9 Years of Modi, 10 Points to Ponder
Economist Parakala Prabhakar's conversations around his new book 'The Crooked Timber of New India' leave us with dubious 'highlights' of this era.
1. The Modi government has squandered two massive mandates. Although the BJP received two massive mandates in 2014 and 2019, the government squandered the opportunity to usher in any real change and make a difference. It came up with a string of inspiring and transformational programmes like Swachh Bharat (‘Clean India’, Nirmal Bharat repackaged), Make in India, Skill India, Jan Dhan Yojana, etc. But today, ministers do not talk about them. Their websites and the corresponding ministries’ own reports make no mention of them and Parliament is not informed about what has happened. Indeed, an uplifting programme like Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (‘Save the daughter, educate the daughter’) scheme spends 79 per cent of its funds on publicity and administrative expenses. It shows the government is not serious.
2. This government’s genius is political manipulation and summoning the baser instincts of the people. The government has shown itself to be very competent in publicity and political manipulations. It has also been very good at summoning the dark forces latent in our society. There are a number of fissures and fault lines in society—religious, caste-based, economic, class- and gender-based fault lines. The role of the government should have been to paper the fissures over, not exacerbate them. Nationalism can be lofty but it too has a dark side. Yet during the long freedom struggle too, the leaders did not incite hatred against the British people, although it would have been easy to go that route.
3. It relies on voodoo economics. The country is in an economic mess, largely because it has chosen to rely on voodoo economists. Who else but voodoo economists would have advised it to go for the senseless and disastrous demonetisation in order to root out black money? It wounded the unorganised sector and more Indians today are below the poverty line than in 1990.
The BJP of course never had a coherent economic philosophy. It used to talk of ‘Gandhian socialism’ as its philosophy. It had opposed liberalisation in 1991–92 and later foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail. This incoherence has led to crony capitalism, inequality and concentration of wealth and given rise to rural distress.
4. Its cheerleaders are educated professionals, scientists and skilful communicators. Although unemployment is high, retail inflation is high and hurtful, institutions like the legislature and the judiciary are dysfunctional, consumption is falling and manufacturing is sluggish, the government is being cheered on by ‘educated clappers’. Despite the government peddling pseudo-science and promoting regressive ideas, this educated class has struck a Faustian bargain and sold their soul for the sake of their career, comfort and security. They are skilful and they are excellent communicators and they enjoy disproportionate influence. They are the ones who clap and cheer the Prime Minister when he speaks of plastic surgery in ancient times. They are the influencers and opinion makers, which explains why the government gets away with nonsense.
“The Prime Minister and his government get away with misinformation, ambivalence and plain lies because we, as a people, demand neither information nor accountability.”Parakala Prabhakar
5. Democracy is a nuisance for this government. Democracy has been hollowed out. In which democracy—forget about the mother or father of democracies—would the three farm bills have been passed through Parliament in 15 minutes and without discussion? When the three Acts were repealed, it took even less time. While in our Constituent Assembly everything was discussed threadbare, there has been no meaningful discussion on any subject in Parliament or in any state legislature during the last nine years. It is fine to say Parliament is the temple of democracy, etc., but the refusal to have any discussion, scrutiny or probe is certainly concerning.
6. Hindutva has been smuggled in surreptitiously. If the BJP and Modi wanted a Hindu rashtra and Hindutva, they should not have contested the election in 2014 on the planks of development, good governance and a corruption-free government. Indeed, till that point in time, the BJP used to claim that it was the only ‘genuinely secular’ party, that all other parties were ‘pseudo-secular’. ‘Development’ then was used like a Trojan horse to let Hindutva loose on an unsuspecting nation. In speech after speech in 2013–14, Modi had emphasised that the fight was not between Hindus and Muslims; that the fight was of both Hindus and Muslims together against poverty and unemployment.
“It is not from performance that the present dispensation draws and renews its political legitimacy and power. It is from an assertion of Hindu identity; from the process of othering non-Hindu identities…[It] thrives on skilful manipulation of the base instincts and sociocultural insecurities that lie barely concealed beneath the political topsoil of the nation.”Parakala Prabhakar
7. This government too is a minority government. Despite its massive mandate, this government too is a minority government, having secured only 38 per cent of the votes. Indeed, no government after Independence has ever secured 50 per cent or more of the votes polled. In 1984, the Congress came close to the 50 per cent mark, but all other governments fell far short. So we are ruled by the largest ‘minority’ and this is because of the firstpast-the-post system of election we follow. What about representation of the majority versus the minorities though? After 75 years of Independence, we should think seriously about electoral reforms and more representative governments. Proportional representation is one of the possible solutions, but the country needs to think about it.
“[This regime] is not burdened by Constitutional norms and democratic niceties, and it’s not averse to lying and deceiving.”Parakala Prabhakar
8. It is not just an electoral battle. The Opposition parties failed to size up the nature of the beast. They took the BJP at face value, took secularism and democracy for granted, and did not believe that there could be any threat to these core values. So they decided that though they did not have any ideological alignment with the BJP, there would be no harm in aligning with it to increase their vote share or get a cabinet berth or two at the Centre. They also made the mistake of sleepwalking from one election to another. They believed that politics meant winning elections. Their inability to understand the true nature of the BJP and their complacency allowed the BJP to dig in. They are making yet another mistake if they think that defeating the BJP in the general election in 2024 is what the fight is all about. The battle is to regain the soul of India.
9. Majoritarianism and popularity. If despite the economic distress and misgovernance, the government is still popular among a large section of Indians, it seems predominantly because of the majoritarian sentiment. Talks of a ‘vibrant Gujarat’ and a ‘Gujarat model’ have been proven hollow.
It is puzzling that while the ground was more fertile for majoritarianism after Partition, it was not allowed to settle in then—but it has now with the ‘unko sabak sikha diya’ syndrome drummed into the people. Indians must ask themselves what else could possibly explain it.
“India is truly at a crossroads. It has to soon decide whether to allow the Hindu-Hindutva narrative to overwhelm the country’s political discourse or to aggressively and confidently reclaim the lost space for the idea of India as a liberal democracy that celebrates its diversity.”Parakala Prabhakar
10. The reality behind the drumrolls. While the government does boast an increase in growth, employment and trade, and cites the Wall Street Journal reporting that 19 per cent of all smartphones in the world are getting made in India, what is the reality? Foxconn manufacturing Apple phones here or the smart phone sector are an insignificant, almost meaningless, part of the economy. They are not real indicators of progress. More Indians are today below the poverty line than in 1990. Youth unemployment is high. Public universities are a mess. Vacancies in teaching posts plague the IITs, medical colleges and state universities, and the rural distress is so high that the government admits to doling out ‘free ration’ to 84 crore Indians. If Indians are to take pride in the Wall Street Journal report, then they should also read the Oxfam report on ‘Inequality in India’, which hints at an increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, while a vast number of Indians has been pauperised. Will the government take credit for it?