Unlocking the real agenda

What marks out the first anniversary of the Modi government’s second stint is its focus on communal polarisation and muscle power to wriggle out of challenges and threats, be it the pandemic, border disputes or diplomacy-related shortcomings.

Published : Jun 08, 2020 07:00 IST

Prime Minister Narendra Modi chairing a Cabinet meeting in New Delhi on June 3.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi chairing a Cabinet meeting in New Delhi on June 3.

The run-up to Lockdown 5.0 or Unlock 1.0 coincided with the first anniversary of the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance government’s second innings. A widely circulated message on social media, especially WhatsApp, during this time took a jibe at the enforcement of the four lockdowns and the prospect the fifth held out for India. A rough translation of the message doing the rounds in multiple Indian languages is as follows: “Lockdown 1, you cannot do either this thing or that thing; Lockdown 2, you cannot do this thing, but you can do that thing; Lockdown 3, you can do this thing, but you cannot do that thing; Lockdown 4, you can do this and that thing but not that and this thing; Lockdown 5, you do whatever you want to because we cannot do anything.”

An analysis of the trajectory of the four lockdowns, with specific reference to the spread of COVID-19 and the rights and authority the Central government had delegated to State governments and political bodies combating the pandemic on the ground, highlights the ad hocism and cluelessness that this message, using humour, depicts. By the time the country entered Lockdown 5.0 and Unlock 1.0, the Union government had transferred almost the entire operational responsibility of managing the pandemic and the lockdown and its after-effects, such as the return of migrant labour to their native places, to State governments. In contrast, during the early stages, the Centre had sought to proactively micromanage several measures and manoeuvres of State governments. Further, the Union government continued to stifle the States financially by not allocating sufficient funds and by even imposing stringent limitations on the drawing of institutional loans.

These were not the only things that got highlighted during the government’s anniversary. Several other facets of the first year of the Narendra Modi government’s second innings that came to the fore were the persistent pursuit of Hindutva communal polarisation by the BJP, its government and its associates in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar; the advancement of draconian laws, rules and regulations to subjugate and oppress minority communities as well as voices of dissent; the overbearing centralisation of core financial and governance systems; the utter disregard for the plight of the poor and the marginalised; the growing resentment within the defence forces on account of the deeply felt government apathy and insolence; and the deep confusion in terms of foreign policy and international engagements, both at the level of diplomacy and in terms of fortification of borders.

Return of Amit Shah

The anniversary eve also marked Home Minister Amit Shah’s return to centre stage of governance manoeuvres after a relatively long absence, reportedly caused by personal health issues. In fact, it was the Home Minister who conducted the discussions with Chief Ministers before imposing the Lockdown 5.0-Unlock 1.0 combine. He held the online meeting and later confabulated with Prime Minister Modi leading the detailing of the announcement. Shah’s return to centre stage was marked by a series of media engagements; some of these starkly highlighted the utter lack of concern the government had for the poor and the marginalised who are going through countless miseries on account of the pandemic and the lockdowns.

In a particularly shocking media engagement, Shah blamed the exodus on the migrant labourers themselves. He said “some people lost patience and started walking on the roads”. Shah went on to add that the “on foot exodus” had stopped in “five-six days” and after that the Union and State governments had systematically provided transport and other facilities to those returning to their villages.

The Home Minister’s blatantly false utterance came after nearly 70 days of lockdown and even as thousands of migrant labourers were walking or taking whatever mode of transport was available to them, from bullock carts, cycles, autorickshaws and cyclerickshaws, to small vans and trucks, to reach home. Shah’s undisguised attempt at camouflaging facts evoked adverse reactions from many quarters, including opposition leaders, social activists and even bureaucrats in the Union Home Ministry.

Talking to Frontline , a senior Home Ministry officer admitted that his Minister’s attempt was pathetic. “It would have made much more sense if he had at least expressed regret for some oversight,” said the officer.

“The fact of the matter,” commented Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav, “is that Lockdown 1.0 was imposed on March 25, but no form of transport was arranged for migrant labourers for almost a month”. He added: “The Union and State governments agreed on bus services from April 20 and the special train service started a full 10 days later, on May 1. And even after that, some 170 migrant workers got killed in accidents on roads or train tracks. One of the most shocking images of this unprecedented human disaster is that of a toddler trying to wake up his dead mother at a railway station. The mother had died of extreme heat and lack of food and water. These are the facts, and all that they add up to is for a really abominable track record.”

Draconian laws

The eve of the government’s anniversary also marked the reinvigoration of draconian laws, rules and regulations along with the security establishment’s brute force with the clear intent of oppressing minority communities and voices of dissent. The arrests and other forms of premeditated persecution of many social activists and writers in openly biased and prejudiced manoeuvres of the police and other security establishment apparatuses have been reported repeatedly from different parts of the country during this period.

Cases in point include the arrest of social activist students Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita of the feminist collective Pinjra Tod in Delhi as well as activist and writer Gautam Navlakha. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) whisked Navlakha away on May 26 from Delhi to Mumbai ostensibly to “continue investigation” of the former Economic & Political Weekly editor’s “Maoist links”. Significantly, Navlakha’s family or the NIA court in Delhi did not have information on this dramatic move, which was carried out at a time when the Delhi High Court is yet to hear the writer’s petition seeking interim bail owing to health reasons.

Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita, Jawaharlal Nehru University students and founding members of Pinjra Tod, were arrested first on May 23 and systematically persecuted through serial first information reports (FIRs) even as they managed to obtain bail in the cases registered as per earlier FIRs (story on page 42).

Even as such forms of aggression continues internally on Indian citizens on evidently cooked-up charges, the government’s first anniversary is also marked by pronounced floundering on diplomatic and defence-related issues, especially in terms of fortifying the borders. A standoff between Indian and Chinese troops that began in early May has persisted in fits and starts at different places on the Sino-Indian border through the month. There were also reports that Chinese soldiers had crossed the “line of actual control” (LAC) around the Galwan River valley. Defence experts point out that China had not taken such a concerted action in a decade and that the current moves appear to be in response to India’s road-building activities in some sectors on the border.

The manner in which diplomatic relations have soured with India’s “perennial” friendly neighbour Nepal has also exposed the foreign policy pitfalls of the Modi 2.0 regime. The relations have turned bad to such levels that Nepal, in an openly adversarial stance, went to the extent of deploying its Armed Police Force at the border point of Lipulekh. This again was apparently in reaction to India inaugurating a link road through a stretch that Nepal claims to be its territory.

Discontent in the armed forces

Amidst these security and diplomacy-related concerns, significant segments of the country’s defence personnel, particularly in the Army, are reportedly unhappy with the conduct of the recently appointed Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat and some of the new organisational moves he has advanced. The moves include the proposal to induct civilians into the armed forces for a three-year tenure as “tour of duty” and the opening up of military property for civilian access.

Sections of serving and retired personnel see these moves as the CDS yielding to political authority. They have also expressed the view that the defence establishment was deliberately kept out of COVID relief operations on account of this subjugation to political leadership, despite the proven credentials of the forces to do much more than other security outfits (story on page 107).

Modi’s open letter

However, in spite of all these glaring foibles and vulnerabilities, Prime Minister Modi chose to describe the first anniversary of his second innings as the marking of a golden chapter in the history of Indian democracy. Writing an “open letter to citizens” on the eve of the anniversary, he claimed that in the five years between 2014 and 2019, the country had extricated itself from the quagmire of inertia and corruption. He went on to add that “Sabka sath, sabka vikas” (with everybody, for everybody’s development) was the slogan for his second term so that the country forged ahead in all directions—social, economic, global or internal.

Notwithstanding this claim about universal harmony and progress, the achievements that he listed for the past one year were primarily part of the sectarian Hindutva agenda. Modi listed as his government’s major achievements the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution, the Ayodhya Ram temple construction following the Supreme Court verdict, the proscription of “triple talaq”, and the passage of the citizenship law. Evidently, the Prime Minister and his team continue to put their faith in Hindutva-linked communal polarisation and related administrative and muscle power-oriented oppression as the way to wriggle out of challenges and threats, be it the pandemic, border disputes, diplomacy-related shortcomings or resentment among the defence forces. This is unambiguously cynical pursuit of power and governance even in the face of an unprecedented and life-changing pandemic.

Assessing the Modi regime’s performance over the last six years, and with a special reference to the second innings, the political and economic affairs analyst Seshadri Kumar observed that “there is much more to come in the months ahead, especially in relation to Indian economy”. He said: “The economy was already hobbling on one leg thanks to Modi’s mismanagement over the last six years, but it has been completely crippled by the COVID virus now. This government is so illiterate financially that they can only think of one thing to do in all economic crises—reduce interest rates. Even a novice in economics will tell you that reducing interest rates will do nothing to help the economy if the problem is fundamentally one of weak demand. Companies are firing employees left and right because of poor business due to COVID and mounting debts. When millions hit the pavement in a few months, you can be sure that this government will go back to its favourite tactic—reduce interest rates. India’s industry will be dealt a death blow by stupid governance.”

As economic and social doom stares the country in its face, the State governments continue, as Kerala’s Finance Minister Thomas Isaac points out, to bear the brunt of the COVID combat, somehow managing to stay afloat braving, among other things, the Union government’s calculated and callous denial of adequate financial rights.

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