Siddharth Varadarajan

To understand what Narendra Modi has done to India in the first year of his second term as prime minister, I want you to consider the contrasting fate of two young people, Amulya Leona and Anurag Thakur.

Leona, still in her teens, has been in jail for three months now, charged with sedition and other serious crimes for simply shouting ‘Long Live Pakistan’ and ‘Long Live India’ from the stage of a public event in Bangalore.

If Leona spoke about living, Thakur, who is junior minister of finance in Modi’s government, spoke about killing.

From the stage of a public event in Delhi, he exhorted a crowd of Bharatiya Janata Party supporters to shout “Shoot the Traitors”. The ‘traitors’ were not an abstraction but the women and men of Shaheen Bagh and elsewhere who had been protesting the government’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act. A few days later, in fact, someone actually fired on the protestors at Jamia Millia. However, the police has yet to file a case against Thakur, let alone seek to take him into custody. “The time is not right”, a top law officer of the government told the Delhi high court when asked whether the police intended to register an FIR against the minister.

Leona and Thakur are not alone.

Not since the emergency of Indira Gandhi have so many people across India spent so much time in custody for political reasons than in the past year, and never before has the sword of arrest and detention hung over more heads. One former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti, is now into her ninth month of incarceration.

At the same time, never before in independent India has there been such impunity for those connected to the establishment. If you are a member of the ruling party or support the government’s political agenda, you can advocate violence and even carry it out, spread hatred against religious minorities, humiliate and abuse the poor, without worrying about being asked to render account in a court of law. In New Zealand, an Indian origin Justice of the Peace was sacked for advocating an economic boycott of Muslims in India. In Uttar Pradesh, two MLAs were caught on camera doing the same thing on the ground, yet they got to keep their jobs and the police insisted there was no reason to file charges.

In many parts of India today, the right of the people to mock or even criticise their leaders no longer exists or hangs by a slender thread. Last week, the police in Madhya Pradesh registered a criminal case against a journalist for referring to the prime minister as a ‘gappu’, or braggart. In Agra, a man who called the Uttar Pradesh chief minister a ‘dog’ has been charged with sedition. Last month, a young photographer in Kashmir was threatened with arrest under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act as a terrorist for a photograph she posted on Instagram in 2018. In Andhra Pradesh, a woman who asked a series of embarrassing questions about the recent industrial accident in Vishakapatnam was arrested by the police. The purpose these ‘individual’ cases serve is to scare others into silence. The amended UAPA has also given home minister Amit Shah the power to designate any individual as a “terrorist” without a trial or even the filing of charges.

Modi’s abject failure as an administrator is evident from the manner in which he has handled both the coronavirus pandemic and the human catastrophe he triggered by imposing a lockdown without any planning or preparation. But for me, the disaster he has caused is the logical if hideous culmination of an underlying pathology that has come into sharp focus during the past year – his contempt for democracy. Only a leader who has that contempt – who believes he can stay in power regardless of what he does – will run the risk of not bothering to make any effort to ameliorate the suffering of millions of migrant workers, all of whom have the right to vote.

Modi’s disregard for democracy runs deep and wide, and extends to every institution that is meant to serve as a check and a balance to the exercise of executive power. In his first term as prime minister, he undermined the judiciary, the Reserve Bank of India, the Central Bureau of Investigation, the country’s university system, the Central Vigilance Commission, the Right to Information, Parliament and its committees. In his second term, he has turned his sights on the federal nature of India’s polity. He has also gutted the Central Information Commission and further undermined the independence of the judiciary to ensure his assaults on the democratic rights of the people from Kashmir to Kanyakumari are not challenged.

Gone is the pretence of development and growth, used as a camouflage during the first term to avoid a backlash to the BJP’s communal agenda. The only “accomplishments” the BJP can point to in the first year of Modi’s second term all relate to its anti-Muslim mindset. First came the gratuitous criminalisation of Muslim husbands who abandon their wives without properly divorcing them. (However, Hindu husbands who do the same have nothing to fear.) Then on August 5 came the scrapping of Article 370 and the imposition of a communications blockade on the people of Jammu and Kashmir that ran for six long months and has still not been fully lifted.

Next, the Modi government pushed for, and secured, a favourable (if manifestly absurd) verdict from the Supreme Court on the Ayodhya issue that will see the fulfilment of the BJP’s long-standing agenda of building a Ram temple at the site where its leaders and supporters destroyed the Babri Masjid in 1992. In an inversion of legal common sense, a property dispute which led to the commission of a heinous crime was fast-tracked at the urging of Modi even as the criminal case continues to languish.

Last December saw the Modi government’s third ‘accomplishment’, the passage of the CAA. Just as the stated purpose behind the Triple Talaq law would have been served by making it a crime for any husband, and not just Muslims, to abandon their wives without a proper divorce settlement, the stated purpose behind the CAA could have been met by allowing any bona fide victim of persecution from the neighbourhood to become an Indian citizen rather than just the non-Muslim ones. But the Modi government’s intention was to use religion as a factor to polarise society. Home minister Amit Shah’s infamous ‘chronology’ made it clear the government intended to proceed next to creating an all-India National Register of Citizens, a plan he and Modi were forced to backtrack on, at least temporarily, when they realised the depth of public opposition to it.

The government’s next ‘accomplishment’ was to use communal violence in Delhi to break the resolve of the anti-CAA protests. When that process failed – or was interrupted by the coronavirus – it spun a yarn about the violence being the product of an ‘Islamist-Marxist conspiracy’ and arrested several activists at the forefront of the protest against the CAA under the draconian UAPA. This despite the fact that the whole world knows the violence was overwhelmingly targeted at Muslims, and that Muslims were as likely to conspire to destroy their homes and livelihoods as the Jews in Nazi Germany were to engineer Kristallnacht.

While the Modi lobby is likely to see the suppression of democracy and the growing insecurity of Muslims as major achievements in their leader’s sixth year as PM, there is no getting away from Modi’s three big failures: his government’s Kashmir policy, his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and his inability to insulate the poor and vulnerable from the predictable consequences of the lockdown.

The government’s unwillingness, on ‘security’ grounds, to restore 4G services in the valley or release all political leaders and permit democratic political activity is the biggest indication that the scrapping of Article 370 is not the silver bullet Modi and Shah claimed it would be. The longer the current approach continues, the greater will be popular fears in the valley of a ‘demographic’ solution to the Kashmir problem.

Of course, the Supreme Court’s refusal to do anything about the mass arrests or the internet ban, let alone prioritise the question of the legality of the Article 370 and CAA moves, can be chalked down as another great government achievement, one that Ranjan Gogoi, MP, can savour as he contemplates life from the treasury benches.

Maximum pandemic, minimum governance

Sadly for India and, for Narendra Modi, the ad hoc, knee-jerk, centralised, undemocratic style of functioning that is the hallmark of the prime minister’s method of functioning has led him to commit monumental blunders on the coronavirus front that not even the judiciary can save him from. Indeed, after first giving the government a pass on its treatment of migrant workers, the Supreme Court was forced by the unending misery on display across India to reconsider its approach.

The fact is that from the word go, Modi’s handling of the crisis has been disastrous. As late as March 13, his government was blithely declaring there was no public health emergency. Yet 11 days later, the prime minister felt compelled to impose a national lockdown with four hours notice to the public. While Modi cannot be faulted for believing a lockdown was the answer to the spread of the disease – most of the world’s leaders have acted similarly – he is perhaps the only major leader to have made zero preparations.

Even if he had firmed up the lockdown plan on March 19, the day he announced the ‘Janata Curfew’ for March 22, that would have given him six days to plan for the consequences. Having squandered the days before the lockdown and immediately after in the pursuit of political objectives such as the toppling of the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh and the communalisation of the pandemic, the Modi government hoped the heavy-handed use of state machinery would allow it to get away with its minimum governance. The reality is that the lockdown has failed to contain the epidemic even as it has laid waste to the economy and to the livelihoods of millions. Along the way, the sangh parivar’s ugly Islamophobia has also undermined years of Indian diplomacy in the Gulf region – a development that will have harmful economic consequences for the country.

During Modi 1.0, Arun Shourie joked that the BJP government was ‘Manmohan Singh plus cow’. Today, given the manner in which Modi has used the pandemic to centralise governance, promote the interests of big business, trample on the democratic rights of the people and manage the judiciary, his rule is increasingly beginning to resemble the emergency of Indira Gandhi. Apologists for Indira Gandhi used to say, ‘at least the trains run on time’. Modi 2.0 is not even able to manage that, such is the shambles six years of ideologically driven ‘governance’ have created.

If there is one thing we’ve learned about Modi in all the years he has been chief minister and prime minister, it is that he never learns from his mistakes. The current situation is the product of his cult of personality, and the only response he is capable of is to double down on his worst impulses. Centralisation of authority, authoritarianism and divisive, polarising politics have helped him transcend crises before. As COVID-19 spreads and the economy flounders, the coming year will prove far more damaging for Indian democracy than anything we have seen thus far.
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