This blistering summer of 2016, two years have passed since Prime Minister Narendra Modi triumphantly assumed office, heading the first Bharatiya Janata Party-led national government with a comfortable majority in Parliament. Today the country he leads is even more bitterly divided than it was two years earlier, and ordinary people are visibly wearied with the unceasing bluster of false claims accompanied by little real improvement in the conditions of their hard lives.
A third of the countryside is battling one of the grimmest droughts in decades, with failed rains, parched farms, mounting hunger, starving livestock, distress migration and drying wells and tanks shrinking sources of drinking water.
We must be mindful that this is no ordinary drought. It is mounted on the back of decades of endemic agrarian crisis and low public investments in agriculture, an even longer agro-ecological crisis of falling water tables and exhausted poisoned soils, and an alarming slow-down of agricultural growth to near-zero.
This should be the paramount concern today of the central and state governments, yet we see little official compassion and urgency to mitigate the intense suffering of several hundred million of our poorest rural people. Even a rare rap on the knuckles by the Supreme Court reminding the government of its duties in these times did not lead to the humility of belated correctives by the union government. Instead the finance minister in Parliament disparaged what he described to be judicial over-reach “step by step, brick by brick”.
Young hopes belied
Even greater disappointment dogs the morale of young people, as the largest population of the young in the world and in history abound in India today. A million young people are joining India’s work-force every month, and they legitimately long for opportunities for decent work. Mr Modi’s expensive shock-and-awe election campaign in 2014 had convinced them that Gujarat was a fairy-land in which everyone had work, there was no poverty and unemployment, and that he could wield a magic wand across the country and ensure work for all. In fact nothing like this has happened.
One of greatest failures of the out-going United Progressive Alliance government was that even its soaring economic growth rates yielded virtually no jobs. But Modi has introduced no course-correctives to alter the jobless-growth strategy of the past two decades. The same trends continue, of very few jobs being added, mostly at the lowest end of poorly paid, insecure and unprotected work, whereas employment opportunities in public enterprises, the formal private sector, and agriculture actually have shrunk.
But South Block and Niti Aayog continue in denial. There is still no official recognition of the cold empirical reality that Foreign Direct Investment-led big business does not create jobs. Jobs for the millions can abound only by massive public investments in small-farm agriculture and rural infrastructure, by enormous public spending in public health and education requiring millions of teachers and health workers, and by encouraging tiny, small and medium enterprises. But none of these are priorities of the present government.
Suit-boot ki sarkar
Whenever confronted with criticisms of neglecting the interests and concerns of the poor, the union government responds only with grand announcements which only subsequent careful examination by experts reveals each time that these official claims are based on deliberate official falsehoods and obfuscation.
Stung by the caricaturing of the BJP-led union government as a suit-boot ki sarkar or a government for well-heeled rich men in suits, the finance minister announced that his 2016 budget was a farmers’ budget, which would double farm incomes in five years. But there was nothing at all in the budget to demonstrate how this would be accomplished.
The claim of higher allocations for agriculture got exposed as an accounting ploy of altering budget heads rather than enhancing actual total allocations. The same was true when the government announced “highest-ever” allocations for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act or MGNREGA scheme. It turned out that if the figures were adjusted for inflation, this was a much lower allocation than the peak allocations of 2011-12, and what is more, current allocations included as much as Rs 12,000 crore of arrears of unpaid wages and bills from the previous year, representing grave injustice and distress of long-delayed wage payments to the indigent wage-seekers in these public works.
The government announced again loftily that it was introducing a universal pension scheme. It turned out that what it was offering actually was only a bank-account linked pension programme which was based mostly on contributions by the poorest people themselves every month for most of their adult working life, with very little public funding, and extremely adverse internal rates of return for their precious monthly savings. The scheme seemed more geared to ensure that banks don’t have to carry zero-balance accounts than any kind of public-funded universal pension scheme.
Social sector spending was cut drastically, in education, health-care, pre-school Integrated Child Development Services known as ICDS and school meals. The union government claimed that these cuts were more than offset by massive increases in fund transfers to states. In fact it turned out that what had changed was a welcome increase in state discretion about how it will use funds transferred from the centre, but not large increases in the amount of total funds that the states were receiving from the union government. So social sector cuts were precisely what they seemed – worrying curtailment in already low levels of social sector spending, resulting in even less public money for health centres, ICDS centres, government schools and public universities.
Republic of lies
These are not exceptions, but represent a consistent pattern. I believe that when this government is remembered in later years, it will be above all remembered as a “republic of lies”. It seems that people in the leadership of this government believe that simple-minded ordinary people would be convinced that the government is working for their welfare not by tangible evidence of improvement in the conditions of their lives, but instead by unceasing aggressive campaign-mode hectoring by the prime minister and massive expenditures on government advertising.
Already this government is spending twice the UPA budget on government advertisements with public money. Memories are short, however. One needs only to recall 2004, when a glittering public blitz about “India shining” convinced many city-based commentators but not ordinary people, who saw with clear eyes that their difficult lives did not shine.
Look at the schemes that the union government is show-casing in its own expensive celebrations of its two years in office. The programmes that the government is proudest of for what it describes as promoting welfare and social inclusion are the Jan Dhan scheme for financial inclusion, Swachh Bharat for sanitation, and skill development. It is interesting firstly that all three of these are simply repackaged and renamed schemes of the earlier government, with no evidence of any changes that the new government introduced to address the shortcomings of the earlier programmes that failed to accomplish their expected outcomes.
Jan Dhan remains stymied by poor banking penetration in rural interiors. Swachh Bharat still regards the principal bottleneck of toilet use to lie on the supply side of availability of enough numbers of toilets, and not the demand side of popularising its use, the bugbear of caste that continues to trap people of the lowest castes to clean the toilets, and the lack of access of the majority of poor households to septic tanks and sewerage. And no band-aid of skills training can repair on the one hand the consequences of a broken education system, and on the other, the failure of the growth model to generate jobs (which I have already described).
Back to Hindutva
With so little to offer millions of the poor who still battle poverty, hunger, malnourishment, schools that don’t teach, health centres that don’t heal, and above all the lack of decent work opportunities, the government is falling back to its ideological roots of harder and harder Hindutva.
These two years have witnessed an instructive division of labour between Prime Minister Modi on the one hand, and his storm-troopers like party president Amit Shah, several ministers, MPs and notables like Subramaniam Swamy on the other. On divisive agendas for the most part Mr Modi maintains a studied public silence, rarely slipping into the anti-Muslim taunts and jibes that characterised his public utterances for most of the dozen years he led the state of Gujarat. Instead from time to time, usually on foreign soil, he makes constitutionally sound statements about pluralism and diversity. On the other hand, his array of storm-troopers continue to dangerously stir the communal pot, never publicly rebuked or repudiated by the powerful Prime Minister who is otherwise never at a loss for words.
The overall thrust of this series of communally charged campaigns is to consolidate deeper and deeper the idea of the Muslim, and to a lesser extent, the Christian, as less Indian and less patriotic than the Hindu majority.
History is being rewritten, and even Sardar Patel and Subhas Chandra Bose, both firmly opposed to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, have been reinvented as mascots of Hindutva, and even more alarmingly the radical Bhagat Singh and Ambedkar are sought to be similarly co-opted to the Hindutva cause. The RSS after all has very few authentic heroes of its own in the freedom struggle. Gandhi has been depoliticised and deracinated into merely a sanitary inspector.
Textbooks are being rewritten to claim a glorious Vedic history of scientific and cultural domination of the world, a dark and oppressive medieval period of venal and cruel Muslim rulers, and a freedom struggle dominated by Hindutva icons, real and reinvented. Roads in the national capital named only after Muslim rulers are sought to be renamed. Strident attacks on the eating of beef and religious conversions, criminalising not just cow slaughter but even the possession of cow meat, allegations of love jihad, or demands to hail a Hinduised imagination of Bharat Mata, similarly contribute to the “othering” of religious minorities.
This is the first government in the centre which has not a single Muslim MP in the Lok Sabha, although they constitute around 14% of the country’s population. The message is that the entire community is politically irrelevant to the fortunes of the BJP which rides instead on muscular Hindu consolidation.
Against this background of hectoring and demonising minorities is the continuous terrorising of religious minorities with low-intensity attacks and physical intimidation. The killing in Dadri of a man merely because of false rumours that he stored beef in his refrigerator led to the stirring of the collective public conscience, but we ignore regular news of attacks and lynching of Muslim men on charges of trading in cattle by vigilante groups. In Bastar, many panchayats passed resolutions against Christian worship that were withdrawn after national criticism.
Divisive battles in recent months were taken into progressive public university campuses like Jawaharlal Nehru University and the Hyderabad Central University, by rusticating progressive student leaders or charging them with the grave crime of sedition that could lead to their imprisonment for life.
Dissenting non-governmental organisations are another prominent target of this government, and they are either being tamed into submission, or closed or at the verge of closure by starving them of funds. The larger game-plan is to demonise not just religious minorities but also left, secular and liberal opinion by creating a shrill hysteria that these too are ranged against the nation.
The imagination of the nation is converged into that of the government, and of the government to Mr Modi, therefore criticisms of Modi and his government are transformed in the official narrative into attacks on the nation.
Communalisation of security forces
However, what worries me most of all in the alarmingly decline of the climate of communal amity and equity in India is the open communalisation of the security agencies of the country.
In the criminal case of the encounter killings of Sohrabuddin, his wife Kausar and Prajapati, the change of government in the centre saw the Central Bureau of Investigation somersaulting on its past investigations to suddenly conclude that there was no prosecutable evidence against the then Home Minister Amit Shah, despite credible corroboration from phone records that showed him in continuous phone contact with the police officers alleged to be involved in these crimes, and Sohrabuddin’s brother mysteriously withdrawing his appeal against the withdrawal of the case against Amit Shah.
In the Ishrat Jehan encounter killing, there is a concerted attempt to charge the 19-year-old young woman to be a terror operative, in a transparent bid to divert from the established crime of her killing in cold blood by police officials. In the Malegaon bomb blasts, the National Investigation Agency suddenly cast doubt on the integrity of investigations led by the brave and upright police officer Hemant Karkare who uncovered the unnerving reality of a spate of Hindutva terror attacks that were earlier blamed on Islamist groups.
The NIA, India’s premier agency for investigating terror crimes is notably led for the first time by a retired officer appointed on contract and therefore entirely beholden to and at the mercy of the present government for his continuance in office. It has concluded that there is no case against the prime accused Sadhvi Pragya, whose motorcycle was used for the bomb explosions. Witnesses are turning hostile one by one, and it is only a matter of time that the other high-profile accused Lt Col Purohit will also be declared innocent of the terror conspiracy.
On the other hand, persons convicted for leading one of the most gruesome communal massacres in post-Independence India, in Naroda Patia, are out on extended bail. Reporters spotted Maya Kodnani, convicted for leading the massacre, taking selfies in a yoga camp. Babu Bajrangi is also freed from prison for extended periods of bail. Every one of the police officers who were arrested for crimes of murder in fake “encounters” have been released on bail. Those who have not retired from service have been reinstated and promoted. And one of these officers, PP Pandey, has been appointed Director General of Police of Gujarat. For the first time in India, a state’s police force is headed by a man charged with murder who is out on bail!
The dangerous communalisation of the public and political discourse, as well as official institutions, is being accomplished to reap political harvests based on consolidating the majority of Hindu votes across divides of caste against the Muslim minority.
The people of Bihar resisted this strategy, and gave a body-blow to an aggressively communal BJP in the state elections. But the same political strategy worked in the sensitive region of Assam, where analysts suggest that for the first time communal fault-lines over-rode the older fractures of ethnicity that traditionally dominated the region. The majority of voters from almost all other ethnic and religious groups lined up with the BJP against the Muslim residents of the state, who constitute the largest proportion of Muslims in any state apart from Kashmir.
There are ominous signs that the same strategy will dominate the political plans of the BJP in both Uttar Pradesh which goes to the polls next year, and Karnataka which is the last large state still with a Congress government. Time will only tell if the people of these two states show the same political sagacity as the voters of Bihar demonstrated in the face of intense and reckless communalisation.
I worry intensely about the three years ahead of Mr Modi’s continued stewardship of the country. I am convinced that a government like his that fails to deliver outcomes of a better life to the poor masses will be elected out of power eventually. But before it leaves, I agonise about how permanent and entrenched will be its assaults on the age-old traditions of peaceful coexistence that have been the civilisational hallmark and greatest cultural strength of this ancient unequal land.