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Has India just witnessed its Anna Politkovskaya moment, when a journalist’s shocking murder marks an authoritarian turn for her country?
It’s too early to say whether last week’s assassination of crusading journalist Gauri Lankesh outside her Bangalore home suggests for India an inflection point similar to what the 2006 Politkovskaya murder marked for Russia. But it is among the most important questions facing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s three-year-old government.
Should Mr. Modi seek to dispel widespread fears that his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party intends to squeeze the space for dissent in India, he will have to display a commitment to democracy that goes beyond just elections. This means engaging with critical journalists, signaling displeasure at abuse by his supporters on social media and curbing his party’s increasingly litigious streak. So far, Mr. Modi’s record on this front is not inspiring.
Lankesh, an outspoken 55-year-old critic of the Hindu nationalism that has spawned, among other organizations, the BJP, was shot three times by motorcycle-borne assassins. Though investigators have not arrested anyone for the crime, several commentators have speculated that the journalist’s death was linked to her political views.
Since 2013, assassins have murdered at least three other “rationalists,” best known for criticizing what they regarded as backward Hindu beliefs and the groups that champion them. Nobody has been convicted for the killings.
Many BJP supporters view allegations of a likely Hindu nationalist angle to Lankesh’s murder as a baseless smear. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps), which supplies the BJP with much of its leadership, has condemned the murder, as has the BJP.
On Monday, a BJP official threatened a lawsuit against the prominent historian Ramachandra Guha. In an interview, Mr. Guha had declared that it was “very likely” that Lankesh’s killers—as well as those of other rationalists—belonged to the “ Sangh Parivar, ” a term loosely used to describe the RSS and its offshoots, including the BJP. The historian also attacked “the ruling dispensation in Delhi” for creating “a climate of hate and intolerance” in India.
Given the creaky state of India’s criminal justice system, the truth behind Lankesh’s murder may not come to light any time soon. Nonetheless, it raises troubling questions about the direction the country has taken under Mr. Modi.
Despite nationwide protests, the prime minister has not yet condemned Lankesh’s murder or condoled with her family. Nor has Mr. Modi visibly distanced himself from those who apparently celebrated it.
“One bitch dies a dog’s death and all the puppies start howling in tune,” wrote a Gujarat-based businessman named Nikhil Dadhich, one of the 1,800-odd people and organizations Mr. Modi follows on Twitter . Ignoring a flurry of outraged tweets and articles, the prime minister has not unfollowed Mr. Dadhich.
Part of the problem lies with the nature of Mr. Modi’s political constituency. He represents both a large chunk of the national mainstream and a fanatical fringe that provides the BJP with much of its grass-roots passion.
Mr. Modi is by far the most popular politician in India. A Pew Research Center poll last year showed his approval rating at a stratospheric 81%. In March this year, the prime minister led his party to a crushing four-fifths majority in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state.
For some Modi fans, his elevation to prime minister represents a kind of year zero in Indian politics, or the advent of a completely new era. The conservative columnist Swapan Dasgupta, quoting an unnamed senior BJP official, has written that Mr. Modi “is not there to manage India; he is there to change it.”
Some BJP supporters view this mandate for change as a license to demonize all journalists as corrupt, bully writers with court cases and constantly abuse India’s religious minorities on television and social media.
Unlike India’s only other BJP prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1998-2004), Mr. Modi styles himself as a strongman, not as a consensus-builder. This narrows his room for compromise and makes him prone to ignoring even well-meaning critics. His governing style exacerbates fears that India’s democracy is lurching toward the suppression of dissent.
If Mr. Modi wants to correct this impression, he can do so easily enough. Nobody is forcing him to follow people who celebrate murder and threaten women with rape on Twitter. Nobody is forcing him to abjure press conferences or any other interaction with journalists where he may be asked tough questions. Nobody stops him from admonishing ministerial colleagues who use demeaning words like “presstitute” to describe journalists.
Perhaps it makes political sense for Mr. Modi not to alienate a cadre of crass foot soldiers who have stood by him for years. But for India the prime minister’s failure to rise above such petty partisanship carries undeniable risks.
Instead of the rapid progress he promised, Mr. Modi appears to be leading his nation toward an illiberal future.
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