The India Story 2016

Narendra Modi in the Year of Unthinkable Thinking

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Of sacrifice and strategic precision

INDIA IN 2016 saw the normalisation of extremes, just as the rest of the world did—the unthinkable was thought out aloud and the undoable done. While the politics of victimhood, sentiments and political correctness came under scrutiny for distortion of facts and misrepresentation of reality by flag-bearers of nationalism, policymaking became bolder and more ambitious, attracting salvos from an opposition that termed it adventurist and drastic. As the fear of consequences was disregarded in favour of shedding the status quo, institutions were bypassed and conventions flouted. In the light of new trends gaining in popular appeal globally and especially in India, sticking to old standards was looked upon as inappropriate— which was so even for the media, which had to bare its partisan ways.

The idea of post-factual politics showed signs of reigning through the year, much to the anguish of power centres the world over. In the chaos that ensued, Hollywood star Denzel Washington came close to nailing the truth when he said, “If you don’t read newspapers, you are uninformed. When you read newspapers, you are misinformed.” He added that it was not just important to get the news out first, but it was more crucial to report the truth.

Instead of truth, what we have in India is a plurality of narratives, which sociologists such as Shiv Visvanathan contend are accompanied by a “silence of the masses”. Ironically, that in itself is a political masterstroke by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who could seemingly rally people behind him for his demonetisation gamble in the name of sacrifice to a greater common good, the uprooting of corruption. The multitude of potential gains being talked about from his November 8th scrapping of old Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 currency notes—which together accounted for around 86 per cent of the value of all currency in circulation and amounted to almost Rs 15 lakh crore—is a pointer to how deeply an abstract variable like ‘trust’ can impact national politics in such circumstances.

So far, Modi has won considerable support for that politically risky decision. It was courageous of him to have gone ahead with a plan that he called a “game changer”, for he knew the political ramifications only too well: he was targeting a constituency of traders and others who have traditionally thrived in business on cash transactions that gave them both exorbitant gains and scope for tax evasion. He was aware that the informal sector could be irreparably damaged by the absence of a steady supply of unaccounted- for money. With the challenges so steep, the Prime Minister’s resolve was laudable.

On the other hand, as Modi attracts attention throughout the world, naysayers have lost no time in painting politicians as a caricature, as a larger-than-life joke. While extremes are normalised, many of them see extremities of normalisation in a contemporary India where a powerful leader redefines political and governmental priorities in daring new ways.

The American experience has lessons of its own. A liberal onslaught against an aberrant leader, the American President-elect Donald Trump, turned out to be so much egg on their faces in the recently-held US election, the outcome of which was peddled as a foretold one; that the country was to have its first woman president in the White House. It did not quite work out that way. As the year drew to a close, it was time to learn how to unlearn. Humility was the order of the day. As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman admitted, his assumptions had been absolutely wrong.

That transition in politics, from liberal-dictated to the ballot- proven popularity of the alt-right, was the global story of 2016. From Trump to Brexit to confusions about the migrant question in Germany and rethink of security concerns in France and Italy; from the trouble in Left-wing politics across Latin America to the rise of conservative rivals in the region—all of this signifies a kind of reboot of global priorities. This comes as a shock to the pundits who, trained to think in linear fashion, failed to see that the underpinnings of conventional politics were in for a serious reset.

IN THE INDIAN context, it might not be unwise to project the ongoing demonetisation drive, despite all its concomitant hiccups that are par for the course, as a landmark political decision comparable in its disruptive capacity with VP Singh’s move to implement the Mandal Commission report in the late 1980s. While Singh unleashed this shake-up unparalleled in Independent India, reserving a 27-per cent quota for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in government jobs, its all-encompassing nature as a movement was cut short soon after as it spawned regional satraps of powerful caste groups in north India, under whose charge only the elites among OBCs backward could corner the benefits.

That the majority of non-Yadav OBCs in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar—two of India’s most populous states—are still disempowered politically close to three decades later, is a stark reminder of how political movements can deteriorate and create further divisions and resentment within marginalised groups. At the same time, the Mandalisation of Indian politics coincided with the end of Brahmin hegemony in the country. States such as Bihar and UP, which for decades had upper-caste leaders in power, underwent a shift as the political hierarchy saw the ascent of OBCs. Politics in the country would never be the same again. Reading the writing on the wall, the BJP, under the stewardship of LK Advani, sought to consolidate all Hindus irrespective of caste into a common fold as it forged ahead with the Ram Janmabhoomi movement in the early 90s. The BJP, which had begun to groom backward-caste leaders to shed its image of being a ‘Brahmin-Bania party’, went on an overdrive to co-opt as many OBC leaders into its higher echelons as possible.

A similar disruption was the liberalisation of the Indian economy in 1991 spearheaded by the late Congress Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao and his then Finance Minister Manmohan Singh. Though done out of financial necessity, it proved to be one of the most defining moments of India’s growth story from a third-world country to a much-favoured market for MNCs. Rapid market expansion and the associated economic heft also brought India within reach of superpower status. ‘Reforms’ and ‘industry’ were no longer seen as bad words but as instruments that could generate growth and new jobs, besides money that could be put to use for welfare schemes to alleviate poverty. The country’s deprivation levels have since fallen, even though inequality has risen in terms of the income gap between the haves and have-nots. Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton, who has studied Indian poverty and welfare schemes in detail, later observed that there is often a trade-off between inequality and poverty.

In the context of Modi’s seemingly path-breaking and evidently disruptive announcement on currency, Columbia University Professor Jagdish Bhagwati says that the hardships people are currently facing—shortage of cash in ATMs, long queues at banks to deposit and withdraw cash—are the transition pains that are to be expected whenever monumental decisions are made by governments. He is of the view that economists critical of the move are reacting in undue haste. In an essay co-written with two other economists in The Times of India, he says: ‘Economically and politically powerful constituencies with considerable stake in the shadow economy have been upended. Undertaking this reform has required the political courage to impose predictable transition costs on the economy to lay the foundation for sustained future benefits—the converse of what one normally expects from one’s politicians.’ For an economist known to be economical with his praise, he says he is very pleased with the way Modi is conducting business. The Prime Minister ‘is prepared to take on political risk in his efforts to fulfill his commitment to root out corruption—and has promised even more. We await his next steps,’ says Bhagwati, who has been supportive of the ‘Gujarat Model’ of development. As early as 2013, he had backed Modi’s economic initiatives in the western Indian state while he was its Chief Minister. The Gujarat Model, in the economist’s view, is a metaphor for development that is driven primarily by growth powered by private entrepreneurship. In India’s Tryst with Destiny, a book he co-authored with Arvind Panagariya, he argues that it was actually the Gujarat Model that had delivered growth even in Kerala, contrary to common claims that credit is due to the ‘Kerala Model’—development driven chiefly by statist policies and redistribution. In the post-demonetisation scenario, he contends that the lack of unrest in the country is proof of support at the grassroots for Modi’s move. Bhagwati, however, did not respond to queries from Open asking him to cite examples of extreme hardship or food shortage having triggered mob violence in the country—as opposed to people’s response to similar situations in Latin America and the Far East—in the past to justify that argument. He also didn’t reply to questions on the need for legislation to make political funding transparent. Meanwhile, Krugman, once Bhagwati’s student, rules out any significant gains from demonetisation. “I understand the motivation, but it is a highly disruptive way to do it,” he said in Delhi at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit. Observers have noticed how the Centre’s narrative has changed from tackling corruption to the imperative of going cashless so that financial transactions can be traced by the tax authorities. Economists of various persuasions have pointed out that taking Indian transactions from a single-digit figure to 100 per cent digitisation in a brief period is unrealistically ambitious. Several other scholars are of the view that Modi, who had backed Anna Hazare’s demand for the setting up of a powerful Lokpal in 2011 and on many occasions in the run-up to the General Election of 2014, has done little to ensure the attainment of that goal.

PUBLIC ANGER CAN lead to changes in collective behaviour as well as political upheavals. If corralled and deployed judiciously to achieve worthy goals for the transformation of a society that needs to be rid of past decadence and adhere to higher moral standards, that emotion could be a useful tool. Generally speaking, a sense of being wronged or marginalised from political decisions could even stir up a revolution. But then, the infusion of righteous anger, manufactured over time for political gains, could also lead to devastation. Martha C Nussbaum, in her recent work, Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice, dwells at length on the need for coping with anger, at the individual and collective levels, through self-examination. Her argument is radical: ‘When anger makes sense (because focused on status), its retaliatory tendency is normatively problematic, because a single-minded focus on status impedes the pursuit of intrinsic goods. When it is normatively reasonable (because focused on the important human goods that have been damaged), its retaliatory tendency doesn’t make sense, and it is problematic for that reason.’

Nussbaum’s pronouncements acquire import in these times when anger has given rise to the unthinkable, as if to knock pundits out of intellectual sloth, or maybe to initiate course corrections in politics and policies. Liberals who tend to nurse a sense of superiority in the political discourse often go astray in their forecasts for that very reason. The French economist Thomas Piketty has called the results of the US election a nationalist and racist backlash against globalisation. Liberals tend to write off verdicts that are an outcome of long-held anger. They despise the responses of conservative forces as unreasonable and reactionary, and perhaps rightly so, but without taking the blame for underestimating the power of their opponents whose voices they like to stifle. All this implies that fulminating at conferences, coming out with hard-hitting articles and revelatory documentaries alone aren’t enough to combat the appeal of conservatives and ultra-nationalists. For liberals, the ground beneath is slipping away—for now.

The vengeful ascent of conservative politics and the aberrant behaviour of its feeder outfits have to be seen in this context. Ultra right-wing elements view this as a chance to indulge themselves. Nationwide, 2016 saw numerous cases of such excesses, be it in the name of protecting cows, considered sacred by Hindus, from slaughter or being traded. The impression that the country’s majority community has been wronged for a thousand years runs deep, thanks to Rightist propaganda. That history has been written by Leftists to justify their whims for decades, especially to downplay alleged horrors committed by invaders over the centuries past, serves as an argument for ‘rewriting’ history. Such is the posturing by the loony fringe, exemplified by the likes of Delhi-based Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena, Dhar-based Bhoj Utsav Samiti, Pune-based Hindu Rashtra Sena and various other groups that crawled out of the woodwork following the BJP’s win of 2014. Many of them are intolerant and violent, such as the ‘gau raksha’ activists of Jharkhand and several anonymous vigilante groups that are now dime-a-dozen in this country. Most of them embrace the warped retributive logic of bomb-ka-badla-bomb to strike back in the same coin for attacks on Hindu temples, like the ones on Akshardham in Ahmedabad, Raghunath Mandir in Jammu and Sankat Mochan in Varanasi. Ironically, an investigation by Open shows that many of these outfits that behave as though they are custodians of the Hindu faith tend to engage in competitive Hindutva politics and even despise the RSS for ‘not doing enough’ for Hindus. Opposition parties, including the Congress and Marxists, however, claim that these organisations are sheltered by the RSS and its network of feeder organisations.

This July in Una, Gujarat, cow vigilantes stripped and flogged four Dalit youths and took videos of it that went viral, leading to massive protests across the state, much to the anguish of the BJP, the state’s ruling party. Dalits have traditionally skinned dead cows and disposed of them, but in protest, they refused to continue this menial work and asked gau rakshaks to take care of bovine carcasses instead. Protests spread from city to city and even to Ahmedabad, and in the process Prime Minister Modi came under sharp attack from Dalit groups across the country for supposedly showing no concern for the lives of the low castes. Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani, like Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakor before him, became the face of a new political mobilisation against Modi in his home state. Though Dalits make up merely 7 per cent of Gujarat’s population, this Dalit uprising is expected to have an impact on other states. In other parts of the country, especially in UP and Madhya Pradesh, cow vigilantes were found to be running a syndicate that took bribes from cow and buffalo traders in return for assuring them safe passage at check points. Those who refused to pay up were brutally attacked, most of the victims being Dalits and Muslims. It did not help that senior government functionaries didn’t do enough to contain the fallout of such incidents, which even had some right-wing leaders rousing mobs to a religious frenzy. Stung by that backlash at the tyranny of gau rakshaks and their violent methods, Modi finally declared, “I feel really angry at the way some people have opened shops in the name of cow protection. I have seen that some people commit anti-social activities through the night, but act as cow protectors by day.”

IF THE PRIME Minister has won plaudits over the past two years for his digitisation and cleanliness programmes, though these are yet to achieve the intended breakthroughs, it was his ‘surgical strikes’ to avenge the killings of soldiers at Indian armed-force bases that have attracted widespread acclaim. Notwithstanding claims to the contrary by Pakistan and a section of the media, the Indian Government and Army stated categorically that within 10 days of Pakistan launching an attack on a military camp in Uri, Jammu & Kashmir, killing 18 soldiers, India carried out armed action across the Line of Control in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. Indian forces struck at terror camps 500 metres to 2 km inside territory held by the aggressor, killing 38 terrorists and two soldiers.

That attack and its public announcement came as a political boost for the BJP and Indian military, given that the Uri terror attack—blamed on security lapses—had hurt the armed forces’ morale. The muscular display of military prowess went well with the Prime Minister’s hard-nosed image, and served to undo the dissonance caused by the humiliating attack on an airbase in Pathankot by Pakistan-trained militants on January 2nd, just a week after his surprise visit to greet his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif on his birthday in Lahore. The symbolism, the rhetoric and chest-thumping of the ‘surgical strikes’ were inescapable, and the patriotic fervour aroused was clear in the response of adoring crowds addressed by Modi at public rallies held soon after.

What complicated relations between India and Pakistan following the early skirmishes this year were the protests that broke out in Kashmir following the July 8th killing of Hizbul Mujahideen militant leader Burhan Wani. Tensions this year in the troubled state were different from those in 2008 or 2010, the last two times that the Valley had flared up. The 2010 protests, which followed the death of 17-year-old Tufail Mattoo in police firing, left around 120 people dead. About two years before that, at least 70 were killed in protests against a proposed transfer of land to the Amarnath shrine board. The protestors this time had warned even the Hurriyat hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani not to ‘betray’ the cause in the manner he allegedly did in 2010, when he issued an appeal for calm. The pro-Pakistan ideologue only seemed to be playing catch-up with the leaderless crowds out waving flags and pelting stones at security forces on the streets. Worse, even after the surgical strikes of September, Pakistan-trained militants continue to mount periodic attacks on strategic Indian locations.

In electoral politics, the year was good for the ruling party at the Centre. Unlike the state elections of 2015, when the BJP lost badly in Bihar to the Nitish Kumar-Lalu Prasad-led Grand Alliance and in Delhi to the Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP, the polls of 2016 offered the BJP enough cause for cheer. It won Assam’s Assembly elections by trouncing the ruling Congress, made some gains in West Bengal, and won a first-ever seat in Kerala, where it secured a decent chunk of total votes polled besides being the first runner- up in seven constituencies.

Leaders of the BJP say that with the death of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa in early December, the party may make political inroads in this state, just as it has done in other southern states in recent years. The leader’s demise, 74 days after she was admitted to Apollo Hospital in Chennai—drama-filled days that saw her supporters offering prayers, some of them congregating outside the hospital and some committing suicide—is seen by pundits as a temporary setback for the BJP, which had won her backing for the passage of crucial bills in Parliament. In the Rajya Sabha, where the BJP-led NDA is in a minority, Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK has 13 members who staged a walkout when the GST Bill was introduced, an act that facilitated its passage.

BJP leaders are apprehensive that in the absence of a leader who ruled her party with an iron-fist, the new AIADMK may be vulnerable to ‘mischief’ by its rival DMK. However, since Jayalalithaa had shaped the AIADMK after MG Ramachandran’s death in the mid-1980s into a movement that distanced itself from its earlier anti-Hindi and anti-Brahmin stance, it’s possible that space is now available for non-Dravidian parties to gain a foothold in the state. Tamil Nadu’s leadership vacuum after her death—with the ailing DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi considered past his prime as a political force—offers the BJP a flicker of hope. What it has to its credit, say party leaders, is a strong central leadership in contrast with a Congress party that’s grappling with leadership crises at the Centre and in the states.

In foreign affairs, India has reason to worry about China’s cooperation with Pakistan, especially the $50 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, which envisages setting up major infrastructure and power projects from western Balochistan to China. CPEC, which is seen as an extension of China’s ambitious One Belt, One Road initiative, will link Kashgar with Gwadar port and has been heralded as an economic bonanza for Pakistan. Some analysts expect the project to become a Chinese tool to exploit the people of Balochistan. Signalling a shift in foreign policy, Modi in his Independence Day speech this year said that people of Gilgit, PoK and the conflict-ridden Pakistani state of Balochistan had reached out to him. A few days earlier, he had pledged to raise Pakistan’s excesses in these three areas in global forums. New Delhi, meanwhile, was also successful in establishing close ties with the government of Afghanistan to create a front against Pakistan. At the Heart of Asia conference held in Amritsar recently, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani called out Pakistan for its export of terror. “We need to identify cross-border terrorism and a fund to combat terrorism. Pakistan has pledged $500 million for Afghanistan’s development. This amount… can be spent to contain extremism,” Ghani said, addressing Sartaj Aziz, foreign policy advisor to Sharif.

As we bid farewell to 2016, the broad trend is clear. Populism, right or wrong, be it in domestic or foreign policy, is gaining currency in India as well as elsewhere in the world. As the country wades through an unprecedented information overload, marked by a surge in fake news, the biggest challenge in the year ahead would be to strive relentlessly for a balance between being informed and misinformed.