The Union Budget this year, the famous ‘Bahi Khata’ Budget presented by Nirmala Sitharaman, was the biggest bluff of them all. The first Budget in independent India with not a single paragraph on the fiscal situation of the government. The Union Finance Minister casually dismissed the criticism by saying that the details were all there in the annexures. And horror of horrors, the figures in the annexures were way different from the figures given out by the Economic Survey just a day before.
The data were all there. The Economic Survey mentioned the Union Finance ministry itself as the source of the figures given, more precisely the Controller of Accounts. But still the Union Budget got the figures wrong, deliberately or otherwise. The Budget put up a brave front. All was right with the economy, it declared. It was time for big, bold reforms.
The Godi media went overboard as usual. Zee News tweeted the Union Finance Minister dressed like the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, but with as many as 10 arms doling out everything from crops to gold jewellery!
It took a few weeks for the bubble to burst. India, asserted Rathin Roy, member of the Prime Minister’s Economic Council, was having a fiscal heart attack. It was a silent fiscal crisis, he declared during an event at the Observer Research Foundation. The economic prospect for the government was looking gloomy, he warned.
It took a few more weeks for the Union Finance Minister to acknowledge the storm clouds. It took a suicide by the founder of Café Coffee Day chain, who was being hounded by tax officials and was going through financial difficulties, to shake India Inc. Sharp criticism of government policies jolted the FM into rolling back several of the Budget proposals.
As a knee-jerk reaction, the FM announced the merger of several Public Sector Banks. And when doubts were raised that it could lead to job losses, as many as 30,000 by some estimates, she hurriedly declared that no jobs would be lost.
The Budget fiasco was typical of Modi 2.0 –brash, impatient, thoughtless and cheeky. One is tempted to call it dishonest but this will have to wait for more details to come out.
As in Modi 1.0, Modi 2.0 is all about perception and politics. One of the first things that the government did was to engineer defections by TDP MPs in the Rajya Sabha to shore up its numbers. It merrily encouraged defections from other parties. It engineered defection of as many as 18 MLAs from the JD(S)-Congress coalition in Karnataka, whisked the MLAs to Mumbai in private planes, prevented Congress troubleshooter DK Shivakumar from meeting the MLAs and eventually succeeded in installing a BJP government in the state.
It went a step further in Sikkim, where the BJP had not won a single seat in the Assembly. But almost overnight, the BJP emerged as the principal opposition party by engineering defection by 10 of the 13 MLAs of the Sikkim Democratic Front which has ruled the state for 25 years. In an unprecedented move, there were street protests in Gangtok by people –there were no public protests in Goa following similar defections—but the master strategists of the BJP remained unfazed.
As many as 30 legislations were passed by Parliament and the government patted itself in the back. The productivity of Parliament had never been better in a long time, the government gloated. But in the process, it trampled over parliamentary traditions, bulldozed the legislations without deliberation. Many legislations were introduced with no notice to the MPs; some were introduced on Fridays, which is usually reserved for private members’ bills. And barring a few inconsequential bills, none of the bills were sent to parliamentary standing committees for scrutiny.
Hurriedly drafted laws, some like the amendments in the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act or the Right to Information Act (RTI), are likely to be challenged in court and several constitutional experts felt they were bad in law. But the power-drunk government was oblivious to objections. It was in a hurry to score political brownie points and would brook no delay. Scrutiny by parliamentary committees could take up a few months but the scrutiny by experts helped in MPs learn the laws in greater detail and educated the people also about the nuances. But the government, convinced that it has the wisest heads and that it can make no mistake, rushed through the legislative agenda, with no questions asked.
Criminalising instant Triple Talaq, if the government is to be taken at face value, has been one of the crowning glories of the last 100 days. Never mind that it affects a microscopic minority or the criticism that divorce is a civil offence and not a criminal offence. The government wanted to be seen as radical reformers and confident that it could get through judicial scrutiny, it went ahead trumpeting it as a feather in its cap.
Even more audacious was of course the announcement that Article 370 and Article 35A were being withdrawn from J&K without consultation or concurrence of the state Assembly. The approval of the Centre’s representative to the state, the Governor, was enough to bifurcate the state into two Union Territories, federal principles be damned.
What was even more obnoxious was the manner in which it was done. The Army was forced to hold a Press Conference and claim that there was an imminent threat of attack on the Amarnath Yatra pilgrims. This was used as a pretext to abruptly call off the Yatra before schedule, for the first time in history, and order all tourists to get out of the state. The threat perception was used to justify deployment of thousands of additional security personnel.
And when National Conference leaders rushed to meet the Prime Minister in New Delhi and confide in him their misgivings, they were assured that the state would soon have elections, that nothing was being planned. The Governor kept on saying that the deployment was routine and there was no question of abrogating Article 370. The sly caveat that whoever knew of ‘tomorrow’ fooled nobody. This government has clearly elevated the art of lying to statecraft. Not surprisingly, everybody expected what was afoot but hoped against hope that good sense would eventually prevail. But the government took even Parliament by surprise, presenting it with a fait accompli.
Commented Pratap Bhanu Mehta in The Indian Express, “When the purpose of the regime is the show of power, nationalist fervour and social control, “bold” action will be the order of the day. In some sense, the government’s unprecedented move in Kashmir is a demonstration of all three regime traits; whether they are actually aimed at solving the problem at hand is an open question. Only in the context of a regime like this can a shutdown of a state, the decimation of constitutional federalism, the suspension of civil liberties, the creation of a climate of fear over reporting from Kashmir, and the heightened risk of war and conflict, be presented as a triumph.”
Veteran commentator and editor Prem Shankar Jha wrote in The Wire: “Neither Prime Minister Modi or Union home minister Amit Shah have bothered to ask themselves whether their predecessors’ restraint was cowardice or sagacity. This is because neither seem to be aware of the chasm that separates courage from foolhardiness. Courage presupposes foresight: a careful weighing of risks and benefits before adopting a course of action. Foolhardiness requires only the ‘courage’ to make a blind leap into the dark, hoping one will land on one’s feet.”
He went on to add, “The future of Kashmir, and therefore of India-Pakistan relations, is so dark that it does not bear thinking about. But the main threat that Modi’s actions pose to India does not lie outside its borders. They lie inside it, because if not stopped by the Supreme Court, what he has started could very easily presage the disintegration of the Indian Union.”
Modi 2.0 was touted as a government in a hurry. Information & Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar summed up the objective as: “speed, skill and scale”.
But commenting on the first 100 days of the government, Paran Balakrishnan wrote in The Telegraph, “But while at 50 days, the government was looking sure-footed even if its critics didn’t like many of its moves, at 100 days, it’s starting to look like an administration relying on ad-hoc measures to see it through.”
“India still has another 1,720 days to go under Modi until the 2024 elections. There’s no denying these are difficult times, but the Prime Minister has enormous voter charisma and cannot be underestimated. Barring a massive upheaval in the political landscape, it looks like “Modi will remain India”…” .
That could well be the case. With India reduced to a police state, with Parliament, judiciary and the media having fallen in line and with all criticism and opposition to the government being hailed as anti-national, the future for Modi 2.0 appears secure, no matter how many mistakes he makes. But the future for Indian democracy looks bleak.
As Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote, the first 100 days of Modi 2.0 say less about the Modi government and speak a lot more about us, the people of India.