South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

U.S. President Donald Trump signs the visitors’ book as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and First Lady Melania Trump looks on, at Sabarmati Ashram, in Ahmedabad.

U.S. President Donald Trump signs the visitors’ book as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and First Lady Melania Trump looks on, at Sabarmati Ashram, in Ahmedabad.   | Photo Credit: PTI

India needs a pro-Constitution, pro-facts, pro-inclusivity Gandhi Project analogous to the Lincoln Project in the U.S.

For a long time, a defining question of the Trump presidency was whether, and when, Republicans would speak up against President Donald Trump’s disregard for women, the constitution, the armed forces, racial justice, facts, and much else. Formed by a group of stalwart Republicans in December 2019, ‘The Lincoln Project’ is the most prominent of the cracks in the Republican Party so far. It seeks to “Defeat President Trump and Trumpism at the ballot box.” Its founders are opposed not just to Mr. Trump, but to his cult following: of people living in fear that if they speak, he might tweet against them and they might lose their Senate or House seat. The Lincoln Project’s founders also seek to challenge the larger culture of disregard for the constitution, of exclusion, of cruelty that has come with Mr. Trump. Through videos such as ‘Truth’, ‘Betrayed’, ‘Shrinking’ and ‘Making China Great Again’, The Lincoln Project has achieved a prized goal: getting under Mr. Trump’s skin. He has tweeted against them, as a result only contributing to their reach and fundraising. They now have 1.5 million followers on Twitter.

The U.S.’s problems are different from India’s, the Republican Party’s flaws are not the same as those of the BJP, and Mr. Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi are different figures. Yet, there are similarities: the majoritarianism, the misinformation, the weakening of institutions. India needs an analogous initiative: ‘The Gandhi Project’.

Hope and reality

In 2014 and 2019, many voters chose the BJP and Mr. Modi hoping for economic growth, strong national security and robust foreign policy. As it stands, the economy is on the downslide; unemployment is high; national security is imperilled amidst the clash with China, issues with Bangladesh, and cross-border terror from Pakistan; and foreign relations with some of India’s closest allies, such as Nepal, are in tatters. Many of these problems were evident before the pandemic, but the government’s blundering response to the pandemic made matters worse.

A lot of BJP and Mr. Modi’s supporters remained steadfast behind the party and the leader for years. Gradually, some former supporters began to criticise him. Even so, while in the U.S. criticism of Mr. Trump’s many failed policies is robust, by way of the media and a strong Opposition, in India, Modi worship remains widespread. The Opposition is weak and much of the media is without a spine. Meanwhile, the BJP social media fake news factory is alive and well. And a widespread fear of even asking questions of the government, let alone criticising it, remains.

The Lincoln Project’s key achievement has been to have punctured the Republican Party’s silence and servility around Mr. Trump. It showed that Republicans could, and should, critique Mr. Trump, as well as his blind political lackeys.

Distinctly Indian

If the need in the U.S. for something such as the Lincoln Project was great, the need in India is only greater. Such an initiative would need to be distinctly Indian. Through videos, advertisements and events, it should challenge the culture of silence and servility. It should infuse more facts and accountability in public debate: accountability, for instance, for the skirmish with China, for the failure to forecast the migrant workers’ challenge, for the Pulwama attack, for the misery caused by demonetisation. It should aim to break the pattern of liberals finding themselves largely only responding to the BJP, rather than setting the terms of the debate. It should draw in average Indians, operating in multiple languages. It should call out the misinformation, the Goebbelsian tactics, the “alternative truths”, the false narrative setting such as around the anti-CAA protests fostered by the BJP and its IT cell. It need not necessarily be an anti-BJP effort; but it must be pro-facts, pro-accountability, pro-inclusivity, pro-Constitution. It should aim to broaden the sphere of debate in India. Such an initiative must operate with the support of a broad base. The Gandhi Project should build on the path shown by the peaceful modes of anti-CAA protests. Some such efforts have emerged, but they need to be broadened and become more resourced, sophisticated, and scaled. The Gandhi Project might, for instance, bring together the Rashtra Manch founded by Yashwant Sinha, Baat Bihar Ki led by Prashant Kishor, Constitutional Conduct led by retired civil servants.

Like Lincoln, Gandhi was not a perfect figure. But like Lincoln in the U.S., Gandhi remains a rallying symbol in India. The Lincoln Project has framed the option before Americans as one between America and Mr. Trump. The Gandhi Project can pose the choice before Indians as that between constitutionalism and anti-constitutionalism, between Gandhi and Godse.

Atul K Thakur is a Delhi-based policy professional and columnist; Abhimanyu Chandra is a PhD student at the University of Chicago

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