The second-term government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is completing a year in office amid muted fanfare, the COVID-19 pandemic having limited its boasting about assorted achievements.
The ineptitude, callousness and authoritarianism on display in the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, and the horrific sufferings endured by millions of migrant workers trudging home amid chaos and official indifference, have hardly allowed it to portray the first anniversary as a triumph.
In the 2019 election, Modi was projected by the BJP as a muscular nationalist with a 56-inch chest – the only man who could keep the country safe from terrorists, infiltrators, ‘anti-nationals’, and ‘termites’ seeking to hollow out the sturdy structure of the majoritarian Hindu nation that he was building. It worked.
Together with the borrowed plumage of welfare schemes unabashedly lifted from the UPA playbook, adroitly-presented ‘micro-development’ initiatives like toilets and cooking gas for rural households, and the well-funded organisational efficiency for which the ruling party is renowned, the Modi government swept to re-election with a larger majority than any pundit had predicted.
COVID Outbreak Gave Modi 2.0 ‘Breathing Space’
The government got to work with a will to remake India in its image. In its first hundred days it could point to the passage of a slew of legislation, including the criminalisation of the practice of instant Islamic divorce, or ‘triple talaaq’ (talaaq-e-biddat), and the dismantling of the special status given to Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, as examples of firm and decisive action.
In the next hundred followed the Supreme Court’s verdict granting the disputed Babri Masjid site in Ayodhya to those wishing to construct a Hindu temple, and the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which (together with a threatened National Register of Citizens across the country) ignited a storm of protests across the land, culminating in the deaths of 56 people in riots in the nation’s capital.
The coronavirus outbreak offered the government a welcome breathing space – an opportunity to pause the downhill slide epitomised by the nationwide unrest on the CAA/NRC, and to press the reset button on a course that seemed to be taking India to communal polarisation and widespread political discontent.
It also gave the Modi regime a gold-plated excuse for its colossal failures on the economy, which was in free fall (with record levels of unemployment) well before the pandemic necessitated the lockdown measures that have ground most economic activity to a halt.
- The government got to work with a will to remake India in its image.
- The COVID outbreak offered the government breathing space – an opportunity to pause the downhill slide epitomised by the nationwide unrest on the CAA/NRC, and to press the reset button.
- The sad story of Modi 2.0’s first anniversary is that it shows few signs of having learned the lessons of its earlier failures.
- There is no doubt that Modi remains immensely popular personally. This may mystify his critics, but he comes across to most people as a decisive, no-nonsense leader.
- Here is a prime minister who has upended practically every civilised convention in Indian politics.
- Almost every independent institution has been hollowed out and made into an instrument of the government’s overweening dominance.
Why Modi’s Voters Still Give Him ‘Full Marks for Trying’
The sad story of the second-term government’s first anniversary is that it shows few signs of having learned the lessons of its earlier failures. Its handling of the pandemic – marked by the lack of planning that has marred the lockdown, the human disaster of the migrant workers, the roughshod ride over federalism, and the deceptive numbers dressed up an inadequate stimulus package – has stumbled from the start.
There is no doubt that Modi remains immensely popular personally. This may mystify his critics, since his record of accomplishment is so minimal, but he comes across to most people as a decisive, no-nonsense leader with a hard head, willing to break with tradition and attempt bold solutions to the nation’s intractable problems. The reality that most of the out-of-the-box solutions he has attempted have done more harm than good does not seem to bother most voters, who give him full marks for trying.
His demonetisation of 86 percent of India’s currency in 2016 was probably the single most disastrous blow to the Indian economy since Independence, costing millions of jobs and causing severe damage to India’s growth story, but voters believe his intentions were good. If this was a bad idea implemented badly, it was followed by the hasty and botched implementation of GST, a good idea implemented badly.
His abrogation of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir was undertaken while locking down the entire state, arresting political leaders, and denying its population telephone and internet connections. The cost to India’s image in the world is only exceeded by the pain it has inflicted on innocent Kashmiris.
Modi 2.0 Has Upended Almost All Civilised Convention in Indian Politics
What do we see as we look around the country today? Here is a prime minister who has upended practically every civilised convention in Indian politics, unleashing law-enforcement authorities to pursue flimsy charges against a slew of Opposition leaders, promoting ministers whose divisive discourse against Muslims has left them and other minorities fearful, and so thoroughly intimidating the media and its owners that his press coverage is an embarrassment to India’s democratic culture.
The ideal of unity has given way to one of uniformity; patriotism has been redefined as chauvinism; independent institutions are yielding to a dominant government; democracy is being reshaped into one-man rule.
Parliament is suspended while a slew of decisions normally requiring legislative approval are announced in press conferences. Requests for video-conference meetings of the Standing Committees, which normally meet during Parliament sessions, have been stalled for weeks.
Almost Every Independent Institution Has Been ‘Hollowed Out’ Under Modi 2.0
So what, many of his admirers say, it was past time to have a tough leader at the helm after decades of ‘too much soft-hearted’ democracy and a ‘pandering’ coalition government.
To those of us whose faith in Indian democratic practice was absolute, it is a sobering matter to realise that perhaps its roots were shallower than we had allowed ourselves to think. In its place we have a fervent nationalism that extols every Indian achievement, real or imagined, and brooks no dissent – the mildest disagreement or protest is promptly labelled ‘anti-national’ or even ‘seditious’. Almost every independent institution has been hollowed out and made into an instrument of the government’s overweening dominance: while this is less surprising of the tax authorities, the financial investigative agencies and the law enforcement and intelligence-gathering machinery of the government, even famously autonomous bodies like the Election Commission and the judiciary have not been exempt from such concerns.
For Modi 2.0, ‘Boldness’ Is All That Matters
Political freedom has ceased to be a virtue in itself; control (by the authorities) and conformity (by everyone else) is now preferred. The scholar and commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes that “it is difficult to remember a time when… the premium on public and professional discourse marching to the state’s tune was as high.”
India was a famously inclusive land, a haven for the persecuted of all nations and faiths for three thousand years; today its government rejects Rohingya refugees because they are Muslims, draws up a National Register of Citizens to exclude ‘foreigners’ (defined as anyone living here or even born here after 1971, which potentially renders stateless millions who know no other home).
The very character of the country is being changed before our very eyes, by a government with no respect for any of the conventions established and practised by its predecessors since Independence. ‘Boldness’, it seems, is all that matters.
The Indian Liberal Dream Of India As An Inclusive State Is Collapsing
The increasing worry for liberal democrats like myself is that maybe this is really what the Indian public, modestly-educated and misguided by the ruling party’s skilful propaganda, really wants.
The worry for many Indian liberals is that our long-cherished idea of our country as a benign, inclusive state – thriving in its astonishing diversity of religions, ethnicities, languages, and castes – is collapsing. In its place is emerging an India that is less pluralistic, less accepting of difference, less inclusive, and less tolerant than the one we had long celebrated.
That is the legacy of the first year of Modi 2.0. If India is to regain its soul, the government must change course in the next.
(Former UN under-secretary-general, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and an author. He can be reached @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)