If a week is a long time in Indian politics, a year can be an eternity. The first anniversary celebrations of the Narendra Modi 2.0 government in May 2020 had none of the “band, baaja, baarat” razzmatazz that is such an intrinsic part of the Modi style of political marketing. India was in lockdown mode and the rising cases of Covid-19 across the country meant that public celebrations would not be possible.
Instead, Prime Minister Modi was forced to acknowledge that the pomp and pageantry had to give way to the demands imposed by the pandemic and ensure his supporters stayed indoors. The prime minister therefore chose to write an open letter to his “fellow-Indians” on the occasion, stating:
“During normal times, I would have been in your midst. However, present circumstances do not permit that. That is why I seek your blessings through this letter.”
Typically, the letter was drafted in a manner to showcase a chief executive in complete control of the situation, a strongman leader seeking to demonstrate that he would not allow a virus to interrupt the “rising” India story in uncertain times.
Consummate political communicator that he is, Modi converted the lockdown into a national mission, exploiting the opportunity for the archetypal Hindu right nationalist leader to once again invoke a feeling of “Bharatiya” nationalism driven by a mix of populist fervour and artful event management. Said the prime minister in the letter:
“Many feared that India will become a problem for the world when Corona hits India. But today, through sheer confidence and resilience, you have transformed the way the world looks at us. You have proven that the collective strength and potential of India is unparalleled compared even to the powerful and prosperous of the world. Be it clapping and lighting a lamp to the honouring of Corona warriors by India’s armed forces, Janta curfew or by faithful adherence to rules during a nationwide lockdown, on every occasion you have shown that Ek Bharat is the guarantee for Shrestha Bharat.”
Lost in the upbeat narrative was the harsh reality of those living on the margins who had been pushed to the brink. The national lockdown, imposed at just four hours’ notice, had resulted in considerable social and economic disruption in millions of lives and livelihoods. Images of thousands of migrant labourers being forced to return to their villages from the big cities – many of them walking hundreds of kilometres in the oppressive summer heat in the absence of means of transportation – had finally awakened the country to the plight of the urban poor.
The sense of utter despair was symbolised by the news headline on 8 May 2020: “16 migrant workers run over by goods train near Aurangabad”. Exhausted, the labourers had fallen asleep on the tracks after walking for hours.
The decision to completely shut down the country’s public transport system – especially the railways – for several weeks seemed to have been taken in haste and with scant regard for its consequences. There were more reports during the lockdown of horrific accidents involving overcrowded trucks and buses in which dozens were killed. A particularly harrowing image of the unprecedented suffering was of a toddler scurrying about on a railway platform, attempting in vain to awaken his dead mother.
The poor handling of the migrant crisis would have badly bruised and shaken up most governments. But here it appeared to be just a blip. The Modi first anniversary letter did refer briefly to the predicament of the impoverished masses –
“In a crisis of this magnitude, it can certainly not be claimed that no one suffered any inconvenience or discomfort. Our labourers, migrant workers, artisan and craftsmen in small scale industries, hawkers and such fellow countrymen have undergone tremendous suffering. We are working in a united and determined way to alleviate their troubles.”
– but there was no acceptance of any moral or political failure, much less an apology at the unfolding human tragedy in which millions had suffered.
A Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) report claimed that 12.2 crore Indians (about 122 million), majority of them daily wage labourers, lost their jobs in April 2020 alone. The unemployment rate shot up to 27.1 per cent, the highest ever, in the first week of May. While the numbers improved in June – driven largely by greater rural employment under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme – the job crisis caused by the lockdown was undeniable (CMIE claims 5 million salaried people lost their jobs in July 2020).
It was obvious that an already slowing pre-lockdown economy was now facing a dramatic recessionary slump.
Most global rating agencies predicted a sharp economic downturn, some even forecasting a negative growth rate in the fiscal year 2020–21. The government’s economic managers, led by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, insisted the situation wasn’t as dire as prophesied. Sitharaman announced a Rs 20 lakh crore stimulus, claiming it would revive the economic engine. But the much-hyped booster dose failed to address the fundamental demand side crisis: shrinking incomes and declining consumption needed direct cash support which was missing.
The prime minister spoke of converting this crisis into opportunity, throwing up a new catchy slogan of an “Atma-Nirbhar” (self-reliant) Bharat while pushing ahead with a slew of reforms. Some of the structural changes, especially in the agriculture sector, are much delayed steps in the right direction. And yet, for the stressed small and micro businesses, in the vast informal sector in particular, the prime minister’s fine words were no balm: the coronavirus pandemic and forced lockdowns have broken supply chains that will take time to restore.
In an unprecedented time when each day was full of grinding hardship, personal tragedy and emotional trauma, the declaration of high policy with little relief on the ground struck a jarring, unsympathetic note. Few were genuinely reassured. In private, many business leaders admit that the Modi government needs to urgently address the sense of economic drift but few are willing to speak out. One of those who did was industrialist Rajiv Bajaj who claimed that the economy had been “decimated”. “We have flattened the wrong curve,” he tersely remarked.
It wasn’t just the economic stagnation that was disconcerting. In June 2020, India found itself in a messy border tangle with China in eastern Ladakh.
On 15 June, twenty Indian soldiers were killed in a flare-up while patrolling along the disputed Line of Actual Control between the two countries. While the prime minister insisted that “no one is inside our territory nor is any of our posts captured”, the on-ground evidence suggested a massive Chinese build-up in the Galwan Valley and Pangong Tso Lake region of eastern Ladakh, including areas where Indian troops normally patrol.
The fact that this expanded Chinese presence in the region went unnoticed for weeks suggests an obvious intelligence failure, one that the government seems hesitant to acknowledge. Till a few months before the border incident, Prime Minister Modi claimed to enjoy a personal rapport with Chinese president Xi Jinping while hosting him at high-profile summits in Ahmedabad and Mamallapuram. Now, however, the warmth of the Sino-Indian “hug-fest” seemed to have frozen over in the icy climes of Ladakh. The “personality-driven” foreign policy had unravelled but no one was willing to admit to the botch-up.
Instead the Modi government tried to invoke national pride while ordering the banning of fifty-nine Chinese apps, including the popular short video app Tik Tok. The call for boycotting Chinese goods couldn’t take away from the ground reality: this was not just another routine border intrusion as was initially portrayed.
While both sides have since agreed to de-escalate tensions, the process of forcing the Chinese to pull back and restore the status quo ante is likely to be a long and cumbersome one. As Shivshankar Menon, a former national security adviser, warns, “The danger with the Chinese is that they take two steps forward and then negotiate one step back and present you with a fait accompli.”
More worrying though was the “war” against the coronavirus, the deadly contagion that was spreading rapidly across the world and wreaking havoc in its wake. A well-equipped Indian army could possibly combat the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, but how could a weak healthcare infrastructure cope with a respiratory disease that was infecting millions?
The answer was a severe lockdown that would provide respite to an over-burdened hospital care system. In a speech in March 2020 to his constituents in Varanasi, the prime minister invoked the Mahabharata, affirming that while that famed battle was won in eighteen days, the war against the coronavirus – he hoped – would see victory in twenty-one days.
As it turns out, a virus knows no timelines. By the end of August, the total Covid-19 cases in the country had gone well past the 30 lakh (3 million) mark, with more than 70,000 new cases being detected every day. In a tally, which no one really wanted to be in, let alone top, India was now in third place, behind only the United States and Brazil. Its only solace: the cases per million population and, most crucially, the mortality rates were lower than countries in a similar predicament.
As cities and states were forced into a continual cycle of lockdowns, un-lockdowns and re-lockdowns, it was apparent that the virus wasn’t going anywhere.
From “chase the virus” to “live with the virus”, the Union home ministry used its emergency powers under the National Disaster Management Act (2005) to unilaterally issue hundreds of notifications aimed at directing the states on how to contain the spread of the disease.
And yet, in the terribly congested lanes and bylanes of a vast country like India, it was never going to be easy to control a virus by central government firman alone. The limits of the cult of the Big Boss leader and a highly centralising policy framework were being exposed by the unpredictable trajectory of the pandemic: even Home Minister Amit Shah and several other VVIPs were felled by the virus.
But even when faced with the prospect of a “three front” war – Covid 19, China and the economy – Prime Minister Modi’s personal popularity appears undimmed. Most opinion polls conducted during the lockdown period show high approval ratings for his leadership. It is almost as if nothing has changed since the 2019 election victory despite the mounting health, economic and national security concerns.
The virus may have revealed the frailty of human existence but the Supreme Leader seems somehow invincible. This paradox of societal disruption but a seemingly indestructible leadership has been a recurrent theme of the 2019 election book, demonstrating just why Modi could achieve what no Indian politician since Indira Gandhi in 1971 has been able to accomplish while winning two successive electoral majorities.
Modi’s seeming ability to tide over any crisis – for example, the ill-conceived policy choice of demonetisation in 2016 – is due to a variety of factors: from astute headline management to the lack of an effective opposition. At the core of his appeal lies a personality cult that goes well beyond “normal” political behaviour, the kind of irrational admiration enjoyed by populist authoritarian leaders across the globe who have yoked religion and nationalism to their aura.
He may be a deeply polarising figure, but the truth is Prime Minister Modi has successfully built a durable relationship of trust with a large section of the voting population, an influence that goes well beyond the ordinary connect between a leader and the citizenry.
The average Modi supporter is not just a pro-BJP or anti-Congress voter; they belong to a “religio-political cult” where the Supreme Leader is projected as a near messianic figure who promises to transform the country into not just a global superpower but also a Hindutva haven, one where religious identity and the development narrative are intertwined.
The bond with his adulatory audience is cemented more as an emotional connect than the transactional appeal of the more traditional politician. Modi is not just endorsed by public opinion; armed with careful media management, he also “manufactures” public opinion in his favour through the enormously impactful mass media. Modi can shock and awe, but also inspire fear, which quells any questioning and promotes widespread hero worship.
This might explain why Modi’s passionate appeals to the public during the Covid crisis – be it his “diya jalao” or “taali-thali bajao” campaigns – attract such instantaneous and euphoric, if illogical, behaviour. His is the appeal of a Pied Piper-like mass hypnotist, someone who knows exactly who his core constituency is, and then inexorably draws them into his circle of influence by touching an emotional chord.
As a close Modi associate once told me, “The more he is criticised by the liberal elite and all you journalists and opinion makers, the stronger he becomes amongst his supporters.” A menacing figure for his critics is transformed into a macho symbol of a “new” aspirational India for his obedient followers.
In a fascinating article, Asim Ali, a researcher with the Centre for Policy Research, goes a step further while likening Modi to the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Asim Ali writes, “Modi confounds normal political analysis because his appeal isn’t merely political. The appeal is quasi-religious...he is the self-described ‘fakir’, unattached to family and material possessions, who is here to lead India not just politically, but also socially, morally and spiritually. This is why he generates not mere following, but devotion. And this devotion is immune to the performance of the government he leads.”
This leads us to another critical question prompted by Modi’s electoral triumphs and post-election behaviour: Are we well and truly in the age of the elected autocrat, a single person rule of a larger than life figure who has “captured” power through the ballot box and seeks to exercise that power in the manner of a despotic ruler with little regard for democratic institutions?
Certainly, in the first year of Modi 2.0, there has been ample evidence of an increasingly authoritarian, vindictive regime that appears to be contemptuous of the institutional checks and balances of a parliamentary democracy. Take, for example, the manner in which all potential rivals have been downsized and opposition-ruled governments toppled in states like Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh, the latter even as the country was about to enter a Covid-19–induced lockdown.
In each instance, the storyline has followed a familiar script: A section of MLAs is persuaded to switch sides, taken to resorts for “protection” and given ministerial posts, while those opposing the Centre are selectively targeted by punitive enforcement agencies. It isn’t as if horse-trading hasn’t taken place in previous governments, but the sheer brazenness with which it is carried out now is what sets the present ruling arrangement apart.
If the CBI seemed like a caged parrot in the UPA era, the ED is a Rottweiler in Modi 2.0. As a despairing opposition politician puts it, “The Modi government’s best ally at the moment is the ED!”
Even the pretence of political morality has been swept aside by unabashedly ruthless power games. In Goa, for example, two-third of the Congress legislature party defected in July 2019: one of the MLAs, whom the BJP had accused of corruption, was made the deputy chief minister while another, against whom the BJP had previously levelled rape allegations, was also accommodated.
When the BJP tried to bring down a Congress-led government in Rajasthan in July 2020, historian Ramachandra Guha accused Modi and his lieutenant, Home Minister Amit Shah, of having “gutted” democracy through money power. Writes Guha, “These transactions raise a more fundamental question still: if legislators can be bought and sold at any time, what is the purpose of holding elections in the first place? Does not this nullify entirely the democratic will of millions of Indians who voted in the assembly elections in these states? If the money power of the BJP can so effectively override the outcome of a supposedly free and fair election, can India even call itself an ‘election-only’ democracy?”
In particular, electoral bonds are now seen as contributing to a grossly unequal contest, one where the ruling party has access to a bulk of political donations. Since the bond system remains prima facie opaque – the identity of the bond donor is kept anonymous to all except the government – there can be little scrutiny of any potential quid pro quo dealings. What is troubling is that the issue remains unresolved despite several investigative reports, RTI queries and petitions before the Supreme Court: the power elite, it seems, will not bite the hand that feeds them.
Meanwhile, any political opposition to the BJP has almost evaporated.
Still struggling to deal with the scale of its 2019 loss, the Congress party exemplifies the predicament of a beleaguered and dispirited opposition. Within days of the May election defeat, Rahul Gandhi, in a moment of pique, announced during a CWC meeting that he was resigning from his post as party president. If Rahul was hoping that his decision would trigger a spate of resignations and enforce an element of accountability within the grand old party, he was clearly mistaken.
Rahul spoke of how several senior Congress leaders had chosen to put the interests of their children ahead of the party, a reference presumably to the likes of Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, who had allegedly spent much of the election campaign canvassing for his son who was eventually soundly defeated. Rahul’s sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra was reportedly even more scathing, accusing the party of abandoning Rahul and leaving him to virtually fight on his own. “Party sangathan ke kaatil sab yahin hain...(The killers of the party organisation are here). All those who are responsible for the party’s defeat are sitting in this room,” she pointedly remarked.
A few Congress leaders blamed EVMs for their defeat while some others simply chose to stay silent. No one was willing to confront the elephant in the room: a poorly led, ideologically weakened, organisationally decrepit Congress had run a badly managed campaign that was pitted against the BJP’s well-trained, highly motivated and resource-rich political machine.
“Rahul and Priyanka blamed everyone but themselves for the debacle. It is the height of entitlement,” an angry CWC member told me later. In what seems to be a fitting parallel, the Netflix series The Last Czars poignantly captures the plight of Russia’s ruling family – the deluded Romanovs who clung to their belief in their “sacred bond” with the people even as the Bolshevik revolution raged through their lives and finally consumed them.
While a sulking Rahul stuck by his decision, it was not till mid-August 2019 that the Congress was finally ready to make a change in guard. After prolonged deliberations, it was announced that Sonia Gandhi would be the “interim” Congress president. Sonia was reportedly reluctant to take charge: after nineteen years at the helm of the party as its longest-serving president, she had told close friends that she was “tired and almost retired”.
And yet, the failure of Rahul’s leadership meant that the party was in a spot: chained to its First Family, it now needed Sonia’s reassuring presence to at least do a holding job.
“The Gandhis are the glue that binds us, get in any other leader and we will break up into bits,” is how one veteran Congressman rationalises the party decision. In truth, this is classic status quo-ism at play where the more things change, the more they remain the same. The dynasty has enfeebled the Congress and prevented the emergence of mass-based leaders, while remaining the fulcrum for the party’s survival.
Even as the Modi–Shah combine is relentlessly driving the BJP juggernaut forward, the Congress is trapped in feudal loyalties of an ancient regime. Rahul has resigned but is still the party’s “face”; Sonia wants to “retire” but is still chairperson emeritus; Priyanka is in politics but still not a 24x7 politician on the ground. I asked a senior Congress leader how, in these circumstances, they were planning to combat the Modi–Shah-led BJP. “Strategy is for later, first we need to exist,” was his candid response.
It is precisely an existential crisis that is staring the Congress in the face. In March 2020, Jyotiraditya Scindia, once a part of Rahul Gandhi’s inner circle, who “could walk into [Rahul’s] house at any time”, quit the party and joined the BJP, aiding and abetting in the fall of the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh.
In July, another poster boy of the Congress’s gen-next, Sachin Pilot, also “rebelled” in Rajasthan while demanding the chief minister’s post for himself. Vaulting personal ambition may well have driven the Scindia–Pilot duo to consider life beyond the Congress, but the party’s failure to manage the internal conflicts is also reflective of an extremely weak Congress high command that can neither compel the next-gen leaders to toe the line nor accommodate their desires.
In the midst of turbulence, there is the periodic chant from Rahul loyalists for their leader to return as Congress president. An attempted image make-over by his media managers which has seen the release of several short videos in which Rahul asks searching questions of the Modi government on issues ranging from Covid to China to the economy is being projected as a sign that he is ready for a comeback. But a cyberspace re-invention cannot really compete with a solid ground game.
If Rahul Gandhi is indeed keen to fight an ideological war against the Sangh Parivar as his acolytes claim, or emerge as a self-styled “moral” force of change, then he must be willing to forsake the “work from home” attitude and do the hard yards in rebuilding a comatose party organisation. This painstaking exercise must go well beyond clever tweets and viral videos on social media.
In private conversation, several Congress leaders – old and young – admit that Rahul’s whimsical working style is perhaps ill-suited to reviving the struggling party, yet few are willing to openly push for a non-Nehru–Gandhi family member to lead the change.
When a group of twenty-three Congresspersons wrote a letter in August 2020 calling for sweeping organisational changes and stressing the need for a more “visible” “full-time” leadership, they were instantly targeted as potential rebels while the party closed ranks around the Gandhi family.
The leaking of the letter to the media ahead of a CWC meeting may have embarrassed the Congress leadership, but few could quarrel with its contents. A political party in desperate need of a nuts and bolts overhaul like the Congress demands a hands-on, energetic and accessible leadership that is willing to break out of the cocoon of privilege and actually take the “war” to the “enemy camp”.
Perhaps the Congress could take a leaf out of the political playbook of the ageing Maratha war-horse and NCP leader Sharad Pawar, who somehow managed to cobble together an unlikely Shiv Sena–NCP–Congress alliance in Maharashtra and kept the BJP out of power in the state in November 2019. That a seventy-nine-year-old could campaign with such vigour – the sight of the unflagging septuagenarian addressing a rally in Satara in pouring rain was a defining image of the Maharashtra assembly election – and then manage to outmanoeuvre the BJP leadership in a well-calculated post-poll chess game suggests that what the opposition desperately needs is a few more political grandmasters with an ear to the ground and the fire in the belly to win at all costs.
Even if the Maharashtra alliance smacks of opportunism and ideological compromise, it reveals that power politics in the Modi era is not for the gentle and squeamish: it is truly a no holds barred fight to the finish.
In fact, the results of the assembly elections of late 2019, held within months of the Lok Sabha elections, are a pointer to the fickle nature of Indian politics. In all three states – Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand – the BJP’s vote share sharply declined from its general election high point. The BJP lost power in Maharashtra and Jharkhand and was forced into a coalition government in Haryana.
A more localised state election revealed the limitations of the Modi-centric campaign that had been the BJP’s calling card in the larger, presidential-style national election.
To that extent, a highly competitive multiparty democracy at the state level offers a counterpoint to the “One Nation, One Party, One Leader” drumbeat of the Modi brigade and should serve as a reality check for the BJP’s fanciful dreams of an “opposition-mukt” Bharat.
But beyond the tumult of election politics and a weakened opposition, there is a reason why the Modi brand of leadership and governance has sparked off fears of a creeping “elected autocracy”. In particular, it is the hollowing out of the institutions that are the bedrock of democracy and are designed to check any excess of executive power that lies at the root of the deeper crisis of constitutional values confronting our nation.
Parliament, for example – once the scene of democratic argument and legislation – has been reduced to a notice board, designed to merely endorse executive action. I was in Parliament that dramatic August 2019 morning when the government pushed through the decision to revoke the special status granted to J&K under Article 370.
I had met the home minister in Parliament’s central hall a few days earlier and sought an explanation for the heavy troop presence in the state. The buzz, I said, was that the Modi government intended to scrap Article 35 A that conferred special rights and privileges to the “permanent residents” of J&K.
The pugnacious Shah, surrounded by a group of fawning BJP MPs, stared at me grumpily. “Dekhiye agar hum chahe toh Article 35 ko ek minute mein khatm kar sakte hain...lekin aisa koi plan bana nahi hai. Lagta hai aap logon ke paas aur koi khabar nahi hai,” (If we want, we can do away with Article 35 within a moment’s notice, but there is no such plan right now. Looks like all of you have no other news today), was his dismissive answer. The troop deployment, he insisted, was “routine” with Independence Day fast approaching.
I wasn’t the only one groping for answers. The opposition was clearly in the dark. When Parliament convened at 11 am, Shah was spotted striding purposefully into the Rajya Sabha. The leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha and former chief minister of J&K, Ghulam Nabi Azad, looked anxious. “Can we be told what is happening in Kashmir? You have spread so much fear and uncertainty, soldiers are everywhere, phone lines are being cut, what is going on?” he asked.
Amidst the commotion, the chairman of the house and Vice President Venkaiah Naidu, assured the restless opposition that Shah was there to answer all queries. The legislative business of the house had listed the J&K reservation bill on the agenda, a fairly innocuous enactment that wouldn’t need much debate or discussion. But Shah had far weightier issues on his mind as was amply clear minutes into his speech. “I am presenting the resolution (sankalp patra) on Article 370 in J&K. The resolution has been sent to the President for signature and the moment it is notified in the official gazette, the provisions of Article 370 will no longer apply.”
Article 370 grants special status to J&K and was the cornerstone of the state’s accession to India in 1947. For Kashmiris, Article 370 carried universally profound psychological attachments even though over time, the article as a law had become more honoured in the breach than in observance. The BJP, and its original avatar of the Jan Sangh, had long protested against Article 370, claiming it had prevented the “integration” of J&K with the rest of the country. And yet, previous governments had refrained from touching a contentious constitutional provision which was seen as a tinderbox in an explosive Valley.
Now, on a defining Monday morning, the Modi government had just ended seventy-two years of prevarication and shattered the status quo by pulling off a constitutional coup.
India’s only Muslim-majority state had been reduced to a union territory by executive firman, and Parliament, the supreme legislative body of the Republic, was now a mere notice board.
The opposition was stunned. For a few seconds, there was deathly silence in the House. As soon as the implications of what the home minister had just pronounced began to register, opposition MPs got to their feet in protest. They kept trying to interrupt Shah’s speech, but the home minister was having none of it; he was on a roll.
Not only would Article 370 be rendered inoperative, so would Article 35A. By another legislative amendment, the minister announced the “reorganisation” of the state of J&K into two separate Union territories: J&K, and Ladakh. With every announcement, the treasury benches were exultant, cheering and thumping the tables.
Two Valley-based PDP MPs marched into the well of the house, tore copies of the Constitution and had to be bodily lifted and removed by the Rajya Sabha marshals. Ghulam Nabi Azad was struggling to be heard. By the time he could make an intervention, there was near-total pandemonium. “Shut up!” Azad screamed then, in an uncharacteristic show of temper, but his voice was drowned out in the uproar.
“You have murdered the Constitution by removing a historic legislation,” he warned. Shah, though, was unbending. “I will not go into the history of Article 370, but yes, the bill which I have brought today will create history!” he claimed in an increasingly aggressive tone. Within the next twenty-four hours, the resolutions had been passed in both houses of Parliament with several opposition parties like the TRS, BJD and BSP supporting the government stand. The Congress and its allies were isolated, clearly taken by surprise by the swiftness with which the government had moved.
On the ground in Kashmir, a near-total lockdown came into place.
Politicians from the Valley, including three former chief ministers – Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti – were placed under house arrest/detention. All mobile phone services were suspended and internet connectivity was blocked. Security was heightened across the state. Citizen movement was restricted and schools closed. Eid was just days away but this time it would be a festival spent under the shadow of the gun and iron barricades.
“Would you ever do something like this during Diwali, or are we Kashmiris going to be treated with suspicion and as potential terrorists all our lives,” a Delhi-based Kashmiri friend asked me indignantly. I didn’t quite know how to respond.
I recall asking a cabinet minister whether they had been aware of the move to annul Article 370. He smiled, “Kya Rajdeep bhai, which world are you living in? In this government, only two and a half people really know what is going on!”
The “half” in this instance was National Security Adviser Ajit Doval who was seen as the chief executioner of the Modi government’s Mission Kashmir operation. Perhaps the defining photo-op in Parliament was when Modi stretched his hand to congratulate Shah after the bill was successfully passed while the home minister bent down obsequiously before his “Saheb”. The Supreme Leader blessed his key lieutenant for a job well done; the chosen heir had served up fare that was applauded from the very top.
Gujarat’s “jodi number one” had done it again: much like with demonetisation in 2016, a major, hugely disruptive move had been made without any wider consultation or discussion with key stakeholders, but with a single-minded determination to browbeat the opposition into submission, an essential characteristic of the Modi–Shah style of leadership.
An election majority may have just been won but the appetite for risk-taking was clearly intact. From demonetisation to the abolition of article 370, Modi and Shah choose to put citizens through major invasive surgery without blood tests or anaesthesia. Legislation by stealth and governance by diktat – typical of a regime that viewed the 2019 mandate as voter affirmation for its core ideological agenda. Or as one BJP backbencher MP tells me, “Please understand, with Modi-Shah it is always a case of ‘Yeh dil maange more!’”
A year later, the state remains trapped in its bloodied turbulence with little sign of the “terror-free” “Naya” Kashmir transformation that was promised. The revocation of Article 370 may have led to celebrations among BJP supporters but it has only widened the mistrust on the ground, and deepened the fear that the Modi government wants to fundamentally alter the Valley’s uneasy equation with Delhi by imposing its will on the people of Kashmir.
“They want us to be subjects of a Hindu Rashtra not citizens of India,” is how a local Kashmiri journalist explains the sense of continued alienation in the valley. “Do you really think we are more Indian today than we were yesterday?” an emotional Farooq Abdullah asked me after having spent several months under house arrest. Interestingly, Home Minister Amit Shah had told Parliament in August 2019 that Abdullah was not under detention, a barefaced lie as it turned out.
The contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), also piloted by Shah, has followed a similar pattern of being bulldozed through with a sneering disdain for any criticism.
While the legislation claims to provide protection and fast-track citizenship to minority groups being discriminated in neighbouring countries (primarily Pakistan and Bangladesh), it explicitly makes a distinction between non-Muslim and Muslim migrants.
In effect, religion has been made a defining marker for citizenship, contrary to the country’s secular, constitutional ethos. The Modi government was unperturbed by the protests against the new law, claiming instead that the legislation was an election manifesto promise – as was the revocation of Article 370.
It is almost as if the massive 2019 election victory validated the BJP’s long-held core beliefs which had been kept on the backburner because of the compulsions of coalition politics. Now, unfettered by any pesky alliances, Modi 2.0 appears to carry the conviction of a political-ideological force, of a saffron brotherhood that believes its time has come: the lip-service to notions of “sarva dharma sambhav” (all religions are equal) can now be openly jettisoned.
Those who oppose this assault on the Constitution are vociferously attacked and lampooned as “urban Naxals”, the “tukde-tukde gang”, the “Khan market gang”, “libtards” – each term carefully chosen to portray a hateful figure, an “enemy” who can be charged not just for being anti-BJP or anti-Modi but “anti-national” or “desh-drohi” as well, thereby shrinking the space for legitimate dissent. Any difference of opinion with the government is in danger of being criminalised.
When, for example, a group of women decided to organise an anti-CAA dharna in a predominantly Muslim locality of Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, the instant reaction was to target the protestors as part of a wider anti-India “Muslim conspiracy” to weaken the Indian state. That many of the protestors were elderly homemakers braving the harsh Delhi winter on the streets didn’t seem to matter.
The “Muslim as anti-national” propaganda is now so deeply ingrained into the narrative of the “new” India that dissenters of Shaheen Bagh, and the students of the nearby Jamia university who joined the anti-CAA protests, were easy targets for the state machinery. The violent clashes between the Jamia students and the Delhi police in December 2019 are reflective of a deepening anger and mistrust between minority youth and the men in khakhi.
In the highly polarised Delhi assembly election campaign that followed, characterised by hate speech, Union Minister Anurag Thakur was seen exhorting a crowd to shoot the “treacherous” protestors, a clear reference to the Shaheen Bagh protests. (The minister can be seen on tape, screaming, “Desh ke gaddaron ko,” while the excitable crowd shouts back, “Goli maaro saalon ko!”).
Home Minister Amit Shah too was accused of stirring the communal pot when he told a political rally to “press the voting button with such anger that Shaheen Bagh feels the current”. Such was the nature of the ominous religious divide on the ground that incumbent Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal could not even challenge the home minister on the Shaheen Bagh issue for fear of losing the “Hindu vote”.
The social and political discontent in the capital, and indeed the nation, was a combustible mix waiting to explode. Which is exactly what happened in north-east Delhi in February 2020. Even as Prime Minister Modi was preparing to roll out the red carpet for US President Donald Trump, barely a few kilometres away from the seat of power the streets were aflame with violent communal clashes. With mixed neighbourhoods in congested areas as the epicentre of the targeted violence the state was pushed back into its gory past.
A Delhi police charge sheet of the violence draws a link between the anti-CAA protests and the rioting, almost blaming the protestors for inciting the feud.
But the report has little to say on the deplorable role of the political class or indeed on the serious allegations of one-sided police behaviour. A Delhi Minorities Commission report later claimed that the violence was “planned and targeted” with an aim of “changing public perception by attributing the riots to CAA protestors in general and Muslims in particular. This reflects injustice and partisan bias in the system which is neither good for a democratic system nor for our nation as a whole.”
The truth is, the violence wasn’t a one-sided pogrom but a riot in which criminal elements from both communities were involved. Most of the fifty-three people who died in the clashes were Muslims, yet the police charge sheet gives the impression that it was the minority community that was the primary aggressor.
As social cleavages continue to widen and state action reveals a dangerously bigoted mindset, galloping religious majoritarianism, witnessed in the run-up to the 2019 elections, only seems to have been consolidated. Which once again raises disconcerting questions over the role of institutions that are expected to safeguard constitutional rights. A large section of mainstream media seems to have been further compromised, having blindly bought into the narrative of “Nation First” – where the lines between “nation” and government are indistinguishable.
Obsequious news channels in particular have become an extension of the government’s propaganda machine: even at the height of the migrant crisis and economic distress during the Covid-19 pandemic, the storyline was deliberately slanted to avoid any harsh scrutiny of the ruling party at the Centre. “Our mantra has changed from telling truth to power to bending the truth before power!” is a telling comment in a WhatsApp group comprising of senior journalists.
The Supreme Court is just as culpable in jeopardising democracy, whether it is in choosing to prevaricate over petitions challenging the erosion of fundamental rights – be it in Kashmir on Article 370, in protecting migrant worker rights, in the context of the CAA legislation, or in the manner in which highly regarded human rights activists like lawyer and trade unionist Sudha Bhardwaj and even student activists are arrested under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and then are routinely denied bail.
In a trenchant critique, legal scholar Gautam Bhatia reflects upon how the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi has overseen a drift from a Rights Court to an Executive Court. Bhatia writes, “The Supreme Court has gone from being an institution that – for all its patchy history – was at least formally committed to the protection of individual rights as its primary task, to an institution that speaks the language of the executive, and has become indistinguishable from the executive.”
This perception of a pliant judiciary unable to stand up to a tough executive was strengthened when, in the weeks before his retirement, Justice Gogoi ruled in favour of the Centre in the Rafale defence deal, giving a clean chit to the Modi government over allegations of irregularities in the purchase of the jet planes. It was a case that had dominated the political discourse in the lead up to the 2019 elections.
Justice Gogoi was then nominated to the Rajya Sabha less than six months after retirement, a sinecure that smacks of government largesse to a key judicial functionary. Another Supreme Court sitting judge Justice Arun Mishra described Prime Minister Modi as a “versatile genius”, raising more grave questions over judicial independence.
November 2019 saw another signal victory for the BJP with the long-awaited judgement in the Babri Masjid–Ram Janmabhoomi dispute in Ayodhya – incidentally, also presided over by Justice Gogoi.
While decreeing that the contentious land be given to the deity “Ram Lalla”, the apex court cleared the way for constructing a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, thereby bringing to an end a turbulent political issue that had simmered for decades.
Not surprisingly, the Sangh Parivar was jubilant: the revival of the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation in the 1980s and the demolition of the mosque by a large mob of kar-sewaks in 1992 had been central to the ascent of the BJP as the country’s premier national political force. That the dispute has been “settled” in the year when the BJP under Modi had scored its second major general election victory is a telling reminder of just how much the political landscape of the country has changed in the intervening three decades.
Calling for peace and harmony, the prime minister described the verdict as signifying a “new dawn”. “Many generations may have been affected by the dispute, but we must resolve that we make a new start for a New India...anyone holding on to any bitterness, I request that they too give it up,” said Modi in a televised address to the nation.
Those fine words are not without irony.
Way back in 1990, BJP leader LK Advani had set off on a Ram rath yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya with a symbolic bow and arrow in an attempt to capture a mood of Hindu revivalism across the country. While Advani was pitched as the ideological mascot of a resurgent BJP, Modi was chosen to organise the first leg of the journey across Gujarat.
It was the first big break for the young, ambitious pracharak–politician. The yatra – literally a political chariot of fire – culminated in the debris of the Babri Masjid, sparking off riots across the country in which hundreds of people were killed, and opening the doors of the Delhi durbar for the BJP.
Now, Advani is in lonely retirement and his one-time protégé rules the country with an iron fist as India’s most powerful prime minister since Indira Gandhi in the 1970s. Then, the cries of “Jai Shri Ram” had been a rousing political battle cry that ignited communal passions; now, it is a symbol of the ultimate triumph of the political idea of Hindutva. Then, religious identity politics was a fringe phenomenon; now, it is mainstream. Then, Modi was a mere foot-soldier in the cause; now he is the undisputed General.
At the Ram temple bhumi pujan in Ayodhya on 5 August 2020, hundreds of TV news cameras were fixed on the prime minister’s every move. Dressed in dhoti-kurta with a well-manicured grey beard giving him a sage-like air, Modi offered sashtang pranam (prostration) before the Ram Lalla idol. An image captured for posterity, it marked his ascent into the pantheon of political gods.
The “secular” divide between personal belief and political power was erased by a prime minister proudly wearing his Hindu religious identity on his flowing shawl.
No other cabinet minister was there to share the moment of saffron “splendour” with the Supremo. On stage with Modi were the RSS sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat and monk-turned-politician Yogi Adityanath.
Addressing the sadhu-sant samaj, the prime minister even likened the moment to the pre-1947 freedom struggle, conveniently forgetting that the mandir nirman could not be de-hyphenated from the 1992 masjid demolition, a violent, criminal and extra-Constitutional act.
In 1992, I was a twenty-seven-year-old journalist reporting the horrors of the post-Ayodhya Mumbai riots. Now, in 2020, I was watching a victory ceremony of those who had once ridden the chariot of militant majoritarianism. The wheel has come full circle. Unapologetic and aggressive use of state power in the pursuit of political Hindutva is here to stay. Modi 2.0 is determined to fulfil the Sangh Parivar’s long-held dream of a Hindu Rashtra. And construct a “new” Republic.
Excerpted with permission, the new “Afterword” to 2019: How Modi Won India, Rajdeep Sardesai, HarperCollins India.
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