Emperor Ashoka transformed from a conqueror to the champion of justice after the devastation during the Battle of Kalinga opened his eyes to the futility of territorial expansion at the cost of people’s lives. Will the extraordinary human suffering we are witnessing during our ‘Battle with Corona’ get Prime Minister Narendra Modi to prioritise healing people’s lives and repairing the economy?
One year ago, he won a second successive victory, riding on the perception of decisive leadership on the issue of national security. Modi mistakenly interpreted the mandate as an endorsement of the controversial ideology of the Sangh Parivar.
He swiftly eliminated the special status of Jammu & Kashmir, and placed it under prolonged lockdown and detained pro-India political leaders. He pushed through the triple talaq bill to move law closer to a uniform civil code by criminalising a feature that enabled Muslim men to obtain divorces quickly. On the third ideological priority, the Supreme Court ruled that a Ram temple will be built at Ayodhya.
Next up was the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Its ostensible aim was to help non-Muslim minorities fleeing persecution in neighbouring countries, but home minister Amit Shah clarified the chronology: CAA would be followed by the updating of the National Register of Citizens. Thereafter, non-Muslims without proper proof of citizenship would acquire Indian citizenship through CAA. The remaining millions would be declared infiltrators and housed in detention camps indefinitely.
The unconstitutional introduction of a religious criterion for citizenship and the suspicion that this was a move to decitizenise Muslim Indians triggered sustained, spontaneous protests across India. In February communal riots broke out in northeast Delhi. Multiple videos surfaced showing how the Delhi Police (under central government control) failed to take action against rioters, at times abetted criminals and omitted to act against incendiary speeches by BJP leaders. While northeast Delhi burned, in Lutyens Delhi Modi partied with President Donald Trump.
Two weeks before Namaste Trump, Rahul Gandhi warned that urgent measures were required to prevent the coronavirus from spreading in India, but the government chose to ignore his warning. A month later, in the Rajya Sabha, I urged the government to adjourn Parliament early, but received the rejoinder that MPs needed to demonstrate bravery by working in the face of the Covid-19 threat.
Days after that, once BJP toppled the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh, it abandoned the bravado and adjourned Parliament abruptly. After a practice session, the government imposed a national lockdown with four hours notice. The economy came to a sudden stop. Millions of migrant workers began their long march home braving nature, official apathy and police brutality. Tragically, some died along the way due to accidents or exhaustion.
The padayatra of the poor brought to centrestage the hitherto hidden misery of the masses. It revealed that the reality of rural India was that its able bodied would migrate in search of any insecure, even exploitative, chance to earn enough to survive and to send something home for the family. They had somehow missed Modi’s assurance that he was soon to double farmers’ incomes and that India was on the fast track to becoming a $5 trillion economy.
These inconvenient facts about the economy came as a surprise because the government has made sure that there is no data to decipher. When periodic labour surveys revealed rising unemployment, the government discontinued them. When the National Sample Survey warned of worsening poverty and malnutrition because rural Indians were cutting even their food expenditure, the government simply killed the survey citing technicalities.
The first year of Modi 2.0 also highlighted the steady erosion of a separation between the executive and the judiciary. The nomination of former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi to Rajya Sabha days after he retired raised concerns about institutional capture. Indeed, the judiciary has somehow not found the time to intervene on crucial executive actions, including suspension of fundamental rights.
The government’s demonstrable lack of empathy for migrants trudging home contrasts with its earlier manic obsession with “infiltrators” who had to be rooted out through NRC. Clearly, if it had instead focussed on understanding why Indians moved around and in what conditions, it would have been able to create a support structure for migrant workers, and spared lakhs of them the pain and indignity they suffered during the lockdown.
In terms of the larger economy, if the government was willing to face facts, it would have seen evidence of a demand slump even before Covid-19 locked India down. Investments, electricity consumption, non-food credit, GDP growth, all were dropping steadily. Unfortunately, it still refuses to understand that without jump starting demand through substantial fiscal measures, all the credit measures it announced in the “world-beating” Rs 20 lakh crore stimulus package will have little effect.
As India battles a global pandemic coupled with an economic crisis that has its roots in the Modi 1.0 government, it is clear that the next few months will shape the country’s future. At this critical time, all Indians need to be part of a collective effort directed towards recovery. Diverting even a single person’s energy towards an ideological agenda will contribute to dooming the country to a dismal fate.
India is at a crossroads. Modi can change course to restore India to its appropriate and inclusive growth path by focussing on repairing the economy, healing the pain of the poor, and dropping communally charged agendas. Or he can misinterpret the mandate as one for divisive leadership (communal tensions even reasserted themselves during the Covid-19 crisis).
History offers different models. Someone who wants to leave his mark on history can make his choices. For India’s sake, I hope he chooses wisely.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.