Ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s customary address in the Lok Sabha at the tail end of the debate on the motion of thanks to the President’s address, most Indians could have been forgiven for harbouring three broad expectations.
First, an expectation that the Prime Minister would acknowledge the scale of the multiple crises facing the country. These range from historically high levels of unemployment to the accelerating distress in the agrarian economy, exacerbated by the hasty passage of the three contentious farm Bills, to the challenges of rising inflation, depressed consumption and the staggering rise in household debt. All of these will likely deteriorate further in the aftermath of a tepid Budget that left a zero for the aam aadmi (the common person), the nation’s kisaans (farmers) and the economically vulnerable. Sadly, there was mention of none.
A Delusional Account of BJP's Achievements
The second expectation was a roadmap on how his government would pull the nation out of our current predicament. A hope that in his speech, the Prime Minister, like a good doctor, would offer a prescription for the multitude of ailments of the dark times that engulf us – a plan to stimulate job creation, a vision to arrest widening income inequality, a concerted effort to boost flailing MSMEs, or provision of urgent relief for the long list of affected sectors ranging from tourism to education. Sadly, there again was none.
And finally, one expected (or prayed) that the Prime Minister would finally abandon his penchant for gimmicky sloganeering and after eight long years finally recognise that he wasn’t a political campaigner anymore but the chief administrator of the country. Sadly, that didn’t happen either.
Instead came the usual histrionics: an overtly political speech, ironically for a motion of thanks to a non-political President – three-fourths of the Prime Minister’s 90 minute-long address blamed all the problems of the nation on Nehru and the Congress Party – and a rather delusional account of his own government’s achievements in office that has since sent fact-checkers into overdrive.
The speech purveyed a farrago of falsehoods to cover up his own government’s culpability in the mismanagement of successive lockdowns. In a cynical exercise, the Prime Minister went so far as to blame the mass exodus of migrant workers who took to our roads and highways in a desperate (and, in many cases, fatal) attempt to make it home, on the Opposition. There was no acknowledgement that this happened because he announced a 21-day nationwide lockdown at four hours’ notice, with no warning to employers or state governments, and no arrangements to take care of migrant workers. The workers had no jobs, no income and no means to survive; naturally, they had to trudge homeward.
How the BJP Turned to UPA-Era Schemes
In some (relatively few) cases, their movement was facilitated by the Opposition. The Congress helped in arranging buses to ferry workers, chartering dedicated trains and collaborating across state and party lines to ensure that the workers were brought home. But migrants didn’t just leave Opposition-controlled states – even Jammu & Kashmir, under direct rule from the Centre, witnessed a workers’ migration.
Altogether, some 11.3 million migrant workers returned home and an estimated 971 died in the process. Many have still not returned to the cities, scarred by the unimaginable difficulties they faced and the unconscionable let-down by the government.
After seeing the Opposition doing what the government should have done in the first place, the ruling dispensation finally stirred out of slumber, organising Shramik trains, bringing out buses in states like Uttar Pradesh, where they were in power, and activating UPA-era welfare pipelines like MGNREGA and food distribution schemes to support them. The Prime Minister’s criticism of the Opposition, therefore, threw his own party’s governments under the bus.
The Prime Minister’s characteristic attempt to lay the blame of today’s problems on Congress governments of the past, while offering misleading accounts of his own government’s achievements, was embarrassing. There was a reference to inflation levels under Nehru’s government, but how does that help citizens today confronted by an inflation rate of 5.59% or the over 75% hike in LPG prices in the last year? There were references to the growing number of start-ups in India but no acknowledgement of 53 million Indians currently employed, the 60 lakh MSMEs that went under or the slashing of funds to MGNREGA. And the usual talk of “Make in India” and “Atmanirbhar Bharat” could not mask the fact that rather than adding 100 million manufacturing jobs (as Make in India was supposed to do), we actually lost 24 million between 2016-17 and 2020-21, and consequently saw the fall of manufacturing’s share of the economy from 25% to 14%.
And finally, the speech once again became a platform through which the Prime Minister, presumably wary of his party’s fortunes in the upcoming elections and the exodus of leaders from it, chose to engage in the soft-signalling of his bigotry to his support groups.
While he has previously decried the Congress as a party of ‘Muslim men’ and accused us of ‘minority appeasement’ on Monday in the Lok Sabha, he chose to go with the ‘tukde-tukde’ gang, followed by ‘urban Naxals’ the next day in the Rajya Sabha.
PM's Taunt Reeks of Arrogance & Complacency
Indulging his vain fantasy of a “Congress-mukt Bharat”, he said if there had been no Congress, there would have been no Pandit exodus from Kashmir, forgetting this occurred not under Congress rule, but under that of a government supported by the BJP. He accused Congress of arresting one of Lata Mangeshkar’s favourite lyricists, Majrooh Sultanpuri, because he had criticised Nehru, when Majrooh Sahib had, in fact, been interned with other Communists when his party threatened a violent revolution, and was duly released, to continue criticising Nehru and the Congress soon after.
To be sure, the Prime Minister’s deplorable obsession with peddling such divisive messaging is not new and has been documented several times in the last decade.
But if any party has been the real 'tukde-tukde' gang in this country, it is the BJP, which has pitted Hindu against Muslim, Hindi-speaker against non-Hindi-speaker, North against South, and “Ramzadein” against the rest.
But it is still remarkable how pronounced the bigotry gets when an election is around the corner. At a time when young girls in Karnataka are being denied their right to education for expressing their constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of religion, and the nation is confronted with images of religious segregation, the Prime Minister’s taunt that the Congress had reconciled itself to a hundred years out of power reeked of arrogance and complacency. It only remains for the voters of India to give him his comeuppance.
Indians Are Left Feeling Alienated
The Prime Minister’s rant, which betrayed an evident insecurity, left people with little to look up to and even less to cheer. I only hope that those who have been left feeling even more alienated and vulnerable after the Prime Minister’s speech and his limp Budget can take comfort in the words of Faiz Ahmed Faiz:
dil nā-umīd to nahīñ nākām hī to hai
lambī hai ġham kī shaam magar shaam hī to hai .
[The heart has not lost hope, it’s just a fight after all,
The night of suffering is long, but it’s just a night after all.]
The dawn will come for India, Mr Prime Minister. 2024 is not that far away.
(Dr Shashi Tharoor is a third-term MP for Thiruvananthapuram and award-winning author of 22 books, most recently ‘The Battle of Belonging’ (Aleph). He tweets @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)