It is a depressing Independence Day for Indians committed to individual rights, a free press, an independent judiciary, and a polity based on reason, all constitutional features that liberals had expected would be strengthened with time, and hoped would be rock-solid 73 years after the nation gained its freedom.
The immediate cause of the depression is, of course, the situation in Kashmir. It has been a triumph of untruth, from the time the Home Minister Amit Shah blithely lied in Parliament, claiming that Farooq Abdullah had willingly chosen not to attend the session devoted to Kashmir even as television cameras showed Abdullah under house arrest in Srinagar, able only to holler his message to reporters because of telephone and internet connectivity being cut in the Valley.
Journalists sympathetic to the Bharatiya Janata Party have found ways of tweeting and reporting from the Valley during the communications shutdown that has followed the hollowing out of Article 370 of the Constitution which guaranteed Jammu and Kashmir a special status in the Union, while the government has kept captive not just leaders with a secessionist bent but also those who have consistently advocated a peaceful existence within India for the territory.
International media are doing what they can to inform the world about the situation on the ground, only to be branded purveyors of fake news by the actual purveyors of fake news. The BBC, we are told, has an anti-India agenda, as do the New York Times, Al Jazeera, Reuters, The Guardian and The Economist, indeed any publication or broadcaster, Indian or foreign, that refutes the official version of events or questions the wisdom of bifurcating the state of Jammu and Kashmir and demoting the resulting halves to Union Territories.
Eventually, Kashmir’s citizens will have to be allowed some freedom of movement, which will spur protests and, inevitably, suppression. Sadly, a violent crackdown is likely to improve the government’s approval ratings. If the intelligence failure in Pulwama and the botched operation in Balakot could be converted into massive wins for the ruling party, what’s to stop a massacre or two from being given the same treatment? Even the own-goal that was demonetisation created a wave of support for Narendra Modi, indicating his popularity could continue to rise with every setback in Kashmir.
Chandrayaan-2 continues its slow progress to the moon, testifying to decades of Indian advances in scientific and technological fields. The government’s commitment to these, however, remains questionable. Thus far, the administration has continued to fund the best universities without imposing its will in the manner it has done with institutions of higher learning in the humanities. Nevertheless, the BJP’s absurd beliefs, such as the idea that cows exhale oxygen, erode the Constitution’s commitment to developing, “the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”.
The other day, Ramesh Pokhriyal, the Union Minister for Human Resources Development no less, the man in charge of much of the nation’s higher education, addressing students of the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay at the institution’s 57th convocation ceremony, claimed Charaka Rishi discovered atoms and molecules. He then provided a variation of an old Hindutva claim, saying, “According to NASA, in the near future, if a talking computer were to be a reality, then it will only be possible because of Sanskrit.”
His ministry later issued a clarification, saying his statement was taken out of context, and he was referring to a paper published in 1985 by a researcher named Rick Briggs. In the Hindutva view, Rick Briggs, who has no scientific accomplishment to his name, is an oracle thanks to that one speculative essay, which did not recommend Sanskrit ought to be directly employed in computing.
In the decades since the Briggs article was published, computers have learned to talk, most of the world’s people now walk around with talking computers in their pockets or purses, a fact minister and ministry appear not to have noticed. Sanskrit had nothing to do with those machines learning to speak, nor has it made any substantial contribution to computing between 1985 and today, but for BJP supporters, the truth value of every statement is determined solely by its congruence with their nationalistic or religious dogmas.
While the government focuses on its divisive social agenda, the economy remains in the doldrums. The doldrums, literally, are an area of windless weather near the thermal equator, feared by navigators in the Age of Sail. Every so often, the doldrums produce a raging storm. It is possible no economic storm will arrive, but should it do so, India might be ill-equipped to defend itself, because it appears clueless about the causes of the malaise.
Amitabh Kant, the head of the most powerful government think tank, considers the current slowdown a side effect of bold reforms rather than the result of the government’s evident lack of vision and purpose. His “reforms cause economic distress” theme is now being picked up by pliant commentators.
Demonetisation, however, was no reform. It was a madcap policy without benefits. The Goods and Services Tax was and is a serious structural change, but the pain it caused resulted from bad design, glitch-filled technical back-up, and slow processing rather than anything intrinsic to the idea of a single nation-wide tax. For the rest, the government has been far too preoccupied with window-dressing, pulling stunts like shifting debt from itself to a rich public sector undertaking by forcing one huge public sector unit to buy another.
Lack of ideas
As capital markets slide and the rupee tumbles, there appears a complete lack of ideas on how to exploit openings offered by the US-China trade war while at the same time avoiding becoming a victim of Donald Trump’s tantrums. The global situation has taken a predictable turn for the worse, with Germany, the UK, Mexico, and Italy hovering on the edge of recession, and Brazil already in one. A number of major central banks have lowered interest rates below zero in a desperate attempt to bolster growth, and the American economy is slowing despite huge tax cuts and deregulation that provided a short-term stimulus while creating massive longer term problems for the American economy and environment.
Nationalism can turn social disasters into electoral victories almost indefinitely, but that is far harder to do with economic catastrophes. The changes in Kashmir might damage the liberal idea of India, but the economy is more likely to haunt Narendra Modi’s future.