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The Big Story: Capital shame
For years, Narendra Modi was known as the Bharatiya Janata Party politician who was chief minister of Gujarat when its capital, Ahmedabad, erupted in communal riots in 2002 that left more than 1,000 dead.
Observers, politicians and the judiciary spent years debating whether Modi was directly involved – either in fanning the religious flames or actively planning the violence – or simply at fault because his administration was unable or willing to prevent it. The courts eventually cleared him of active involvement, and yet the fact that they happened on his watch could not be washed away.
Last week, the same script played out in Delhi, India’s national capital.
This time, Modi is Prime Minister, and his government – which is directly in charge of law and order in Delhi – failed to prevent riots from carrying on for nearly three days in the North East region of the city, leading to a death toll of at least 45.
The political blame game in the aftermath has focused on many things – who sparked off the violence, whether the anti-Citizenship Act protests that have taken place across the country are responsible for conditions of chaos or whether the Citizenship Act amendments and the reckless promise of a National Register of Citizens themselves are the cause of the unrest, how involved the police were in the rioting, whether incendiary slogans from the BJP constitute incitement, whether the violence was perpetrated by locals or outsiders, why it took so long for the government to re-establish peace.
Our reportage as well as that of many other news organisations – collected in links that you can find below – examines a number of these issues, and we will continue to report on both the causes of the violence as well as their fallout.
For starters read these two pieces on how North East Delhi is now a divided city:
- How violence occurred on frontiers between Hindu and Muslim neighbourhoods in Delhi, by Sruthisagar Yamunan and Ipsita Chakravarty
- How barricades came up overnight between Hindu and Muslim neighbourhoods in Delhi, by Vijayta Lalwani and Karnika Kohli
Irrespective of the answers to many of those questions, the incontrovertible fact is that Modi’s prime ministerial tenure now has the stain of large-scale riots in Delhi on it.
There are two elements to this:
One, for a government that promised “sabka saath, sabka vikas, sabka vishwas” (development for all, with everyone’s trust) and that touted its strong, stable leadership, Indian society now seems more religiously unsettled and polarised than it has been in decades, with even the Census in danger because of lack of faith in the authorities.
The BJP’s supporters blame protesters and a section of civil society for the violence, yet this is coming after Modi has been in power for six years now. At the very least, this is a tremendous failure of intelligence and policing, the sort that would normally be a tremendous liability for any government. At worst – and with videos showing police actively taking part in the violence – there is also the question of complicity.
Two, this chaos ought to be a bad thing: For a country with minimal state capacity currently needing foreign capital to take it out of an economic downturn, the potential for more lawlessness and violence should be frightening. Yet academic research has pointed to electoral gains for the BJP following religious polarisation and even violence.
BJP politicians are already attempting to capitalise on the aftermath of the violence, using it to further attack peaceful protests against the Citizenship Act amendments around the country. There is little sense that the ruling party has any intention of reducing tensions: its supporters continue to use incendiary slogans and call for more violence.
Where do things go from here? The riots played out in front of the world media, when Donald Trump was visiting. When asked about it, Trump essentially said “it’s India’s problem”. But it is bound to factor into how the world, and investors, see India and Modi.
The hard-right turn Modi’s government has taken since re-election last year has now culminated in large-scale violence. Even more worryingly for India, there is no sense that the chaos is going away anytime soon.
More on this in coming weeks, and in the links below.
Paul Staniland is the director of the Committee on International Relations at the University of Chicago. Staniland did a thread on Twitter pointing to three important political science books to understand communal violence in India, in light of the Delhi riots.
Staniland added to the thread with a number of other books that can add to our understanding of how religious issues play out in the country. Check out the rest of the recommendations here.
Have recommendations for an article, book, podcast or academic paper that deals with Indian politics or policy? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Previous recommendations from the Political Fix are collected here.
If the BJP drubbing at the hands of AAP in Delhi elections in February 2020 was a remarkable turnaround, after the saffron party won more than 56% of votes in the capital in the Lok Sabha elections less than a year ago, the disappointment in Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has come even quicker.
Kerjiwal’s party seemed to disappear during the riots. While it is true that the Delhi government has no power over the police, which reports to Amit Shah’s Home Ministry, politicians still have significant influence in these situations.
Though some said AAP leaders on ground did step up, there is tremendous anger against Kejriwal and his Cabinet, who have mostly been seen as ineffectual. AAP’s tepid response and this anger is also likely to severely clip Kejriwal’s wings, despite his ambitions of expanding beyond the capital.
Modi, Shah and Doval
Delhi has been discussing one rumoured subplot to the violence of the last few days: Why was National Security Advisor Ajit Doval – who reports directly to Modi – put in charge of the effort to bring back peace? Doval made a public show of going to the riot-hit areas and calming tensions after nearly three days of violence. Prior to that, the task was down to Delhi Police, which reports to Home Minister Amit Shah.
The talk in Delhi pointed to the deputing of Doval as reflecting something of a question mark between Modi and Shah, adding to chatter about the bigger role the Home Minister has taken since last year. Newspaper coverage was divided on whether Shah ordered Doval to take charge, or the Prime Minister did so directly.
I wrote about the question that underpins this chatter: Why did it take so long for Amit Shah – or Ajit Doval – to deploy forces and bring order to Delhi?
Even as the BJP supporters in the capital were blaming the anti-CAA-NRC-NPR protesters for “provoking a violent reaction”, the party’s lawmakers in the Bihar Assembly delivered a surprise: They agreed to a unanimous resolution from the state assembly against a National Register of Citizens, and also resolved to have this year’s National Population Register follow the old format, in a way that cannot be used to create a citizenship register.
Bihar is run by the Janata Dal (United), in alliance with the BJP. The resolution made it the first state in the National Democratic Alliance, the BJP’s national coalition, to formally say no to the NRC. And the BJP agreed.
I wrote about how the JD(U) might have managed this – elections are coming up in Bihar later this year – and what it means for the BJP’s political stand.
Last week’s newsletter focused on US President Donald Trump’s visit to India and the sense that the visit would be good politics for him and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but not lead to much in the way of policy gains for either.
In the end, that’s what seems to have happened. While the continued contacts between India and the US suggested the strategic partnership rests on solid ground, there was little in the way of big announcements – outside of a $3 billion deal for defence package. A big trade deal, or even a medium-sized one, is awaited.
Trump got his huge rally (and a visit to the Taj Mahal) even as riots erupted in Delhi. Modi added to the effort of the last 20 years in making the Indian public comfortable about a tighter embrace with America.
Scroll.in Ground Report:
It’s impossible to boil the Delhi violence coverage in Scroll.in to just one piece over this week, so I’m just going to link you to the major ones. Each one of them advances our understanding of what took place in the capital. I linked to the two “divided city” pieces above.
- First person: I watched a mob set a shop on fire in Delhi, chanting ‘Jai Shri Ram’, by Vijayta Lalwani
- An 85-year-old woman was burnt to death in her home in Delhi’s Gamri extension, by Aarefa Johari
- 24 hours inside Delhi locality: How violent mobs burnt school, mosque, madrassa, protest site, by Ipsita Chakravarty and Sruthisagar Yamunan
- What exactly happened in Delhi locality where AAP councillor stands accused of IB staffer’s murder?, by Arunabh Saikia and Vijayta Lalwani
In our reader survey, most people said they wanted more analysis in the Monday email and many said they would like a separate email of links and recommendations on Fridays. If you haven’t filled out the form and would like to give us feedback, you can find it here.
For now I’ll put other recommendations for the week on my Twitter feed, while limiting this section to a few key links. Let me know if you have other suggestions for formats by filling out that form or writing to email@example.com
Here is a big thread of reportage on the Delhi riots. I started it on Monday as we got news of clashes the night before in North East Delhi and updated it as fresh information came in all week.
Here is a thread of Op-Eds on the Delhi riots. You’ll find pieces by Saba Naqvi, Siddharth Varadarajan, Mukul Kesavan and more.
What needs to be done to fix arguably the most important economy in the world? Bloomberg’s Noah Smith – who gives India that status because it has the second-most people and is much poorer than China – thinks the answer is rapid urbanisation. Also read the responses to his Twitter thread, including this important piece about how there is no great metropolis between Delhi and Kolkata, despite the half billion people who live there.
Speaking of the economy, GDP numbers continue to be disappointing – and confusing. Ira Dugal of BloombergQuint tries to makes sense of India’s constant data revisions.
Do gender quotas for local democracy end up increasing the number of women in public life? A new paper by Stephen D O’Connell “provides evidence that a quota policy for women in local government increased the candidacy, but not representation, of women in higher offices.”
Is India ready for the Coronavirus? The country is barely discussing it, and has registered no new cases despite the sudden spike all over the world in the last week. Bloomberg’s Ari Altstedter says India ought to be worried though, with just one hopeful indicator: “Coronaviruses of all kinds tend to travel better in cooler, drier climates – it’s why flu season is in winter – and with the subcontinent’s summer approaching, the stifling heat may end up snuffing out the virus, too.”
Can’t make this up
India’s diplomats have had a busy few months. Ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government decided to strip Jammu and Kashmir of its autonomy, the Ministry of External Affairs has had to spend most of its time defending India’s actions.
The passage of the Citizenship Act amendments and the protests that ensued meant another round of explanations for the world. And now Delhi riots, with the authorities failing to enforce law and order while US President Donald Trump was in the national capital, have further undermined India’s image.
So I’m sure India’s diplomats were overjoyed when they saw BJP general secretary BL Santhosh threaten to interfere in American elections. Santhosh was responding to Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders calling out US President Donald Trump for not questioning Modi’s failure to rein in anti-Muslim mobs.
Santhosh, reflecting both the audacity and hubris of his party, tweeted this – only to delete it soon after:
Meanwhile, here is a sentence you don’t read everyday: China is sending ducks to tackle locust attacks in Pakistan.