Like many politicians, Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah has a penchant for subjugating the truth to his agenda. He has often been caught stretching the facts (his maiden parliamentary speech this month was a good example) – as has his prime minister – but his latest attempt at altering reality was little more than a lie. Last week in Karnataka, he claimed (a) that the brutal attack in a Bengaluru restaurant on a man – whose nose was broken and ribs fractured – by the son of a Congress MLA and his friends was proof of the state Congress government’s appeasement of Muslims, (b) that the police had filed no first information report, and (c) that the man attacked was a BJP worker. Questioned closely, for once, by reporters, he backed down and acknowledged the man had nothing to do with the BJP and that a first information report had indeed been filed. But the attempt to communalise the attack only because the attacker and his father were Muslims went down well with his radicalised constituency.
Two themes have marked Shah’s speeches during frequent visits to Karnataka ahead of Assembly elections later this year: corruption, “goonda governance” and appeasement – of Muslims, although he will not use the term. There is little doubt that the Congress government is corrupt and patronises goons, but its BJP predecessor was not far behind on these issues, so there’s that. Shah’s trump card is appeasement, a term the BJP’s ministers and functionaries use easily and with no sense of irony, given their blatant pandering to Hindu interests, even if it means subverting India’s institutions and laws. In the same week that Shah made his latest attempt at majority appeasement, a party colleague at the other end of the country, in Jammu’s Kathua district, led a march, with the national flag in attendance, to support two policemen accused of drugging, raping and murdering an eight-year-old girl – all because the police officers were Hindu and the girl Muslim.
Appalling as the Kathua episode is, it is part of a general trend to bring religion into all manner of public discourse. Whether triple talaq or a Ram temple in Ayodhya, anything that demonises Muslims and gives a leg up to Hindus is grist for the mill of Hindu radicalisation and public distraction in the run-up to general elections in 2019. The BJP realises religion in the “new India” – as they call Narendra Modi’s time in office – exercises Indian minds substantially, perhaps enough to divert attention from the failure to deliver on some particularly grand promises. It is aided in this exercise by the media, which is suitably distracted or in bed with the government.
To be fair, the lack of scrutiny about issues relevant to the larger public interest is not restricted to the government in Delhi. State governments, too, have learned that the media and the public can be distracted – especially through sustained, social media-driven bluster – by religion and other emotive issues that have little relevance to the issues that really matter. So, in Karnataka, a chief minister who was once proud of saying he was an atheist has made temple visits a part of his political agenda, as of course has his boss, Rahul Gandhi. The newspapers and television channels are full of Siddaramaiah’s combative statements against Shah and Modi. When he is not talking about them or visiting temples, he is invoking Kannada pride – he demands a state flag (which already exists) and wants the study of Kannada to be compulsory from Class 1. The media rarely calls Siddaramaiah to account for his widespread governance failures – Bengaluru’s garbage crisis or his government’s move to allow the decimation of the city’s last few trees, the state’s water or farm crises, or the tens of children dying after being vaccinated in a state that is South India’s poorest performer on most health indices.
Hyper active in an election year after a moribund term in office, Siddaramaiah has learned well from Modi, who pioneered the art of distraction by serving up social media feed and speeches flooded with slogans and smart acronyms, government “achievements” and praise of saints, gods and Hindu traditions. Obscured by the hype and bluster, Modi’s key programmes and promises are escaping scrutiny.
Status of flagship schemes
Let us consider Modi’s biggest failure: the inability to create enough new jobs for the million or so Indians joining the workforce every month. “Lies are being spread,” he said last month during a rare interview to deferential media outlets, offering as proof seven million employee provident fund accounts opened in 2017, supposedly a proxy for job creation. “Doesn’t this show new employment?” he asked. His interviewers did not dare contest extremely contestable data – made available only to two economists – which do not account for job losses after demonetisation and the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax; do not make clear that many of these jobs merely moved from the informal to the formal sector; and even if true are wholly inadequate.
Another key Modi promise, electricity to all households, is almost completely ignored. The target is March 2019, a year away. At the current pace, it will take four years and seven months, or until 2022, to bring electricity to all rural and urban households. The government, as my colleague Chaitanya Mallapur reported, is connecting 633,630 homes to the grid every month when it needs to connect 2.7 million – four times slower than the pace needed to keep the power-for-all promise. Plus, the official data will tell you that 89% of villages previously without electricity were electrified over four years to 2018. But no more than 8% of homes in these villages actually have power – enough to declare the entire village electrified.
As for the government’s flagship Swachh Bharat programme, a revamped and strengthened version of a programme started by Modi’s predecessor, the success in building toilets overshadows the fact that not too many people appear to be using them. The government has not released evaluations, and the media – which largely limits itself to positive puff pieces about schoolgirls or spouses demanding or building toilets – has not filled in the blanks evident by investigating if these millions of toilets are being used or if they have connected sewage systems.
Similarly, billions continue to be spent on the programme to clean the Ganga, as the previous government did, with a singular lack of evidence that the great river is any cleaner.
As you delve into more details of governance, more devils emerge, more misrepresentations and some outright lies.
In November, at a time when Delhi’s air pollution was among the worst in the world and many cities were no better – cutting short lives, condemning millions to a lifetime of ill-health and imposing wide economic costs – the government told the Supreme Court that it should defer by five years a December 2017 deadline to clean up 300 coal-fired power plants nationwide of oxides of nitrogen because no technology to do this was available in India.
My colleague Bhasker Tripathi found this simply was not true. Not only did indigenous technology to clean oxides of nitrogen – which sicken and kill people and are key components of the air pollution that led to health emergencies this winter – exist but it had been successfully tested by India’s largest state-owned power company, a fact made public by the government’s Central Pollution Control Board.
If many of these details appear unfamiliar, it could either be that they are not being adequately brought to public attention or, perhaps, you have been too distracted to notice.