Reality in India sometimes seems surreal. We saw this happen last week. The Prime Minister performed a religious ceremony to invoke the blessings of the gods for the inauguration of a new Parliament building. It was as if we had defeated the pandemic and the economy was doing so well that we had money to spare for something that is not exactly a priority. Surreal? The reality is that the pandemic is still raging across the country, overwhelming our shabby health services and causing millions of young Indians to lose jobs they desperately need. The Economic Times reported last week that 3.5 million Indians lost their jobs in the month of November.
The reality also is that millions of very poor people in rural India are being driven back under the poverty line because of the economic damage the pandemic has caused. And, even in a city like Mumbai I know very poor people who rely now on the kindness of strangers to get one meal a day. This is because the small pavement restaurants on which they depended have closed and they cannot afford to buy rations to cook their own meagre meals. In a time of such deep economic distress, does it not seem more than slightly surreal that we will be spending thousands of crore rupees on a new Parliament building?
Surreal reality continued when the Prime Minister after the inaugural ceremony made a speech in which he said, “The people of the country will build the new Parliament together.” Has he noticed that ‘the people’ have been camped on the borders of Delhi for more than two weeks? They are protesting against farm laws that they believe will cause more harm than good. If the Prime Minister has noticed the farmers’ siege, he gave no indication of this. In this same speech, he said, “Speaking and listening is at the heart of democracy.”
It reminded me of something he himself said just months before he first became prime minister. There was an India Today conclave in Delhi at which he was the star speaker. The audience was made up of exactly those people who are now reviled by Modi’s supporters as ‘Lutyens libtards’. They had come to listen to a man they saw as an outsider and an upstart but were willing to give him a chance. Ten years of the Sonia-Manmohan regime had created even in these very privileged Indians a sense of despondency and defeat. In his speech, Modi painted a wondrous vision of what he saw as India’s future, but made it clear that change and development would only come with the support of a people’s movement. He reminded us that Gandhiji had created such a ‘jan andolan’ to fight for freedom from colonial rule.
The real problem with his farm laws is that there was no attempt at a ‘jan andolan’. They were rammed through Parliament without persuading farmers that they were in their best interest. The farmers are ready to spend cold winter nights and days in the open to make their voice heard because they believe they have the right to be consulted before major changes are brought in the ways in which they sell their produce. They repeat over and over again to the reporters who come to interview them that they want the Prime Minister to hear them. If the new laws were meant to improve their lives, should their benefits not have been communicated to them first?
If democracy is about ‘speaking and listening’, why are they not being heard instead of maligned? While the Prime Minister chose to quote Guru Nanak in the speech he made at the ceremony last week, did he notice that the BJP’s vast and powerful propaganda machine had started a campaign to depict protesting Sikh farmers as Khalistanis? The same tactic was used when another group of Indian citizens began their protest in Shaheen Bagh at about this time last year against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. They were called jihadists and Pakistanis.
If the Prime Minister truly believes that democracy is about listening to ‘the people’, then why are all those who try to speak up for their rights depicted as anti-nationals and terrorists? Why has almost every law passed in this first year of his second term been rammed through Parliament? Has he noticed that it is because of this attempt to impose change by fiat that there is a sense of things slipping out of control?
If the capital of India can remain under siege for more than two weeks, it is impossible to believe that all is well. And, yet it was while the siege continued that the Prime Minister found time to perform a religious ceremony that marks the first step in the construction of a new Parliament building that he wants built by 2022. In the first week of the siege he found time to go to Varanasi and cruise down the Ganga to witness a laser show on Dev Deepavali. Is it not fair to ask if he exists in a different reality to the one the rest of us inhabit? Or is it just that sort of moment when Indian reality becomes so surreal that it is hard to see clearly what reality is any more. Through the fog of surrealism what is clear is that the voice of ‘the people’ is not being heard.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 13, 2020 under the title ‘Surrealism as reality’.