Putin and Modi

Sumanta Banerjee

In the background of the present war in Ukraine, much is being written by political commentators about the reasons why the Indian head of state Narendra Modi has taken an outwardly neutral stand towards his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin—a position which can be described variously as ambivalent, or even crypto-friendly. India’s abstention from voting in favour of resolutions in UN which condemn Russian atrocities in Ukraine, is being interpreted by these commentators in different ways. Some explain this tilt in Modi’s policies by pointing out at India’s dependence on the arms and energy import from Russia—which inhibits it from openly criticising Putin. Some other commentators have found in Modi’s stand a continuation of the traditional ties that India shared with the erstwhile Soviet Union in its foreign policy, and which still persists to shape its dealings with the present Russian Federation under Putin.

While agreeing that both these arguments may hold water, this writer would like to throw light on another area where Modi and Putin look like blood brothers. It is the field of their domestic policies and administration —where they follow a common model which displays mirror images of each other.

To start with, both Putin and Modi are resorting to similar methods to suppress civil liberties and democratic rights in their respective countries. In a meticulous way, they plan (i) imprisonment of social activists and political dissidents who oppose their rule; (ii) killing of dissenters who challenge their ideological views; (iii) throttling of voices of criticism in the media by persecution of journalists who dare to expose their misdeeds; and (iii) genocidal operations against ethnic and religious minorities.

Putin has chosen to follow a model of administration, inherited from the legacy left behind by the notorious Tzar Ivan (known as the Terrible), and which was to be followed later by Stalin. As in the past years of Tzarist and Stalinist terror when dissidents were incarcerated (in Siberia and later in 'gulag' camps), or killed if they were to be found too vociferous in their actions of protest. Putin today is adopting a similar strategy against his domestic opponents. He has put hundreds of Russian dissidents behind bars, like Alexie Navalny, Boris Nemtsov and Alexander Litvinenko, who had incurred Putin’s displeasure in one way or another. There are other dissidents who have been eliminated by the extra-state apparatus of assassin gangs who are patronised by Putin. A typical example is the killing of the well-known Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow on October 7, 2006, by assassins who have not yet been punished by the administration. Anna was known all over the world as a harsh critic of Putin and for her books (published abroad) exposing the cases of massive violation of human rights in Chechnaya by the Putin regime during its war in 1999-2000.

And here is Modi’s India. Doesn’t one find parallels to Putin’s Russia, when people see social activists, lawyers and journalists who are outspoken critics of the Modi regime, like Gautam Navlakha, Sudha Bharad-waj, Anand Teltunbde, being arrested (under fabricated charges in the Bhim Koregaon case), and the octogenarian Stan Swamy driven to death by an oppressive jail administration? Like Alexie Navalny and other dissidents languishing in Russian jails, the voices of these Indian dissidents are also being stifled by the same military boots that are worn by Putin and Modi.

The recent cases of killing of journalists in India look similar to the assassination of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovaskya in 2006, and the murder of several other Russian journalists (who exposed Putin’s crimes) in the years that followed. This led the international body of journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) to designate Russia in 2009 as one of the 'deadliest countries in the world for journalists'. Some nine years later, the CPJ in its report of 2018, was to rank India as 14th among states where journalists were killed. The same year, another global body, the Paris-based journalists body—Reporters Without Borders, listed India at 138th on its World Freedom Index.

It is quite evident that Modi is following in the footsteps of his elder partner Putin. Journalists who criticise his policies and expose the misdeeds of his party politicians, are simply done away with. At least four Indian journalists in 2021 in different parts of India—Avinash Jha, Manish K Singh, Chennakesha Vali, and Sulabh Srivastava—were killed by the local mafia with police connivance, and backed by ruling politicians, since they in their reports exposed instances of corruption and collaboration between the rulers and the mafia.

But even before the murder of these well-known journalists, there were at least 58 journalists who had been killed by the mafia-politician nexus during the last few years, as revealed by the above-mentioned Committee to Protect Journalists in its report on India. Most of them were stringers of mainstream newspapers who were operating from distant villages, and were targeted by local mafia gangs whenever these reporters exposed their misdeeds.

Taking into consideration these killings, Reporters Without Borders, in its 2018 report designated India as one of the 'five most dangerous countries for media'. Thus, Narendra Modi is rubbing shoulders with Vladimir Putin, sharing the same methods of suppressing free voices in the media.

Apart from journalists, there are social activists who have been killed by assassins linked with Right-wing groups patronised by the BJP rulers. Like Anna Politkovaskaya and other Russian dissidents who were killed by Putin’s hired assassins, in India brave hearts like the activist Gauri Lankesh, and rationalists like Narendra Dhabolkar and Govind Pansare were killed by gangs who enjoy support and protection from the ruling party.

Both Putin and Modi share another common inclination. They seek to homogenise their respective people—who are heterogeneous—under the hegemony of a single authoritarian rule. Following this tendency, they refuse to recognise and respect the distinct social and cultural identities of the regional and ethnic minorities who had been inhabiting their countries for ages.

To start with Putin, he faced a challenge when the Chechens of the Muslim-majority Chechnya republic of his Russian Federation rose in rebellion in 1999 protesting discrimination against them and seeking an independent state. He had to wage a ten-year war (from 1999 to 2009) to crush the secessionist rebellion, and re-establish Russian control over Chechnya at the cost of thousands of lives—of both innocent Chechen civilians and Russian soldiers. Putin today is re-enacting the same game in Ukraine.

Both in Russia and India, the governments have been militarising their administrative apparatus at a fast pace. In Russia, Putin has lifted his military boots from the ground to the air, better equipped with far more efficient killing powers like bombers, missiles and rockets that are being rained upon in Ukraine today. In India, Modi is seeking aid from Putin to enhance the striking power of Indian armed forces, by importing military equipment from Russia.

Armed with this military assistance, Modi is following the same model of suppression of the rights of regional and ethnic communities by military means—whether in Kashmir in the north-west or Nagaland and Manipur in the north-east of India. In protest against what they perceive as the Indian state’s acts of discrimination against them, and denial of autonomy, the rebellious youth of these communities have been waging a secessionist war for many years now—just as the Chechens did against the Russian state.

Drawing a parallel between Russia’s militarist operations in Ukraine and the Indian state’s continuing warfare in Kashmir, the well known academic and writer Dominic Lieven has sounded a note of warning in his recent article carried by The Economist, dated April 16, 2022. He says: “(Like) other borderland wars, such as in Kashmir …. the Russo-Ukrainian conflict could last in a semi-frozen state for decades, threatening international stability, and periodically bursting into renewed fighting…”

But what is surprising is the increasing popularity of these two leaders in their homelands, despite the economic distress that their people face due to the policies imposed on them by these same two leaders.

It seems that the more Ukrainians and Kashmiris get killed, and the more Russian dissidents and Indian social activists get incarcerated behind bars, the more the popularity of Putin and Modi soars in their respective homelands. Putin improved his support among Russian citizens from a 69% approval rating in January this year, to 83% in the recent days following his invasion of Ukraine. In India, Modi’s BJP has been winning seats in state assemblies with the support of voters who apparently prioritise the Modi-created bogey of 'urban Naxalites' and 'Muslim terrorists', over their immediate economic problems like inequitable and discriminatory policy of taxation, and inflation, that flow from the policies of the same Modi government.

The over-powering machinery of official propaganda that monopolises the media in both Russia and India, which 'manufactures consent', to quote Noam Chomsky, has crippled the popular capacity for critical thinking. How does one restore that capacity?

  [Sumanta Banerjee is a political commentator and writer, is the author of ‘In the Wake of Naxalbari’ (1980 and 2008); ‘The Parlour and the Streets: Elite and Popular Culture in Nineteenth Century Calcutta’ (1989) and ‘Memoirs of Roads: Calcutta from Colonial Urbanization to Global Modernization.’ (2016)]

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Vol 54, No. 45, May 8 - 14, 2022