Indian voters handed a huge mandate to the BJP-led NDA (National Democratic Alliance) coalition in 2014, reducing the ruling Congress-led UPA (United Progressive Alliance) to near irrelevance. It was as much a vote for the BJP leader Narendra Modi’s promise of good governance as it was a vote against the Congress Party’s nepotistic, sycophantic, and corruption-laden decade of scandals.
Despite worries over Mr. Modi’s associations with right-wing Hindu fundamentalism and his tarred reputation in the wake of communal riots in Gujarat, Indians voted for his manifesto of change. They argued that the need for good governance outweighed other concerns, convinced that Mr. Modi would rein in the fundamentalist elements of his party once he was elected. With a clear majority, the voters signaled that Narendra Modi had the full authority to clean house and deliver on his promise of “Achche Din” (Good Days).
It has been 16 months since that mandate. Have the voters received a glimpse of “Achche Din?” Or is the BJP government devolving quickly to UPA’s third term?
On its face there has been cause for cheer at the healthy rate of GDP growth of 7.6% for the fiscal year 2014/15, which appears to put India on par with its biggest competitor, China. However, falling oil prices have played a significant role, as has the change in the GDP calculation formula.
According to a Wall Street Journal article published on August 20, 2015, the profits of companies in the benchmark Sensex index rose by only 1% during the April through June quarter, compared with 24% growth in the same period a year earlier.
Mr. Modi’s signature economic campaign has been his push to “Make in India” (a Nehruvian philosophy that has had the support all previous governments) encouraging industries to manufacture in India to create jobs and establish self-reliance.
While several high profile companies have pledged to invest, the initiative has not trickled down to small business owners who still struggle to compete globally. Arguably, a grand initiative like that needs time to solidify, but for it to succeed the government needs to take specific actions to improve infrastructure, capital flows, and streamline regulation. There is no evidence that these actions are in the pipeline.
In the meantime, industrial output fell sharply recently to 2.1% after having risen 5.6% the previous 12 months (under the previous government). Growth in the core sector, (which includes electricity, coal, cement, steel, and petroleum) has fallen 0.1 percent. It grew 7.3% the previous 12 months.
Good governance has been at the heart of Narendra Modi’s appeal to the electorate and the Prime Minister certainly started off with a bang—removing cushy perks from members of the bureaucracy, insisting on regular attendance and clean desks and vowing to root out entrenched corruption from the babudom. There is some evidence that top-level bureaucratic corruption is down. There is also a plan to replace India’s patchwork of taxes with a single, nationwide levy, which might simplify collection and improve revenues in a country notoriously known for evading taxes. (Ironically, the Goods and Service Tax, now touted with great fanfare by the BJP government, was a proposal by the previous premier Dr. Manmohan Singh that was vociferously shot down by the then-in-opposition BJP!)
But a proposed land acquisition bill, which would have given the government sweeping authority to acquire land for business development, has been derailed because of insufficient communication with stakeholders like farmers. And in a direct stain on Mr. Modi’s anti-corruption stance, his foreign minister S. Swaraj and the BJP Rajasthan Chief Minister V. Raje have been accused of improperly helping a cricket magnate, Lalit Modi (no relation), who is under investigation by Indian authorities over financial irregularities in the Indian Premier League.
Another huge scandal has erupted in Madhya Pradesh, where the BJP-run government is part of federal law enforcement probe over allegations of graft by a government examination board. Prime Minister Modi’s response has been a distant silence, but the media onslaught and opposition pressure over these events have brought the government to a standstill.
One of the most publicized of Mr. Modi’s initiatives, the Swachch Bharat Abhiyan”(Clean India Initiative) got off to a great start, with celebrities, politicians, and common people joining in an effort to clean and beautify public areas. In true Modi style, however, most of the emphasis has been on publicity, without a comprehensive plan to fix the underlying infrastructural issues like sewage treatment and user education. A much ballyhooed promise to build more toilets has run out of steam, with the annual rate of addition lower than the previous government. While the government claims to have constructed 80 lakh (8 million) toilets under the program, a quick check by Mail Today reveals that many of the toilets are either unused or exist merely on paper.
Freedom of Expression
Given that Mr. Modi’s signature appeal for the intelligentsia is the slogan “More Governance, Less Government,” the last 12 months have seen quite a bit of interference by the government in social and cultural expression. New Film Censor Board chairperson Pahlaj Nihalani, a BJP appointee has already circulated a list of words to be disallowed in movies. Movies and documentaries with controversial subjects have also come under the gun like “Unfreedom,” a movie with a strong lesbian theme that was banned on the grounds that it might “ignite unnatural passions.”
In July 2015, the Indian government blocked 857 pornographic websites because it didn’t want such content to become “a social nuisance.” Recently cops in Mumbai raided hotels entering rooms of consenting adults to fight “public indecency.” Mr. Modi’s coming to power has unshackled deeply held conservative attitudes and emboldened irrational behavior driven by religious and communalist zeal.
The fervor shown by Mr. Modi’s acolytes extends to vicious responses, filled with ugly threats, to any dissenting voices in the media, which threatens a key pillar of democracy. Gujarat Police officer Sanjiv Bhatt, who took on Narendra Modi over the 2002 riots in the state during Mr. Modi’s tenure as Chief Minister, was sacked recently over the most trivial of allegations. Human rights activist Teesta Setalvad, who has been an unrelenting campaigner against the atrocities in Gujarat, was declared a “threat to national security” and has been the target of incessant harassment. After the appointment of an unqualified Gajendra Chauhan to the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) some of the students who went on strike to protest were arrested for “rioting.”
A disturbing pattern emerges from these incidents.
NGO Witch Hunt
NGOs like Greenpeace India, an environmental group, have had their funding revoked and threats have been issued to cancel their registration.
Others like the Ford Foundation have been placed on a watch list because the Modi government accuses them of slowing down industrial projects on social and environmental grounds, a worrisome development for citizens concerned that new economic development under this regime might come at the expense of the environment and human rights. Indeed, the targeted persecution of NGOs working in the human rights space suggests an attempt to whitewash the country’s reputation by pretending its problems don’t exist.
Mr. Modi’s response to the religious riots in Gujarat several years ago has always been a blot on his reputation. Supporters reasoned that as Prime Minister Modi would be more temperate, but the unabated rise of Hindu fundamentalism in the last year has been a cause of grave concern and India’s minorities have won little reassurance. It appears that a “saffronization” of sorts is taking place as evinced by the following incidents:
• Banning the consumption and production of beef products
• Hindu organizations affiliated to the BJP have forcibly converted poor minorities to Hinduism under a “Ghar Wapsi (returning home)” campaign.
• Modifying textbooks used in government schools—Retired school principal Dinanath Batra, who has successfully removed Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus from Indian bookshelves, is a senior figure in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and has the ear of this government. He happily accepts the term “Ban Man” and is on a warpath to modify textbooks to suggest a more glorious Hindu past for the country.
• In the words of 86 year old, Julie Ribiero, a retired IPS (Indian Police Service) officer, and a former Indian ambassador to Romania—“As a Christian, suddenly I am a stranger in my own country. Is it coincidence or a well-thought-out plan that the systematic targeting of a small and peaceful community should begin only after the BJP government of Narendra Modi came to power last May?”
• In New Delhi last year, Mr. Modi’s Union Minister of State Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti told voters that they must choose between “Ramzadon” (those born of Ram) and “Haramzadon” (illegitimately born), a dig at Muslims.
• RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, an ally of the ruling party, suggested that all Hindu
stanis (Indians) are Hindus, because they live in Hindustan (“home of the Hindus”).
While Mr. Modi may not be directly involved in many of these decisions, his silence and inaction have emboldened the right-wing elements of his party to proceed with the remaking of the country in a reactionary, religion-driven mold. For a Prime Minister who eagerly embraced social media, his lack of engagement on social issues has been surprising and revealing.
Symbolism over Substance
That silence has not extended when the Modi government has been eager to take undue credit for successes—many of which were the result of years of effort by the previous government. Some of these include the Aadhar program, a massive attempt by the UPA government to provide unique identity numbers to each of India’s billions, which was almost scuttled by the incoming BJP government before a plea was made by its architects. The much celebrated nuclear deal with the United States was in fact begun by the Congress Party when in power, and was, at the time, strenuously opposed by the BJP opposition.
Any Indian, whether local or non-resident, whether supporter or critic, can only wish for the success of Narendra Modi’s promise to bring “Achche Din” for the people of India. To do so, Prime Minister Modi has the challenging task of focusing on economic growth while keeping check on the fundamentalist elements of his party who would derail years of social progress and religious tolerance.
To his supporters, who pooh-pooh any criticism of this government asserting that “It also happened under Congress rule” the whole point of changing the guard was to usher in a new administrative era that was efficient, corruption-free, and economy-centric. What we have got instead, at least till now, is empty symbolism and social and religious paternalism. It behooves us as concerned citizens and Indians abroad to make very sure that the Emperor’s new clothes are indeed real.
Tweets, photo ops, and clever slogans cannot bring about the change India needs. If Mr. Modi wishes to be the transformative leader that Indians gave him a mandate for, he must back up his inspiring rhetoric with action. He needs to fill the ranks of government with talented administrators, pledge to openness and transparency in government affairs, and unreservedly condemn and sideline the communalist forces among his allies.
Indians have been incredibly patient and forgiving of an undeserving, corrupt, incompetent and shameless political class that has consistently failed them for far too long. It is time to do right by them, Prime Minister Modi.
Jawahar “Joe” Samagond is a technology communications professional based in Northern California. Originally from Bombay, India he has spent time on both coasts (Boston and San Francisco). He is an avid reader and serves on the Fremont Library Advisory Commission. He is interested in global politics, science, technology and social trends.
Vidya Pradhan is a freelance writer and a published author of children’s books. She was the editor of India Currents from June 2009 to February 2012. She hosts the popular Safari Quiz Show every Saturday on 1550 AM in the San Francisco Bay Area.