Rarely have I gotten anxious due to political happenings in the country. But I did feel anxious about the possibility of BJP coming back to power with majority – which it did. I am not a Political Analyst in least bit. I am an ordinary citizen, with my prejudices & biases, observing the political happenings of the last few years. Though, I prefer not to label myself, to clear any doubts about my leanings, I am left of the center person. Obviously, as stated before, this influences the way in which I see the happenings in the country.
2014 Elections & the Honeymoon period
I was among quite a few people, who was worried by BJP getting elected in 2014 with a clear majority. All the pro-market experts cheered the victory of BJP, rather specifically the victory of Modi. These people thought Modi will do a Regan/Thatcher in making the government leaner. They wanted the dispensation to relax the strict labor laws, make Land acquisition easier, open the Indian market for FDI in retail, do away with loss-making public-sector units & much more. Even people, who were aware of the PM’s record when it comes to communalism, believed that he will now become a statesman. But a few of his harshest critics, still believed that 2014 election will be an inflection point in India’s history.
PM began his tenure with the statement of “Minimum Government, Maximum Governance” in the lines of Thatcher/Reagan. PM then launched Jan Dhan Yojana (Financial Inclusion), Swach Bharat Mission (Clean India Campaign) to the appreciation of majority in the country. He invited opposition leaders to be part of Swach Bharat Mission. Even Modi’s critics appreciated this effort to make India ODF. These were good initiatives. Government succeeded in implementing the schemes to a large extent as well.
On the other hand, the government through an ordinance, tried to table a Land Acquisition Bill. This new bill brought thousands of farmers to the streets, protesting the bill. The opposition leader coined the slogan, “Suit Boot ki Sarker” (Government for the rich), which gained traction and the government had to withdraw the bill.
Privacy – What is it?
This government was noted for pushing Aadhar into every phase of one’s life, passing the Aadhar bill as money bill to bypass debates in Upper house of the Parliament, & defending the usage of Aadhar in Supreme Court. Despite the news from across country, about the poor infrastructure causing identification through Aadhar a cumbersome & flawed process, the government expanded Aadhar’s use into everyday life of citizens. People were deprived of their rations due to these authentication failures & these deprivations resulted in children deaths. The government countered all these with a single line of “Saving Tax Payers’ money”. People, especially Middle class, didn’t really care about the loss of lives or the hardships endured by people who were affected by Aadhar Failures. This Government knew well the art of communication.
When privacy activists questioned the usage of Aadhar for the various services & the implications it brought to individuals’ privacy, government turned tone-deaf. This government went to the extent of arguing in Supreme Court that Privacy cannot be a fundamental right. However, Supreme Court ruled that privacy is a Fundamental Right.
Deluge of new(renamed)Schemes
Why am I giving a history of this dispensation’s tenure as elected government? I don’t know. One thing was clear. This government kept people on their toes all the time. There was Digital India – when everyone changed his/her profile picture in FB to support the initiative, Make in India – when the scheme was launched with a huge fanfare & so on. Whether these schemes were successful, one never knew.
Torn social fabric
The acts of violence against minorities and dis empowered people of this country were the biggest concerns for many a people. These violent acts weren’t a new phenomenon, but they were taken to a whole different level. People were lynched on the streets & the lynching were recorded/broadcasted via whatsapp & other social media platforms. The first case that caught the nation’s attention was the lynching of a twenty something year old Muslim Techie, in Western India. Then came the lynching of a Muslim man in Dadri, on the suspicion that he had beef at his home. The idea that a man can be killed for what he eats was bewildering, to say the least. But those who knew history, know that Food can be a contentious issue. The ruling class knew well, how to provoke people’s emotions, using a gentle creature (cow) and make people(violent mob) act in unconscionable ways.
The lynching continued unabated. A Muslim man was hacked & burnt to death in Rajasthan by a Hindu, another Muslim was lynched in Alwar Rajasthan on the allegation of cow smuggling, Junaid – a Muslim young man was stabbed in the train over a brawl, which some say turned communal. The victims of these lynching were mostly minorities. The reason given was that they were involved in illegal cow slaughtering/smuggling. This was a just fig leaf to conceal the Anti-Muslim hate.
Can we be more Hindu than you?
One might wonder where the opposition went, when all these were happening in the country. But they, fearing majority’s backlash, largely remained a silent spectator. The opposition tried to prove that it is more Hindu than the self-proclaimed Hindu Nationalist party. The opposition played lip service by issuing generic statement against the lynching. This is a curse of electoral politics and especially in a first past the pole electoral system. When majority constitutes 86% of the population & with a substantial number of the majority was made to believe that they were under threat, this majority tends to vote in a way to cement their majoritarian idea of politics. Opposition, which at least on paper, once stood for secularism, turned almost a blind eye to the plights of the minorities. Hoping that, this action could help them gain votes.
But the moment they do this, there is no way back to secularism. Even if they hope to reverse their stand after getting elected, people will call their bluff out & will no longer believe the party. There will come a time, when both parties represent the interests of the majority. This was already evident when both the parties opposed Supreme Court Judgement on Sabarimala issue. Both took the same line that the will of people must be respected. But neither party took the same line, when the instant triple talaq was banned. One might wonder when national parties speak about the will of people, they only refer to majority’s will and not of minorities’.
When no party stands in public domain for the minorities, the minorities will start to feel like second class citizens. And the majoritarian crowd will be emboldened to treat minorities as second-class citizens. If/when this happens, the minorities will be subjected to undue duress in myriad ways. They will be asked to condemn crimes committed by minorities, will be asked to prove their loyalty to the nation, will be asked to stand with majority or stand for majority in contentious issues, even in which minorities have a stake, and much more.
This will lead to minorities, fearing any violence, going inside a shell. They will not speak up against the authority. When the people cannot question those in powers, is it still relevant to call the country Democracy? There were reports that minorities even preferred not to be visited by the opposition leaders, fearing backlash. Isn’t this a pathetic state of a nation, whose Father is Gandhi?
If one were to choose one outrageous act of this government on economic front, it had to be Demonetization. PM issued the decree in a style, which resembled that of dictators’. Confidence that people had on this PM was unshakeable that they took this exercise in spirit, even when they had to toil hard to withdraw their hard-earned money. PM sold the idea that this exercise will bring back the bags of black money, hidden under the bed of tax evaders. He pitted the poor against the riches. PM even mentioned to burn him at stake, if the country doesn’t return to normalcy in 50 days of Demonetization announcement. Unfortunately, most people believed that & endured the troubles. People died standing on the queues to withdraw money, died because of stress induced by lack of money, and, bank employees died due to stress.
Every economist, who was worth his/her salt, termed this move a disaster. Former PM warned that India will lose 2% of its GDP growth rate, which turned out to be true. But, even when the reality turned out just as or even worse then what was predicted by the economists, there was little drop in popularity level of the PM. People hoped that the ill effects of demonetization would get over soon, but people have still not come out of it yet.
Political ramifications of Demon
The fact that this exercise was carried just before the state elections in Uttar Pradesh – country’s biggest state, meant that the opposition parties were squeezed for money. Even with limited resources, the opposition parties fought a hard battle and had hoped that people will punish the BJP government for this disaster. But the electorate surprised the country once again by voting en masse to BJP. And, the party surprised the electorate by electing a monk as the CM. The election of monk, who is known for making communally charged statements, made little difference to either the party or the electorate. India, with its infinite fault lines, was getting fractured even more. Us vs Them, a favorite trope used by all the authoritarian regimes around the world throughout history, was taken to the extremes.
Pliant Media + Vicious Social Media
One of the biggest casualties in this regime was the Free Press. Media houses, predominantly run by big corporate houses, towed the government’s line. Instead of questioning those in power, as press supposed to do, these Media houses questioned the opposition parties. When opposition parties questioned government’s inadequacies, these media houses labeled people as Pakistanis, Anti-national & etc. People were fed with an altered narrative, contrary to the reality, day in and day out. Debates became shouting matches. No sane voice was heard. The media houses came out with plots, which could make run of the mill Bollywood movies’ plot look like a joke. Media houses released doctored videos, which helped propagate the government’s agenda. The famous line of “when media was asked to bend, they crawled”, uttered during emergency, resonated even after 40 years. This time media didn’t crawl, they laid themselves down, for their political masters to steamroll them.
Main stream media and press do come with certain constraints, no matter how hard they try to push Government’s agenda. This is where the Social Media came to rescue. People were microtargeted with memes & news, which spread misinformation time and time again. A few fact checking websites did debunk the claims, but, when the lie has spread already to a targeted vulnerable audience, no amount of reason could sway their opinion. BJP with its deep pockets was able to recruit people, who could then be used to troll the sane voices. BJP mastered the art of using Social Media to its advantage.
By far, the biggest threat to democracy was the weakening of institutions. These institutions serve the role of checking those in power. Past Governments didn’t spare these institutions either, but they fell short of destroying these institutions. But this government as with other instances, didn’t spare any of the institutions. From CBI to SC to ECI to NSO to RBI, all institutions were pressurized.
Supreme Court judges gave a press conference stating that the government is meddling with Judiciary. A first for the Indian Judiciary. A judge, who was presiding the criminal case of BJP president, died in mysterious circumstances. When a PIL was filed in Supreme Court, the court quashed the PIL.
The caged parrot (CBI) blatantly acted in a partisan manner, by letting those who were accused in Hindu terror, to go out on bail. A former prosecutor alleged that she was asked to go slow on these cases. BJP president, who was the prime accused in a fake encounter case, was acquitted by the court. But, CBI didn’t appeal the judgement. Government appointed a helping Gujarat officer as second in chief at CBI. This lead to a turf war between the CBI director and this officer. It went too far that the CBI offices were raided at midnight in October 2018 & both the Director & his deputy were sent on forced leave.
Election commission (ECI) wasn’t far behind, when it came to tow the government’s line. ECI delayed the election dates announcement twice; once for Gujarat elections & other for General Elections. There were questions about the multiple phases in a state, which went to poll in a single phase in 2014. ECI’s role favoring the governing party didn’t end there. The MCC violations complaints against the Prime Minister and his ilk were ignored for a long time, before SC demanded ECI to look into the violation. ECI did investigate the violations & gave away clean chits in a rush.
There were numerous complaints from various parts of country about the elections. Removal of names from voter list, Poll agents voting for the voters, CRPF personnel asking people to vote for BJP – list is endless. The cherry on top of the ECI’s conduct was the refusal to release the polling data even after election results were announced. The idea of Free & Fair elections turned out to be a joke.
The term Crony Capitalism must be replaced with Capitalism. Capitalism tend to be on the side of the power & the power loves capitalists. How good those in power balance their act in supporting the capitalists and larger populace, determines the fate of their reelection. BJP understood this game to the dot & played it much better than the previous governments. Rafale deal could be made the text book case of Crony Capitalism in the current government’s tenure. Adani & Ambani were biggest beneficiaries of the current government. Though not very sure, one can surmise that the crony capitalists, who benefited, paid back to the government through electoral bonds, which fund the political party. There were reports that the BJP got 95% of the funds from Electoral bonds. BJP put this money to good use during the elections. BJP spent almost 50% of total money spent in 2019 elections, which turned out to be one of the expensive elections in country’s history. This created a field so unequal that opposition couldn’t stand a chance to fight BJP, when it came to election spending.
All these crony capitalists, started singing paean to the PM, right from his time as Gujarat CM. Not just the individuals, the confederation too came to PM’s rescue. When CMIE (Center for Monitoring Indian Economy) a private player brought unemployment figures to light, CII came up with a report contesting the CMIE report. There were no credible voices, who had stakes in the functioning of good democracy, left to question the government’s claims.
All Gloom no sunshine?
Though, people suffered in the last 5 years, they did benefit from Government’s schemes such as the Swach Barat Mission (Toilet building), Ujwala yojana, affordable houses, Mudra loans (one anecdote on this – A person -who is well paid working abroad, already having small business ventures, availed the loan to make coco peats. He was supporting Modi). Middle class people got some benefits while availing housing loans as well. All these, along with a splintered opposition & a virulent Hindutva rhetoric made BJP’s victory undoubtful. The only question remained was the number of seats that BJP would win. Many people believed/projected, until exit polls were released, that BJP will win somewhere from 180-220 seats, well short of half way, needed to form government on its own. Exit polls caught everyone by surprise. Most of the polls predicted a comfortable victory & some even predicted a BJP victory bigger than its victory in 2014.
The government was re-elected. My anxiety did come true. I felt a sense of hopelessness upon hearing the news about the victory of the dispensation. Here are my takeaways on why this happened. To reiterate, all my views are based on my TV watching & speaking to one or two people who support Modi.
People voted for Modi, not for the Party. This spells trouble, as India’s elections are becoming more & more Presidential
- Inordinate sum of money spent by the incumbent. The contest was not equal by any stretch of imagination
- A pliant media, who questioned the opposition more than the incumbent. Media houses still have a huge impact on the people’s psyche.
- Othering of the minorities, secular liberals, intellectuals, elites that found resonance with people, who felt they were ignored for a while
- Majority community found a leader, who wore his religion on his sleeve & blatantly displayed his religiosity to the cameras during the elections
- Government announcing 10% reservation to financially under privileged – The step, few describe as the first take at removing reservations, was welcomed by the majority. (Note: One of the criteria for being classified as financially under privileged is having an annual income of less than 8L (11K $))
- Total disregard for the Model Code of Conduct, helped by a toothless ECI.
- Communal polarization in Bengal, which ECI abetted by not acting against ruling party
- Inability of opposition party Congress to carry its NYAY scheme to the average voter
- Pulwama incident & India’s retaliation, which was amply exploited by the BJP and Modi
- The narrative of National Security seems to have trumped up the bread and butter issues
After this debacle, everyone concentrated their attacks on the main opposition, i.e. Congress & its president Rahul Gandhi. People called for Rahul Gandhi’s resignation as Congress President, despite him campaigning positively on bread & butter issues. Though, one might question, how effective the campaign was considering the results, he never took the discourse low, unlike PM & his ilk. Granted- he used Chowkidar Chor Hai (Security guard is a thief) slogan, which some found as distasteful, it pales in comparison to the discourse by Modi & his ilk. Congress proposed a progressive Manifesto, with inputs from civil society. Many found that the Congress was hitting the right chords, but now it seems that was too little too late.
Too little too late??
Congress released its Manifesto close to the heels of 1st phase. But, the average voter is not going to read the Manifestos. It’s the duty of the parties to take the ideas in Manifestos to the people. BJP quickly latched on to the progressive ideas in Congress Manifesto, such as revoking the Sedition law, revisiting Armed Forces Special Powers Act, to portray as an effort by Congress to weaken the national security. Congress did not have a counter argument for this allegation. Congress’s NYAY scheme (UBI of sort) and its details were not percolated well enough. There are couple of other reasons, which resulted in Congress’ defeat.
The other reason, in hind sight, is that the party announced the NYAY scheme a bit later in the campaign. Though RG announced the scheme in January, without any specifics, the BJP countered it by offering 6000 RS to the farmers in the Budget session. BJP was smart enough to enact this law retrospectively and went ahead in transferring the first tranche of 2000 Rs to the farmers, right before the elections. Congress’s idea, no matter how good the intentions are, remained just an idea or a promise. But BJP, by transferring 2000 Rs, ensured that voters don’t get swayed by the Congress’s idea.
There is always the corruption baggage associated with Congress. People still remember the scandal ridden UPA 2 government. Though none of the charges from UPA 2 has been proven in court, BJP ensures that people don’t forget the scams. And in the middle-class conscience, Corruption is the mother of all evils. Yet, the very middle class play a part in propagating this phenomenon.
Another issue with Congress is the public perception, to which BJP has contributed a lot, that it is a family run party. And RG is a dynast who was anointed by his mother to run the party. Though this has some truth in it, there are quite a few dynasts across all the political parties. Even the BJP with its “Holier than thou” image has enough dynasts in its ranks. Yet the public perceives RG as the only dynast in the country.
The fact that this charge against RG is brought not just by the politicians but by the intellectuals and media, help BJP in hammering the thought in people’s heads. There was a concerted effort to paint RG as a dumb person, despite him coming across as a rather smart person.
Rahul Gandhi fought a valiant battle. Results might not reflect this, but he did consistently put forward the idea of India, which reflected Founding Fathers’ principles. Yet the intelligentsia, which is happy to berate RG at any given moment, wanted RG’s blood after the results. There is Ramchandra Guha, who upon the backlash he received for posting a picture of him eating beef in Goa, deleted the tweet stating that tweet was in a poor taste. Isn’t standing up to the bullies essential in Democracy? Then there are countless journalists, one among them, who lectures RG on how not just to win elections but how to improve his sartorial leanings.
Rahul Gandhi represented to me, the idea of Gandhi’s India. RG was keen on passing the message that he responds to hate with Love. He was mocked by few people for taking this line. One can question, whether this was just a show off, but to me he comes across as a genuine person. He mentioned once that he doesn’t want a BJP ridden India, because India is a land of multiple voices and every voice must be heard. Contrast this with BJP’s agenda of “Congress Mukht Bharat (Congress Free India)”.
During the campaign, he started giving interviews to media. These interviews, at least until now, seemed unscripted. He took tough questions, thought not as tough one would have wanted, from journalists and answered them in rather convincingly. One of the answers stood for me. He said that in live interviews, one might give wrong answers, but there is nothing wrong in it. One can learn from it. This requires, in my mind, intellectual humility.
On, one hand there was a candidate who proclaimed to have all answers, gave some mind-boggling answers during interview (on how radars cannot detect planes when there are clouds), was interviewed by actors & pliant journalists, who didn’t even dare to ask the PM tough questions. This inspired Hasan Minhaj to carry a piece on Indian election on his show, Patriot act. Modi portrayed himself as a Macho man, who could destroy Pakistan at his will. He even joked about using Nuclear weapons during the campaign. So, in this age of Machismo/strong leader, Modi came out the winner.
Need for Congress & Gandhis
Rahul Gandhi seems to be a right person born in a wrong era. He is not hyperbolic, he doesn’t have 56 inch or 12 packs, but he is humble, genuine, willing to listen & accept that he doesn’t know/have all the answers. I believe these are the traits one must look for in a Leader of 21st century.
One must wonder, why RG, who has seen both his Grandmother & Father getting assassinated, is in politics after all the ridicule. We can be cynical and say that he is nurturing the dream of becoming the PM of our country. But, he himself has said many a time that he is not power-hungry politician. Doesn’t this say something about him as a leader? He stands for the idea of a loving India, where all the voices are heard & none silenced. He is trying to resurrect a party, that has lost its touch with the ground realities. He speaks about inner party democracy, he identifies & supports leaders(Ramya & Jothimani )with no-political lineage, he is not afraid to mince his words & he is self-reflective. India needs a formidable opposition, with a leader who truly represent the idea of India. Rahul Gandhi, despite his flaws, is important to opposition as well as the nation.
Congress despite all its flaws, is one reason India stayed as democracy after 1947. It could easily have become a dictatorship, or a failed democracy as many predicted. Our First PM Nehru, who during his stint as congress President in 1930s, wrote an article under a pseudonym on how he could become a tyrant. He was openly atheistic yet dreamt and built a secular India. He and the others, who followed him, ensured that India’s democracy is a model to be followed by others. One cannot gloss over the terrible Emergency, imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1975. Barring that instance, India managed to remain a democracy until now.
Congress is kept together by the Gandhis. They are the glue that holds the party together. When Gandhis were not at the helm, the party splintered. This is not to say that a Gandhi should be at the helm all the time. However, when India is facing the Hindutva barrage, India needs the Secular congress & the congress needs the Gandhis. Some proposes that RG can be in the party but cannot be the President. How well this could be worked out is a mystery. Others say the RG should be at the helm & a complete overhaul of the party must be undertaken. This might be a step in the right direction. But whatever needs to happen, should happen right now. Congress was little late to take the fight to BJP after the 2014 defeat. It took 3 years almost & by that time, BJP was ready for 2019 elections.
Every other person is advising the Congress, what it should do to fight the mighty BJP. But, it is up to the Congress to define a strategy for rebuilding the party & fight the BJP. Regardless of the strategy congress comes up with, the party must stand for the secular values of the Indian constitution. The party shouldn’t be afraid to talk about the raising crimes by Hindu Extremists for the fear of alienating the Hindus. When a party tries to appease both the majority and minority communities, the party runs the risk of being abandoned by both. Congress must decide for itself, whether it is a party, which is way past its glory or whether it is a relevant party in 21st century. One only wishes congress stays relevant to 21st Century Indian politics.
Clock is ticking
BJP with its absolute majority won’t waste time to portray congress as corrupt & Anti-National. There are already cases against Congress leaders including the Gandhis. If BJP pursues these cases expediently, regardless of the judgement, Congress will find it extremely hard to earn back People’s trust. If that happens, then Congress might become a history in the very country, where it played a significant role in freedom struggle and helped stabilizing the country during post-independence period. BJP with its hegemony would make sure that history is rewritten, so that congress might not even be in the history books.