[W]hen [Narendra] Modi, the son of a man who sold tea at a rural railway station, appeared on the national political stage he seemed like the best thing that had happened to Indian politics in an aeon. People wanted to believe him when he said he would bring change and so invested all their hopes in this possibility.
Their determination to continue believing in Modi was why they put up with extreme hardship, bankruptcy and, in some cases, permanent ruin in the wake of demonetisation that Modi announced with ominous melodrama halfway through his first term. People forgave him this draconian move because they believed he was sincere in his determination to end corruption and “black money”.
When this draconian, painful exercise was followed months later by the introduction of the GST that was so complicated that many small businesses closed because they simply could not afford accountants, they forgave him this too. Modi failed in his first term to create anywhere close to the 12 million new jobs that India needs every year to meet the demands of new entrants into the workforce, but they excused him even for this.
The economy spent most of Modi’s first term reeling from the shock of his two most disruptive examples of parivartan. On the political front the best change, in public perception, was that he managed to run a government that remained untainted by the sort of scandals that had been the hallmark of most Congress prime ministers for decades.
Other than this perceived parivartan, Modi brought almost no change in the political culture of India. Under him, leaders continued to behave like feudal lords instead of democratically elected representatives of the people. Like those of Congress times, Modi’s ministers also continued to live in vast colonial bungalows in Lutyens’ Delhi and behave, as Indian “socialist” politicians have always done, like rulers rather than servants of the people.
Modi declared in his first speech from the Red Fort that he considered himself the Pradhan Sevak (prime servant) of the Indian people and not as their Pradhan Mantri. But, except at public meetings at election time and in his monthly radio chats, ordinary Indians had no access to their “sevak”.
Modi was so isolated in the lofty realms of high office that even journalists had little access to him. He never held a single press conference in his first term and so obscure and invisible was the man who managed his media relations that most journalists in Delhi did not even know his name. Only journalists considered friendly were given access when Modi felt it was time to grant an audience to some obsequious reporter.
The most important political change he could have brought would have been to deepen the roots of democracy by abandoning the socialist, feudal political culture that defines Indian politics from its heights to its grassroots. This was a change Modi did not achieve.
What he did achieve was a visible improvement in delivering the vast welfare programmes that Congress governments had devised over the years to keep up the façade of ‘socialism” in the eyes of India’s poorest citizens. People respected him in his first term also because he showed humility, sincerity and a dedication to making India a better country.
It was humility that seemed to disappear after he won his second term in office. I noticed this almost from the moment the term began. On the evening of May 23, 2019, when the results of the election had all come in and it became clear that Modi had won a full majority, with more seats than he had in 2014, I watched the victory party late that night.
After a long day in and out of TV studios analysing the results on endless panels of “experts”, I watched at home on television as his cavalcade of black cars drove into the BJP headquarters. Party workers had gathered before a stage decked with marigold garlands and strings of shiny lights and they cheered hysterically when they saw him step on to the stage in a shower of rose petals.
He turned towards them without a smile on his face in the manner of a deity receiving the obeisance of devotees. The only other person with him on that stage was Amit Shah. In the demeanour of the two men what was missing was any sign of humility.
What I remembered most from the victory speech he gave was his praise of the man who had been his fellow traveller in politics for decades: Amit Shah. Within days Shah was made Home Minister of India, thereby making him the second most powerful political leader in the country and Modi’s anointed heir.
Shah soon began to show that not only did he despise humility as a sign of weakness, he saw arrogance as a sign of strength. I personally noticed this for the first time during one of the early sessions of the new Lok Sabha, to which Shah was elected for the first time. There was a debate in which Asaduddin Owaisi, leader of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, was trying to make a point.
Suddenly, India’s new Home Minister stood up and said to him rudely, “Learn to listen, Mr Owaisi. You must cultivate the habit of listening.” It was not just his words that were offensive, it was also his tone. By then it was becoming clear that Shah was the new face of the Modi government.
Just six months into Modi’s second term in office, a palpable menace has crept into India’s political atmosphere. The sense that the state can harm anyone it wants has grown after the Home Minister started using citizenship as a weapon. He has announced an exercise to identify and register Indian citizens across India.
But before this exercise could begin the Modi government passed an amendment to India’s citizenship law that makes it possible for Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians to be put on the fast track to Indian citizenship if they have come from Pakistan, Afghanistan or Bangladesh fleeing religious persecution. Technically this is a “humanitarian” provision but in fact it is India’s first Nuremberg law since it specifically excludes Muslims.
Within days of this amendment being passed by Parliament and signed by the President, explosions of rage began to happen across India. They started in Assam, where the Assamese have long feared that their culture, identity and language have been damaged by the dominance of Bengali Hindu and Muslim migrants. The protests spread quickly to West Bengal and within a week to Delhi’s Jamia Millia and the Aligarh Muslim University before becoming a nationwide agitation.
Both these institutions have mostly Muslim students. The sense that the amendment and the citizens’ register were deliberately targeting Muslims has grown with the Prime Minister himself making speeches in which he said that he could identify the protesters by their clothes, the implication being that they were obviously Muslim from the way the dressed.
Shah’s speeches long before the amendment to the Citizenship Act had obviously racist tones. He took to regularly describing infiltrators as “termites” and threatened to hunt them down and throw them out one by one. He made it clear that he meant only Muslim illegal immigrants because he nearly always added that Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians need have no fear of being thrown out of India. The Home Minister’s speeches worried me because I could see that he was weaponising citizenship.
But I had no idea that it would affect me personally until one fine day in August, just after Arun Jaitley died, my son received an official missive from the Home Ministry declaring that he needed to prove that he had not obtained his Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card fraudulently. He was given 24 hours to explain why he had “concealed” the fact that his father was Pakistani.
The rules to get this Indian equivalent of dual citizenship now state clearly that nobody with a Pakistani parent or grandparent is entitled to this privilege. But when I had applied to get Aatish a Person of Indian Origin (PIO) card in 1991 when it was first introduced, the officials who recommended that I get this for him rather than an extension of his multiple entry visa said nothing about this clause.
Aatish was born in London in 1980 when getting British citizenship was automatic, so we got him a British passport. Soon after my relationship with his father ended badly, I brought him to India and requested that he be given a multiple entry visa since he was a child and I was his sole legal guardian. It was when he turned 18 that I went back to apply for an extension of this visa and he was given a PIO card instead.
When this was converted into an OCI card in 2016 he said his father, who was by then dead, had British nationality. Pakistanis are allowed dual nationality and as far as Aatish knew his father had a British passport. The transition from PIO to OCI was done online and was almost automatic.
There had been no problems ever about his coming and going from India until he wrote an article in Time magazine in the middle of the 2019 Lok Sabha election that was critical of Modi. A campaign immediately began on social media to declare that he was a Pakistani and a “jihadist” and it did not take long for the Prime Minister himself to declare that he came from a Pakistani political family.
His father was Governor of Punjab when he was shot dead by one of his own guards for trying to save an illiterate Christian woman from being hanged under Pakistan’s ludicrous blasphemy laws. He was killed in 2011, so there would have been no way to find out whether he had surrendered his British passport.
Within four months of Modi becoming Prime Minister for the second time, Aatish was deprived of his OCI card and has been warned that he may never be able to come home again because he had “lied” to the government. It soon became clear that he was not the only person who could lose the right to be an Indian citizen.
Other dissidents began to get warnings and threats, and as the days have gone by the stamp of the Home Minister has been put on almost everything that the government does. Even as I write the last chapter of this book I find myself wondering if India is now on the verge of changing irrevocably into an illiberal democracy instead of one that prided itself on its liberalism and tolerance.
The India in which I grew up was a country that was desperately poor and painfully short of almost everything but it was a country in which the fundamental principles of democracy were cherished. It was not a country in which citizens were made to feel like they had less rights than others because of their faith. Since the beginning of Modi’s second term it can no longer be said that Muslims have the same rights as other citizens. In almost everything that the government has done, whether in Kashmir or in its determination to make a National Register of Citizens, it has been made clear that if you are Muslim you could find it difficult to call yourself Indian.
So much has changed for the worse in so short a time that all that anyone can do is hope against hope that India does not continue to move towards totalitarianism. As things are, it has already become a country in which businessmen who do not kowtow face the threat of tax raids. Dissidents who do not give up dissidence for obedience risk being treated as traitors and journalists who do not sing the praises of Modi face retribution.
So all we can do is hope against hope that Modi does not bring to India the kind of parivartan that would destroy all the qualities that made India the world’s most noisy, chaotic, diverse and liberal democracy.
Excerpted with permission from the “Epilogue” from Messiah Modi? A Tale Of Great Expectations, Tavleen Singh, HarperCollins India.