As to why the Narendra Modi regime has succeeded in pushing the country into a needless, but harmful, instability, a clue is available in Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s opening remarks when he piloted the Citizenship Amendment Bill in the Rajya Sabha. The Minister cockily argued that his government was perfectly aware that the proposed amendment would be a controversial law, but he was prepared to be disagreeable. The Minister’s refrain was that if there was a ‘problem’, it had to be ‘solved’, because, unlike the earlier ruling arrangements, the new regime was not given to procrastination.
That is perhaps the rub. After the 2019 Lok Sabha mandate, the composition and character of the Modi government stand changed. The new team has gone out of its way to convey a new sense of urgency to take up the old priorities. This clear-headedness has turned out to be a mixed blessing.
Breaking with Vajpayee era
There is no one in the inner councils of the decision-making who has had any kind of familiarity with the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-L.K. Advani era’s working and how it tried to govern this complex land; it was a regime that successfully managed to fight a war with Pakistan, exploded ‘the bomb’, and steered the economy out of the Washington-led sanctions against India — and much more, without creating new, debilitating fault lines at home. The tone and temper of the Vajpayee regime was defined by a prudent impulse. With the passing away of Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley in recent months, the 2019 government has apparently settled into a new working idiom, with a dangerous imbalance at the core of the Indian state. The Prime Minister stands very tall, much taller than all his ministerial colleagues; with the possible exception of the Home Minister, no Cabinet colleague has the stature or the prestige to introduce a note of caution in the face of any proposed policy recklessness or political waywardness.
There is no one like a Lord Peter Carrington, who as Foreign Secretary could tell an overbearing Margaret Thatcher “that she was being impossible” in her treatment of colleagues or in insisting on a policy extremism. Arguably, the Modi government suffers from a lack of equilibrium in its collective working; and, inevitably, the entire ruling cabal ends up feeding the Prime Minister’s ingrained confrontationist instincts. This itch for confrontation has produced an unhappy consequence for statecraft and political management: the option of conciliation invariably stands spurned. There is a new fascination for aggression, a new appetite for skirmishes and combats. And, this belligerence is deemed to be politically satisfying and electorally rewarding.
It needs to be recalled that the Vajpayee-Advani government subscribed, during most of its six years in power, to a wise policy prescription: it was inclined to believe that while it was possible for a political party like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to win a Lok Sabha majority without the Muslim vote, it would be unhelpful to try to govern the country without the cooperation and support of the largest minority. Political wisdom demanded that a group numbering over a hundred million people not be allowed to sulk in its corner. In a democracy, the leaders engage in dialogue and seek conciliation, and, as Albert Camus put it in The Rebel , it is only “tyrants [who] conduct monologues above a million solitudes.”
No appetite for compromise
In the Modi-Shah era, this preference for accommodation and partnership stands virtually abandoned. The tweaked proposition is: not only can the BJP win a majority without the Muslims’ vote, it can also govern without their support and can live without their trust or confidence or affection. Admittedly, from time to time, the ruling party comes up with catchy slogans, paying politically correct lip service to the idea of inclusiveness; but, in day-to-day governance. the accent is on catering to the Hindu majority’s sensibilities, and if the minorities take offence, so be it. There is a calculated confidence that any group , however unhappy or large, can be tamed. The post-Article 370 Jammu and Kashmir is cited as a satisfying and successful application of this no-nonsense, no-weakness, no-accommodation approach.
Every citizen, every group, and every community subscribes to its own notion of justness and fair play. This may differ from the neighbour’s idea of justice; but the task of every ruler is to reconcile differing notions of justness, without gratuitously making any group feel that it has been permanently dealt a raw hand.
During the first Modi government, there was an eager promotion of violence in words; verbal aggression was encouraged not just on social media or in television studios, but it was approvingly looked upon as a sine qua non to tell the whole world that the ancien regime had truly been put in its place. In the process, a certain debasement of democratic decencies was inevitable, but was celebrated as a much needed jettisoning of the old ‘dogma.’
Now, with 300-plus Lok Sabha seats under its belt, the ruling party has developed a fascination for authoritative violence. Coercion and violence are deemed as a curative instrument of state policy and political control. This gathering belief in the usefulness of state violence has led to an indifference to international criticism or disapproval of the civil society at home. Each act of criticism, in fact, is pugnaciously depicted as a challenge to our nation, its security and its nationhood. The notion of ‘police brutality’ stands, almost, beautified.
On the other hand, any protest or resistance in the streets against the government’s policies or politics is branded as inspired by vested interests, or worse, instigated by Pakistan or by ‘urban naxals.’ Any resistance is seized upon as an excuse for further state violence.
The ruling clique finds itself emboldened and confirmed in its confrontationist impulses, partly because a very sizable chunk of the media has reoriented itself to being the government’s mouthpiece, and also partly because the judiciary is no longer available as a forum of relief to any aggrieved citizen. No government could ask more than a sitting Chief Justice of India batting publicly, outside the court, for the flawed National Register of Citizens (NRC).
Mismanagement of economy
This fascination for violence, aggression, bullying and intimidation has had a particularly telling effect on the government’s management of the national economy. Even otherwise, its paucity of talent, its weakness for mediocrity has already been felt; but, now, the danda approach has compounded the situation. Corporate India senses a fear in the air but is not permitted to voice its apprehensions. No $3 trillion economy is amenable to coercion or slogans or to prime ministerial fiats.
Yet, the regime remains enamoured of its own intransigence, without comprehending that so early in its second innings, the government’s trust stands considerably eroded. The Prime Minister allows himself to deploy extremely divisive vocabulary when out on the election trail in Jharkhand but, back in New Delhi, he feels he is entitled to respect and trust of all citizens and pretends to be baffled that large number of citizens are apprehensive about the CAA.
A regime that has developed a taste for coercion, however legitimate or legal, and a passion for aggression, ends up squandering the citizens’ trust. The Modi regime has ordered its own custom-made Achilles heel.
Harish Khare is a senior journalist based in Delhi