Ramnath Kovind and BJP: Politics first, always.

Narendra Modi and Amit Shah are clear about one thing – all major decisions are first and foremost, political. The latest example is the nomination of Ramnath Kovind as the National Democratic Alliance’s Presidential candidate.

In this government of “two and a half men” (as Arun Shourie called them), a Presidential candidate has to meet certain first-order criteria. They have to be people who nobody would have thought of as a hopeful, and it follows naturally that they are insignificant in national politics. They would thus be a candidate who would be beholden to the party and specifically, to the leader for being rewarded with this nomination. It goes without saying then, that such a candidate if elected President, would not pose the slightest threat to the Prime Minister’s personal authority by questioning or even asking for a review of any government decision.

These are the pre-requisites. (Yes, UPA and Sonia Gandhi did more or less exactly this with Pratibha Patil, but note that Pranab Mukherjee by no means fit that mould).

The facetious Dalit politics of it all

The choice of Presidential candidate needs to serve a political goal. Ramnath Kovind is Dalit, and as many have pointed out, his nomination is an effort by the BJP to varnish its pro-Dalit credentials. BJP has been under fire from the media and the Opposition over the anti-Dalit factions that have taken wing under their tutelage. The violence in Saharanpur and Una, and numerous lynch mobs later, this is how BJP responds. The electoral calculation is clear too. Those opposing Ramnath Kovind’s candidature are essentially anti-Dalit.

“This is an historic decision. The Opposition should support the NDA candidate, rising above politics. If they don’t support, it would mean they are anti-dalits,” 

Ram Vilas Paswan

On social media, BJP supporters are already asking why those agitated by Rohith Vemula’s suicide are now opposing Ramnath Kovind’s nomination.

The silly season of false equivalence never ends in India. Rohith Vemula was a Dalit student who was driven to suicide by campus politics, where his rival faction, the ABVP had the active support of both the Hyderabad Central University authorities and their political patrons, the BJP. Rallying behind Vemula was natural – he was victimised, and the violence wreaked upon him was because of his caste identity. Remember his letter that should have shaken the collective conscience of this nation?

“May be I was wrong, all the while, in understanding world. In understanding love, pain, life, death. There was no urgency. But I always was rushing. Desperate to start a life. All the while, some people, for them, life itself is curse. My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past.”

On the other hand, Ramnath Kovind’s contribution as a Dalit-warrior is marginal, which is entirely his personal choice at one level. Kovind’s decision to shun radical politics is his personal choice, and arguably, has been instrumental in his getting to the highest constitutional office in India. In his column, Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprastha  concludes:

…given Kovind’s views on social justice and empowerment, choosing a loyal, conformist leader like him was much more of a natural choice for the Sangh parivar than any radical shift in its traditional position on the caste system.

Dalit activists will not be satisfied, but it is hard to argue that everyone must be a radical activist. But when one sees the laughable efforts made by news channels who are ‘more loyal than the king himself’, one has to wonder about the kind of spin this government and its cheerleaders want to give to Ramnath Kovind’s track record.

The numbers game

Finally, for BJP, losing is not an option. Their desire to expand their political footprint, and killer instinct in contests, is unmatched. In fact, the Opposition parties would do well to learn some lessons from the Modi-Shah duo. The BJP is well aware of how they are positioned in the electoral college that would vote for the President. This is where Ramnath Kovind’s final set of attributes come in handy. Kovind is the Governor of Bihar, and he hails from Uttar Pradesh. Prominent political parties of Uttar Pradesh (or whatever is left of them in any case) are unlikely to oppose a son of their soil. It would also have been very difficult for Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar to oppose his candidature. With Nitish Kumar’s declaration of support, the BJP’s calculations have been proven right. Breaking Nitish Kumar is particularly critical, since he is one of the few alternate poles around which there could have been a consensus candidate from the Opposition.

Thus, the nomination of Ramnath Kovind does not alter the template. The selection of Pratibha Patil set the precedent in recent years, and looked particularly bad as it followed the popular APJ Abdul Kalam. BJP, as is its wont, has carried forward some of the worst aspects of India’s ruling parties in the past, as demonstrated by it’s recent Chief Ministers and appointments to several important institutions (including the Reserve bank of India). BJP’s contribution to this trend has been to give primacy to political and electoral calculations. Ramnath Kovind is merely a manifestation of this phenomenon.

#Modi@3: Three years in, dark days ahead

In many ways, Narendra Modi’s celebration of three years in power represents what the man and his government stands for.

He inaugurated the Dhola-Sadiya bridge in Assam, which is immediately spun as a great achievement of his, with hints laid out in good measure, that it also means some sort of a challenge to China on our north-eastern borders. As he did at the inauguration of the Chenani – Nashri tunnel, this provided Modi with an opportunity to stride around alone purposefully on the bridge, looking down at the river below, beckoning people from afar, etc, while cameras clicked away. This bridge was someone else’s vision. You know what Modi’s vision is? To spin colourful expansions of the two letters – N and E – New Energy, New Economy, New Engine, New Empowerment, etc. The man can ramble, I will give him that.

Meanwhile, the full-page newspaper advertisements that greeted the nation today curiously do not have even a single woman, in spite of the Ujjwala Yojana (of providing new LPG connections to households) being one of this government’s most far-reaching achievements. Neither did it have a message dedicated to the poor who stood by Modi even after he had sucked out cash from their pockets. The messaging from the government was only about an astonishingly narcissistically named MODI Fest, where we are supposed to believe that MODI just stands for Making of Developed India.

Part of this MODI Fest seems to have taken place at the Rashtrapati Bhawan, where Modi’s monthly monologues were released as a book. I am willing to bet that soon, the book will pop up at a classroom near you as compulsory reading. Amidst all this, BJP President Amit Shah stepped in and explained to a befuddled nation that it was impossible to provide jobs for all, and hence, the government was creating self-employment opportunities – thus proving that even the ‘jobs promise’ was chunaavi jumla. Finally, as is its wont, the government ended the day with a bit of gau seva by declaring a ban on sale of cattle for slaughter.

These events marked three years of Narendra Modi’s prime ministership. At the end of three years, Demonetisation stands out as the symbol of the both the deceit and incompetence that this government represents – that it will inflict havoc on its own people in the pursuit of electoral advantage, and that schemes are spun from harebrained ideas that have no scientific basis. Propaganda trumps all, as concerns of minorities, and political, media and civil society opponents are brushed aside and labelled anti-national.

Meanwhile, the rest of it – lynchings, harassment of critics, crony capitalism, listing fake achievements, dodgy national statistics, using the military for propaganda – continues unabated, and should come as no surprise to supporters and critics alike. These three years have shown us yet again that our institutions are perhaps not capable of withstanding a determined attack by a populist demagogue. These institutions work reasonably effectively when there is a weak government, by propping up the basic structures and ensuring a level of service delivery. But faced with a Modi, our institutions are suddenly found helpless – the press is not free or frank, the Parliament does not function as it should, the investigative agencies are completely state-controlled, the judiciary is soft, the bureaucracy is terrified, the central bank has lost its autonomy, and so on…

Given the corroding institutional safeguards, a thoroughly propagandist government, and an incoherent and weakened opposition, it is hard to imagine that any #AccheDin are round the corner for India. Dark days ahead.

The vigilantes are here. How do we fight them?

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath continues to inspire service-minded citizens to lead the fight against illegal slaughterhouses. Some other men have also ganged up to combat the menace of eve-teasing “Romeos,” but expanded their scope to harassing couples in consensual relationships.

Those accused of the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 defiantly declare that their actions are as pious as that of the brave men who fought for the country’s independence from the British.

India has finally got the vigilantes it always wanted – those who protect our honour, fight against corruption, and restore pride to the country. Cattle traders are thrashed in the heart of Delhi, even as the police vacillate between booking the culprits and charging the victims with ‘animal cruelty’. As expected, superstar vigilantes inspire several more in their mould, and we have at hand a spate of incidents. So we have videos surfacing on social media of a man threatening to kill Muslims while brandishing a gun, and public hoardings in Uttar Pradesh threatening Kashmiris with dire consequences unless they leave immediately. Meanwhile, a has-been Bollywood singer, Abhijit, raves and rants on TV and on Twitter, threatening violence against Muslims. Also, some men in our armed forces in Kashmir think its fun to slap around some young men and force them to shout “Pakistan murdabad” slogans.

And do not forget the events from the recent past:

Late last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi suddenly announced a decision to revoke the legal tender status of 86% of currency notes circulating in the economy.

And this year, finance minister Arun Jaitley’s Finance Bill 2017 sneakily included 33 (yes, thirty three) amendments that were hardly discussed in Parliament.

These are other forms of vigilantism, barely sanctioned by law (usually exploiting every possible loophole and a complete disregard for propriety). A government that will push through a faulty universal identification system and will amend political party financing rules with impunity to make them less transparent.

Tales are spun to justify these acts of vigilantism. The Uttar Pradesh assembly election threw up its own set of post-facto theories, most of which sought to assert that Modi’s demonetisation was a great success, that caste and religion-based voting was a thing of the past, that the voters in UP wanted Adityanath for better ‘law and order’. All of this happened just as Dalits and Muslims started being targeted across the state.

The vigilantes are taking over everywhere, and the constitution is slowly taking a backseat. In the cacophony of a reactive news cycle, it is difficult to maintain a consistent battle against an increasingly communal and authoritarian government. In a country beset with serious socio-economic problems, where job creation is at a record low, and farm distress shows no signs of relenting, we are busy debating cows, statues, and couples in love. On the one hand, this reflects the absolute failure of the political opposition, which have lurched from poll to poll, failing to counter the government’s divisive narrative. On the other hand, this is an indictment of our own inability as citizens to hold on to values of morality and empathy. We have allowed lunatics to set the agenda, as we sat back to ‘consume’ (and occasionally react) via traditional and social media.

Some people are of the view that as a country we went too far with constitutional principles (especially secularism, welfare and equity) even as the masses were not ready for it. While that argument itself is elitist, they go on to argue that what the ‘intelligentsia’ (another derogatory label these days) see as progress has always been opposed by a voiceless majority who felt their glorious culture and traditions were being taken away from them. The moral voice on Kashmir, for instance, is now seen as a weakness and a failure to assert our territorial sovereignty. Progressive voices on protecting minorities is now widely derided as appeasement. Support for equity through affirmative action is brutally criticised as being anti-merit. A free press that questions those in power is suddenly anti-national. A kind of free-wheeling vigilantism is seen as the answer.

Last week though, former Delhi high court chief justice A.P Shah delivered a stinging indictment of the current state of affairs in India, asking what nationalism really meant and questioning whether the state’s tendency to interfere with people’s food habits, film censorship and the wider curbs on freedom of expression behoves a country that aspires to greatness. I quote:

At the end of the day, it is important to question, what is the defining characteristic of a nation – is it the territorial boundary or the collection of people that is a country’s defining feature. Our constitution starts with a solemn declaration of “We, the people of India…” In this context, is being anti-national equivalent to being anti-Government or is the hallmark of an anti-national that they are against the interest of the people, especially the minorities and the depressed classes? Can an entire University and its student body be branded “anti-national”?

It is heartening to read this in these depressing times – a voice of moral authority that is in contrast to our elected leaders and most public voices. If we are to win the battles against these vigilantes, it is moral voices like these that we have to amplify – not just from eminent jurists and other public figures, but from the ordinary man on the street.

A firm adherence to constitutional principles by elected leaders can set the tone for citizens. But it can also work the other way around. A country benefits from a large majority of its citizens adhering to a core moral code, and willing to rely on the constitution to iron out differences. Can a movement for change begin with them? This is not a case against the utility of political parties. But there is a need to mobilise people around issues that extend beyond immediate electoral cycles. Civil society has to lead this effort.

This might sound like asking for too much, but when you see the vigour with which this government has cracked down on dissent in academic institutions, it gives you a clue as to what they fear the most. Remember how vehemently artists and writers who opposed the government’s intolerance were attacked and even partly blamed for the BJP’s loss in the Bihar elections? Could the voices of students, farmers, artists, writers and army veterans come together and challenge the government’s narrative? Even if they don’t win, imagine how spectacular the fight would be.

I live in hope.

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This column was first published on The Wire

Don’t laugh at this #NewIndia ‘gau-vernment’

Cow vigilantes are back in the news. Three cattle traders were beaten up in Kalkaji, in South Delhi, not too far from the Prime Minister’s residence at 7, Lok Kalyan Marg. In the amazing #NewIndia, the question that seems to be moot to many is this – were they actually transporting cows or buffalos?”  

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke out against “gau rakshaks” last year, he was careful enough to sympathise with only Dalit victims of such violence. Atrocities on Muslims, as is the norm, did not quite catch his attention. At that time, it was also quite evident that Modi had the Uttar Pradesh state elections in mind. Well, now that the BJP has registered a resounding win in the state, all bets are off. Chief vigilante, Yogi Adityanath, who also happens to be the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh has started a reign of terror that seems to extend well into the National Capital Region, Delhi.

As Prime Minister, Modi may want to keep a handle on this kind of cow vigilantism in order to protect his ‘image’. But he cannot escape the responsibility of having laid down the template. Modi used the ‘cow protection’ dog whistle to great effect not just as when he was the Gujarat Chief Minister, but also relentlessly campaigned on the issue of “Pink Revolution”. His well-measured policy on Muslims – ignoring them after becoming Prime Minister (under the garb of ‘India first’, ‘sabka saath, sabka vikaas’, etc) is just a follow-up act to demonising them when he was Chief Minister (for terrorism, population growth, etc). If Yogi Adityanath is now following in those footsteps, what can we expect from the Prime Minister?

When he spoke out last year, Modi also probably wanted to generate consensus on tricky reforms, such as the Goods and Services Tax (GST). Now that box too has been ticked with some creative Parliamentary manoeuvring. Modi can continue with his lofty talk about federalism, without worrying about the need to generate a consensus.

Meanwhile, the violence and the madness in the name of the cow will continue. Rajasthan already has a “cow cess”. A central minister wants to create ‘cow sanctuaries‘ for conservation (and tourism?). There is a talk of extending the unique identification database to include cows.

As a matter of fact, this has never been about the cow itself. All this cow-talk is merely a signalling device to the right-wing followers that the “other” can be harassed on any issue of their choosing. And the media has, well, been cowed into submission. So the vigilante criminals are now softly known as “gau rakshaks”, quite similar to the other set of criminals who are being mollycoddled as “anti-Romeo squads”.  Fair game I suppose, in an age where an independent media is supposed to be one that is funded by fat cat industrialists who are part of the government and positions itself firmly against anti-establishment forces.

Sanjaya Baru recently used the term ‘Developmental Hindutva‘ with reference to Prime Minister Modi and his party, and probably had a balancing act in mind. The message was that the RSS and its affiliate groups (a mix of social, cultural, vigilante, etc) could continue on their merry-gau-round as long as a semblance of development is delivered to the people. The rest of the work would be done by Photoshop experts working in the BJP IT cell sweatshops. This is the BJP model. And the electorate will keep falling for it until they find an alternative.

Where is the promised windfall from demonetisation?

The Economic Survey 2016/17 was striking not only for its literary references, but also for its circumspect nature. One of major the drivers of this circumspection (which is not a trait one associates with the Narendra Modi government) was the yet-to-be-ascertained impact of demonetisation. The Economic Survey was cautious in saying that it would take long for us to accurately calculate the gains and losses from demonetisation, but ventured to claim that it would result in at most, a 0.5 percentage point fall in the GDP growth rate.

Of all the benefits of demonetisation that the government has been at great pains to sell, the simplest one is a spike in direct tax collections in the form of both taxes and penalties (on black money declared). The second, is an assurance that banks that are now flush with deposits will significantly lower lending rates to spur consumption. Both these do find mention in the Finance Minister’s budget speech, along with a host of benefits that have repeatedly been promised to us — a war on black money, corruption, counterfeit currency and terror funding.

But the government failed to make good these promises in its own budget, and at the moment, we are forced to conclude that the promised gains from demonetisation have just not materialised. Total Tax Revenue of the government in 2016–17 increased by 17% over the previous year. Next year, the government anticipates a 12% increase. Similarly, income tax receipts in 2016–17 went up by 23% over the previous year, and is budgeted to increase by a further 25% next year.

Chief Economic Advisor the Government of India, Arvind Subramanian in an interview yesterday named service tax receipts as one of the four measures of the impact of demonetisation. He did also admit that because of the impending Goods and Services Tax regime, it would be hard to isolate the impact of demonetisation. Here too, the numbers suggest that the Finance Minister is not expecting a great deal of change. Service tax receipts, after having increased by 17% this year, are expected to go up by only 11% next year.

In none of these collections, or projections, can one see a tangible increase in tax receipts as a result of demonetisation. An important caveat is that for the current year, the figures are based on the government’s Revised Estimates, which may well change by the time the Actual figures are recorded once data from the last two months are accounted for. But the surge that one expected from demonetisation is missing — especially when you consider that the difference in Total Tax Revenue between the Revised Estimates and the Budget Estimates for 2016–17 is only 4%. It does appear that on the revenue side, the government was lucky to receive an unexpected additional Rs. 23,167 crores of non-tax revenue in the form of dividends public sector enterprises.

It is not surprising then, that the Finance Minister has little to no room to give away post-demonetisation bonanzas. Neither are there any significant increase in allocations to welfare schemes, nor are there any big bang announcements that would help the government actually implement some of its high-decibel rhetoric. For instance, the allocation for Smart Cities of Rs. 9,000 crore is actually lower than the Revised Estimates of this year at Rs. 9,559 crore. The record allocation of Rs. 48,000 crores for MGNREGS is impressive only until you realise that the estimated expenditure this year is Rs. 47,499 crore. To take another example, the Start-up India Aspiration Fund, after having used Rs. 100 crore out of its allocation of Rs. 600 crore this year has disappeared from next year’s budget.

In many ways, today’s union budget was Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s moment of truth. With a budget speech that had to shun rhetoric, Jaitley was forced to admit — in deeds, if not just through words — that several glamorous schemes announced by the government have struggled to match up to their rhetoric. In a way, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley may have presented his most honest budget so far. As they say, numbers don’t lie.

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This column first appeared on Catch News

India’s threats to Amazon serve to only expose our own insecurities

India’s External Affairs Minister (EAM), Sushma Swaraj recently broke new ground. Amazon Canada was selling a doormat that was designed to look like India’s national flag. As soon as a Twitter user pointed this out to her, Sushma Swaraj responded with three tweets.

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Screenshot from Twitter account: @SushmaSwaraj

With these three tweets, India’s EAM lived up to her reputation of being extremely pro-active on Twitter, responding to people online in real-time. Her critics have often pointed out how the Swaraj has been reduced to resolving personal queries and visa/passport issues. But what is not clear is if this was the Minister herself, or one of her staff members who handled regular affairs on Twitter, that had lost his/her cool. If it was indeed. Ms. Swaraj (and not someone’s newphew), it is reminiscent of her “Ek ke badle dus sar” avatar, when speaking on Pakistan’s killing Indian soldiers on the border. I wonder what prompts these unexplained bouts of violent rhetoric.

But the broader issue is that of political remit. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vice like grip of foreign affairs – with the aid of the tall talking Ajit Doval – is there for all to see. Given that, the EAM has been reduced to running an online grievance and counseling cell. In any form of government, with a self-respecting minister, this is an unsustainable arrangement.

The other issue of course is that of the appropriate level of response to incidents such as this. Amazon is a marketplace and not a seller. At best, one can request, citing Indian laws, that they take down the offensive materials from their website. But that is hardly the main issue here.

Of utmost importance is the question of what this means for our global reputation and dignity. We have seen on several issues that successive Indian governments are extremely thin-skinned and resort to indignant outrage at perceived insults to the nation. India is a young country and perhaps, issues such as respecting national symbols are still very potent politically. But we have traditionally demonstrated a maturity beyond our years at the global stage, and that has been our calling card for a large part of India’s independent existence. This kind of boorishness therefore behoves neither the country, nor its people and if anything, only runs contrary to the image of an emerging power that we seek to project.

Several of the BJP’s perennially insecure supporters were joyful that Amazon had been told off. Any criticism of this was met with “you are used to 1200 years of slavery” kinds of nonsense. Our national pride, which should be vested in what our people achieve, is instead threatened by the unsuspecting actions of some who inadvertently misuse our national symbols. This is not how India will own the twenty first century.

What affects our national pride are other important issues: of how free and fair our society is; whether our justice system helps the poor; whether there is space for dissent; of how we treat the weak and vulnerable in our societies; of the political culture that our leaders seek to propagate; etc. If we strengthen these vitals, our external image wil improve automatically. And if we don’t, no amount of showmanship can help us.

Notebandi & its woes: Why we must protest the narrative of ‘normalisation’

A slightly different version of this column appeared first on Catch News on 13/1/17

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It is now well over fifty days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that 500 and 1000 rupee notes were no longer legal tender – a policy popularly known as ‘demonetisation’. In the new year, economists, bankers and accountants are busy tallying currency and estimating the impact of this policy on key indices. Alongside, the government’s official and unofficial propaganda machineries are hard at work, spinning out narratives of how things have returned to normal.

Herein lies the risk: people’s daily lives may well have returned to ‘normal’. But do not for a moment, mistake that to mean that the demonetisation was an acceptable policy. It absolutely was not. This ‘normalisation’ narrative is problematic. It is that which asks us to get over a trauma without questioning it, and carry on with life. But collectively as citizens, and on a matter of public policy gone wrong, it is ridiculous to not question, and not demand that those responsible be held accountable.

Demonetisation has been one such policy. Post the fifty days that the government asked of us, we are still trying to estimate the cost that the economy would have to bear. While the government can announce Gross Domestic Product estimates (7.1% for 2016-17) on the basis of the first seven months of the fiscal year, the consequences of an economic downturn will be severe. We already know the costs have disproportionately fallen on the poor – those who do not have the means to go cashless – as opposed to, say, the middle class. Reports of workers losing jobs, and a spike in demand for MNREGA work is evidence enough that the hardships are real, and will not go away anytime soon. As this report on the website Scroll indicates, the impact may not be known accurately for a year or so.

Amidst all of this, the government and economists who favour them have not deemed it necessary to explain how they are factoring in these costs when they analyse the impact of demonetisation. How is their analysis comparing the benefits (if any) of demonetisation with the human, financial and institutional costs that have been incurred?

A narrative that seeks to establish that all is normal is essentially designed to paper over the pain, and to subvert critical questions on who should be held accountable. Also, that all is normal now will also be sought to be presented as evidence that demonetisation was, in fact, good policy. The narrative will also suggest that there are no negative consequences to the erosion of institutional autonomy of the regulator, Reserve Bank of India.

This is the reason one feels that demonetisation was just an experiment to test the tensile strength of the Indian citizen. These tests started with the invasion of impropriety and excesses on campuses, communal incitement, harassment of artists, academics and thinkers, etc., and have now emboldened the government enough to be extended to the entire populace. A normalisation narrative is a strategy to wilfully erode any sense of public accountability, and to hoist upon the people, the concept of a saviour to counter all (real and imaginary) ills of society.

It is this kind of normalisation that also holds the threat of politically expedient escalation by not just lowering the level of scrutiny at present, but also for the future. For example, if domestic politics so demands, a cross-border skirmish may not be out of the question. The same dose of patriotism will be fed to people and exhortations will be made to bear the pain while we embark on a project to uphold the nation’s dignity.

We must, therefore, resist this narrative of normalisation. Ask why our government thinks they can restrict how much cash we can keep, and how we can spend. Even if one agrees that we should move towards a higher proportion of cashless transactions, demand to know why the government thinks it is okay to coerce us to do so. Contest the smugness at the highest levels of the government that assumes that issuing daily notifications – where one contradicts a previously issued one – should be acceptable. Because, if you do not protest, you will be smothered.

In the seventieth year of independent India, we have been reduced from talking about progress, to deliberating how we can protect our right to ask questions, which is at the core of our democracy. More people have access to greater information these days, but this is information powered by propaganda, and shaped into easy-to-digest narratives. These narratives, in turn, leave us with no space to step back and ask questions that matter. We must reclaim that space.