Two subjects of speculation dominated the political discourse this week. First, the alleged transgressions of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Second, whether the new Gross Domestic Product numbers released by the Narendra Modi government hold up to scrutiny, given that a study by the National Sample Survey Office has blown holes in a key database used to calculate economic growth.
The first has become a campaign issue, invoked by the Bharatiya Janata Party and Modi himself. The second, which arguably speaks more directly to the lived realities of millions of India’s voters, has not. It should not come as a surprise this election season, where the BJP has served up one distraction after another, moving away from its 2014 campaign plank of “Sab ka Saath, Sab ka Vikas”, which held out the dream of inclusive economic development. The Opposition has been happy to play along.
Gandhi’s rule in the 1980s held the seeds of destructive tendencies that would come into their own over the next three decades. It was Gandhi who allowed the unlocking of the Babri Masjid, unleashing the forces of violent Hindutva that would eventually alter the DNA of Indian politics. It was under his watch in 1984 that the state machinery stood by while a murderous mob set upon the Sikh minority, egged on by leaders of the ruling party – a grim precursor to Gujarat 2002. It was also when the Bofors scam broke, the first of the big corruption cases that would singe the highest levels of India’s government, beginning an estrangement between voters and their elected representatives.
It would indeed be admirable if Modi were to start a debate on how the darker impulses of the Rajiv Gandhi era have fed into his own. But his election rhetoric suggests less lofty concerns. Modi chose to accuse the late prime minister of treating INS Viraat as a holiday yacht in 1987, a claim refuted by several naval officers.
This strengthens the impression that Rajiv Gandhi is the latest in a series of distractions, from the mystery of the air strike on Pakistan to the spectre of Bangladeshi “infiltrators” overrunning the country to the appropriation of the armed forces for campaigning.
But this election, more than any other, needed to be about the economy, about jobs, about demonetisation, which was supposed to extinguish black money but caused untold distress, about a farm crisis that manifested itself in farmer protests that were largely ignored. It also needed to be about allegations made by economists and statistical agencies that data was being manipulated and suppressed so that the figures did not reflect the true state of India’s economy.
The government’s reticence on these subjects may be a sign of nerves. What is more inexplicable is why the Opposition has not tried to hold the government accountable for the broken promises of 2014.