BJP's bid to polarise populace, aided by silent and complicit media, has left Indian democracy in disarray

A closer look at the trajectory of Indian politics and society in the past five years shows us that much has indeed changed since the BJP came to power.

Saib Bilaval January 20, 2019 15:04:36 IST
BJP's bid to polarise populace, aided by silent and complicit media, has left Indian democracy in disarray

In light of recent sedition charges against political activists — Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya in the Jawaharlal Nehru University 9 February case, and others such as Akhil Gogoi and Hiren Gohain in Assam on baseless charges — it has become clear that the use of the patriot-traitor binary is the major political ploy to polarise the population either during major structural changes to the country or before elections.

Any entity or individual (whether it is a journalist, academic, political activist or ordinary citizen) that opposes the authoritarian, communal, casteist or neoliberal tendencies of the central government is branded “anti-national” in order to manufacture public consent, discredit the contents of their critique and suppress the like-mindedness that might emerge in society.

BJPs bid to polarise populace aided by silent and complicit media has left Indian democracy in disarray

File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah.

There has been much talk of “waging war against the country”, strangely even applied to people in individual capacity by the law. A closer look at the trajectory of Indian politics and society in the past five years shows us that much has indeed changed since the BJP came to power. The unanswered questions on who exactly is responsible for which changes echo hollow in the chambers of establishment media houses. There is indeed a war on the India we used to know, but the media is silent on whom exactly is waging it.

Among the various sections who seek to change the nature of the nation and/or the Indian State through violent means, such as Maoists, militants in Jammu and Kashmir or the North East, or through democratic means, such as the parliamentary communists or socialists, there is only one section which straddles both means, and actually wields the political power to enact its vision: the Hindutva forces led by the RSS, BJP, VHP and the Bajrang Dal. The Congress is excluded because it set the ideological and constitutional status-quo. Incidentally, all the negative changes seem to have been handed down to us by the BJP government with a brute legislative majority at the Centre.

A war on basic tenets of Constitution

The Citizenship Bill, 2019, for the first time, allows the State to discriminate between refugees on the basis of religion, violates the equality of religion in the eyes of the State and the law, goes against nearly every international human rights convention on refugees and makes the State an enactor of social engineering.

The recent introduction of reservation for economically “backward” upper-castes violates the 50 percent cap on reservations, collides the principles of social and economic justice (as well as social and economic backwardness), erases the social-discriminatory aspect of caste in the State’s eyes, creates a financial niche for middle-class upper castes as a category, while shrinking the opportunity for people from reserved categories to reach the general category by merit.

BJP-ruled state governments such as those in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh are already scrambling to implement it. The Union government also attempted to dilute the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, which would have amounted to snatching away the safety and dignity of those communities. By bulldozing the enforcement of Aadhaar in spheres where there was no legal mandate, in spite of judicial restraint, and by passing an order through which 10 central agencies can legally perform surveillance on and seize all of one’s digital data, the Modi government has effectively butchered the right to privacy.

A war on autonomy of public institutions

We have seen the Modi government, over the past few years, undermine the autonomy of nearly every major public institution. The misuse of the CBI for political witch-hunts, the removal and transfer of officers investigating BJP leaders and even tampering by the Prime Minister's Office with who heads the body has reduced the morale of the officials as well as public faith in the body. The BJP government has also interfered heavily with the Reserve Bank of India. In an attempt to push through unsound fiscal policies, the government removed director after director.

The judiciary has been somewhat undermined by the government, the latter ignoring rulings on sedition and Aadhaar, as well as with the record of former chief justice of India Dipak Misra. Controversial justices have the scope to determine bench rosters for favourable judgments. The judge Loya murder case has also raised deep questions about saffron intimidation and direct external interference in judgment: verified by the silence by the mainstream media and most of the judiciary. The Planning Commission has been dismantled and the institution that replaced it, Niti Aayog, merely doles out disinvestment packages to the private sector and tenders for public-private projects, rather than mapping out and implementing courses of future economic development. There is an overall lack of transparency in State functioning.

A war on education

The installation of political puppets as vice chancellors of major public universities has called into question the government’s commitment to improving campuses and academics. These include those heading Film and Television Institute of India, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Hyderabad Central University, Punjab University, Benaras Hindu University and Manipur University, among others. The VCs then act as enablers of political recruitment in these institutions, and engineer a push towards outsourcing, fee-hikes and privatisation. They have also behaved as State agents by clamping down on legitimate grievances of social justice, due procedure, political persecution or vendetta, sexual harassment, or promotion of the BJP.

Further, institutions such as the Indian Science Congress, Indian Council for Historical Research, and the University Grants Commission have also seen political appointments for the purpose of nepotism and for advancing the erroneous saffron view of history and obscurantist views of science. When it comes to faculty recruitment, there are vacancies all over India, especially when it comes to OBC/SC/ST seats (central universities and IITs are prime examples). These social disparities are also visible in student vacancies in colleges and universities. The victimisation of students from backward communities or minorities under such VCs has been rampant: the Rohith Vemula case and the Najeeb case being two examples. The underfunding of these institutions and political decisions to saffronise education by politically-installed VCs combine to lower overall academic standards.

School textbooks, especially at the state-level in Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan have also seen degradation in quality and saffronisation. In his very first state budget, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath cut funding for higher education to nearly 10 percent of what it had been in the last year of the Akhilesh Yadav government, and secondary education to almost 5 percent. Despite advances in historiography over the decades due to the nationalist, Marxist, Cambridge, subaltern and post-modern schools of history, public history in India remains woefully backward and communal, especially at the Hindi and vernacular levels. An ill-informed electorate is more likely to buy saffron versions of history designed to suit saffron politics.

One must also take into account the broader war on intellectuals by the saffron regime: from the murder of rationalists such as Pansare, Dabholkar or Kalburgi by saffron foot soldiers, to the discrediting (as “anti-national”) and hounding of non-Sangh intellectuals of any stripe: feminists such as Nivedita Menon, public intellectuals such as Nandini Sundar and Arundhati Roy, economists such as Raghuram Rajan and Amartya Sen, literary figures who returned awards, historians such as DN Jha, Aditya and Mridula Mukherjee, Irfan Habib and Bipan Chandra, anti-caste intellectuals such as Anand Teltumbde, former National Advisory Council members such as Harsh Mander, Jean Dreze and Aruna Roy, to the branding of entire universities such as JNU, HCU, Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia as “anti-India”. Another interchangeable term that has emerged is “urban Naxal”, used freely by BJP spokespersons and leaders, as well as particularly pro-BJP media channels.

A war on the economy

Demonetisation has been financially extravagant, useless in controlling black money, and caused heavy damage to the economy: the most unnecessary policy move in decades. The “pro-business” crony capitalist policy of the government caused it to pressure public financial institutions to give huge and risky loans to corporations, most of whom defaulted, leaving public banks cash-strapped. The government’s own debt has shot up drastically in the Modi era (up by 50 percent to Rs 82 lakh crore) – not to mention the increasing debt of farmers, skyrocketing fuel prices, minimum bank balance fines making the economically vulnerable suffer, ATM charges, inflation in basic commodities, and next to nil job growth, leading to unemployment shooting up.

Funds for welfare-employment schemes have been reduced, and all the inroads made by the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Gurantee Act have reached a plateau. The minimum wage debate simply led to any action. Make In India and Digital India have ineffective at achieving any of their stated goals. Equal economic rights and opportunity for all have been undermined, while judicious and socially useful utilisation of taxpayer money has been made a mockery of, with bullet-trains, the Rafale deal, statues, religious yatras, public advertisements and the foreign trips of the PM eating heavily into State coffers, which have been further reduced by tax-breaks to billionaires and corporations.

A war on diversity

The basic heterogeneous nature of our culture has been called into question, dismissed or has had aspects of Hindutva imposed on it. The Goa BJP-RSS unit faced a revolt over step-motherly treatment given to the vernacular, the BJP in the North East and Kerala cannot see eye to eye over beef consumption (something the government and central party leadership wanted national legislation on). The National Register of Citizens in Assam has been clubbed with the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2019, in order to give anti-migrant stances a communal colour. In Kerala and Bengal, where comparatively secular agendas are usually presented to voters, the BJP has injected religion into the political discourse, forcing other parties to compete with it on a cultural basis. Yogi Adityanath in Uttar Pradesh has Hindutvised governance. In Karnataka, Brahmanical Hinduism bolstered by the BJP suffered a backlash from the Lingayat community. The imposition of the north Indian, Hindi-belt version of Hindu rashtra has led to more conflict than unity, leaving the BJP responsible for dividing the country.

A war on the country's secular fabric

Post-Partition, while Indian Muslims were not given adequate recompense, economic protection or affirmative action despite past communal persecution, the often violent attack on Muslim assertion, livelihood, rights, culture and participation in economy and society has become more blatant with the Modi era, where every Muslim is treated as a Pakistan supporter. Further, the free hand given to saffron lynch mobs, the attacks on churches, the bigoted treatises of BJP leaders on minorities, the poisoning of society’s sentiments through communal propaganda, the false cases Muslim youths are arrested under, and the open communal intimidation by elected leaders have created an unprecedented atmosphere of Islamophobia and religious intolerance. The role of the BJP, from Muzaffarnagar to Dadri to Kathua and Unnao, has not gone unnoticed, though a pliable media refuses to publicly join the dots.

A war on democracy 

The use of electronic voting machines, and their malfunctioning have escalated. The enabling of unlimited corporate funding of political parties without tax disclosure has occurred through Arun Jaitley’s finance bill. For the past five years, we have seen the misuse of State machinery and funds for political purposes, whether it is the saffronisation and modification of Doordarshan and All India Radio, or a huge hike in advertisement expenditure for self-promotion.

In the south and in the North East, with BJP being the “big brother” party, the practice of buying MLAs or defection has become routine. BJP-friendly governors allow BJP governments to form with defections occurring right under their noses: or offer the post of chief minister to the single largest party immediately, if that party is the BJP. We have seen the Jammu and Kashmir governor hold the Jammu and Kashmir legislative Assembly in suspended animation at the bidding of the central government, so as to prevent an Opposition coalition and to time fresh elections according to the saffron whim. We have also seen an unprecedented level of money spent in state elections. For example, the BJP spent an unheard-of sum of Rs 6.96 crore in the Tripura election, raised out of the state, something the ruling CPM was unable to compete with.

A war on freedom of media

Through advertisements and corporate backing, the BJP managed to receive the support of nearly all of the mainstream media in 2014, a loyalist trend which has continued. The Cobrapost sting exposed how nearly the entire news establishment was willing to be heavily BJP-leaning in editorials, as well as manipulate news, for money and political patronage. Further, combined with muscle-power, this was how the BJP managed to suppress the judge Loya and Jay Shah stories from spreading beyond their original publishers. There have been cases filed on critical media outlets such as The Wire, and heavy discrediting of Scroll, Economic and Political Weekly, Newsclick and Caravan by either the BJP or their surrogates among Hindutva forces.

Sometimes journalists like Gauri Lankesh are just assassinated by right-wingers, and in other cases, human rights activists like Gautam Navlakha are prosecuted. Finally, right before the election, the Modi government has increased rates for government advertisements in print media by 25 percent in an effort to win back publications that may have strayed. The prime minister has not held any press conferences since assuming power, his job made remarkably easier by the press. On the other hand, the Opposition has often been drowned out by the government and a biased press during major controversies such as Vyapam scam, the Loya case, the Rohith Vemula case and the NRC. The prospects of an autonomous, objective and accountable media seem dim in the near future.

As listed above, there have been assaults on a long-term status-quo one could progress from, to the path of creating an authoritarian State ruling over a bigoted polity. There have been major changes to the structural functioning of the State and how politics is conducted: nearly all negative. There is a war on the welfare of the nation and its people, as well as over the idea of India and what it stands for. But can the BJP protect the nation from the BJP?

The author is a PhD scholar in Modern and Contemporary History at Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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