The first hundred days of Narendra Modi’s second term as prime minister raise a profound question that goes beyond a mere cataloguing of the government’s actions and policies: What is the nature of the regime we are spawning? As we look at the hundred days, two political phenomena stare us in the face. The first is that despite a very poor economic performance, Modi remains immensely popular. Even his staunchest critics have to acknowledge that he has made himself an inescapable figure, someone who has colonised our consciousness so much that even criticism only serves to underscore his importance and reinforce his imaginative hold. His triumph is not what he does; it is that he is the focal point of everything we do.
The second is that the authoritarian consolidation of this regime over Indian democracy continues unabated. Almost all independent institutions have been reduced to ciphers. The characteristic hallmarks of authoritarian domination have intensified: The state defines a single national purpose and everyone has to march to the same drum beat; the population has to be kept in a permanent state of nationalist arousal to paper over all social and economic contradictions; thought control has to be exercised in order to achieve what Leszek Kolakowski in another context called “the mental and moral sterilisation” of society.
Even majoritarianism is openly justified. In case you think the fears of majoritarianism are a red herring, listen to Swapan Dasgupta, not known to be a BJP critic, writing in The Telegraph (August 22) “Many of the fears in the Muslim community are undeniably overstated and tailored to the pre-existing belief that the Modi government is inherently fascist in nature. However, two factors stand out. First, the fears, however misplaced, are nevertheless real; and secondly, the Muslim stakes in the political power structure are more tenuous than ever before. It is the second issue that needs addressing.” After suggesting both that Muslims are to blame for their lack of response to Modi, and that the BJP is weak in its outreach, Dasgupta reaches this conclusion: “Hindus and Muslims may not be battling each other on the streets but neither are they talking to each other. This is not a healthy situation and can trigger an unhealthy move towards greater ghettoisation.” When Swapan Dasgupta begins to worry that the regime is producing ghettoisation, we should worry about the estrangement that lies ahead.
The hundred days is not a catalogue of specific actions, some good some bad. They are certainly marked by Modi’s energy, drive, imperiousness and unerring instinct to dominate the political discourse. They, rather, reveal the consolidation of a regime type.
When the purpose of the regime is the show of power, nationalist fervour and social control, “bold” action will be the order of the day. In some sense, the government’s unprecedented move in Kashmir is a demonstration of all three regime traits; whether they are actually aimed at solving the problem at hand is an open question. Only in the context of a regime like this can a shutdown of a state, the decimation of constitutional federalism, the suspension of civil liberties, the creation of a climate of fear over reporting from Kashmir, and the heightened risk of war and conflict, be presented as a triumph.
But there is an odd thread linking Kashmir and the mishandling of the economy that speaks to the regime type. The thread is this. Even in the context of the economy, three things are striking. All governments have to put up a brave face. But it is difficult to remember a time when it was so difficult to get the government to accept the truth about the economy; or when the premium on public and professional discourse marching to the state’s tune was as high. So, like Kashmir, the truth remains shrouded in a fog of triumphalism and complacency. Second, the approach to handling the economy has also had the same traits: Power, moralism and control. Demonetisation, which wrecked the economy, was a show of power, pure and simple, not linked to any defensible economic objectives. The basic diagnosis on which the government operated was that what ails India is corruption, which a dose of moralism and arbitrary government crackdown can cure. The chimera of chasing black money in the wrong places (while intensifying the hold of a small plutocracy), underlies the government’s approach to everything from regulation to taxation, wreaking havoc in an already precarious system.
It also serves the purpose of giving this government the one thing it wants over everyone above all else: Control. So Indian capital now has been pummelled into submission. While there are some individual measures that are laudatory, the fact is there is no consistent framework in terms of which the government has diagnosed the economy, no sense of the ends we are trying to achieve. But when the exercise of power wears the garb of virtue, all is forgiven.
On the economy, the government has finally been mugged by reality. It will respond, but so far there is no evidence of a blueprint out of our troubles. The prospects of a triumphalist narrative on that front are dim in the short run. So it is very likely that the regime type will continue to manifest itself on the institutional and cultural front. A possible nationwide NRC, the building of a temple at Ayodhya, a possible nationwide anti-conversion legislation, will be the new manifestations of power, nationalism and control. Some measures, like the triple talaq law, will use liberal pretexts, but for authoritarian ends. But the striking characteristic of the first hundred days is the consolidation of a power structure that is instinctively geared to total control: Amit Shah and Yogi Adityanath, with all their political talent, are the future ethos of the BJP.
The question the emerging regime type raises is this. Is the danger India facing that it is, through propaganda and misinformation, being hoodwinked into a path that leads away from its potential greatness? In which case, how long will we put up with the politics of illusion? Or are these hundred days revealing a darker truth about ourselves? Is, somehow, this exaltation of power, control and nationalism a completion of our own deepest desires? We are not in a grip of an illusion: This is who we want to be. On this view, Modi’s popularity is not because he is peddling an illusion to us; it is because he is peddling the truth about ourselves. How worried you are about the first hundred days in part depends on which side of this debate you are on.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 10, 2019 under the title ‘Regime reveals itself’. The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express.