From discrediting intellectuals to incompetent appointments: All the ways Narendra Modi regime has changed India

Over the past few weeks, we've been seeing a range of articles on how Indian polity and society have changed since the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The Ram Janmabhoomi movement (along with the India-China War of 1962 and the Emergency milieu) was a crucial turning point in the political fortunes of the Hindu right. It is, however, important to point out what all has changed in terms of polity, state policy and social responses in India since the Modi government first came to power in 2014.

 From discrediting intellectuals to incompetent appointments: All the ways Narendra Modi regime has changed India

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses party supporters at a public meeting for Gujarat Assembly election at Himmatnagar. PTI

Today, there is no denying that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is supremely ascendant. It has a strong hold on North India, beyond its usual base of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh: Ruling Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. It has done well in the south, and has captured the North East.

Yet, somehow, in the years between the Congress-led UPA (I and II) and the Modi-BJP-led NDA government the national conversation itself has changed, showing a paradigm shift in political, social and media priorities: Despite surveys such as the one by CSDS-Lokniti on how the Indian youth and general electorate is focused on a higher standard of living, employment and healthcare. The face of the country has been altered in some key ways:

1. Key public intellectuals have been discredited by the State and regime, in an attempt to stifle democratic dissent, freedom of speech and policy critique. Eminent literary figures and scholars have been branded as petty partisans (“award wapsi”). Intellectuals and activists such as Medha Patkar, Jean Dreze and Harsh Mander, who in the UPA days were held in high respect despite the regime’s neoliberal ideology, and even sat on Sonia Gandhi’s National Advisory Council (NAC), are now regarded by the government, ground-level Sangh agents, the mainstream media and their captive audience, as patently anti-national.

2. There has been a great increase in incompetence in institutional appointments. While the earlier UPA (and overall economic policy of Manmohan Singh and his successor finance ministers since 1991) had a rather technocratic bent, and accorded itself the requisite structural changes—the NDA appointments reek of nepotism and incapacity other than Hindutva allegiance—whether it is FTII chairman Anupam Kher, Gajendra Chauhan or JNU vice-chancellor M Jagadesh Kumar, or the appointment of Sambit Patra to the ONGC board.

3. The minimum wage debate has been entirely wiped off the political map since the UPA days. Apparently, development has nothing to do with economic rights or inflation/cost of living adjustments. There is no longer any comparison discussed between the Tendulkar Report and the Arjun Sengupta Report: Poverty itself has vanished from the economic narrative, despite the best efforts of economists such as Jean Dreze and Utsa Patnaik.

4. Congress governments had a particular preoccupation with giving a dignified remuneration to middle and high-rank public servants and employees: Especially with the 5th and 6th Pay Commissions. The Modi government, on the other hand, has been reluctant to financially support public employees: As we saw from the One Rank One Pension (OROP,) issue/agitation, the various pension struggles by school and college/university teachers, and the minimal gains in the 7th Pay Commission.

5. Under Congress rule, communal riots (and there have been many) such as Nellie, Hashimpura, Muzaffarnagar and Bharatpur made national headlines and put the government under immense pressure to pursue justice (regardless of whether it chose to or not, eventually). On the other hand, the political-communal violence we see today under BJP rule—the numerous lynching incidents such as Akhlaque (Dadri), Junaid, Pehlu Khan and others, as well as mass-scale communal intimidation and riots today— have been normalised in the media, and don’t even warrant a statement from the relevant Cabinet and state ministers.

6. Once upon a time, scams and scandals used to cause political earthquakes: And ended up being the downfall of the UPA government. They don't today. The Vyapam scam, demonetisation, huge tax breaks for millionaire, billionaire and corporations, net neutrality, the Rafale deal: None of them appear to be red flags in the quality of governance offered by the Modi-led Cabinet in the mainstream media.

7. There has been an entire lack of internal debate in political parties since the Modi government came to power. Modi and Amit Shah first took over the BJP, side-lining the entire remaining leadership in one sweep.  In the Congress, there is inevitable, but somewhat reluctant deference to the idea of Rahul Gandhi taking over, but there is a lack of clarity over what that implies, and an entire inadequacy of ideological and policy substance.

8. Once upon a time, the media was in the business of being divided over leaning towards either of two sides: Pro-BJP or pro-Congress. Today, the media is entirely in the pocket of the BJP and the prime minister and meek critiques of any sort began seeping out only eight months after demonetisation. On the other side, is the alternative media, which is divided between pro-RSS/BJP and anti-RSS/BJP – examples of the former being Postcard News, examples of the latter, far more credible, (but disproportionally less influential) being The Wire, Newslaundry, SabrangIndia, Caravan, and Scroll.

9. While the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government could by no means be called pro-worker or pro-peasant, they did indulge in loan waivers (especially for farmers), employment scheme expansion and electricity waivers. The record of the Modi government is lacking on these parameters.

10. Further, the government, with its ambitious Hindutva/Hindu Rashtra project has ended up culturally disregarding the south in its idea of India: Something the Congress had not done in decades.

11. The general national apathy over communalism, casteism, crime (sexual or otherwise) and scams, partly abetted by the mainstream media, has led to depoliticisation of the ordinary citizen except when it serves Hindutva ends. The contrast with the India Against Corruption movement, protests by the Left, human rights and gender agitations makes the country under the previous regime almost seem a colourful democracy.

12. Another feature of Modi’s India is a toothless Left. Under the UPA government coalition, the Left intervened well in the Nirbhaya, Right to Education, NREGA, Right to Information, FDI, minimum wage, women’s reservation, Goods and Services Tax debate and was even on the verge of toppling the UPA government over the India-US Nuclear Deal.

This is not to say that some things have not changed. The State is still hardcore neoliberal and anti-welfarist. Crony capitalism still exists, though monopolistic tendencies have increased. The State’s major diplomatic goal still remains seeking American approval and investment. The state’s repressive policy towards Kashmir has not changed one bit.

The homogenising nationalism towards the North East, which the Congress initially pioneered in the immediate post-Independence years and beyond, has been strengthened and reinforced, with a Hindutva colour.

In one day of democracy—election day in 2014—the country took many strides in departure from what prevailed in the State until the previous government: Each change serving to politically favour the BJP, RSS, and the militant saffron brigades with their idea of promoting a Hindu Rashtra by force.

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

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Updated Date: Dec 10, 2017 16:08:51 IST