of parliament. What followed was arguably the largest general strike in history and weeks of unrest. Modi says the reforms will benefit farmers, and it is true that agriculture needs updating, not least because it is fast depleting the country’s water tables. But Modi blocked parliamentary scrutiny and prevented farmers from raising objections via legislators.

Unlike the West, democracy came to India before capitalism. Modi appears to think this was a mistake and Lord Hailsham’s “elective dictatorship” is needed for India to industrialise. If so, he is sadly mistaken. Dealing with poverty and inequality requires a government interested in ordinary people, not just corporate profits that disproportionately fund Modi’s party. If those left behind by economic change conclude that those in power are not bothered about their plight — or have rigged the system in favour of the better-off — there will be trouble.

Under pressure from his ideological Svengalis, Modi offered to defer his reforms. This is not enough. He should return, in less peremptory fashion, with fresh proposals to parliament that can be properly scrutinised. Sceptics need convincing with words not threats. If he wants to succeed, Modi must show he can be more democrat than autocrat. /London, January 24

The Guardian

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