Prof. P. Koya
The victory of the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the subsequent formation of an RSS controlled central government was considered to be the beginning of electoral autocracy in the subcontinent. In fact, many commentators have recently put India on the list of electoral autocracies in which countries like Brazil and Hungary come to the top. The year 2014 marked a turning point in India’s freewheeling electoral process. The country has witnessed since then, the erosion of democratic values paving the way for majoritarian rule in which propaganda on the basis of religion plays a major role. The opposition could not counter the falsehood even when Congress focussed on rural poverty, unemployment, widening gap between the rich and the poor and basic needs such as food education and health. But the Congress party has lost 39 of the 49 elections held in the country since 2014.
As predicted by the commentators, India is slowly becoming a neo-fascist polity. The opposition turned out to be an apology for the failures of Congress rule. The Gandhis could not pose a threat to the juggernaut rushing down the hill to establish a Hindutva regime supported by the godi-media and corporate titans who benefited from the neoliberal capitalist system.
At the end of the day, we witness that the Indian economy is controlled by a few old and new “robber barons” with direct access to the inner circle of the PMO. Agencies with massive power of intervention in the people’s economic lives are trying to create a sort of surveillance capitalism.
The big corporations are most often controlled by families who made their first million serving the British, sometimes involved in selling opium in various forms while the government looked the other way. These families may not have controlling shares, but as the majority of shareholders are unorganised, they run the management. The public sector banks lend the big guns, money without ensuring their capacity to repay. IT Act, Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) and such acts, intended to control black money, are used only selectively and that too with political objectives and the “great bank robbers” simply slip away to offshore money laundering outposts. In the process, 7% of the population dominates 44% of the Indian private sector. 100 rich people control a quarter of GDP. India is 144 out of 194 countries in economic strength. Its per capita income is 40% of the world’s per capita, only 8 times higher than the poorest. World Inequality Report says India is the most unequal country with the top 1 per cent holding more than one-fifth of national income. But 1.14 lakh crore was written off of corporate tax in 2021. The tax cut is another name for subsidy given to the ultra-rich.
Since 2014 one important change has been the corporatisation of the economy. While the Modi regime started selling off public sector enterprises, “the robber barons” who rushed to buy the public assets are found to be close to the PMO. It is not a coincidence that the corporate chieftains with direct access to the PMO are also those who gained much from the free-falling economy pushed overboard by the demonetisation and such pranks to divert the attention of the people.
Politicians of every hue support privatisation and liberalisation. Parties rely on corporate money as elections are expensive. Electoral bonds were developed by BJP to help corporates to launder black money. Corporates channel money to NGOs, media houses and educational institutions to control public imagination.
Since the Covid-19 pandemic, more than 10 million Indians have lost stable salaried jobs. Job loss in the unorganised sector runs to 40 crores. 60% of them belong to the age group 18 to 40. Of them, more than 70 were from SC-ST. The labour laws snatched all labour rights to pamper the corporates. The unemployment rate in Jan 2022 was 7.9%. Urban unemployment in the age range 20-24 is 37%. Among graduates, unemployment is 60%. The number of billionaires rose from 102 to 142 while the decrease in jobs for the poorest 20% was 53%. The richest 142 doubled their assets to 5,30,000 crores while 4.6 crore people fell into extreme poverty. Covid-19 pushed about 110 million people around the globe to extreme poverty out of which 42 million are from India.
Once the Hindutva leaders established their fiefdoms, they went back to the original neo-fascist agenda. Even as the Prime Minister unleashed a propaganda campaign to establish his mangled credibility, the basics of the surveillance regime were put in place. Minorities, civil society groups, intellectuals, and media persons faced increased harassment, intimidation and the use of security laws. The government agencies were busy trying to create a sense of fear among the critics of the government. They were warned against making allegations saying that it undermined the system. The branches of the Constitution, like the legislature and executive and to an extent even the judiciary promptly fell in line.
Mostly, religious minorities, especially Muslims and Christians were the victims. Some leaders of the ruling BJP made inflammatory remarks against minorities and right-wing Hindu fringe groups threatened and harassed them, in some cases even attacking them. Many Muslims were killed by Hindu vigilante groups in separate incidents across the country over suspicions that they had killed or stolen cows for beef. Churches were attacked in several states prompting fears of growing Hindu nationalist militancy under the BJP government. Anti-Muslim rhetoric by several BJP leaders, including members of parliament, further stoked insecurities among religious minorities.
The authorities did not press robustly for the prosecution of those responsible for violent attacks on minorities, and impunity for the assailants contributed to a sense of government indifference to growing religious intolerance. The judgements by the higher judiciary exposed its inability or unwillingness to lock swords with the executive.
Courts acquitted nearly all people engaged in lynching due to lack of evidence, highlighting the failure of the prosecutorial authorities. Lack of protection for witnesses, who often refuse to testify or turn hostile because of threats and harassment from the powerful, helps the government.
There are many laws that terrorise innocent citizens in the name of national security. The draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is one. It remains in force in Jammu and Kashmir and in northeastern states. It has been widely criticised by rights groups, and numerous independent commissions have recommended repealing or amending the law, but the government has not done so in the face of stiff army opposition. UAPA is another law that is extensively used by the BJP ruled- states. NIA Act is another one that gives unusual powers to an agency which has also gained notoriety as one that mostly relies on approvers to support the prosecution. Proposed police reforms are still in limbo as police commit serious violations including arbitrary arrests, torture and extrajudicial “encounter” killings. Saffron-robed Uttar Pradesh is an example.
Violence against women, particularly rape and murder, made headlines throughout BJP rule. While legal reforms introduced in response to the 2021 Delhi gang rape and murder gave prosecutors new tools for pursuing such crimes, there is no let-up in crimes against women. The central government does not appear to have a mechanism in place to track the efficacy of the laws in preventing and punishing sexual violence. It has also failed to take effective measures to reduce sexual harassment and improve women’s access to safe transportation.
Since the late 1980s, BJP has grown to become a contender for national power not using an inclusive development agenda. The winning formula has been marked by sectarian mobilisations. It has also been successful in consolidating the anti-Muslim sentiment among Hindus in order to overcome the division among caste lines. The recent 2022 assembly election victory in UP also shows that this strategy has worked at the micro-level. Yogi Adityanath is the man who supported the Hindutva goons who called men “to dig up the graves of the Muslim women to rape the corpse”. And yet he is the Chief Minister of a state with 4 crore Muslims.
Sensational midnight announcements, efforts to directly communicate with voters using the official broadcasting system and dog whistles about the increase in the Muslim population have informed the BJP dispensation.
In November 2016, the PM himself appeared on TV and announced the withdrawal of all 500- and 1000-rupee notes with the purported intention of curtailing black money. However, it soon became clear that about 99% of the demonetised currency notes were returned to the banking system. Recent analysis also proves that cash is still the king. And the human cost of this hare-brained scheme was evident when thousands of migrant labourers fell dead due to hunger and thirst on the way home. Millions of workers have lost their jobs due to the sudden stoppage of construction and manufacturing.
It has brought on a massive disruption to the overall economy affecting mostly the poor who make up a major part of an informal economy. It negatively affected street vendors as they were forced to stand in long lines outside the banks. The daily wage workers such as maids and servants found it increasingly difficult to manage their lives.
The Lok Sabha passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill with the overt objective of granting citizenship to immigrants from neighbouring countries. But the covert objective of the amendment was to undermine the secular character of the Constitution which prohibits exclusion of any citizen on the basis of religion. The government thought they could bulldoze public opinion through the Covid-19 lockdown. It was also a prelude to the nationwide implementation of the National Citizenship Register (NRC). The amendment was a violation of Articles 14, 15, 25 and 26 of the Constitution. Though the government was forced to postpone the implementation of the amendment, given the credibility gap between the official declaration and actions, one can expect the exclusion of the Muslims soon from the NRC for one reason or another. Internment camps for non-citizens are being built up even in a state like Kerala. It is gratifying to note that women came to the streets in cities and they have shown great determination to fight the law.
In 2020 the government also rushed through three bills comprising 350 pages after just three hours of discussions. They basically restrict the right to strike, formation of trade unions and take back the country to the colonial era where workers were thought to be dispensable. In one stroke the government has put the last nail into the coffin of labour protection. There was no consultation with labour representatives nor state governments. It was clear that the central government does not believe in democratic consultations and federal principles. The laws miserably fail to extend any form of social protection to the majority of informal sector workers, the self-employed and the home-based.
The three laws interfering with the current legislation were passed with the real objective of new corporate titans who are hungry about taking over farmlands. Hence, the Centre’s ultimate aim of the farm laws was to hand over the procurement, storage and retail to private capital. The farmers had not made any demand for such laws. It is intriguing that the government went for such laws so hurriedly, and that too when the country was in the severe grip of Covid-19. It smacks of some hidden vested forces behind the move to legislate these laws. Due to the relentless protest by the farmers that shook the bastions of power, the government had to ultimately withdraw those laws.
Article 370 which gave special status to Jammu & Kashmir State has been the red rag to BJP bull. Since the party came into being, its leaders have been clamouring for its repeal. Hindutva right-wing finally succeeded in realising its long-standing “nationalist” agenda when it repealed Article 370, dividing the state into two union territories, with lieutenant governors with overwhelming powers, in charge of the divided entities.
It also implied the abolition of Article 35A which prevented outsiders from buying land and settling in the state: a clever ploy to help outsiders to grab land in the valley to build up gated resorts, industrial parks etc.
Interestingly, the Article was not something special to Jammu & Kashmir. Such provisions are there in the Constitution protecting the special criminal and civil rights of the people of northeastern states.
The repeal has in fact added fuel to the fire in J&K and the Islamophobic narratives spread by the lapdog media have failed to cover up what really happens in the valley. New proposals of the Delimitation Commission actually confirm the fear of the Kashmiri Muslims that the real objective of the BJP is to alter the boundaries of Assembly Constituencies to re-engineer the population of the valley to win elections in the state.
Through a mix of fiscal, administrative and institutional measures, the current regime is also attempting to reshape the nature and form of India’s federalism. The final nail in the coffin was undermining the functioning of the GST Council by delaying meetings, bypassing the principle of consultation, responding to state demands on Twitter and using bodies like the GST implementation committee to rush decisions.
Since 2014, the process has singularly been aimed at establishing a Hindutva state on the sly. People with the only qualification that they are die-hard Hindutva activists have been appointed to various agencies, universities, and research institutes and they are changing them into service providers for the Hindu right. The Modi-Shah duo and their acolytes have used a combination of religious hysteria and re-engineering of the Hindu caste structure to win elections.
Religious propaganda successfully marginalised the Muslims in most of the north Indian states using the classic tool of ‘Us versus Them’. They are forced to become silent vote banks of one secular party or the other without any plan to politically mobilise themselves and play a crucial and independent role in changing the traditional political dynamics. Instead of going for pre-election anti – Muslim riots the Sanghis are changing their tactics like expressing readiness to establish communication channels with Muslim organisations. The controversy in Karnataka over the girls wearing headscarf is a part of the hidden agenda of Hindutva forces to foment trouble targetted at Muslims and Christians.
The government has not been able to defend the country’s borders with China as it is still driven by the Pakistan-China fixation. Chinese intrusions have been reported by foreign media at multiple points along the border. The Indian dominant media is playing to the tune set by Ministry of Home Affairs practically covering up serious border incursions.
Over the last decade, surveillance technology has proliferated in the country. The government agencies are behind this illegal act. Overt use of the Israeli-made Pegasus eave-dropping tool is a well-known secret. The mobile phone has become an effective tool to track people and their movements.
The bill recently introduced in the parliament has once again revealed the fangs of the exclusivist regime. There are some questionable provisions for keeping personal records in state archives for 75 years. It also gives wide powers to security agencies. In recent years police have begun to routinely but illegally using face–recognition devices and the current bill expands their powers to screen people without their knowledge. Many provisions are beyond legislative oversight. Aadhar has become more than an ID card but a tool “to wash out aliens and unauthorised people” as our NSA said before. It may be true that the most pervasive form of surveillance is Aadhar. The term ‘national security‘ can be used to suppress people’s basic rights. And the courts favour the official narratives if ‘evidence‘ was provided in a sealed envelope.
Perhaps the only promising streak of brightness in this gloomy horizon is India’s ability to go back to its fundamental values like tolerance and co-existence which have developed through centuries through interaction between Hindus and Muslims. Even after the toxic propaganda unleashed at the micro-level by professional propagandists beholden to Hindutva philosophy, the majority of Indians disown divisive politics.
The recent state elections show that BJP gets less than 45% votes and it wins due to the first-past-the-post rule. It also signifies the decline of BSP bagging only 12.9% votes as against 22 % votes in 2017. But it is sinuous that BJP has been able to grow out of its former self as a Brahmin–Thakur party of middling traders. But in the same breath, we can say that 55% of Indian voters reject the Hindu Right.
Though the democratic space in our country is steadily shrinking, people’s resolve to save their individual and political rights is a ray of hope towards a better future. Those who built formidable fortresses of protests in the national capital and other parts of the country against sectarian CAA-NRC and exploitative farmer laws have taught us that the hidden seeds of democratic struggles could sprout out again at any time as mass movements. Pro-active social interaction, political mobilisation and alliance building to save the people, and the very idea of a secular, democratic republic is some of the priorities before the nation. The future depends upon such collectives coming together to fight the forces that want to turn the country into a den of stagnant waters.