India at 70: democratic accountability is now an endangered species

Democracies are expected to empower citizens to take genuine control of instruments of the state for their development. At the core of this concept is the idea that citizens will participate in governance at the local level, making decisions for themselves, and vote in representatives to legislatures for higher-level decisions. India is an implausible democracy, an audacious experiment, attempting to bring together a billion people with starkly different languages, religions, and food habits. However, the state of our democracy remains perilous, a country hanging on by a slender thread to its claim to being defined a democracy. Like with many other aspects famously considered ‘Indian’, our democracy is a mediocre one, fulfilling satisfactorily, only the most basic requirement of regular (and reasonably free and fair) elections. Democratic accountability in particular, appears particularly at risk, as we the people, have fewer ways to hold those in power responsible for their performance.

Take just the following four aspects:

  • Propaganda rules over facts: Late last year, the central government pulled off ‘Demonetisation’, an exercise in purging cash reserves of the political opposition after ensuring the ruling party’s own reserves were safely parked (or converted) well in time. Manipulation of the press by political parties through direct funding (or proxy measures) continues unabated, as news channels spectacularly out-do the state broadcaster in peddling propaganda. The true extent of damage caused by Demonetisation will never be known – not because we do not have the tools to measure the damage, but because voters are being herded like sheep, not to ask any questions. As a result, the Reserve Bank of India can get away without releasing key data, and the lack of that data need not deter the government from making grandiose statements that go almost completely unchallenged in the public domain. Those who do question, do it with the knowledge that nit-picking on facts is futile.
  • Dissent is anti-national: The state’s response to dissent continues to plumb new depths. Civil society voices have been muted, farmer/dalit protests are killed in cahoots with a friendly media, etc. Those speaking up against the rampant terrorism in the name of the cow, or the fast-receding freedom of the press, are labelled anti-national. Dissent, whether from the grassroots or from intellectuals in society, are continuously demonised by a government that seems to take pride in its own anti-intellectualism, and celebration of mediocrity as evident from the various appointments to institutions of repute. Activists are being silenced everywhere. Today, Medha Patkar languishes in jail, as a government utterly insensitive to citizen protests makes no conciliatory move.
  • Decimation of political opposition: A string of election defeats, poor public image, still quite unable to overcome the ‘corruption stains’, a lethargic party, and a seemingly disinterested leader – it is the perfect storm for the Indian National Congress, and a sign of the times for political opposition in India. This decimation is now fully reflected in the composition of India’s Parliament, and the erosion of checks and balances that the Legislature is supposed to have over the Executive In a parliamentary system. The few states that are not ruled by the BJP get undue attention from partisan Governors and federal anti-corruption agencies. The use of the Governor’s office as a pawn in the hands of the central government must evoke a sense of deja-vu. Politics that seemed to have matured in the last fifteen years or so now lies in tatters.
  • Narcissism and hero-worship: When the BJP government recently completed three years in office, the government launched the MODI Fest – the Making of Developed India festival. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s monthly Mann Ki Baat speeches were released as a book at an event in the Rashtrapati Bhawan. Every government scheme is credited to only one man, and no failures are ever pinned on him. If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, Modi-bhakti seems to be his second-last weapon of choice.

The point overall is this – to celebrate our incredible democracy, it is not enough to just conduct every five years, and for everyone to accept the election results. That is a very low bar. What matters is the quality of our democracy as measured by how the polity, the people, and the institutions operate once elections are over.

By this measure, India’s democracy has a long way to go. The systematic destruction of institutions, which need to function with a degree of competence and independence, will eventually kill our democracy. In the last three years, our institutions have shown themselves to be utterly incapable of protecting themselves from a government with authoritarian tendencies. The power that we have to hold public officials and politicians to account is directly proportionate to the credibility of institutions of governance. The way the Reserve Bank of India has folded in the last nine months should be serious cause for concern. The repeated attempts at politicising the military forces, the bellowing nationalistic media, our sanskari cultural guardians, and the uber-patriotic people’s representatives – together foretell a scary future for India.

The immediate casualty has been democratic accountability. No one seems to be responsible for the sluggish economy, now showing alarming signs of slipping into deflation. Similarly, no one seems responsible for breakdown in public services that the government is responsible for, nor is anyone held accountable for the questionable and inconsistent foreign policy decisions. Neither national security, nor corruption or cronyism seem to be topical any longer. Vigilantes break the law with impunity, as representatives of government hail them as patriots.

It is a great tragedy that after completing seventy years as a proud independent nation, our democracy is faced with such an existential crisis. If you are a liberal progressive Indian, this spectre should concern you.

Advertisements

‘Achhe din’ giving BJP a miss?

The excuses are running thin; The photoshop has lost novelty; The joke is on us; When will ‘Achhe din’ come? – my latest livemint column

***

I watched the video clip of Union minister Nitin Gadkari’s disarmingly candid chat in mid-September, where he talks about the origins of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) slogan—‘achhe din aayenge’ (good days will come). He said that Narendra Modi had once told him that at a non-resident Indian (NRI) event in Delhi, the people had asked then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh when would it be achhe din for them? Singh had apparently said: In the future,achhe din would surely come. Gadkari went on to add (chucking all the time), that since Indians are inherently aspirational, there is no such thing as an ultimate achhe din. He also said that wherever he goes, the people (and the media) ask him about the promised achhe din, and that the now-famous slogan has become something like a millstone around the neck.

As expected, this provided much mirth to all critics of the government, and probably some discomfort to the government’s supporters. I am not sure though if anyone enjoyed this more than Gadkari, who was clearly having a good laugh not only at the expense of his party for hyping that slogan, but also us (the people), for constantly demanding to know when achhe din would be delivered.

Commentators pointed out that it will not be easy for the BJP to escape from the wide-ranging promises it had made during electioneering. Gadkari obviously realizes the scale of promises made by his party. His remark, which referred to the unquenchable desire for acquiring more, is spot on. The problem then, is of having stoked unrealistic expectations, and used every trick in the book, and off it, to run down the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.

On this count, Modi, then as the prime challenger, led the charge. Promising the moon on every conceivable issue, he and his campaign managers successfully created an aura of invincibility, built upon the so-called Gujarat model of governance. The bubble has now well and truly burst. The list of promises not kept have mounted. A host of individuals have made a mockery of Modi’s promises to the nation—from lawmakers in the BJP who have put paid to all hopes of ‘sab ka saath, sab ka vikas’ (development for all), to people like Vijay Mallya, who represent the rot of crony capitalism. The economy, propped up by cheap oil, is also not quite humming the tune the BJP would like it to. Recent projections suggest that the rupee will fall further against the US dollar, and our gross domestic product estimates are still being met with widespread scepticism.

One can quibble about the intensity of opposition the government has faced and how it compares with previous governments, but it is undeniable that any political party that campaigns using such outlandish promises must face the music when its failings surface. Even after assuming office as prime minister, Modi went from stage to stage—at home and abroad—proudly declaring that Indians who were once ashamed of their country are now roaring with pride. That some of these statements were made within weeks of the BJP coming to power should have been a telling statement of the hubris that this government came with. But it is more important to use these occasions to disseminate a more important message to the people at large—that no government (and certainly no man) will come to rescue us with a magic wand. The goods and services tax, Aadhaar and National Rural Employment Guarantee Act clearly show that policy continuity is a fact of life in governing India.

But it is perhaps the rhetoric on national security that must be weighing most heavily around the government’s neck. Modi and associates, who seemingly possessed a perfect soundbyte-sized solution to every national security and foreign policy issue, have been forced to reflect a bit deeply for a change. The controlled ‘surgical strike’, followed by uncontrolled jingoism, suggests dangerous possibilities. For a government struggling to deliver on several other fronts, will it be able to escape the temptation for more expansive adventurism along the border? After all, war would be the perfect spectator sport for a populace fed up of India’s tepid anti-terrorism strategy. This is the constituency that cares little about growth and development, but is intensely conscious of India’s ‘atma-samman’ (self respect). Humouring it is likely to be a key priority, but the consequences could be disastrous.

For the restless India of today, this is a good time to look back at its recent past. What was it that made it kosher for an electorate to overlook the limits of reality, and cheer in chorus for a messiah? I have consistently argued in these columns that we recognise that governance is more than delivering rousing speeches; that no one man is going to transform India; and that we must not restrict our political choices so much that we settle for leaders with narrow communal and authoritarian tendencies.

So let this be a moment that tempers the triumphalism of 2014, and of the sobering realisation that an election campaign, mounted on an epic scale, pulled off one of the greatest cons in recent times. We should be thankful that sensible leaders such as Gadkari are owning up to the electoral jumlas. That will come in handy when the BJP looks within for alternative mascots to redeem its beleaguered self.

Does the BJP need to rein in Narendra Modi?

Since May 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has been running in fits and starts. Some stalwarts keep themselves busy spinning tales and lawyerly arguments to defend the government and defame the opposition, quite forgetting that it is this reliance on moralistic rhetoric that partly led to the fall of the United Progressive Alliance-II government. The misadventures with the land acquisition bill, corporate taxation policies, pension funds and most recently, Uttarakhand, betray a mix of incompetence and arrogance.

At the same time, even as a handful of senior and junior ministers—Sushma Swaraj, Nitin Gadkari, Jayant Sinha, Suresh Prabhu and Piyush Goyal—continue to impress, every piece of public communication by the government is curated to carefully credit only Narendra Modi for these successes. Needless to say, the failures have been glossed over and, one can be sure, will be airbrushed from the annals of history by a set of complicit cheerleaders in the media and the new political establishment.

But several recent events suggest that it is important to ask: does the BJP need to rein in Modi?

Take the recent #PoMoneModi fallout. This was a familiar script. The principal actor was a familiar one. As Modi belted out yet another aggressive election speech, this time attempting to shame the voters of Kerala by comparing the state’s human development indicators with that of Somalia, there was a feeling of déjà vu.

Yes, Somalia is that insignificant country where our prime minister is unlikely to make an unscheduled stopover. It is that country which will never host a grand Modi stage-show. And Kerala is that state where the BJP will struggle to establish a significant political footprint for a few more years. Therefore, Modi’s speech-writers must have decided that none of this really matters. But what it did do was make both the prime minister and his party an object of ridicule everywhere.

Moving away from Kerala, one only needs to be reminded of the manner in which Modi seemed to auction—in an election campaign speech—Bihar’s poverty in exchange for a notional central package. The vocabulary during the Delhi assembly polls prior to that was vicious as well, with the prime minister himself cautioning voters against thebazaru media. All of this has now become the new normal—the bombastic speeches and the personal attacks— and one wonders how this affects the ‘cooperative federalism’ that Modi so loves to talk about.

It is one thing for states to go to elections and witness bitter contests. It is an entirely different matter when the prime minister of the country turns up and converts state elections into a race of competitive populism, or worse, lowers the discourse further by indulging in name-calling and polarization. Of course, he has had able assistance from an excellent supporting cast. And this is not helping, as Delhi, Bihar and Kerala show.

Let’s quickly look back at 2013-14. The UPA government’s handling of Parliament, the economy, the national auditor, investigating agencies and even our police and internal security forces had left us with institutions that we could not trust. As he started his Lok Sabha campaign, Modi promised change, and an escape route from all that was rotten with the previous regime.

A careful analysis of his track record in Gujarat would have revealed every single problem we now see with the central government: the tendency to centralize power; over-reliance on bureaucrats; misuse of the police and investigation agencies; penchant for showmanship over deliberation; and systematic suppression of opposition—both political and non-political.

The wider political implications have been serious. For one, the BJP has settled upon a strategy of keeping minority communities and student campuses in a state of simmering tension. When it comes to the Congress, corruption cases are another part of the strategy—those that are juicier as allegations rather than conclusive investigations. This ensures that political opponents (and more significantly, non-BJP state governments) continue to engage with the BJP purely in retaliatory terms. This, too, is a strategy that has a clear Modi imprint, one that was perfected over a decade of political machinations in Gujarat.

And this is now eating away at the core of the BJP. The galaxy of superstar chief ministers that the BJP had just over two years ago has been dismantled and replaced with a set of pliant politicians who are too eager to please the prime minister. The personality cult that Modi has built around himself and the substitution of cerebral foreign policy with event management has resulted in utter fiascos with Nepal and Pakistan. Analysts have pointed out how Indian interests have suffered in trade deals with the US and the Dassault deal in France due to the over-eagerness of the prime minister to claim quick glory.

In sum, we often obsess over the statements made by “fringe elements” within the BJP and its spiritual parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Arguably, many of those instances tend to blow over quite quickly, not in the least because of the frequency with which they come, as well as their bizarreness quotient. But when the prime minister starts making too many gaffes, it is a completely different matter.

There is no disputing that Narendra Modi led the BJP to power and remains its biggest vote-catcher. That his stature is unparalleled within the BJP is not in any doubt. But do not be mistaken by the obeisance that his party workers and Internet fans shower upon him. The lessons from setbacks at home and abroad are quite stark and should worry serious strategists in the BJP. Is there any chance of a course correction? Let’s wait and see!

***

This is my latest livemint column

“A new low in Indian politics” – Rana Ayyub’s column on Amit Shah

This is Rana Ayyub’s column on the notorious under-trial Amit Shah, who has now taken over as BJP President. This column was supposedly taken off from the DNA website. Posting here from the cache files.

***

Late last week, a special CBI court adjourned the bail application of Amit Shah in the Sohrabuddin and Tulsi Prajapati fake encounter cases, accepting his excuse that he was engaged in political work in New Delhi. Shah, 49, the first serving Home minister of a state to have gone behind bars in a criminal case of murder and conspiracy had a legitimate reason to skip court hearings. He was presiding and taking part in day-long meetings in Delhi with senior RSS leaders and BJP functionaries who were all set to seal his fate as the next BJP President

There is a significant back story to his exemption which did find its way as a small snippet in the media but needs to be brought to light as Shah, the man who waved the magic wand for BJP in Uttar Pradesh, the PM’s confidante and the number two in the government now takes over the reins of the party. Amit Shah had twice in the past sought exemption from personal appearance citing political work, but the then CBI judge JT Utpat had found his excuse inadequate for the court to grant him relief. On June 20, while hearing the application, Utpat allowed the same but made a scathing remark “Everytime you are giving this exemption application without assigning any reason,” he told Shahs counsel. In less than a week, Utpat was transferred to a Pune court before he could preside over Shahs discharge application. Shah managed his way out with a tried and tested formula of transferring judges, practiced brazenly in his home state of Gujarat through his tenure as Home Minister.

As a journalist covering Gujarat extensively since 2005, as someone who exposed Shah’s role in the fake encounters in the state and who can claim to have knowledge of his political trajectory, I would not mince my words in suggesting that by appointing Amit Shah as the president of the party, the BJP has hugely disrespected the law of the land and signalled an all time low for the criminal justice system of India. For the cases against Shah are for crimes so gruesome that the cloak of political astuteness will be too short to cover it.

In its chargesheet filed in the Sohrabuddin fake encounter case, the CBI which had been investigating the case under the watchful eye of the Supreme Court of India had not just named Shah as one of the key accused and conspirators but also named him as the head of an extortion racket which involved underworld thugs, politicians and businessmen. In its submission before the apex court bench of Justice P Sathasivam and Justice BS Chauhan, the CBI stated that the minister was in cahoots with senior cops from Gujarat including the likes of DG Vanzara and Abhay Chudasama who had been sentenced for cold-blooded murder – concluding that Shah was a hardcore criminal. Shah was also chargesheeted in the murder of Kauser Bi, the wife of Sohrabuddin who according to the official papers was raped, sedated, killed and her body burnt and thrown in a river.

One could have well debated the merits of the CBI chargesheet and read political motives but for the fact that the Supreme court itself gave CBI the sanction to arrest Shah at the same time, coming down harshly on the Gujarat state police investigation led by the then top cop Geeta Johri for going slow and misleading the courts. If the SIT verdict on Narendra Modi’s role in the Gujarat encounters is to be held as the final word, by virtue of it being monitored by the apex court, it is baffling then that Narendra Modi who promised clean and transparent governance to this country and setting up fast track courts to look into cases of criminal charges against politicians has turned a blind eye to Shah’s criminal past.

Shah has been Modi’s confidante since his days as a pracharak in Gujarat and Maharashtra. With Shah’s induction on the national scene first as the General Secretary of the BJP and now as the BJP President, Modi has risked his own political image for the sake of his ally and friend who has put to shame the best political pundits and strategists from North India with his shrewd manoeuvring. In the coming days, the party will have to prove its popularity not just in the by-elections of Uttar Pradesh but also in the forthcoming Assembly Elections in three states, the most significant being the battle for Maharashtra. Party insiders have stressed on Maharashtra being a prestige battle for Modi whose party swept the Lok Sabha elections a couple of months ago. Going by the minutes of the internal meetings held between Modi, Shah and senior heads in the BJP and the RSS, the Prime Minister has silenced his detractors in the party who were against Shah’s elevation citing his ability to churn out big numbers.

Many in the Gujarat BJP believe that Modi has been under tremendous pressure by Shah to return the favours he has allegedly bestowed on his mentor in the last two decades of their association. It’s a well known fact that during Modi’s rebellion against former Gujarat Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel and in his fight with the ex-Home Minister of Gujarat Haren Pandya, it was Shah who stood firmly by Modi’s side galvanizing the cadres and leaders in favour of his boss.

As the second in command in the Modi dispensation, the youngest minister in his cabinet who held charge of twelve ministries including the powerful Minister of State for Home, Shah single-handedly thwarted all trouble that came in the way of Modi with his office getting the infamous tag of the “dirty tricks department of the CM”. It was under his tenure as Home Minister that the Gujarat police went on a spree of fake encounters in the state – holding regular press conferences for the media with the bodies of the alleged assassins on display. The officers would claim that the Gujarat CM was under threat from jihadists who were out to assassinate the man who brought back Hindu asmita in Gujarat.

While the chief minister managed to leave unscathed during the investigations of most of the encounters which were later pronounced as fake, Shah found himself listed as the prime accused in three encounters, his role in the other two being probed by the CBI with investigations in the case still on.

Another major dent in Shah’s image came with his alleged involvement in the Snoopgate scandal, in which he is heard instructing one of his key lieutenants – IPS officer GL Singhal who was then incharge of the ATS, to carry on surveillance on a young woman. The tapes which were released late last year created a furore after it became obvious that Shah as the Home Minister of the state was using state machinery to snoop on innocent civilians, monitoring their moves. In this particular case, a young woman whose movements, including aspects of her personal life were being reported to the CM on a daily basis.

With such serious criminal charges against him, has Modi denigrated the position of the party president by handing over Shah the reins of the party. Would it now be safe to assume that Prime Minister Narendra Modi acted against the interests of the judiciary by rejecting the nomination of Gopal Subramaniam as a Supreme court judge as he was also the amicus curiae in the Sohrabuddin fake encounter case. Ever since the Prime Minister assumed office, ex-CBI directors including Ashwini Kumar and AP Singh who were at the helm of affairs in the CBI during the investigation of the encounters, find themselves being at the receiving end of Shah’s wrath. While Kumar has stepped down as governor of Nagaland, AP Singh is reportedly under pressure to step down as member of the UPSC after the Income Tax department served notices to him and his family members in an investigation into alleged tax evasion by meat exporter Moin Qureshi.

These could all well be coincidences if one were to take a larger liberal view of the developments including the transfer of 89-year-old ailing governor of Gujarat Kamla Beniwal, who under her tenure locked horns with Modi and Shah over the appointment of Lokayukta in the state. But even if one were to dismiss these actions against officials, lawyers, judges who played significant roles in the criminal justice process involving Amit Shah as conjectures, will it not be pertinent to suggest that by appointing Shah as the BJP President, Modi has acted in contradiction to his promise of a free and fair government, which will have no space for vindictiveness. Hasn’t Modi and the BJP under the guidance of the RSS just made the first attack on the principle of clean governance on the basis of which the party came to power? Prime Minister Narendra Modi needs to answer this one.

***
Rana Ayyub is a journalist and a writer. She tweets at @RanaAyyub

Bhagwati’s ‘ab ki baar…’ politics

Unsurprisingly, Jagdish Bhagwati is a sort of academic celebrity these days. In addition to the tag of being the most famous living economist to have never won a Nobel prize, Bhagwati has earned himself the credential of being an unabashed supporter of Narendra Modi. This was established beyond doubt when in January, earlier this year, Bhagwati, along with his protégé, Arvind Panagariya (both professors at Columbia University, New York), weighed in with an impassioned response in a letter to the editor on The Economist magazine. This was a response to an article in the same magazine that called upon Modi to atone for his role in the Gujarat riots of 2002. Not in the least bit surprising then that Bhagwati has the ear of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the potential winning side in the parliamentary elections.

Bhagwati and Panagariya have extolled the virtues of governance in Gujarat. Even when going hammer and tongs against Amartya Sen, Bhagwati sought to hang his arguments on Gujarat. His frequent co-author in making these arguments is Panagariya, who has argued, amongst on other issues, that the higher rates of malnutrition in India (compared with even sub-Saharan Africa) is due to the World Health Organization’s adopted metrics which are flawed and put India at a disadvantage. This argument has been picked apart by several discerning researchers.

There is no doubt, however, that this argument would suit Gujarat (where chief minister Modi once suggested innocuously that girls are malnourished because they are beauty conscious), which has seen heavy corporate activity and growth while lagging far behind on indicators such as malnutrition.

It is important to examine the economic model espoused by Bhagwati, a model that he sees demonstrated (in part, at least) in Gujarat and one that his contemporary and friend, the economist Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, was unable to implement in India over the last decade. Much of Bhagwati’s objection to the United Progressive Alliance’s economic policy is about the so-called populist doles propagated by it. However, in last year’s debates on the National Food Security Bill debates, Modi argued that the Bill was not comprehensive enough and pointed to the BJP’s successes in Chhattisgarh where the state government delivered rice at cheaper rates to a larger section of the population than the Bill proposed.

Also, industrialization in Gujarat rests largely on an administrative climate where the state government ensures speedy clearances for corporate investment plans, makes land available cheaply and ignores violations of environmental norms by industry. In these respects, it is not too different from rival Congress-ruled Haryana and Maharashtra. Are giving up public resources for private gain and tolerating unprecedented amounts of revenue foregone in the form of waivers for corporate houses the kind of liberalization policies that Bhagwati would like to see?

Finally, in supporting Modi, Bhagwati credits much of Gujarat’s successes to him. There is plenty of data out there that suggests that Modi has neither transformed nor built Gujarat from scratch. He ignores longitudinal data on Gujarat and its contemporary states that clearly show Gujarat has always been amongst the better performing states in India, at least as far as economic indices are concerned. Also, the most significant leaps out of poverty has been made by states like Bihar, under the leadership of Nitish Kumar. And if there is one thing the Kerala model—that Panagariya (and by extension, Bhagwati?) dislike—should teach us, it is that all-round development is systemic, inclusive and stems from a state-led model that prioritizes the social sector. Most importantly, it makes little sense to credit certain individuals for the development trajectory.

There was some speculation recently about Bhagwati accepting a role with the government of India in case Modi came to power. In his trademark humility, Bhagwati is reported to have been reluctant to accept the position of chief economist (or economic adviser) to the next prime minister, should the opportunity arise. He couldn’t have made a wiser decision, given that the economics of the BJP is quite at odds with that of Modi and what Modi does in his personal fiefdom of Gujarat is possibly impossible to replicate on a national scale. I may be getting ahead of myself. The election results are around the corner and we will know soon enough

How Congress took one for the family

In my latest livemint column, I write about the sorry state of the Congress party in the ongoing elections. This column was written over a week back and in the meanwhile, we have seen the pathetic attempts by Priyanka Gandhi to occupy centre-stage, while senior ministers have continued to shy away from the public glare. In the process, all that Priyanka has proven is that she is Mrs. Vadra and no more, Ms. Gandhi…The Gandhis are a family enterprise that needs to fail, so that a political party can rise from its ashes.

Over the past two decades, we have seen how the Congress has stymied any non-Gandhi in its ranks. In the last few years, this has reached a level where the party has forced the government to compromise on even projecting its own achievements. The story of a weak Prime Minister has been narrated incessantly. How far is the compulsion to protect and projectRahul Gandhi responsible for all this? On all substantive issues, it has been well-documented how Rahul Gandhi has been missing in action. At the end of it all, the strains of carrying an unproven and inconsistent leader at the expense of the entire government has been a massive one.
 
This then will go down as the election where the Congress will suffer because of the Gandhi family. The only way anything good that can come out of this is if the party takes at least baby steps on its journey beyond the family

Why am I against Narendra Modi as Prime Minister?

Written originally eighteen months back, unsurprisingly, every word sounds true. Self-fulfilling prophecy? Fair enough I guess.

***

The debate around Narendra Modi has been quite toxic and no one will concede that the other is unbiased. I think we also forget that it is ok for us not to agree on each other’s political choices. In this post, I try to summarise why I am against Narendra Modi as a potential Prime Minister of my country. For me, the reasons for opposing Modi are compelling enough that I do not find him to be better by comparison to Rahul Gandhi or Mulayam Singh.

Let me try to explain why, and tackle some urban myths along the way:

On riots, people bring up 1984 to counter 2002, but given all the court proceedings and publicly available information, it is impossible for me to believe that Modi wasnt complicit (even if he just stood aside and let his supporters run riot). I also object to the fact that many of us now also casually ignore the belligerent attitudes of Modi and his aides towards groups that oppose them.

But Modi has been exonerated by the Special Investigation Team and other courts? I think we have many examples from contemporary history where court cases have been manipulated and elections have been won by stoking passions and polarising voters…where the victory is technically speaking, democratic, but raises plenty of unresolved questions. For a Modi supporter, a legal and electoral victory on paper is enough; for someone opposing, the manner of victory (on both fronts) is disturbing.

So do I think the Congress is secular? This is a fruitless debate and as I said, to call out something as objectively bad, I do not need relative standards. But to answer the question – Congress is opportunistic and so are parties like Samajwadi Party. This form of opportunism is perhaps worse than a stated right-wing xenophobic nationalistic position that the BJP and its fellow campers (Bajrang Dal, VHP, RSS, etc) have. But again, real political engagement for us citizens is in refusing to accept that our choices are confined to these.

But Modi always talks of ‘India first’: True, Modi’s speeches and interviews have been about his ‘6 crore Gujarati brothers and sisters’ and ‘India first’. If that is all you hear, you are cherry-picking. What about the countless jibes at Muslims? (Update: There is no sign of such statements abating, going by Modi’s campaign speeches in Bihar)

A ton of data out there suggests that Modi did not transform Gujarat. We ignore longitudinal data on Gujarat when it suits our argument. There is indeed no evidence to believe that Modi (or any non-UPA) government would have fared any better as far as India’s economic growth is concerned. I also disagree with the industrial policy that the Modi govt seems to follow because of its exclusionary nature and its tendency to promote a blind capitalist model where national resources are doled out for private gain and the voices of those affected are ignored (or suppressed). The data on poor development indices in Gujarat in spite of its economic growth only supports that argument. I am deeply uncomfortable that those that support Modi do not find these disturbing.

Add to all this, the coarse language in public; speeches and interviews that focus on personal attacks rather than details of his party’s agenda. I lament the loss of civility in our public discourse and although no political party escapes guilt for this, Modi stands out for his belligerence and consistently disrespectful demeanour.

I thought last week’s India TV chat-show was a disgrace – seemed like we were in the 16th century where the king had to be pleased by loud chants. I am not dismissing popular support or sentiment, but a studio audience is different from a crowd in a maidan. Also, from this unqualified adulation is born complacency, which we cannot afford with someone like Modi. (Update: the multiple stadium performances and carefully choreographed interviews by Amit Shah and Modi have only added to this discomfort)

Because of Modi, the discussion on the streets in the run-up to the 2014 polls has been xenophobic, with deep-seated prejudices coming out and people freely stereotyping ‘others’ that they do not understand. The positioning of the debate as between a state-led model of development and private enterprise-led model of development is entirely misleading. First of all, in a poor country like ours, the state cannot absolve itself of the responsibility of being the protector of rights and justice. Secondly, crony capitalism is good for no one – not even for private enterprises and only leads to rampant corruption. Third, Modi and BJP have been at least as populist as any other dispensation running their respective state governments.

Why hold Modi to a different standard than others? The answer to this is less clear in my mind. But it has something to do with the brazen personality, the personality cult that he is promoting, his tendency for hyperbole and appropriating credit for all things good in Gujarat and his proximity to a position of leadership that I care about. That is why, Modi matters more than Tytler or Kalmadi or Mulayam and Amit Shah matters more than Azam Khan. Also, from a careful reading of the data, it is clear that Modi is no miracle-man. In fact, in this federal polity, no one is. An authoritarian may have fantasies of being the one-man saviour of 1.2 billion people – but this is pure fantasy. It is important to also recognise how perceptions are created by the media and corporations in this day and age. The possibility of a Modi-run has sparked off a bull-run in our stock exchange. While it may be simplistic to say that a high performing stock exchange performance does not put food on the plate of the poor, it is true that the corporate weather-vane is not a good gauge of general prosperity in our country.

Am I (presumptuously) worried about the ‘idea of India’? No. Opposing Modi does not mean being scared that the nation is going to fall apart due to him. I agree that Modi doesn’t have that power, even if he sparks off intolerance and violence towards all opposition (religious minorities or otherwise). So we will not self-destruct if Modi comes to power; neither will we suddenly prosper. Same holds for a Third Front govt or at worst, UPA 3. Revival is going to take time. And while we wait, I guess the battle is about what each of us think are the acceptable compromises to make, and our preferences for who we want as leaders in the interim.

But Modi is a reformed man (and no riots in Gujarat for the last 12 years): If I think someone is morally culpable, the question for me is not about whether he will repeat himself, but about whether he has suffered the consequences of his action (or inaction). Giving him a chance to become the Prime Minister of my country – the effective head of state – is not an option. There are some cardinal sins in state-craft that one cannot be pardoned for.

Finally, there isn’t much reason to sympathise with BJP (and VHP and RSS) due to their ‘civilisational consciousness’ and claims on India’s history, heritage and future – but Modi seems to be dismantling the structures in a party that seemed to have some semblance of collective decisionmaking and inner-party democracy. The BJP prides itself for having a galaxy of successful administrators and strategists, butt is standing around reduced to a one-man party with a bunch of supplicants. This has caused visible cracks within the party, but the lure of power has held them together so far. But for how long? and what if they lose?

So who should you vote for? Vote for the best candidate in your constituency, because that is what our Parliament is meant to be – a set of public representatives who can ‘think national and act local’, as opposed to state legislature members who ‘think local and act local’. If we are lucky, the BJP will be forced to choose another candidate for the top job (if they get a shot at it). Irrespective of the outcome, the choices we make when voting increases our responsibility post the elections when a new government is in place. Irrespective of the government of the day, do not allow prejudice, intolerance and lack of compassion to guide your lives.