India: Modi, Money, Minorities And The Year That Was

Written by John Dayal | Published on: January 1, 2017

The last flicker of 2016 sees an India devalued, its reputation in tatters, its people in pain.


Photo credit: India Today

The last flicker of 2016 sees an India devalued, its reputation in tatters, its people in pain. It also marks the mid-term of the regime of Prime Minister Narendra Modi who has already reserved his place in the country’s political history as the man whose headlong rush to imagined personal glory has plunged India’s famed foreign policy into a friendless abyss, its development process on a reverse path, its security left fraught.

With a tongue-tied and invisible council of ministers and the Planning Commission shrunk to nothingness, he should be a Dictator. He remains but a caricature of one, seen in advertisements of PayTM, the half-Chinese  payment portal, and on TV, both arms semaphoring bile and spite. It is to the sangh parivar headquarters in Nagpur that Ratan Tata and fellow tycoons go when in trouble, and where generals, spymasters, administrators pay court. The Supreme Court does not go to Nagpur; instead it calls their savants to its retreat. That is a first, and Modi can claim credit, in part. The Media, its spine excised in surgical strikes, magnifies the image as battalions of paid and volunteer Social Media warriors and countryside vigilantes neutralise dissent and protest.

The demonetisation of high currency notes is just a small mistake in Frankenstein’s laboratory. A sort of mid-term marker. It grabs the headlines across the world for what it has wrought in the short term. There is a flight of international capital with governments and investors  wary as people lose faith in the sovereign  whose signature they had trusted on currency notes. The claims that this would get hidden or black money from enemies of the state made criminals out of a billion people, most of them poor, who were outside the social security net and the banking system, farmers and workers and widows and the ordinary people who eke out an existence in any country of the world.

Crops failed as farmers could not get the cash to buy the seeds and the fertilisers. The small vegetable farmers found their harvest rotting on the road for want of purchasers. Patients requiring surgery died  in  transit as their parents or children pleaded with hospitals. The sight of a former soldier, now old and frail, weeping after he was edged out of a snaking queue at a bank, went viral, as the new phrase goes. He was trying to get his own money, not borrowing from the bank. Statistics cannot assist in visualising those tears. Though figures show that Modi’s claim of eradicating black money is not merely misleading, it is criminally false. His threat to do worse in the new year may be very real.

The shattering of India’s defence image, despite frequent test firings of missiles, is evident not just in the repeated violations of its borders by enemy regulars and irregular forces, or the accidents in its shipyards, but finally in the aberrant interventions in military command, the choosing of a new chief of the army staff who supersedes two brilliant senior officers. The efforts to intervene in judicial promotions in the Supreme court failed. But the intent seems to be to have the top command and control structure if all wings of the nation’s administration grateful and loyal to  one man. And through him, to the guiding extra-constitutional power.

In a perhaps minor intersectionality of the armed forces and the Supreme Court, a recent ruling delves into theology and military history to say that while beards for Sikh troops are permissible  despite army discipline because they are mandated by religion, beards cannot be allowed for Muslims in the forces because it is against discipline and is also not written in the Book. In distant US, a Sikh has won this battle. Modi continues to not ever wearing a scull cap, which is also not prescribed in the Book but is taken as a marker for the county, and therefore taboo for him  Muslims and Dalits continue to be grossly under represented in all echelons of authority, civil, judicial ir military.

But that is another matter in which a Uniform Civil Code is sought to tame Muslim personal law but an Equal Opportunity Commission is scuttled successfully. There is, of course, no mention of reviving the Bill for a law against Targeted and Communal Violence. The cry for nationalism  adds another layer of  questions on the patriotism of religious minorities, as it does on trade unions, teachers, artists and, above all, students of universities.

The students at least have been vocal in protest. One committed suicide. Anther is missing. Many were beaten up, attacked in court, jailed. But still some of them led the most powerful public protest against caste and economic discrimination in Modi’s home state of Gujarat. It was arguably  the most seminal event after Ambedkar’s mass conversion to Buddhism in 1956 in Nagpur. Ms. Mayawati's four partial terms as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh notwithstanding.

While demonetisation has been very secular and gender neutral in its scything action, the progressive assault on the citizenship of Muslims and Christians has been the singular socio-political muscle of the regime and the Sangh in the pursuit of a legitimised Hindu Rasthra. Much of it is just accelerating the things that Atal Behari Vajpayee formulated or unleashed in the six yeas he was in power as Prime Minister. Others are a refining of the soft Hindutva that the Congress had adopted at various times, visible in 1950 in the passing of the ordinance criminalising exercise of the right and freedom of faith by Dalits – the Presidential Order – and the anti conversion laws by several states.

Others are more blatant. The project to make  the Vedas the foundation of the Indian education system,  yoga as a compulsion in schools, the bursary to the vigilantes protecting cow and the chastity if girls, while exhorting Hindu women to help compensate and challenge the growth in the Muslim population. Modi’s ministerial and party colleagues continue to call for the control of the Muslim population, and Christians perhaps, by forcible sterilisation, disenfranchisement and other means. The expanding Islamophobia triggered by the terrorism of Daesh (ISIS) and the refugee crisis in West Europe makes things easier at home.

The changes in the citizenship and visa policy make India the official homeland of the Hindus by allowing easy naturalisation for faith refugees from Pakistan and Bangladesh. The exception keeping Lanka Hindus out of the generosity of this rule is  not officially explained. There are shades of inspiration from Tel Aviv here.

And development? The Reserve Bank loses its gutsy independence in the “sacking” of governor  Rajan, its pliant new governor, a  former employee of a crony capitalist, not perhaps even consulted in the demonetisation  decision. The bank just did not have the new currency to replace the money which was made worthless in a midnight telecast by Mr. Modi. Fifty days and more later, the queues at banks and ATMs – automated teller machines for those unfamiliar with the acronym – remain like the snakes and  the great indian rope trick of western fairy tales. The rupee is at its lowest. Government agencies occasionally leak confessional data to show that growth is down, and not likely to pick up in the near future.

Christmas this year was celebrated in the shadow of the guns of paramilitary troops and local policy across the country, as it was the last two years. If it was also Good Governance Day as officially declared did not matter because the day fell on a Sunday.

The Opposition in the political apparatus remains fractious, its inner contradictions irreparable. The pride of the mighty Sikhs has taken a dent in the manner in which the BJP has expanded in the Punjab and embraced people who had parodied the faith and insulted the Gurus. In Bihar, once a bulwark against the BJP’s political expansion, the coalition of Nitish Kumar and Laloo Yadav rules, but is at war with itself. The death of Ms J Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu in a way leaves the entire south India in a political turmoil, with Telangana and Andhra still groping for stability as separated Siamese twins and Karnataka remaining the same in all matters, communal or corruption, whether the BJP rules or the Congress. Uttar Pradesh is said to be a litmus test, or a weathervane when it goes to the polls in 2017 with Punjab. But it  does not take a Nostradamus to predict that the man will last out his term. The Sangh which propelled him to power in 2014 will then take a call.

I would be prepared for some more dark days, if I were you.

(This piece is also published in the Indian Currents, New Delhi.)