These last weeks of the year that ends next week have been a time of such turmoil and gloom for India that 2020 cannot come soon enough. When a decade ends so inauspiciously, the prospect of a new decade is itself auspicious. My personal wish for this new decade is that, before it ends, India will finally become a country that stops being discussed as having the ‘potential’ to become prosperous and powerful. And, instead becomes a country that has realised some of this potential. This column has been around for more than three decades, and I have been around much longer than that, so trust me when I tell you that ever since I can remember I have heard people talk about India’s ‘potential’. I have heard this so often that I have now reached a stage when the word itself irritates me.
Forgive this gloomy beginning but I have taken personally the collapse into a Hindutva agenda of Narendra Modi’s project to bring ‘parivartan’ and ‘vikas’. The only time this column has endorsed a prime minister was in 2014. This happened because I believed, like millions of Indians, that Modi meant what he said. Remember how he used to talk of how we must strive towards prosperity and not just ending poverty? Remember when he said government had no business to be in business? Remember how he promised to take India in an economic direction that would dump the socialist policies that have kept India poor? In my view he veered off track when Rahul Gandhi taunted him with running a ‘suit-boot’ government.
When he should have answered this ludicrous taunt by saying that his mission was to make it possible for every Indian to afford to buy suits and boots, he scuttled into a shell and reverted to the very economic policies that have kept India in poverty. Instead of reducing government interference in every area of economic activity, he added more interference by allowing taxmen to go on a hunt for ‘black’ money. Unsurprisingly, India has now reached a level of economic growth that used to be mocked as the ‘Hindu’ rate of growth all those decades ago, when to say that you did not believe in socialism got you instantly labelled as a CIA agent.
At least in his first term as prime minister Modi took unwieldy, expensive socialist welfare schemes and made them more efficient. At least he brought some fundamental changes in our filthy villages and towns by urging people to build toilets and stop our ancient practice of defecating in the open. At least he tried to speed up the building of our desperately needed roads. And, it was for this delivery on the ‘vikas’ front that he won a second term. But somehow this message never reached him and instead the message that did reach him was that he had won because he was seen as the great new Hindutva hope.
So, in the first six months of his second term, he has not only pursued an agenda that is supported mostly by upper caste urban Hindus but he has also gone on to allow his Home Minister to make speeches that have alienated Muslim communities, quite literally from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. If Modi seriously believes that the protests we have seen in the last weeks of this year were the work of opposition parties and ‘anti-national’ elements, he needs to start wondering if he is losing his vaunted political instincts. If Muslims have led the protests everywhere, it is because they got the message that the Home Minister has been sending in speeches that have been dangerously divisive and at times openly discriminatory against Muslims.
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At a time of deep economic uncertainty, the last thing we needed was for protests, often violent, to erupt in cities and campuses across India. The last thing we need is for India to lose another decade because an Indian prime minister has ordered his government to go down the wrong road. Indian governments have failed to give Indian citizens fundamental public goods like clean water, clean air and a halfway decent standard of living. In the Sixties we were distracted by wars with China and Pakistan. In the Seventies came the Emergency. In the Eighties came policies that caused Punjab and Kashmir to explode in a frenzy of secessionist violence. Then came a small period that began in the early Nineties, that lasted for about a decade, when there was relative calm achieved by good economic policies that brought dramatic changes. This ended when Sonia Gandhi reverted to socialist-feudalism. By the time Modi appeared on the scene, India was once more in desperate straits.
He was expected to take us out of our socialist rut onto a new road. This has not happened yet and it looks for now like another decade could be lost.
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