Monday, August 10, 2015

Mukul Kesavan - Those noises off: Narendra Modi's report cards

The vehement critiques of Narendra Modi's first year in office that have appeared in recent weeks have been scrupulously economistic in kind. They take the prime minister to task for not being the radical economic reformer he had promised to be. His government's inability to transact legislative business that would free up the Indian economy and make it an inviting investment destination is seen as Narendra Modi's principal failure.

In this narrative, the first year of the prime minister's mandate has been wasted because a) he hasn't found a way of passing the Constitutional amendment that would make the goods and services tax a reality, b) he hasn't reformed the labour laws that shackle entrepreneurship in this country and c) he has managed to score a spectacular own goal by first making the business-friendly land acquisition bill a point of political honour, and then, after wasting precious political capital on this legislative battle, surrendering unconditionally by abandoning all the 'improvements' that his government had made on the United Progressive Alliance's version of the law.

It's a tribute to the prime minister's messaging skills that these assessments of his first year in office, even when they are unfavourable, are economic report cards. For a man who two years ago was seen as the most communally divisive politician in the republic's history, this is a kind of triumph. It's also a comment on the influence of 'Davos Men', these Panglossian opinion makers in newspapers, think tanks and the corporate world, whose main attribute is their ability to domesticate business-friendly politicians no matter how feral, into the bland discourse of economic rationality.

In the beginning, in the long run up to the 2014 general elections, as mainstream figures moved crabwise towards an endorsement of Modi, there was a recognition of Modi's Janus-faced nature, the fact that he contained two potentials: a promise of economic modernization and the prospect of an unregenerate majoritarianism.

The most candid acknowledgement of this duality was supplied by Gurcharan Das in a series of opinion pieces that presented his readers with a stark choice: either a communal Modi who was India's best bet for corruption-free economic progress or a corrupt Congress more likely to keep the communal peace but incapable of stewarding the economic transformation necessary for India to cash in its demographic dividend.

On the eve of the election, in April 2014, Das chose Modi and spelt out the reasons why he felt it was right to vote for Modi and wrong to oppose him:

"But there is a clear risk in voting for Modi - he is polarizing, sectarian and authoritarian. There is a greater risk, however, in not voting for him. It is to not create jobs for 8-10 million youth that enter the market each year. One per cent rise in GDP roughly adds 15 lakh direct jobs; each job creates three indirect jobs, and each job supports five people. This means three crore people are impacted by one per cent growth. Restoring growth to 8% is a prize worth thinking about when casting one's vote. There will always be a trade-off in values at the ballot box and those who place secularism above demographic dividend are wrong and elitist."

Das's candour is useful because it helps illustrate how decisively the public conversation about Modi's government has shifted since the election. The yardstick used to assess Modi, both by his critics and his supporters, is the success or failure of his promised economic transformation. We're all materialists now.

This doesn't mean that critics aren't alert to or vocal about sectarians in the government or the Bharatiya Janata Party saying or doing strange things. From the brutally communal declarations of the sadhvis and sants who are the BJP's visible Hindutvavadi vanguard to the Trilokpuri riots, to the government's vindictive persecution of the Ford Foundation, the Modi sarkar's departures from secular virtue, have all been documented and criticized. But the willingness to buy into Modi's five-act drama - where " achche din aane waale hain" is read as a promise of economic well-being - has the curious effect of making these instances of sectarianism and vengefulness seem like a series of 'noises off', not lines in the actual play. They become 'outbursts', 'aberrations', the momentary lapses of a modernizing centre-right party residually constrained by its earlier 'Hindu' avatar, not moments that add up to a defining story.

The best illustration of the way in which the rhetorical style of Modi's critics helps him is the question that has come to define his tenure: "Why is the prime minister silent?" I can see why Congressmen are so keen to ask the question, given the way Manmohan Singh was lampooned for his muteness in office, but as a way of defining the Modi sarkar, it is worse than useless. The most economical way of answering this question is to remain silent, which is what Modi has done.

Modi's critics could argue that the prime minister's continuous silence in the face of bigotry and communal brazenness is an unspoken commitment to majoritarian creep. They could make the obvious point that Amit Shah, Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti and Sakshi Maharaj mean more to the BJP than Jagdish Bhagwati, Arvind Panagariya and Arvind Subramanian. Instead, the National Democratic Alliance's critics ask their rhetorical question as if its answer was self-evident.

It isn't. Modi's core vote, the BJP's workers, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's cadres know that Narendra Modi is unswervingly Hindutvavadi. They read his silences exactly as they are meant to be read: as instances of proud majoritarian resolve. The battle for public opinion consists of making the BJP's darkness visible, by showing that the political drama currently unfolding owes more to Guruji Golwalkar than Adam Smith.

The things that define the BJP and its government are its attempts to pack the commanding heights of Indian education and culture with sectarian ideologues, its lunatic war on eggs in the matter of children's nutrition, its experiments in 'controlled' communal polarization, the prime minister's extraordinary attack on the higher judiciary after the Supreme Court didn't let his government have its way in the matter of Teesta Setalvad and the willingness of one of its elected parliamentarians to publicly call Muslims haramzadas. This is what defines this government and distinguishes it from its predecessors, not the fate of the GST bill nor the debate over incremental and radical economic reform. 

To invert the motto of a very clever politician, it's the politics, stupid.

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