Prime Minister Narendra Modi concurrently engages with multiple narratives. He does the same while marking anniversaries too. The celebrations for watershed observances often last for over a year, like the 75th anniversary of India’s independence (it began on March 12, 2021 to kickstart a 75-week countdown till August 15, 2022), or the birth centenary of Deen Dayal Upadhyaya (Jana Sangh ideologue) that was observed at a cost of Rs 100 crores, which was announced by Mr Modi at an election rally in 2014 and celebrations were held as a prelude to the actual event in September 2017. These events give an opportunity to broadcast political messages. If last week it was an occasion to mark eight years since he first became PM, this week the same anniversary was celebrated again to mark three years after his 2019 re-election. Whatever be one’s political perspective, the last eight years have indisputably seen the making of a “new” India, although newness is not necessarily “good” for all. In this period, India has unquestionably made steady progress towards a more bitter and hostile polity.
The government never missed an opportunity in the past eight years to emphasise how its digital initiatives have eased the burden of citizens on basics like receiving benefits or subsidies to avail key services provided by the government. But it also enabled the emergence of a mammoth surveillance system that can be turned at will against the people.
The observance of three years since the BJP’s triumphant re-election in 2019 unavoidably leads one to search for parallels with the summer of 2017. Back then, the BJP stumped observers by winning Uttar Pradesh (and some other states) in spectacular fashion. These victories came soon after people weathered an irremediable cataclysm in their lives by the negative impact of the ill-executed demonetisation. This year too, the electoral victories in March followed the abominable management of the Covid-19 second wave. These polls were also held amid rising inflation and the disruption in people’s lives due to lockdowns and joblessness.
Despite the endorsement of Mr Modi’s political narrative in the face of economic hardships in 2017, the BJP failed to reach the three-figure mark in Gujarat as harsh economic realities caught up with it. Its electoral woes continued through 2018 and the BJP had all but lost its political edge till Pulwama happened, and the rest is history. Economic uncertainty and the fragility of people’s existence is similar now. But the BJP has the advantage of people’s support for its political agenda, which was still evolving in 2018. As the recent Assembly polls indicated, the politics of free ration distribution has greatly neutralised the hardships. The two factors are emblematic of Mr Modi’s governance. The first: Hindutva is spoken beneath the breath by the leadership but in high decibels by supporters.
The second “proves” that Mr Modi practises “non-discriminatory” welfarism. Undoubtedly, the biggest reason for sustaining it is to ensure his political dominance: Mr Modi’s success in securing unparalleled support for the Hindutva project. Party leaders have begun campaigning in Gujarat to ensure this year’s polls don’t get as tight as in 2017. The state is referred to as the “Hindutva laboratory”. Consequently, recent developments in Varanasi, besides the gathering clouds over other mosques claimed by diverse Hindu bodies, will help the BJP in Gujarat (and Himachal Pradesh too).
One of the biggest reasons behind the BJP’s success, which also drastically altered India’s social equations, is the party’s ability to be inclusive about the Hindu community as a whole, while being exclusivist as far as religious minorities are concerned. The BJP has moved from being entirely upper caste in orientation, and while social engineering efforts were underway since early 1990s, the decisive push happened under Mr Modi’s stewardship. Much remains to be done to ensure that the BJP mirrors Hindu society, but the huge publicity machinery paints a different picture and creates an image different from reality.
Incontestably, the India of 2022 is far more alarming for the religious minorities, especially Muslims. In this situation, a large section of the majority community is of the view that pillorying -- and even converting some of this scorn into physical action -- Muslims is their birthright. There is greater agreement with the “us” and “them” formulation and in the belief of this nation being “our” and not “theirs” -- that “they” had an “opportunity to go away”, but those that “stayed back” must now live on “our terms”. Such thinking violates the fundamentals of the Constitution. But, beyond mouthing platitudes, the political leadership has done little in the past eight years to ensure that these principles aren’t trampled on in everyday life.
Mr Modi came to power on the promise of being a “decisive” leader. It was evident during the 1975-77 Emergency that a small section of society was open to the idea of an authoritarian leader and saw democracy as an impediment to growth. But Indira Gandhi wasn’t backed by an ideology that pits one section of society against another. Since 2014, the pretence of being socially inclusive has been abandoned. The middle classes have steadily burgeoned in post-liberalisation India and this section backed Mr Modi’s centralised system of governance with power consolidated in the hands of few. For a large section of people, authoritarianism is seen as a synonym of efficiency. Alongside came the hyper-nationalistic call for citizens to first fulfil their basic duties (for the nation) before lining up to demand their rights.
As far as governance is concerned, Mr Modi’s success with a strong and powerful headline and a succinct “intro paragraph” ensured that few looked into either the fine print, or assessed the schemes well past the launch date. As a result, the government’s post-Covid announcements haven’t faced adequate scrutiny, with free rations showcased as the panacea for all needs. Whataboutery became the standard practice on every disconcerting issue -- from wheat to LPG cylinder prices. Facts and questions were seen as the tool of “anti-nationals” despite evidence of huge disparities in society and riches landing in the hands of a few.
The smokescreen has emerged as the government’s favourite tool and the only arena where Mr Modi hasn’t hidden intent and actual delivery are the political -- particularly after 2019. While a succession of laws passed in 2019 are highlighted, conspicuous silence prevails over why engagement with and encouragement to state and local governments is so abysmal. The greatest “success” has been in conveying to the people that this is when the power equation has been altered, and the majority need not any longer live under the “pressure” of the minority.