Today, 26th November 2019, marks 70 years of the formulation of our Indian constitution. In the largest democracy in the world, this demarcates an important event that is the heart of this very nation. But amidst the recent outrage over the functioning of the country's government and it's new policies it's hard to ignore the question - "is India truly a democracy anymore?"
Seventy years is a lot of time to reflect on the progress or regress of a country. We started from a British authoritarian rule and here we are today, under a government that seems to follow similar ideologies and policies.
While we pride ourselves in the freedom that we achieved from those that bound us - we also seem to be glorifying the rule of a government that seems to be following in the same footsteps.
Is India Losing Its Democracy?
The last 5 years have seen an uprising of a new style of democracy and leadership. In the new, Modi - led government, many changes have come into place. Many seem to be on the fence about his policies and leadership style, while others seem to be looking at it as a huge leap towards developing the country.
Looking at his time, we can reflect on the broader structure of what is happening in the country. I think if we simply list out the "changes" that his government brought to the table and it's correlating effects, we can look at whether progress is in the books.
- Demonetization: On November 8, 2016, the government sucked out 86% of the currency in circulation by value in the Indian economy. The decision was taken against the advice of two successive RBI governors, Raghuram Rajan and Urjit Patel. It was done under the wrong premise – that there was too much cash in the economy and the currency that was withdrawn – Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 - were very high-value notes (while the 2000 rupee note was introduced just after) and that the move would eliminate all black money in the system as well as fake currency. Here's what actually happened: 99.7% of the currency in the system came into the banks, and so there was no ‘black money dividend’ – like the Rs 3 lakh crore that the government expected, instead millions of jobs were lost (3.5 million in the year following the move, as per CMIE data, and continuing job losses to this day) and farmers were hit hard as it came just before a sowing season. It's clear to see that demonetization was one of the most arbitrary decisions ever by an elected leader in a democracy.
- The Swacch Bharat Abhiyan: The Swachh Bharat Mission was announced to make India ‘open defecation-free’ by 2019. Over 9 crore toilets have been built, and coverage of rural sanitation has risen to 98% from about 40% in 2014. Many municipality areas in the country have been declared open defecation-free (ODF). The program also brought the discussion about cleanliness and sanitation in the country into focus. However, ground-level reports from many areas show implementation failures - toilets were built in a hurry with no proper water supply or drainage system resulting in unusable toilets. The reports of ODF villages and areas also have been under serious questioning for data tampering.
- Article 370 Revocation: Modi’s recent abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, guaranteed under Article 370 of India’s constitution, was undertaken amid a statewide lockdown. Political leaders were arrested, and telephone and Internet services were suspended for over a month. The military and army forces were employed in full force, and more than a few reports came to the surface of lathi charges, and pellet injuries. The revocation came almost illegally and was broadcasted as the solution to the India - Pakistan claims on Kashmir. Before the revocation itself, the local support for militants and terrorists, which had subsided in the years since Vajpayee, had grown. Kashmir, in the Modi years, has become more estranged from India than ever before. And the call to revoke Art. 370 only made it worse.
- Gau Rakshak Movements: Under the Modi government at the Centre and BJP governments in 15 states across the country, ‘cow terrorism’ by cow protection vigilante became the norm, especially in much of North India, between 2014 and 2018, aided and abetted by BJP state government according to reports. Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri, UP; Pehlu Khan and Ummar Khan in Alwar, Rajasthan; Mazlum Ansari, Imteyaz Khan, only 15 years old, and Alimuddin in Jharkhand; Inspector Subodh Kumar Singh in Bulandshahr, UP, were a few of those murdered by cow terrorists. The overall beef ban and the violence that followed was covered up gracefully by the government by dissociating themselves with the events altogether.
- The Rise of "Urban Naxals": The term, used even by Modi to describe the sect of civil society activists who have for years and decades worked for the rights of Dalits and Adivasis in Naxal-affected areas. Several such activists – including Sudha Bharadwaj (65), an IIT-Kanpur graduate turned lawyer-activist – have been thrown into jail. Some have even been accused of plotting to kill Modi. The term has also been used by BJP supporters to accuse the people that disagree with the current government. Another issue that has come up along the same routes is that of defamation. Using examples of those that disagree with the government as defamation of personalities has been the new move.
- Surveillance In The Society: The Modi government has made several attempts at creating a surveillance state and has partly succeeded in those attempts. The Aadhaar number was sought to be linked to everything from one’s bank account and PAN number to mobile number to EPFO and insurance policies, etc. This was struck down by the Supreme Court, with only the Aadhaar-PAN link held valid. Instead of abiding by the judgement, the government has issued an ordinance to permit Aadhaar linkages. The government also issued a tender for the creation of a nation-wide social media surveillance machinery that would watch what people were saying on social media networks. It had to withdraw the tender after the media, activists and opposition leaders opposed the move and took the matter to court. While the Modi government wants to know everything about all citizens, the government has blocked much information regarding itself and its performance. For instance, most recently, it has held back NSSO data on jobs; the CAG report on the Rafale deal is not available to the public though it was tabled in Parliament.
- Farmer Policies: Farmer suicides rose sharply during the Modi government’s tenure. In its final budget, the BJP on the demand for minimum support price plus 50%, gave a version that satisfied no one. In parallel, the Modi government imported wheat and pulses without thought – leading to the prices of domestic produce crashing. The ill-advised venture to amend the land acquisition Act of 2013; to forcibly acquire the land of farmers. Farmers have resorted to all sorts of agitations to catch the BJP government’s attention. They have marched and held large scale agitations thrice this year. They have brought the mortal remains of their brethren, who committed suicide, to shock this government into action. The children of those farmers who took their own lives held peaceful protests barely a kilometre away from parliament. Not a single representative from the BJP Government deigned to meet with any of them or even acknowledge their presence.
- Nationalism And Hindutva: There has been a sharp increase in targeted attacks on Dalits and members of the minority community. What makes these attacks unique is the state endorsement to the attackers when ministers garland them or reverentially attend their funerals. The message of support is lost on no one. In fact, the only coherent thread running through this government’s term has been the othering of a certain section of India. People who are blessed to be followed by the prime minister share only one other thing in common. They are defiantly communal and abusive. The relation between nationalism and Hindutva have been advertised as one and the same, and if you don't seem to take part - "go to Pakistan" seems to be the most appropriate answer.
- Employment and Jobs: When the government has to revise the methodology for calculating GDP to make its numbers appear artificially higher, when capital flight on an unprecedented scale takes place, when companies turn to external lenders to finance operations, you know the government has failed to create jobs. And when the PM was sworn into office his claims to cultivate millions of jobs have only been empty statements and fake statistics that have come together to create an illusion of growth.
But, as the man himself claims - "Sab theek hai."
Before our eyes, India’s very character is being transformed by a government with no regard for institutions, understandings, and practices maintained since independence. “Boldness,” it seems, is all that matters.
As Shashi Tharoor wrote - "Under Modi, political freedom is no longer regarded as a virtue. The new standard of social order is control (by the authorities) and conformity (by everyone else). "