Why eight months of Modi government has begun to cause dismay
It takes a discerning President of the United States, Barack Obama on a fleeting visit to sense that something is seriously amiss in India.
- Total Shares
In a few days, after a virulent, cacophonous campaign which had all the ingredients of a soap-opera in all its dramatic hue, we will have the results of the Delhi elections. The famed annual drama that precedes the annual budget will follow. In between, India will have played their arch-rivals Pakistan in the World Cup. And lovelorn couples mooning at Marine Drive on Valentine's Day may find themselves in a magistrate's court forced into matrimonial bliss by the Hindu Mahasabha. Stand-up comedy actors maybe compelled to become cheerleaders to right-wing sit-down sermonising over roasted peanuts. Indeed, we are a happening nation. But eight months of Narendra Modi's government has begun to cause deep consternation to many already. Where are we headed? I sense anxiety, hopelessness and anger brewing, manifestations of a disturbed society.
Making prognostications about India's future is like predicting the outcome of a T20 match with 21 runs to get, 6 balls left to be bowled, 3 wickets in hand but Mahendra Singh Dhoni at the crease. Frankly, anything is possible. But what is assured is a breathtaking tale, as with every ball, the run rate will have to be recalculated and possibilities re-measured. In a sense, we are like a perennial crossroads nation, on the cusp of glory and yet so deeply enmeshed in uncertainty that the term foregone conclusion is seen as heretic. Where hope coexists with helplessness, and despair with drive. Behind the glossy exteriors and phosphorescent malls, the Formula 1 driving course and the magic theme parks, a darker India exists, often ignored by the genre of the neo-rich and upper class elitists who in the quest of their own private wealth are disconcerted by state generosity to those living on the borderline of poverty. The super-rich of course have been the biggest beneficiaries of liberalization policies and yet seem perturbed by a lack of corporate incentives. For them, MNREGA is a bad word, and Food Security such a criminal waste of public resources. Maoist insurgencies have wreaked havoc and bloody violence in 165 of India's 629 districts. In a country as old as the Indus Valley Civilisation , discovered many years later by Vasco da Gama in 1650, something is changing. And it does seem disquieting.
In my opinion, 1991 and 1992 were two successive watershed years, miraculously back-to-back that were to in a way define India's destiny. 1991 marked an unprecedented economic breakthrough that propelled India into the global super-economic power league ( to understand India's remarkable growth story we need to keep that one egregiously mortifying image in mind; just 24 years ago, we had to airlift 67 tons of gold to London to seek an IMF bail-out package; today, we are the world's most attractive investment destination, and have foreign exchange reserves of $320 billion). But 1992 following the Babri Masjid demolition marked the ominous return of the nightmarish communal tensions of the Partition era that till today threatens our fragile secular foundations. 2004 stunned many; the BJP-led NDA turned on a high decibel ear-splitting campaign on blazing horse-power; it was called India Shining. I remember being at a CII gathering where the mood was perceptibly upbeat. A gentleman, known for his impeccable sagacity stood with a transfixed smile on his face, looking as pleased as a puppy with two tails. I queried him on his source of happiness. India Shining, he beamed. And then he beamed more. He was not the only one, there were several others, but they were all in Saville Row suits and shiny shoes. Corporate India was sanguine and convinced that the plains of the Ganges would be the goldmine of El Dorado. There was near-unanimous approbation of BJP's election campaign theme and Pramod Mahajan seemed to be the favorite poster-boy. I received a phone call while watching a film, and the voice, known for its long pregnant pauses and lyrical prose, was very familiar. Of course, it was our very own Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, speaking with uncharacteristic speed and imploring us to vote for the BJP. Most marvelled at the use of modern technology for election purposes, hitherto unprecedented.
The BJP had evidently been carried away by hubris or was afflicted with dazzling myopia; it is true that India's GDP growth during the preceding fiscal year of 2003-04 was 8.1 per cent the second-highest recorded in our economic history. But that was for just one year; its preceding years from 1998-2003, were far from flattering, having touched a nadir of 3.9 per cent in 2001-02. One swallow does not a summer make, but given the fact that it was an election year, and the BJP had convincingly won state elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan (Congress retained Delhi) just a few months before , a degree of exaggerated self-belief was perhaps inevitable. Hyperbole is an essential formula of advertising campaigns, but when it is blended with political rhetoric, then it can assume a cloak of cockiness. India Shining was a victim of that arrogance and short-sightedness that only those who live in a fool's paradise will know best. When Vajpayee called mobile phones, while some were suitably impressed with the personalised invitation to vote, the majority of India disconnected. Fed up of their daily struggles and continuing strife, the common man of India felt as if they were just a statistical measure in India of its gross output, measured in calories, crops and corporate profits. Nothing was farther from the truth. 37 per cent of India 's population was living below the poverty line and having practically negligible social security net to fall back on. While the middle-class had expanded it was far from the aspirational dreams that they had imagined. Clearly India Shining was a chimera, and the BJP was appropriately trounced in the elections. The Gujarat riots of 2002, a damning stigma in our secular history also contributed to the disengagement of the vox populi from the India Shining narrative. No one likes social disturbances and communal tensions, barring vested interests playing vote-bank politics who use rogue and lumpen elements to polarise society.
Is history repeating itself? Is India similarly poised today, with a India Shining 2.0 narrative being sold at one glitzy counter, while the master-chefs are concocting a dangerous communal cocktail in a huge cauldron in a busy kitchen concealed from customer view? So while Modi markets FDI, stock-markets soar , the Land Acquisition legislation is flagrantly diluted to favour big business and Davos serenades the return of free-market fundamentalists in North Block, it takes a discerning President of the United States, Barack Obama on a fleeting visit to sense that something is seriously amiss in India. And that Mahatma Gandhi would have been shocked had he been alive. 2015 will test India. And the Delhi elections will be just the beginning.