Interview: Aakar Patel

Aakar Patel: ‘Modi shrank India’s workforce by a fifth’

Print edition : December 31, 2021

Aakar Patel.

Interview with Aakar Patel, author of ‘Price of the Modi Years’.

He is known to be an informed critic of the Narendra Modi government. Be it human rights abuse or a slew of policies sending the economy into a freefall, Aakar Patel has always backed his claims with facts. Almost a year ago when he wrote that India was de facto a Hindu Rashtra, many were shocked; some even differed with him.

Now, he is back with another book, Price of the Modi Years (Westland), dissecting the human and economic price India is going to pay for the seven-odd years spent under the BJP government since 2014. In an interview with Frontline, Patel, a noted columnist and Chair, Amnesty International, India, states in his forthright manner: “India is not on its way to becoming the next China, leave alone becoming a developed nation. Under Modi, mass poverty will continue, mass unemployment will be the norm, and a handful of people will control the majority of resources and wealth as has already happened.”

Narendra Modi, he recalls, had the political capital, the adoration of millions and no opposition. He could have ushered in transformational changes. Yet he failed to deliver; today the economy is in a shambles, the society fractured. Excerpts:

Narendra Modi has made the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) not just acceptable but respectable. At what price for the nation, though, particularly in the light of the organisation’s exclusionary nationalism?

He has certainly made what the RSS seeks to achieve respectable. And what they seek is two things. The first is the political marginalisation of Muslims. Deendayal Upadhayaya said in 1965 at a speech in Pune that this was the goal of the party. This has been achieved. The second is the constant harassment of minorities because they are seen as un-Indian.

Also read: ‘Structurally, we have already arrived at a Hindu Rashtra’

This harassment has no particular end and exists for itself. For this reason, it will continue because it has government endorsement and encouragement. It has produced an India which the world is aghast at and the price is the abandoning of any hope that India will join the ranks of the developed and civilised nations.

The rise of Modi has reduced the word secularism to an anomaly. Even the secular parties don’t often use the word. What does it say about religious freedom in India today?

There is no religious freedom in India today and the minorities exist on sufferance. Migrant Muslim labourers in the national capital region cannot congregate in spaces designated for their namaz without harassment. Christians are attacked around India for holding Sunday mass. The right to freely propagate and practice religion is bizarrely both a fundamental right in India and also a criminal offence. The offence is stressed over the right. The judiciary backs the state’s determination to restrict religious practice rather than support the individual’s right to enjoy freedom. The constitutional rights given to religious minorities are a fraud on them and don’t exist and they know it. The term secularism communicates something negative to the Hindu majority of India and therefore political parties have stopped touching the term and have abandoned its spirit.

Despite all talk of a multi-trillion economy, in 2021 for the first time the per capita GDP of India fell behind that of Bangladesh. Can it be blamed solely on the lockdown? Or did a step like demonetisation send the economy into a freefall in 2016 itself?

The national lockdown is not the factor here. In 2014, Bangladesh was 50 per cent behind India in per capita GDP terms. Over the Modi years it has caught up and done well to carry on, while India lost its way economically. Bangladesh is a global champion in merchandise exports, employing millions of women in garments manufacturing. This was the product of a lot of focus from their government.

On the other hand, five crore fewer Indians are working today than were before Modi became Prime Minister. Labour force participation is 60 per cent in the United States and over 70 per cent in China. It is today only 40 per cent in India, lower than Pakistan and the lowest in South Asia for the first time. Modi shrank India’s workforce by a fifth, an act of staggering incompetence for which he has not received due credit. And even in this smaller pool of people unemployment doubled to a post 1947 record of 6 per cent in 2018 and has remained above that since. These are government figures over which there is no dispute.

Also read: ‘We didn’t bleed him enough’

MNREGA is four times the size it was in 2013, so Indians want work but there are no jobs. The damage has been immense. Indians were spending and eating less in 2018 than they were in 2012, according to a government survey that the outgoing Chief Economic Advisor Krishnamurthy Subramanian wanted released but is being kept hidden by Modi out of embarrassment and fear.

Reversing decades of progress, 23 crore people fell into poverty in 2020 and 800 million are today dependent on the state giving them six kilos of free grain and dal each month.

Even the middle class which adores Modi has stopped growing under him. The number of cars and residential properties sold each year has been flat for 10 years. The lower middle class has stopped growing too: Sales of two wheelers have been flat for five years and three-wheelers for 15 years. We are clearly regressing. But why? We can address problems only after we accept they exist. If we think all is well there is nothing to correct. The Prime Minister, whether he knows the facts or not, is saying all is well. But this is not true.

Demonetisation

No nation has fought corruption by abolishing its currency. Modi had been warned about demonetisation by the Reserve Bank of India. Why did he go ahead with it? Have we recovered significantly from the self-inflicted debacle?

Modi tells us that he is decisive but not details-oriented. He does not read the files sent to him because that is, according to him, "academic study”, which is not for him. He says he hears two-minute oral summaries and then decides on a course of action. This is not how nations should be run, but this is his style and he says he is comfortable with it.

Also read: ‘Demonetisation does nothing to stop generation of black money’

He is the most powerful leader we’ve had in decades, and has few or none to tell him to reconsider something leave alone say he is making a mistake. He actually believed demonetisation was a silver bullet and the cure to corruption, black money and terrorism, as he told us in that speech. He was baffled when it failed and surprised that it produced so much chaos and distress because he hadn’t considered the fallout before ordering it. The Cabinet was asked to come to that November 8 meeting without their phones, meaning that they didn’t know what was coming and their Ministries didn’t know that currency was being abolished. And so there was no preparation.

Whether we have recovered or ever will recover is difficult to say. Consider the plight and panic of a poor woman, not literate and with no proper information of what happened that night, holding some of the abolished currency. How many millions were exploited because of their desperation? We will never know.

Beyond catchphrases, what has been the result “Make in India”, “Digital India”, “Aatmanirbhar Bharat” and “Beti Bachao Beti Padhao” at the ground level?

Manufacturing’s share of GDP has fallen from 16 per cent after “Make in India” was launched to under 13 per cent today. The total jobs in manufacturing have halved from 5.1 crore to 2.7 crore after 2016. The Prime Minister’s former adviser Arvind Panagariya himself says Aatmanirbhar Bharat is muddled. Its primary achievements are to make things more expensive for the Indian consumer and to protect the business magnate from external competition.

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Female participation in the labour force is at an all-time low: Beti padhao to what end? There is a lack of application of mind, little consistency and no follow-up on things that the Prime Minister takes up with zeal but then discards or loses interest in. The text of “Make in India” was copy-pasted from the UPA’s [United Progressive Alliance] National Manufacturing Policy and even the targets are identical. Only a logo was added. That sums up Modi’s style and manner of functioning.

The government uses around Rs.1,300 crore per annum for publicity. Could this money have been used to ameliorate the socio-economic impact of COVID and lockdown?

When the pandemic arrived, Sonia Gandhi did ask Modi to stop spending this money, to which we can add an equal amount given to media in discretionary fashion by the Public Sector Undertakings. So that is Rs.2,500 crore a year. He did not reply to her note. This is a waste of precious resource being deployed to display the Prime Minister’s face which most Indians are already familiar with.

But Modi is unlikely to stop promoting himself using citizens’ money because he obsesses over his self-image. He chose to wear a suit with his name in gold pinstripes when hosting the President of the United States.

At a time when unemployment is at a record high, how has been the government’s handling of a scheme like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act ?

It has been competent in the sense that the government recognised without saying it that the economy was shattered and more support would need to be given to the MGNREGA. Modi had tried initially to squeeze the programme and derided it because he was confident he would produce good jobs.

Also read: No data, little relief

When the economy began to collapse, MGNREGA expenditure first doubled from Rs.32,000 crore in 2014 to Rs.61,000 crore in 2018 and then tripled to Rs.1,11,000 crore in 2020 and this year the money allocated has already run out in the first seven months.

The Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojna (PMAY) aimed to construct 2 crore houses by 2022. Is the Yojana close to meeting its goal, or like in the case of demonetisation, we would see a change in goalpost?

The government does not actually construct anything. It gives money under four different heads, the most popular of which is direct assistance to those constructing or enhancing their house. This requires proof of ownership of land and the means to produce the remainder of the money after the grant.

Like many other schemes, PMAY is the renaming and subsuming of a previous scheme, in this case the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission. The scheme suffers from the same problems of governance in India as other schemes. What is paid out by the Union is much less than what is sanctioned. In the first four years of PMAY, Rs.100,000 crore was sanctioned but only Rs.20,000 crore was spent.

In the 2002 Godhra riots, the Gujarati language media was found to have played a partisan, even provocative, role. With the Gujarat Model overtaking India, has the national media too followed in its footsteps?

The Indian media has become unhinged over the last decade. The popular endorsement of Hindutva through the BJP’s electoral success has meant the declaration of open season on India’s minorities and especially its Muslims. We can partly attribute the media’s unwillingness to examine the government’s performance to the large sums of money released as advertising by the Directorate of Audio Visual Publicity in a shrinking advertising market. But that does not explain the clear communal skew of coverage.

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This is gratuitous, malicious and aimed at a viewership that is being soaked in prejudice and hatred. It has produced long-term damage which cannot be undone except perhaps generationally.

You talk of religious majoritarianism in the book. Does Modi’s India of 2021 remind you of General Zia ul Haq’s Pakistan of 1986?

There are some similarities in terms of the targeting of minorities and marginalised groups through law. Zia-ul-Haq’s religious bigotry does not appear to have been as popular as Modi’s. Certainly Zia did not have democratic endorsement as Modi does. That is why Pakistan’s law on rape could be returned from shariah back to the penal code without much opposition. The order on banning interest (riba) from the banking system has never been implemented. The hudood punishments of stoning and amputation exist on paper but are frozen, as modern scholars and jurists have advised.

In India, on the other hand, the pushing of a set of anti-minority laws intruding into their personal freedoms has popular appeal and encouraged society to accept Muslim lynching as a regular phenomenon, to stop Muslim and Christian prayer and to harass Muslim hoteliers, hawkers and shopkeepers. The total exclusion of Muslims from politics also receives popular endorsement here. Today Pakistan is secularising in some ways while India is moving away from secularism. Much of this will remain with us in the future because society has become fully infected.

We have seen 97 per cent of cow-related violence in independent India has taken place after 2014. How does one explain this, considering the cow has been held sacred for long?

Cow slaughter is part of the agriculture economy. After [the advent of] tractors, there is no use for the male calf and to keep it is a cost. This has always been understood and accepted by the communities in agriculture. The Prime Minister pushed for legislation criminalising the possession of beef, which came in 2015 in BJP States, after which the lynchings began. The law is the trigger.

Also read: ‘The cow was neither unslayable nor sacred in the Vedic period’

Something similar may be observed in the attacks on inter-faith marriage after the so-called “love jehad” laws in five BJP States after 2018. The state in India is pushing violence against its minorities by the passing of laws such as these. Gujarat’s punishment for cattle slaughter, which is ostensibly an economic crime, is life imprisonment. The laws are intended to demonise Muslims and this they have done successfully.

Finally, what price has India paid for the Modi years?

Two vectors are apparent. The first is on the side of the economy. India is not on its way to becoming the next China, leave alone becoming a developed nation. Under Modi the economy has (reached) a trajectory where mass poverty will continue, mass unemployment will be the norm as it has already become, and a handful of people will control the majority of resources and wealth as has also already happened.

The second is on the side of society. We will remain divided, minorities will remain forcibly ghettoised, the population will remain obsessed with religious differences and symbols, and accepting of violence. Modi’s Hindutva has encouraged the state to devolve its monopoly over the use of force while a complicit or terrified judiciary has abdicated its responsibility. Hindutva mobs rule in India today and will for the foreseeable future.

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