By Vinod Kottayil Kalidasan and Tanya Goyal
The world is going through a pandemic like never before. The havoc it wreaked across the globe is unprecedented. Nations, institutions and even ordinary people are rendered vulnerable and insecure. But in India, the feeling of being vulnerable, threatened and insecure has been a part of everyday life. In fact, this reality is only amplified by the corona crisis which, indeed, took it to a different level altogether.
When Narendra Modi’s NDA took up the reins of the country in 2014, good days ahead had been promised. It was argued that India was weak and NDA was needed, with Modi at the head, to strengthen the country. Modi spoke about Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas (development for all) and attacked the UPA regime, the ‘Lutyen’s elite’, the congress party, nepotism and the malice of corruption. Modi promised a bright future for everyone, and assured the general public an equal opportunity to prosper economically. He also claimed that if the black money hoarded away in the foreign banks is brought back, it is possible that every person in the country can benefit from it. His assurances ranged from promising the farmers freebies of sorts to rejuvenating the dilapidated Indian cities.
Modi is a fiery speaker, he disliked the idea of a secular India, he believed that India is essentially a Hindu country, he hated Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and, of course, he believed in the ideology of RSS – the source of Modi’s worldview.
Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat when the communal riots broke out in which thousands of people, mostly Muslims, were massacred. He believed in the second-class status of minorities and did not have any regard for their centuries-long history in India. But he did not say so in 2014 when he was campaigning. He spoke about economic development, the need to bring everyone together for a brighter future of a country at the cusp of an economic transformation. His plan to ‘Make in India’ shed a bright light on India’s prospects and the middle-classes grew even more enthusiastic. In this way, Modi appealed to his Hindutva constituency indirectly and the aspirational middle-classes directly. Mr. Modi’s promises were music to the middle-class ears as the middle-classes longed to see India becoming a ‘developed country’ within a generation.
The result was stunning. Modi was elected to power with a thumping majority and the BJP, on its own, had the mandate to form a government – a very rare occasion in the political history of post-1992 India. Indians waited to see the good days they had been so vociferously promised.
Sadly, those days never really arrived. Instead, something else became more visible in Modi’s approach to the country as a whole. Though he began with more economy-oriented programmes such as ‘make in India’ and ‘Swatch Bharat’ (Clean India), he was no more appeasing the middle classes as vehemently as before. He moved slowly towards propagating vague categories such as ‘Nation’, ‘patriotism’, ‘unity’, etc. Modi often re-iterated that, in order to become a stronger player in a world which is going through swift geo-strategic changes, there is a need to create passionate patriotic identities. From this moment onwards, the focus was shifted to building a debate on who is more patriotic than whom and a parallel debate about sedition. And this debate was aggressively promoted especially when the government failed in its economic policies leading to a state of anarchy and a resultant economic downturn.
It, thus, was not surprising when, in an abrupt move he demonetized most of the country’s currency notes in circulation, people were lynched for eating beef and universities were targeted for shouting ‘anti-national’ slogans. T.V anchors and news outlets, taking cue, abruptly started discussing nationalism like never before as though, all of a sudden, there was a chronic nationalism deficit in India. What was deficient, in fact, was the NDA government’s ability to rise above the rhetoric and usher in change – both economic and social.
Many of Modi’s gestures, nevertheless, were seen and appreciated internationally too. His frequent and calibrated trips abroad and his meetings, often colourful, with world leaders made him more acceptable in the eyes of the middle classes that increasingly viewed him as someone who could turn India into a stronger global power. Eventually, the drastic moves he took at home and the authoritarian style with which his government functioned and the lack of respect for democratic values and more importantly, empathy, took a toll on India’s image as a democratic pacifist.
Drastic, Abrupt and Unprepared Decisions
Modi has a penchant for announcing abrupt and drastic measures that affect everyone in a country of 1.3 billion people with elements of surprise and drama. He mostly uses his 8 p.m. addresses to the nation to unravel such policies. They unfold like theatre and they impact lives of everyone with immediate effect. But, at the same time, it is noteworthy that no open press conference has been given by him in India, and never did he permit journalistic scrutiny of his work.
Such announcements included his shocker on 8 November, 2016 in one such 8 p.m. address to the nation. That day, Modi declared that most of India’s currency notes stood demonetised. It created a mayhem unimaginable even by Indian standards. It infantilized people and put them in long queues before banks and ATM machines and closed numerous businesses forever. The government was only half prepared to deal with the situation and it ended up in unimaginable misery and even many deaths. The government still does not have evidence to prove that this move was necessary or, for that matter, wise. While demonetisation’s benefits remain unknown, the pandemonium and misery it caused and the businesses and lives it ruined are well-known.
His policy on a common tax system across the country was also, as usual, abruptly implemented without much preparation. It was probably taken with good intentions. He argued that it would simplify the tax system and there would be a uniform system across the length and breadth of the country. While these were much needed, the results of the decision were hardly promising. The chaos and trouble made the tax system appear more complex than it ever was.
In a similar fashion, on 26 February 2019, the announcement came that India had despatched warplanes to Balakot in Pakistan and dropped bombs on a terrorist camp there. This was, Modi announced, India’s response to the terrorist attack on an army camp in Pulwama that killed 46 soldiers. This announcement was also followed by the regular dose of patriotism and nationalist jingoism. This move was taken in the same familiar fashion, with the element of drama and surprise intact. This time, Modi also calculated the possible gains from the general elections to be held a few months later. More than that, he was almost cornered by the opposition on the allegations of corruption in buying Rafale fighter planes. More intense drama followed when an Indian pilot was captured by the Pakistan army. As with demonetisation, the strategic benefits of this action too are anybody’s guess.
The NDA government in its second term, all of a sudden, attempted to ‘solve’ the Kashmir problem by quickly passing a bill in parliament to abolish article 370 which had given Kashmir a measure of autonomy. The government bifurcated Kashmir and downgraded the two newly created territories as ‘union territories’ effectively bringing them under the central government rule. It also put Kashmir in a lockdown with most of its political leaders, kept under arrest. These actions kept the pot boiling in Kashmir with the lives of millions of Kashmiris stuck in eternal hopelessness. Clearly, the government was not prepared for this too and brute force was often used to discipline the people. Of course, the result of this move remains as unclear, as those of his other decisions, till date.
Then came the most drastic and most prejudicial of all the abrupt decisions the government has taken. Riding on the wave of a massive and overwhelming mandate with which the NDA secured its second term, it decided to bring in CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) and NRC (National Register of Citizens). When read together, they seem to clearly work against a singular religion – the Muslims. The act offers members of all South Asian religions, except Muslims, who migrated to India, citizenship. The BJP presented it as a gesture of kindness towards the persecuted minorities in the neighbouring countries, but in reality, it was an Islamophobic and blatantly racist gesture. It jelled well with the Hindurashtra (India as a Hindu Nation) theory of the RSS and it also tried to allay the fears of alien invasion the middle classes secretly nurtured in them. Widespread protests followed and people protested for months in places like Shaheen Bagh. Modi understood well that majoritarian sentimentalism and Islamophobia might just work for him and the BJP in securing further terms and a domination in Indian politics in the long run.
This piece is written in quarantine as the Prime Minister announced a 21-day-long shutdown of the country in order to prevent the looming corona crisis on 24 March. We are sure a shutdown was needed to stop the virus from spreading and to ‘flatten the curve’, but not as sure whether the government was prepared to implement a decision of this magnitude. Probably, this is one decision that the prime minister may find ‘scientific’ reasons to justify taking given his scant regard for science elsewhere. Nevertheless, like most of his other drastic measures, the government appears to have been caught unawares by its own decision. Hundreds of thousands of migrant labourers flooded the streets of Delhi in a desperate attempt to get back to their hearths and homes in the faraway lands. The pictures of hungry children eating grass also expose the vulnerable lives the poor live in an India supposedly having its ‘Good Days’.
The Way Forward
One thing that is common in the series of actions taken by Modi-led NDA government is the lack of examination of socio-economic impact the policies will have, which is quintessential before imposing any nationwide policy.
The need of the hour is a well-planned strategy that can take care of the poor and the millions that have lost their livelihoods and incomes as a result of his government’s policies or, rather, lack of it. Our health minister recently announced insurance and other financial aids to healthcare workers and general public amidst the pandemic. While this is welcome, much more needs to be done in a country where shutting oneself up inside one’s home is a luxury that only the rich can afford. Most of Modi’s daring moves were proven not worth a repeat anywhere in the world. Some have been taken with right intentions and others were taken because of the ancient prejudices or for electoral gains. The world is going into a recession again and we are still recovering from the shock of demonetization. Jobs and educational opportunities have become scarce and a strange panic grips the country.
The six-year-long spell of the NDA government has taken an irreversible toll on the country. India let its people down and, in the process of doing so, it rendered itself and its people weaker. The lower castes, classes, women and minorities have been made even more vulnerable. The state has grown authoritarian as the country as a whole weakened. Critics are silenced and the autonomous institutions often stifled.
The feeling of insecurity goes hand in hand with the political decisions made in the garb of democracy as the former is produced and nurtured by the latter. The government has to show sensitivity while implementing drastic decisions and it has to be done in a consultative and democratic manner that respects the federal nature of the country. More importantly, it should have a plan in hand to secure the lives of the weakest of the weak. The middle classes that lived in a bubble are finally coming out of it. What is needed is stronger opposition to authoritarianism. This is probably the final battle for realising the ideals of democracy and, more importantly, to be united as one country standing against odds.
Vinod Kottayil Kalidasan is an Assistant Professor and Tanya Goyal is an Assistant Lecturer at the Jindal Global Law School, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonepat, Haryana.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetics and politics of the ‘everyday’: Engaging with India’s northeast”, edited by Bhumika R, IIT Jammu and Suranjana Choudhury, NEHU, India.