To make a country without fear
A lynching in the country is not a good backdrop for a new government to begin the serious work of good governance that was promised in the winning election 2014 manifesto. Nor is it a good omen as a new Lok Sabha begins its inaugural session of a five-year tenure that perhaps will be less stormy and contentious than the one preceding it, its peace assured by the overwhelming majority of the Bharatiya Janata Party. The numbers leave little space for dissent, even if the emasculated and truncated Opposition to the initiative to raise issues that the Treasury benches and the government collectively think of as contentious. The riotous assemblies of the past on issues such as Telengana, the Women’s Reservation Bill, the Prevention of Communal Violence Bill, albeit very briefly, and even the Tamil issue will arguably remain just in the memories of the media and the TV-watching public.
Long before the general elections, the re-structuring of the Bharatiya Janata Party had given an indication of the vision for the future, with the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and Mr. Narendra Modi together micro-managing the nation-wide choice of the candidates, with the cadres deployed all the way down to the electorate at the level of individual booths. There were close to a million polling stations, so that should a fair indication of the scale of the exercise and the numbers of cadres involved, working with other BJP supporters, and surely with excellent lines of information, command and control.
The long election campaign was vicious and unsparing, bruising, divisive and coercive, even threatening in a manner never seen before. The sophisticated social media, presumably manned by “modern” and educated young men and women, many of them living in the United States of America, often crossed the lines of legality, while their trolls operated essentially on the wrong side of the Information Technology legislation. Political leaders and activists, among them many who are now in the Union Council of Ministers, pandered to the lowest common denominator in an effort, so very successful in retrospect, to consolidate the majority communities. The electoral rout of the so-called secular parties and those representing the marginalised and the subaltern groups indicates how wide the communal chasm had grown in the last one year, peaking in Muzaffarnagar, with that infamous pogrom in turn fuelling the separation of peoples. It is a matter of speculation as to how long it will take for wounds to heal and suspicion to fade away. That, of course, would also depend on how long it will take for the defeated political parties and groups to recover, regroup and rebuild themselves into potent political entities. And that, in turn, would depend on whether the vanquished have learnt lessons from the battle. That, some say, seems a tall order.
The all-conquering Mr. Narendra Modi, the new prime minister has taken early and dramatic steps in an effort to prove that he is his own man, with a visible bow to his alma mater, the Sangh. The core group of his Cabinet is men and women fiercely loyal to him, even as the bulk of the lesser portfolios are filled by Sangh nominees, including a man who is an accused in the Muzaffarnagar violence, and representatives of the allies in the National Democratic alliance. The minorities, Dalits and Tribals have token representation. He has accommodated one competitor, the redoubtable Mrs. Shushma Swaraj, but has kept out patriarchs Mr. Lal Krishna Advani and Mr. Murli Manohar Joshi.
His swearing-in sought to mute fears of a hawkish image by an invitation to the heads of government of the countries of the neighbourhood, including the prime minister of Pakistan, Mr. Nawaz Sharif even though some of his senior party colleagues, including former BJP president Mr. Nitin Gadkari, had all but declared that India reserved the nuclear option if Islamabad provoked the country. Every neighbour obliged. His inaugural address as Prime minister spoke of development and inclusiveness. The oath taking ceremony further spelled out the economic agenda, so to speak, in the major presence of India Inc., led by the Ambani family, fellow Gujaratis, as well as the more controversial Mr. Adani, and many more. And while perhaps the promise of inclusiveness was reflected in a number of Bohra leaders, and some other Muslim religious heads, also Protestant Christian Bishops and pastors, this was rather offset by the entire Sangh hierarchy present on the front seats at the Rashtrapati Bhawan ceremony. The man not present was Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh head, Mr. Mohan Bhagwat. The Organiser, the official mouthpiece of the Sangh recorded that those present included religious leaders Sri Sri Ravishankar, Jagadguru Ramanandacharya, Swami Ramandrachrya as well as Mr. Rameshbhai Ojha, Acharya Balkrishna, Mr. Bhaiyujji Maharaj, Sadhvi Rithambhra and Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Mr. Ashok Singhal.
And perhaps therein lies the fear that extreme religious elements may see in the BJP-Modi landslide – that it was on a 31 per cent of the vote is largely irrelevant in the popular discourse – an opportunity for themselves, if not a licence.
The French political scientist, Prof. Christophe Jaffrelot who has written several books on the rise of the saffron brotherhood, noted “Except in Uttar Pradesh, where polarisation was the repertoire Mr. Amit Shah [the BJP campaign manager] orchestrated for delivering votes in a key state, Mr. Modi projected a rather soft Hindutva-based discourse this time. Whether this style will continue to prevail will largely depend on how his government will succeed in delivering economic growth. If he can quickly achieve positive results on the economic front and revive growth and create jobs, and can thus remain popular – the economy is definitely his top priority – then the development plank will be sufficient for him. If, however, he is not successful on the economic front, there will be strong criticism not just amongst the liberals but in his own camp. He may then resort to the Hindutva-based polarisation strategy.”
Delivering on the economy is not one man’s job, or even of one government. In his election rhetoric, Mr. Modi spoke of development, but never spelt it out in detail. It remained a phrase, a matter of interpretation. The United Progressive Alliance government of economist Dr. Manmohan Singh was accused of policy paralysis. Mr. Modi has done away with collective decision making mechanism thought of by his predecessor, including such holy cows as Groups of Ministers, and Empowered Group of Ministers [which by the way were instruments that led to the creation of Telengana]. Mr. Modi made it clear that it would be he, and not his cabinet colleagues, who would take policy decisions, leaving them the job of the day-to-day running of ministries whose numbers would also be reduced in time through the clubbing of several departments. He appointed a Principal Secretary using a Presidential Ordinance to overcome some legal barriers. He met with the heads of all the departments, Secretaries to the Government, and told the bureaucrats they had a direct access to him on the mobile phone to get the work done. Mr. Modi would indeed be the Chief Executive Officer of the new dispensation.
But India now lives in a globalised economic world and everything from Foreign Direct Investment to join ventures needs willing partners in the US and Europe even as they struggle in their own economic doldrums. The balancing of internal development, infrastructure projects and the vexatious issue of transferring land and forests to industries for exploitation and use remains a political landmine that can turn quite few friends into enemies, and provoke mass unrest in sensitive regions.
Thought inevitably turns to Prof. Jeffrelot’s common-sense premonition. In a very short time, there have been voices from within the council of ministers and the larger political family that the election verdict is for implementing the most confrontationist subjects on the agenda. Within a day of taking oath, a junior minister in the Prime Minister’s office spoke of reopening the issue of abrogating Article 370, which is critical to the state of Jammu and Kashmir’s ascension to the Union of India. The minister said talks had begun with stakeholders, provoking an ominous statement from the state Chief Minister that “long after this government is memory, either Article 370 will remain, or Jammu and Kashmir will not remain in India”. The political spectrum of the valley of Kashmir came together on the point, and Dr. Karan Singh, the last Maharajah’s son and himself the last Sadr-e-Riyasat, in a rare statement advised caution on an issue that had international as well national implications.
As if that were not enough, there has been a very visible attempt to raise the national temperature by immediately bringing up the issue of a Uniform Civil Code, which is seen as thinly veiled attempt against Muslim personal law. Other religious communities too have in the past vigorously opposed such a move unless there is a universal code which a citizen can voluntarily adopt, much as he Special Marriages Act. This has been a pet project of the Sangh Parivar, which sees the Muslim community as the font of a demographic conspiracy to overwhelm India. Its most obscene representation was in the slogan “Ham Panch, Hamare Pachhis”, suggesting that a Muslim man and his four wives would produce twenty-five offspring to upset the religious population balance in India. In actual fact, polygamy is the Muslim community is perhaps no higher than the hidden polygamy in some other communities.
The second pet project, “Indianising Indian education” was tried out in NDA-I under the venerable Mr. Tal Behari Vajpayee as Prime Minister and the learned Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi as minister for Human Resource Development. Much of the strategy revolves around changes in the curricula, in the text and ancillary books and in pedagogy. The Madhya Pradesh government’s Surya namashkar and efforts to make Yoga compulsory in schools is but a dramatic sign of it.
The tens of thousands of Ekal Vidyalayas and Shishu Mandirs run by the Sangh, often in remote villages, practice this education system. Their target is to have one such school, mostly a single-teacher institution, every one of the 6,38,000 villages in India. They are far away from the target, but they plan to get there. Even in their present numbers, such schools outstrip the total number of Christian schools and Islamic madrasas in the country, though official figures are not available.
The new HRD cabinet Minister, Mrs. Smriti Zubin Irani, mired in an unseemly controversy about her undergraduate status, has nonetheless announced that the education system would have to look into Indian culture for inspiration. Her fans in academia have seen this as the go ahead for purging textual material and curricula of things seen as Nehruvian, western, or for that matter, Islamic. Several leaders, and smaller fries including those who lead moral policing groups, want a drastic overhaul, restructuring the entire secondary school system. These perhaps are explained as the over-enthusiasm of a euphoric group.
All these are issues pertaining to the system, and will require major administrative and legislative action. They can also not be done in a day, or even by the next academic session howsoever hard Mrs. Irani, and those pushing her, may try. Despite the crushing majority in the Lok Sabha, Mr. Modi may also not try major amendments to the Constitution. The fierce independence exercised by the leaders of ruling groups in Tamil Nadu, Orissa and West Bengal, as well as insufficient numbers in the Upper House, the Rajya Sabha, are current bulwarks against such adventure. But that is not to say Mr. Modi and his government may not launch another Constitution Review Committee on the pattern of the Justice Venkatacheliah-chaired National Commission to review the working of the Constitution was set by NDA Government of India led by Vajpayee on 22 February 2000 for suggesting possible amendments to the Constitution of India. They have the mandate of numbers to do this, though one would like to hope Mr. Modi will not exercise this option.
What concerns the common people, specially members of religious minority communities as well as Dalits and Tribals, are matters of security, issue of their self respect, welfare, economic development, identity, and of course the protection of the law. They also want safeguards against the excesses of the law, and of the law-keepers.
The UPA government led by the Congress was not innocent in this. In fact, it was very guilty. There was large-scale community profiling. The government could not deliver on safety and security. It waffled on bringing forth Equal Opportunity Commission laws. It betrayed the minorities by almost deliberately and cynically ensuring that the Prevention of Communal and Targetted Violence Act was never passed by Parliament. Its Home Minister of the time, Mr. P C Chidambaram must take much if the blame. The blackest mark against the UPA on this score was the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, which was used to arrest, humiliate, torture and incarcerate a large number of Muslim young men, as also those of the Christian and Sikh communities, if in much less numbers. And the Congress government could not either tame or contain extremist political elements spewing hate and indulging in violence.
The world is watching if the Prime Minister, Mr. Narendra Modi, can rise to the occasion and contain these forces that so intimidate society with their violence, their moral policing and their efforts, so successful in the short run, to bridle the freedom of speech. Collectively, the result is great tragedy, and further dividing of people.
Mr. Modi will have to ensure that the death of a 28-year-old Information Technology professional in Pune, Mr. Mohsen Sadiq Shaikh, will be the last such incident of intolerance, psychotic hysteria and brutal violence during his term in office. The police say Mr. Shaikh was waylaid and bludgeoned to death in the wake of a morphed image the late Shiv Sena patriarch Mr. Bal Thackeray and Maratha icon Chhatrapati Shivaji on Facebook. Mr. Shaikh sported a beard and wore a skullcap, easily identifying him as a Muslim. That he was entirely innocent did not matter. That he was a Muslim, did. He paid for his identity with his life. His alleged killers, belonging to the Hindu Rashtra Sena, exchanged an ominous message on their mobiles: ‘Pahili wicket padli’, The first wicket has fallen, according to Pune joint commissioner of police, Mr. Sanjay Kumar. Considering the content of the message exchanged by the accused and the weapons they were carrying, the police are probing whether the attack was planned in advance. The city was under curfew for several hours.
This ideology surely cannot be allowed to propagate, or continue. The law must, of course, take its course. But it is for the government now in power in New Delhi to send out strong messages of comfort and reassurance to a traumatised people who otherwise may fear the worst. There can be no licence allowed to self-styled moral and cultural police groups. Mr. Modi and his party, the BJP, will have to show in word and deed that they are genuinely inclusive, and that every Indian citizen, whichever religious, cultural or ethnic group he or she may belong to, enjoys the Constitutional right of life and liberty and the freedom of faith in full measure. The law and justice system will, it is to be hoped, ensure this, with the backing of the political dispensation in power. Mr. Modi will have to see that such groups do not hold the government hostage, even if they think they helped it come to power.
Development alone, however visible it may become under Mr. Modi, will have little meaning for a people who are otherwise living in fear of any sort.