It would be hard to argue that the arrests of five activists without clarity about the charges against them, on Tuesday, are a distraction. The activists were picked up by the police in connection with a Dalit political event in Maharashtra at the start of the year that ended up in clashes, allegedly because of provocation by Maratha leaders. But none of those arrested on Tuesday were present at the event. This has naturally led many to believe that the message of the arrests is clear: Those who criticise the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government will be considered criminals.
Yet it is also true that the news is a zero-sum game. Focus on one story tends to suck up all the oxygen in the room, leaving little left over for other important matters. And in a country as large and complex as India, that means critical issues might end up buried. So here is a quick list of things to pay attention to in addition to the arrests:
The case against the Hindutva leaders
The most obvious story involves the Hindutva leaders who themselves were accused of being responsible for the clashes at the Elgar Parishad even in Bhima Koregaon in January thanks to incendiary speeches. The Pune police filed cases against Milind Ekbote, head of the Hindu Ekta Manch, and Sambhaji Bhide, chief of the Shiv Pratishthan Hindustan for allegedly instigating the violence on Dalits in January. However, while Ekbote was released on bail soon after being arrested in March, Bhide has not yet been arrested, despite a Supreme Court order demanding his arrest.
The case against the Sanatan Sanstha
Then there is also the growing body of evidence against the Sanatan Sanstha, a right-wing Hindutva organisation whose members and associates have allegedly been implicated in the murders of rationalist Narendra Dabholkar and writer Gauri Lankesh. A member of an associated organisation was arrested earlier this month after Maharashtra’s Anti-Terrorism Squad found a large stash of crude bombs and weapons at his office and home. In fact, the Bharatiya Janata Party-run Maharashtra government is even considering asking for the organisation to be banned.
The PMO & Reliance’s Jio Institute
Over two different stories as part of an investigation, The Indian Express detailed how both the Finance and Human Resource Development ministries pushed back against the idea of a completely new educational institution getting an ‘Institute of Eminence’ tag from the government, pushed by the Prime Minister’s Office. Using Right to Information responses, the stories tell the tale of how the Prime Minister’s Office ignored a number of objections raised by both the ministries, and ultimately Reliance’s Jio Institute was given the Institute of Eminence tag. The development has been seen by some as the most brazen case of crony capitalism by the government yet.
The Parliamentary panel on demonetisation
Bharatiya Janata Party Members of a parliamentary committee have reportedly come in the way of a report from the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance, which in its draft had said that demonetisation led to at least one percentage point of lost Gross Domestic Product growth, as well as unemployment due to the cash crunch. As some have pointed out, the BJP having a majority of members on panels like these allow these reports to be buried and stand in the way of proper functioning. This comes despite the Reserve Bank of India clarifying yet again on Wednesday that the vast majority of demonetised notes – 99.3% of them – have been returned to banks, confirming that Narendra Modi’s flagship financial effort has not achieved its goals even as it delivered a shock to the economy.
The government’s performance on jobs and GDP
Some of it comes down to how the government’s performance is evaluated, in particular its record on GDP growth and jobs. A draft report pointing out that the Congress-run United Progressive Alliance government did better at GDP growth even in its second term, when it was dogged with accusations of policy paralysis, than the average of the Modi government’s four years, was taken down and reposted by the state with a disclaimer asking for it “not to be quoted.”
On jobs too, the government has insisted that there isn’t a lack of jobs, just a lack of data about jobs, a problem that seems to have only been noticed in the final year of Modi’s tenure. The Central Statistics Office said last week that 1.2 crore jobs had been created in the last 10 months, but that data is based on numbers that have consistently been revised downwards in subsequent months, raising questions about their veracity. Modi said, earlier this year, that he hid economic data after taking over the country “for the benefit of Indians.” Who is to say he isn’t still doing it?