It has been an exceedingly funereal start to what is called the “festive season” in India. The horrific and entirely avoidable stampede in Mumbai that claimed 23 lives, shocked not just the city — which is pretty shock proof, given what it goes through periodically — but it also woke up the rest of India. Our railways (perhaps, the single-most valuable legacy of the Raj) are in shambles. That more train accidents don’t take place on a daily basis is nothing short of a miracle. Take an audit of the bridges and walkways across India, and the findings will scare the hell out of you. It took a stampede at a local station in Mumbai for railway authorities to take note and hopefully, do something more than announce an “inquiry commission”. Piyush Goyel is known for his dynamic style of functioning. After all, he is a Mumbaiwalla, who recognises inefficiency and sloth when it stares him in the face. It is his ministry, and his name on the line this time. He is also shrewd enough to read the public mood. Which may be why he hasn’t got into the bullet train debate. This is one hell of an expensive ride that the Modi government has announced with much chest thumping and fan fare. Look at these numbers: For $5.5 billion, Bangkok will be connected to Southern Chin via a bullet train — a distance of 3,000 km. India is paying $17 billion for a distance that covers 500 km between Mumbai and Ahmedabad for the same sort of train! Come on! We don’t need a bullet train. Period. Who is going to use it? Why would anybody want to rush to Ahmedabad in record time? Apart from fat-cat traders? Here is a metropolis reeling because of overcrowding in local trains that connect one end of Mumbai to the other. Instead of allocating funds for upgrading trains that directly impact the millions of daily commuters, what is being thrust on us is bullet train. Unless there is a major rethink on this Indo-Japanese adventure, the chances of this administration’s derailment are pretty high.
People who visit Ahmedabad frequently have been noting a recent shift in attitude. Senior journalists report that the generally “ghaabroos” business person in Ahmedabad, who keeps his mouth shut and has so far blindly supported the Modi-Shah-Adani triumvirate, has discovered a lost voice and most importantly, a sense of humour! There is enough going on across social media platforms to indicate a major shift in political loyalty. Memes galore have sprung up that boldly mock and criticise the Modi government for letting citizens down. The rage is mainly directed at the ill-conceived demonetisation initiative, which has left the business community bereft. From modest shopkeepers to millionaire industrialists, Gujarat is fuming against the arbitrariness of both, demonetisation and GST. The minute you hit a Gujarati’s “dhanda”, you become an instant adversary. Nobody expected Gujaratis to react this strongly against their iconic political hero. Apart from the jokes doing the rounds, there is discernible disillusionment and simmering rebellion waiting to find expression. Delhi bosses are aware of the disgruntled Gujarati, and experiencing enormous nervous tension on account of the new mood. There is also the hideous face of intolerance to contend with in Gujarat. One of the most disturbing stories from Anand and Vadodara, emerged during Navratri 2017. Jayesh Solanki, a 20-year-old dalit, was beaten to death by a group of “upper caste” Patels, an hour after he left home, telling his mother to wait for him. His crime? He had the temerity to watch a “high caste” Garba performance in the neighbourhood!
As the dancers whirled and swirled outside the ancient Someshwar temple in the village, a senseless, brutal killing took place nearby with nobody intervening to stop the violence against a defenceless youth. His only sin was his daring to gaze at upper caste dancers from a safe distance. This is Modi’s India? High speed, over-priced bullet trains that nobody wants and regular murderous attacks on innocents. In a blistering interview about the Modi administration, Arun Shourie called it a “government of two-and-a-half people”. He accurately described demonetisation as the “biggest money-laundering scheme ever”. Speaking to a news channel, he asked, “Which argument offered by the government in defence of demonetisation survives today? Black money? All of it turned white. Terrorism? Terrorists are still coming to India”. More and more prominent thinkers are talking about the “two-and-a-half” people publicly and vociferously. This is again a pretty good indicator of a gigantic shift.
Nobody could have seen this coming after that stupendous, sweeping BJP win in the last general elections. I am not embarrassed to admit this time I had voted for the BJP myself, after decades of being a Congress supporter. Like me, there were several other urban voters, ready to take their chances with a party that promised growth, jobs and a change. Well, what India got was only a change — a change for the worse. No jobs. No growth. To put it bluntly and crudely, India has been royally screwed. The damage is irreversible and the voters are angry. Diwali is round the corner. I walked through the bustling Colaba market this week, and saw only long faces. Most of the traders here are Gujaratis. They are wondering how they’ll be able to ride this crisis out, with so much money stuck in old stock. Corporate gifting is down by 70 per cent, a forlorn silver merchant told me, surveying all the unsold articles in the store. “There’s not very much hope of business improving before Diwali this year”, he admitted. I told him to be patient. If he waits long enough, he will be able to visit his relatives in Ahmedabad via the Bullet Train. He laughed, “Before that, I might shoot a bullet through my own head in frustration. This is not what I voted for in 2014.” That sentiment is being increasingly echoed across the length and breadth of India.