DER SPIEGEL: In the middle of April, at a time when the hospital beds in the capital were already filling up, Prime Minister Narendra Modi held election rallies with tens of thousands of participants. His party hailed him as having "conquered the pandemic.” Since then, the coronavirus has ravaged the country. How could the government have misjudged the situation so badly?
Mehta: Modi has always had supreme confidence in his own political skills. But the pandemic has revealed a prime minister who has become trapped in his own mystique. There is no significant opposition or coalition partner that he has to compromise with. Even within his own party, the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), there are no serious opponents left. Bureaucrats are selected on the basis of loyalty rather than expertise. Modi surrounds himself with people who don’t tell him the truth, not even quietly.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta, 54, is one of India's leading intellectuals. The political scientist has taught at Harvard University in the U.S. and at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. Most recently, he worked for Ashoka University, an influential private university near Delhi. In March, he unexpectedly gave up his professorship there after senior officials at the institution told him that his criticism of the government posed a risk to the university.
DER SPIEGEL: Are you saying that the COVID-19 disaster in India has been the result of a loss of reality in the top ranks of the government.
Mehta: Partly yes. It is one thing to mislead others. But once you start fooling yourself, you are in deep trouble. But I believe that the government's indifference reflects more: Modi always used to value how he looked in the eyes of others. Now, though, he doesn’t seem to care much anymore how his behavior comes across. It's the ultimate expression of power: not even feeling the need to pretend.
DER SPIEGEL: That could explain Modi's strange absence. Since April 20, he has made no noteworthy public appearances.
Mehta: That is indeed remarkable. Modi has not given a single press conference in the seven years he has been in office. But he has always loved giving big speeches. It is extraordinary that at this moment of absolute national devastation, he has almost disappeared from the public eye. There has been no attempt to convey to the people that there is a prime minister who is feeling their pain. One who at least acknowledges their suffering.
DER SPIEGEL: Will Indians blame Modi for the government’s missteps?
Mehta: A month ago I would have said no. But even Modi's supporters are now voicing their anger. His party also draws a not inconsiderable part of its strength from the laziness and division of the opposition. Now it looks, tentatively, as if the opposition is becoming better at coordinating. It’s still a long shot, but for the first time, the BJP doesn't seem invincible.
DER SPIEGEL: So far, though, no misstep has harmed the prime minister's immense popularity.
Mehta: This tragedy is different from anything that has come before. We are going through one of the biggest crises since independence. The second wave also hit the middle class hard, and they have always supported Modi. There is hardly a family that has been spared.
DER SPIEGEL: Why was India hit so hard in the first place?
Mehta: That is a question for epidemiologists. But the government made a series of clear mistakes. They ignored warnings, and instead allowed huge gatherings to be held. Emergency hospitals were decommissioned. Too little vaccine was ordered too late.
DER SPIEGEL: How will Modi's party react should it really come under pressure?
Mehta: In the short term, the BJP will probably put even more emphasis on their agenda of polarization and repression. I have another concern, however. Take Uttar Pradesh, a poor but enormously important state from a political perspective. Uttar Pradesh is led by a BJP politician who has openly called for violence on several occasions and who is considered the future of his party. Next year, he will be facing an election. Should he lose big time, he will probably admit defeat. But what if the result is close? Can we then trust the BJP to guarantee a peaceful transfer of power?
DER SPIEGEL: The BJP has so far always respected the outcome of elections. What makes you think the party could go as far as stealing an election?
Mehta: Remember that we are dealing with a party that suffers from a persecution complex. Any criticism is attacked as "anti-national,” as part of a conspiracy against the state. We have seen in the U.S. what happens when elements of a party no longer abide by the democratic rules of the game.
DER SPIEGEL: The writer Ramachandra Guha coined the expression "50-50 democracy" for India 10 years ago in a piece in which he described the flaws in India’s democracy. Where would you place the country?
Mehta: Somewhere around 30-70, against democracy. What Guha criticized at the time was that India, although it grants its citizens political freedoms, is a country characterized by deep social inequality. The challenges facing our democracy today are far more serious. Minorities are considered second class citizens. Secularism and liberalism have become insults. The protection of basic civil liberties is no longer guaranteed. The Supreme Court, once considered one of the most powerful institutions in the country, has become one of the most servile. Indian democracy has deteriorated in almost every aspect.
DER SPIEGEL: But isn't Modi himself proof that democracy works: a man from a poor background who made it to the top? His election was also the rejection of a Westernized elite in New Delhi.
Mehta: The BJP likes to pretend that Modi's rise reflects a supposedly more common India. I don't think that's the case. Take, for example, Indian television, which powers the machinery of hatred that the BJP so relies on. Some of the channels are funded by the same old elite that previously funded the Congress Party. That is as old as money gets. The elite, allegedly so despised by the BJP, are among its greatest supporters.
DER SPIEGEL: What role does Hindu nationalism play in the party's success - this idea that India is first-and-foremost the home of the Hindus?
Mehta: A crucial one. But whereas promises like the construction of the temple in Ayodhya and the protection of the holy cow served as a means to win an election – such as in 2014 – they have moved on to a project of transforming Indian society. India is on its way to becoming a majoritarian democracy, a state in which the Hindu majority dominates the minorities, Muslims in particular. Hinduism – which, in its diversity, eludes fixed definitions – is being converted into an ethnic national identity. Muslims, intellectuals, leftists: The BJP has identified a whole range of alleged enemies inside the country against which the Hindu nation must band together. This projection of a constant threat serves to legitimize authoritarianism.
DER SPIEGEL: One of many explanations for the rise of nationalism in the West is that its citizens feel left behind. India's recent past, on the other hand, is a story of ascent. Why does such thinking still resonate here?
Mehta: For three reasons. First, Hindu nationalism is nothing new, its undercurrents have been around since the dawn of the Indian Republic and have never entirely disappeared. Second, 2014, when Modi was first elected prime minister, was a time of nervousness and frustration. The elite feared that we might fall back into an era of economic stagnation, that India was too soft and that democratic processes were holding the country back. The less privileged hoped that Modi would break the old, dynastic power structures, end corruption and change their lives for the better. Many felt drawn to an ideology that embodied discipline and the exercise of ruthless power. Modi was seen as a man who can push through reforms - even against resistance.
DER SPIEGEL: And the third reason?
Mehta: Over the past 20 years, the BJP has managed to establish itself as a social movement, especially in the cities and villages of northern India, and has thus injected its poison into civil society. They successfully filled the vacuum left by the opposition, you have to give them that.
DER SPIEGEL: What are you most afraid of when you think of India’s future?
Mehta: The nightmare scenario that comes to mind is the 1920s and 30s in Europe – and Germany, specifically.
DER SPIEGEL: Comparing Modi’s India to the beginnings of Nazi Germany: Isn’t that a bit of an exaggeration?
Mehta: I agree that comparisons with the Weimar Republic are often used too loosely. But the same mechanisms are at play. We are dealing with an ideology that marginalizes Muslims as alien, one seventh of the population. Every aspect of society must submit to their totalitarian agenda at the expense of civil rights. Independent institutions that could protect individual rights are being intimidated. The goal is a state where everyone dances to the same tune. There are also terrifying parallels to India from that time.
DER SPIEGEL: The 1920s and 30s in India were the time of India’s struggle for independence. Freedom fighters like Mahatma Gandhi were fighting against British colonial rule.
Mehta: Gandhi and India's founding fathers envisioned a country in which Hindus, Muslims and members of other religions could live together peacefully. Their political opponents, the Hindu nationalists, propagated a Hindu state. Then as now, they used the same threat to justify their agenda: that if the Hindus do not unite, India will somehow fall apart or be overrun by enemies. It was this thinking that led to Gandhi's assassination and the partition of the country. Hindu nationalism was not inspired by European fascism without reason. We are fighting for the survival of Indian democracy.