Recently, my old friend, Arun Shourie, was reported in the press as commenting on the new regime thus: “You cannot talk development in Delhi and love jehad in Muzaffarnagar”. I have heard broadly similar statements from others. While I understand and appreciate the intention behind such statements, I am afraid the president of Arun’s party, Amit Shah, could privately tell him: “Yes, we can!” This, in some way, the Republican Party does every day in the US. It incites the fury of evangelicals in the Bible belt about gay marriage and abortion, while using the political capital thus garnered in pressing for tax cuts and climate change denials that warm the hearts of business-friendly people in Washington.
Nor should one indulge in the myth that love jehad, ghar wapasi etc are the battle cries of some monkey brigade in the lunatic fringe of the Sangh parivar. Ask Mohan Bhagwat. The economic reform-mongering cheerleaders, who want Modi to follow the sermon of the economist Bhagwati and are embarrassed by the RSS’s antics, should know that Modi can try to deliver on both Bhagwat and Bhagwati.
It has been said that the prime minister privately expresses displeasure when the lumpen elements cross his (undefined) Lakshmanrekha, as reportedly happened vis-a-vis the foul-mouthed Sadhvi Jyoti. But this did not stop him from pressing her almost immediately into service in the riot-torn Trilokpuri area to mobilise Dalits against Muslims for the forthcoming elections in Delhi. Before the Lok Sabha polls, while Modi took the high ground of development and governance, he did not forget to reward a Muzaffarnagar riot-accused MP by inducting him into his cabinet. One could multiply such examples, but the general fact is that a majoritarian party can derive large electoral dividends from causing tension and polarising voters, and use the political capital to pursue business-friendly policies. This is a time-tested formula, unless it breaks out into major conflagration across large territories enough to destabilise markets. I think the Modi-RSS regime is confident that it can pursue this dual-track policy to a considerable extent, playing with small fire here and there, and containing it before it gets out of hand. Never mind the climate of suspicion and insecurity, or the large dislocations and ghettoisation of afflicted minority communities this generates.
Leave aside riots and communal tension. There is a clear division of labour in the Modi-RSS regime: Modi will look after economic governance, while the RSS agents will concentrate on education and culture. Already, RSS stooges have fanned out into influential positions in cultural and educational institutions and research funding agencies. More is forthcoming as the vacancies in them get filled. The Dinanath Batra-isation of textbooks has been going on in parts of the country for some time. At the national level, purges in the ncert of people in charge of curriculum development have started. The cultural-nationalist project of rewriting history to reflect a mono-track “glorious Hindu past” is in full swing. The PM himself has given leadership by publicly announcing, while inaugurating a hospital in Mumbai, that Ganesha—a case of ‘grafting’ an elephant’s head on to a human’s body—represented ‘plastic surgery’ in ancient India. It does not occur to the Hindu nationalist yahoos that it is a matter of national shame when the premier of a country does this. Ernest Renan, a 19th century French historian, is reported to have said that nationalism in a country is “about getting its history wrong”; but even he probably could not imagine such outrageous blurring of history and mythology that feeds into Hindu cultural nationalism.
Of course the damage in India is so pervasive because the tentacles of the state are deeply implicated in the control of educational and cultural institutions. The Congress and the Left in the past have merrily indulged in this, without bothering to create the necessary institutional insulation and autonomy against the ravages of political patronage and opportunism. The only difference with the earlier regime is that the number of bigots, charlatans and mediocrities is much larger in the RSS brigade. The continuing institutional decay is thus likely to be accelerated.
Meanwhile, on the economic development front, while the current government is undoubtedly more energetic, not much has yet happened beyond empty rhetoric and exhortations and some tinkering with bureaucratic procedures. The ‘Make in India’ slogan is collecting a ‘like’ every 3 seconds on Facebook, but there is not much evidence that important players have taken it seriously. There is a need for investment in public infrastructure, the key constraint in the Indian economy, but given the fiscal deficit, the corporate debt hangover, the staggering burden of accumulated bad loans in the books of public banks and the corresponding need for massive recapitalisation and the impasse in the restructuring of the whole design and implementation of public-private partnerships, it is difficult to envisage substantial changes in Indian manufacturing anytime soon. The promises of jobs and ‘achhe din’ with which Modi’s oratory had fired up India’s youth at election time will therefore take much too long to materialise.
In the social sector, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, started with great fanfare and broom-wielding photo-ops, cannot make a big dent at the problem of sanitation, certainly not without an adequate understanding of why many toilets created under the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan of the earlier government remain unused to this day. In healthcare, the universal health plan expected to be launched by the PM this April under the National Health Assurance Mission is estimated to cost 1.6 trillion rupees over four years, and yet there have been news reports of a near 20 per cent cut in the Union health ministry budget next year in a country with already one of the lowest health spending-to-GDP ratios.
In general, the contradictions in the government’s slogans and implementation are rather breathtaking. We know about ‘minimum government, maximum governance’—how this is achieved by a government that works through a vast unreformed bureaucracy answerable mainly to the PMO and a large cabinet of political lightweights and subordinates, who, with few exceptions, are not well-known for their competence, is anybody’s guess. Modi says he does not believe in ‘reform by stealth’, and yet many of the important changes so far in implementation of laws are being pursued quietly through administrative ‘notifications’ (changes in environment clearances and forest rights, with a suspension of earlier mandatory consultations and hearings with local people), ordinances (whittling down consent requirements and social impact assessment in the Land Acquisition Act), procedural changes and cuts in budget allocations in NREGA (supposed to ‘guarantee’ work on demand), and so on. The PM never tires of proclaiming his faith in ‘cooperative federalism’, yet he has centralised much of the governing authority in the country in his pmo; in his newest creation of niti Ayog, while the details are not fully clear, the financial allocations for centrally sponsored programmes appear now to have been transferred to the ministry of finance, presumably bypassing any serious consultation on the allocations with the state governments in the National Development Council or Inter-State Council. In a recent speech, Modi said criticism was necessary in a healthy democracy, and yet is afraid to meet critical questions from the media (instead, he prefers sending out Twitter messages and has in the past walked out of a live TV programme where he was uncomfortable with the questions); all his ministers have been strictly instructed to avoid the media (some have responded to questions by the media with a common refrain: ‘woh batayenge’). All this when a large part of the media is still quite fawning.
The prime minister prostrates himself before Parliament on his first day and lauds India’s democracy as ‘the best gift our constitution-makers have given us’, yet is silent when the democratic rights of individuals are regularly trampled upon by thugs in RSS-affiliated or like-minded organisations when they find fault with a particular book, artwork or film.
He is the leader of a party that has now appropriated Gandhi (while openly violating his views on tolerance, minorities, conversion and other issues), and at the same time worships Savarkar (and possibly at the proposed Nathuram Godse temple when it comes up in Meerut).
Yes, the Narendra Modi-RSS regime can thrive in this welter of contradictions. The head of development and governance can be grafted on to the body of Hindu fanaticism, and like Ganesha, can be a marvel of our ancient plastic surgery skills.
(Pranab Bardhan is a Professor in Economics at the University of California at Berkeley)