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Sunday, July 30, 2017

Modi's India - I

He came, he saw, he conquered

In July 2017, I returned to Bombay after three years, on my third trip to the city that shaped me, after immigrating to Canada in 2008. It was my first trip to Modi’s India. Narendra Modi had swept the Bharatiya Janata Party to power in 2014 and during the last three years steadily, and with supreme confidence, consolidated his and his party’s hold over India. Three years later, the entire Hindi-speaking belt and more states are under the BJP’s control either directly or in an alliance. From my conversations with a cross-section of people, I gathered that he is assured a two-thirds majority in the 2019 general elections.

Whether one likes him or not, Narendra Modi is the most important leader that has emerged in the 21st century in India. He has no competition, not in his own party, and definitely not in the opposition. Rahul Gandhi continues to flounder (apparently he’s lost 27 consecutive elections), and with him, the Congress, having recently secured a lone victory in the Punjab, which all agree was a vote against the Badals and not one in favour of the Congress. The party is has been reduced to a fringe outfit with a presence in Karnataka, and Puducherry in the South; Himachal Pradesh (besides the Punjab) in the North; Mizoram and Meghalaya in the North East.  

What about the other opposition stars? Arvind Kejriwal remains Quixotic and unpredictable, although he won an impressive victory in Delhi, many of his comrades have left him. Mamata Banerjee has replaced the CPM in West Bengal, and from all appearances, is unshakeable in Kolkata despite BJP’s rather desperate attempt to foster communal tension. It’s the turn of the Communists to rule Kerala for now, but the Left is in shambles in India. With Nitish Kumar doing what comes naturally to socialists – conveniently consorting with the communalists when it suits their needs – the BJP, by all accounts, has never had it so good in terms of the geographical spread of political power.

People who claimed to be in the know confided that the Modi government has initiated several policy decisions that will have a great impact on the Indian economy. Among the measures that are being touted as Modi’s major achievements include the demonetisation of high denomination currency in 2016, which definitely caused chaos including reported deaths of over 50 Indians who stood in queues to exchange their unusable money for usable ones.

However, after the demonetisation decision, the BJP won a spectacular victory in Uttar Pradesh and brought in a firebrand Yogi Adityanath, a rabid proponent of the militant Hindutva ideology, as the chief minister of India’s most populous state.  Modi’s supporters claimed that India’s poor and dispossessed had welcomed Modi’s demonetisation decision and its stated purpose that it’d reduce unaccounted money (black money) in the economy. The move was expected to usher in a new era in the Indian economy and turn India into a cashless society; however, cash was still the king in Bombay, Dehli, Baroda and Poona that I visited during my trip.

Soon thereafter, the Modi government also implemented the Goods and Services Tax (GST), which has once again caused consternation in a sizeable section of India’s entrepreneurial sections. Again, Modi supporters have rushed to defend the decision claiming that only those businesses that are unwilling to be transparent are opposing the GST.  Undoubtedly, there are tangible benefits to the GST, as has been seen in many developing countries globally, and especially in Canada. It may be pertinent to recall here that the previous Indian government had consulted Canada rather extensively on the implementation of the GST.

However, the idea of a single tax regime that the GST was to bring about in the Indian economy remains elusive, although to be fair, it’s still rather early to judge the impact of the new tax. A close friend, who has been a small entrepreneur and an importer, was ambivalent about the impact of the GST on his kitchen appliances import business. He was happy that octroi duty (which reeked of rampant corruption) had been done away with, but the overall tax had increased substantially on imported appliances, which cater to the high net worth consumers.

Had this affected his business, I asked. Not really, he said, the number of high net worth consumers in India is steadily rising. This is the cumulative effect of 25 years of economic liberalisation.

The other measure that Modi supporters claim will give long term benefit to the Indian economy is the repeal of obsolete laws which continue to keep the economy shackled to the bureaucracy and slowing the pace of economic reforms. As per the latest news report over 1,100 (out of over 1,800) laws have already been repealed, and the Modi government continues to stay on course to repeal all the obsolete laws before its term ends. Undoubtedly, this will provide a major impetus in the future for economic growth.

Notwithstanding the concerns over the compromise of privacy, the implementation of the Aadhaar card for a billion plus Indians will assist the government administration in streamlining its services to the people, when implemented completely. The Aadhaar card is similar to Canada’s Social Insurance Number card, but with a photograph. Its stated objective is to usher in transparency by linking bank and tax information to it. It’s not complete and will take a long time to become an effective administrative tool for the government.

The global business and investor community and foreign governments have greater confidence about the future of the Indian economy than ever before. At a Canada – India bilateral business conference held in Bombay in early July, the Export Development Canada (EDC) informed the participants that it’d actively seek project finance opportunities in India, which is a clear departure from its previous practice and policy. In the past it focused primarily on transactional finance, assisting Canadian exporters in entering the Indian market. Representatives of other Canadian as well as multilateral agencies expressed confidence in the Indian economy and the way the Modi government is handling the economy. There was a consensus that the new banking regulation ordinance will finally begin to resolve the vexatious issue of bad business loans. One representative of a Canadian company claimed that no other economy in the world provided such a long-range growth and returns potential as India.

The media, by and large, is supportive of Modi personally and also of his government. What I noticed is a sudden rise in the number of right-of-center intellectuals who have begun to regularly put up a sophisticated defence of both Modi and his government’s policies, while minutely examining the shortfalls of his opponents. I didn’t have access to television at home, and therefore missed the firebrand journalism of Arnab Goswami (a phenomenon that has captured the Indian mindset and set the political agenda). I read the Times of India between July 3 and July 25; it continues to be the pro-establishment newspaper that it has always been, but hasn’t completely abandoned its values and sold its soul as I feared it’d have. It did a remarkable news report on how the common Indian Muslim is feeling insecure in Modi’s India. 

Politically and economically, it’d seem, Modi is unassailable. And he made it all look so easy. He came, he saw and he conquered. 

Modi's India - II

The angry “Hindu”

Modi’s unbridled popularity and achievements should have ensured perennial exultation by his supporters of their leader’s unparalleled success.

That, however, is not the case. On the contrary, it’s claimed that large sections of the majority Hindu community in India are angry. Very angry. Logically, there is really no cause for the “Hindu” to be so angry. After all, a government that is totally committed to the “Hindu” is in power and is likely to be in power for the foreseeable future. Moreover, many of its policies are all tailored to assuage the majority religion.

It’s this “Hindu” anger that has set India on fire and has had the minorities scampering for cover.  If we believe the proponents of the militant Hindutva ideology, the “Hindu” is angry with all Indian minorities (both religious and caste-based). But he is especially angry with the Muslims, for many reasons, but mainly because they eat beef and have the azaan on the public address systems early in the morning. I was emphatically told that the “Hindu” is angry with the liberal left also because they have scuttled the rise of true nationalism in India and have dominated the public discourse with issues that are inimical to the “Hindu” interests.

The angry “Hindu” has made it impossible in India for anyone to consume beef, and it’d be pertinent to remember that beef is consumed not just by the Muslims and Christians but also by Hindu Dalits. Laws have been and are being passed in several Indian states which penalise the consumption of beef. The Indian government has banned the sale and purchase of cattle from animal markets for slaughter. The incumbent chief minister of Gujarat, the state which propelled Modi to power in Delhi, has proclaimed that it is his fervent desire to turn Gujarat into a vegetarian state.

According to an estimate, 26 people have been lynched to death because they were suspected to have either consumed beef or suspected of intending to massacre cows. This includes a callow 15-year-old Haryanvi lad Junaid who was lynched by a mob at Delhi while returning home from Eid shopping. The resulting uproar which included impromptu #NotInMyName rallies across India and brought the enraged but largely impotent saner elements of the Indian society out on the streets in several cities. The uproar, however, was short-lived and the lynching incidents have continued sporadically.

What I found shocking was the process of normalisation of such an unacceptable proposition. During my stay, I saw newspapers publishing laudatory news features on “scientists” who had developed kits that can detect and differentiate cow’s meat from other varieties of red meat. It’d appear that nobody in the media or in the public domain even thinks it is necessary or relevant to ask whether Indians can be so brazenly deprived of their right to choose their diet. 

The Dalits are the other group of minorities that have seen rising violence against them all across India, and especially in Gujarat. It suits the leadership to remain quiet about such issues. When it does speak, it equivocates. 

Modi's India - III

Controlling the mind-space

Under Modi, Battleship Hindutva that includes several organisations led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has launched a systematic takeover of India’s institutions. This process is at once obnoxious and abhorrent because in a democracy institutions acquire an identity through a constructed as well as a lived tradition and culture and constantly strive to remain independent of the government of the day.  Battleship Hindutva is attempting to wrest control of national institutions to simultaneously set the agenda and to change the paradigm of national discourse. It has already succeeded in controlling large sections of the media and is working hard to control the academia.

I met a professor of a nationally-reputed university who narrated an alarming incident. This professor had organised a seminar on Babasaheb Ambedkar’s relevance in today’s India. One of the speakers – a Dalit academician – while describing the present political situation turned critical of the present regime. After the seminar concluded, the professor who had organised it was summoned by the Vice Chancellor of the university and summarily told that in future all such seminars would require prior approval by the university and the vice chancellor’s office would vet the list of speakers as well as control their message.

This control is also being extended to the judiciary, which enjoys a reputation of being independent in the public perception. But the most disturbing is the creeping government control over the Indian Armed Forces, which nearly all Indians revere. The deification of the Indian Armed Forces and the Para-Military Forces by the Indian masses abetted by the media is a major concern. This deification has resulted in a consistent and blatant violation of human rights of many Indian citizens such as the people of Kashmir, the North East and the Adivasi (India’s Indigenous people) across India. The Indian and the state governments justify the excesses of the Indian Armed Forces in the name of protecting Indian interests and fighting “terrorism”.

In every which way possible, the present regime is controlling and directing the public discourse and simultaneously doing its best to keep the “Hindu” angry. And this angry “Hindu” is pushing the envelope of what is acceptable. It is no longer about Nehru’s perfidy; that is a given and has become passé. Now, it is banning Urdu words, Tagore and a lot more that has gone into constructing the Indian identity. Words such as sicular and presstitutes are routinely bandied about in the social media especially to describe anyone who so much as squeaks against the prevailing wisdom. And to any outsider, the prevailing wisdom is shockingly at variance with reality.

A friend who was always a right-wing sympathiser, (and there is nothing wrong with being a right-wing sympathiser) has during the last few years (probably after Modi’s ascension) turned into a vociferous advocate of Hindutva. He argued – passionately, too – that Hindutva is secular. When I pointed to a column by Akaar Patel, where he describes Hindutva, my friend nearly jumped from the sofa and shrieked, “Akaar Patel should be shot dead.”  I sat in silence, mentally devising a polite way to abandon the conversation, too dumbstruck at this vehemence and hate. Prior to this rather abrupt declaration, this friend, who is highly educated and affluent, also declared that there is really no point in India being a democracy. Citing China’s example, he said if a dictatorship can lead to faster development and control anti-nationals (he meant Muslims, but didn’t say so), then India should turn into a dictatorship. Incidentally, for the original proponent of Hindutva, Veer Savarkar, the militant ideology was larger than Hinduism. He said, “Hindutva is not a word but a history. Not only a spiritual or religious history…but history in full. Hinduism is only a derivative, a fraction, a part of Hindutva.”

A consistent defence that I heard from all quarters of the Modi regime is that it is making the bureaucracy work more efficiently. There is less corruption and the rule of law apparently seems to prevail more often than not, and this evidently had been sorely lacking for the last few decades. So, even if his regime may on occasions be seen as a bit despotic and authoritarian, it needs to be tolerated as there is no alternative to him. The older generation will remember this argument being bandied about by a cross-section of Indians during Indira Gandhi’s rule and especially during the Emergency (including by those Indians who were opposed to Mrs. Gandhi) in the 1970s. Then the Jan Sangh leadership, which had all been pushed behind bars by Indira, had justifiably termed her fascist. But nobody who supports Modi acknowledges this as a valid comparison.

At present, apparently, a large section of the Indians are enamoured by Modi and are unwilling to take seriously the generally prevailing perception that his regime has directly benefitted certain business houses such as Adani and Ambani. Perhaps the main reason why the Indian public is willing to give a long rope to Modi and his bunch of merry men is that in the previous decade under the Congress regime, corruption has become all pervasive, or at least that’s how the previous regime is remembered. Dr. Manmohan Singh, who should be credited for pulling hundreds of millions of Indians out of stark poverty because of economic liberalisation, is instead often compared to Mahabharata’s Bhishma pitamah, who despite being the elder statesman in Dhritarashtra’s durbar, allowed Draupadi’s molestation.  

Modi’s India – IV

Hail Hindutva!

A senior journalist told me at Bombay’s Press Club that it helps the BJP to keep the national mood constantly on the boil because such a supercharged atmosphere gives it great electoral dividends. This was true in the past and is more so today. The journalist also said that by keeping alive such issues, the real issues that India faces continue to remain unresolved. Nobody is asking questions about the absence of job creation, or the crises in the agrarian sector. The Modi regime’s game plan is to keep the affluent sections of the Indian population happy and satisfied, and it does this by maintaining a tight leash on inflation and by keeping the stock market indices high.

My peregrinations to four cities during my recent visit reinforced my belief that India will abandon – sooner rather than later – the shibboleth of secularism as easily as it did socialism in the 1980s. The next Modi government will pave the way for a Hindu Rashtra in India. It probably won’t tamper too much with the Indian constitution but it will definitely change the character of India’s nationhood. Will a majority of Indians oppose or support this development? A friend in Toronto had an interesting insight. He believes that the groundswell of support for Modi and for his policies seem to indicate that there was already a large reservoir of latent sympathy for the Hindutva cause amongst a majority of Indians and that Modi’s arrival sparked off a public frenzy that is unlikely to abate anytime soon. It’s hard to argue against this opinion because of what I witnessed in India. However, many people I spoke to don’t share this view and believe that India’s diversity will defeat all attempts to impose a simplistic interpretation of nationalism.

The political pendulum will swing back towards equilibrium eventually. And that eventuality, if it were to ever materialise, is both welcome and worrisome. Welcome because it’ll restore equilibrium in the Indian political space. But worrisome as well because many fear that when the BJP begins to concede ground to others, Battleship Hindutva’s foot soldiers will unleash untrammelled terror on not just the minorities but also on those who defend secular values and oppose Hindutva. Already, these hotheads have done to death Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar (among others) who are opposed to the Hindutva ideology. If the tide turns against the prevailing political structure, it is imminently possible that Hindutva’s opponents will be victimised.

As a person of Indian origin, but no longer an Indian citizen, I’m often questioned by the legion of Modi supporters in the diaspora as well as by my Indian friends what right I have to talk about India in such a partisan manner, and consistently oppose Modi even when he’s doing everything he can to push India forward. I’m always accused of being partisan when I highlight the continuing human rights violations against India’s religious and caste minorities. There are many like me similarly accused and there really is just one answer – I do it because I believe in the idea of India. Another journalist friend, who’s been engaged in this battle of ideas, told me that the idea of India as a pluralistic society is the reality of India. This reality is not an artificial construct; it is inherent in all Indians. India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru strengthened this reality by infusing what MJ Akbar, in his masterly biography of Nehru, describes as the Nehruvian Pancha Sheela (five principles): Secularism, reason, free-thinking, science and progress.

In Idea of India, Sunil Khilnani defines Indianness.  “The puzzle of India’s unity and of Indianness raised a variety of contending responses within the nationalist movement that brought India to independence. Nehru’s was only one among these, and it was in no sense typical of nationalism as a whole “Indian nationalism” is a somewhat misleading and cultural ferment and experimentation inaugurated in the late nineteenth century. The various, often oblique, currents that constituted this phase extended well beyond the confines of a political movement such as the Congress, with its high political, bilingual discourse. The possible basis for a common community was argued with ingenuity and imagination in the vernacular languages, especially in the regions like Bengal and Maharashtra that had been exposed longest to the British, where a sense of regional identity only came into being as people tried to define a larger ‘Indian’ community. The belief that Indian nationalism had subsequently to unite and subordinate these regional identities is thus a curious misreading of the relationship between nation and region in India. In fact, a sense of region and nation emerged together, through parallel self-definitions – and this point is essential to any understanding of the distinctive, layered character of Indianness. The content and styles of these diverse explorations of a common community were neither uniform nor consistent, and the picture painted by nationalist historiographers of independent India, of a rising arc of nationalist self-consciousness from the ‘Renaissance’ in nineteenth-century Bengal to a culmination in 1947, is at best sentimental.”

But a lot of unclean water has flown down the Ganga during the last 70 years, and it’s time for a new definition of Indian nationhood that, Modi and his followers would have us believe, is more rooted to India’s culture. Therefore, let’s all rise and Hail Hindutva!