Two years ago, on May 30, 2019, Narendra Modi took oath as Prime Minister for the second time, after his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP, won the Lok Sabha elections again. Five years before that, he had come to power in the 2014 elections, promising economic prosperity, social unity and inclusive development. His slogans – “achche din”, “sabka saath, sabka vikas”, “one crore jobs” had captured the imagination of sufficient number of people to propel his party to a handsome victory. Those were heady days, dreams were king-sized, the rhetoric was intoxicating, the energy thrilling, and the visuals and photo-ops were flying thick and fast.
Cut to today, and you will find that Indian people are disillusioned and cynical. Undoubtedly, Prime Minister Modi has created a support bank, popularly known as “bhakts”, who vouch for his work and integrity, come what may. But the façade of this adulation is fast slipping as an ugly reality stares everybody in the face. It’s a classic study of how two deadly, discredited and elitist ideologies were combined by the Prime Minister and his party to rule this country – and ended up tearing apart its economy, its social fabric, its prestige.
Backed by a comfortable majority in Lok Sabha, and with several state governments too under BJP’s control, many thought that Modi would deliver the goods. The 2019 election seemed to confirm this – he led BJP to an even bigger victory. The first time, in 2014, BJP and its allies had got around 38% votes, which increased to about 43% in 2019, according to Election Commission data. Although this shows that a majority of those who voted still opposed BJP, but in the ‘first past the post’ system, this translated into a massive number of seats. With so much in PM Modi’s favour, where did it all go wrong?
Favour the Rich and Fan Bigotry
The two defining features of Modi’s rule emanate from two ideologies that he and his party have tried to marry together: one is the neo-liberal dogma that the economy best functions if the government spends and intervenes less on behalf of the people while facilitating ‘wealth creators’ of the corporate sector; and, the second is the idea that India is a Hindu Rashtra, or a nation of only Hindus. It seems rather bizarre that these two should go hand in hand, but then, rulers have bizarre ways of establishing and perpetuating their rule.
The economic policy, which incidentally has caused widespread ruin in many Third World countries and led to massive increase in inequality even in the advanced countries, was not originated by Modi. It had been brought in by previous regimes. But Modi turbo-charged it and took it to extremes that were breath-taking.
The socio-cultural ideology of Hindutva originated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), of which Modi and many of his ministers were long-standing members. This involved invoking the glory of the Hindu ‘race’ or ‘nation’, engendering a fear of takeover or defeat by ‘alien’ faiths, like Islam, and led to assertion of all kinds of revanchist ideas, violence and superstitions. It also spawned an ultra-nationalist, belligerence in the defence of the country, and concomitantly, an inflated vision of India as some kind of world leader or Vishwa Guru. It was this ideology that motivated the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu & Kashmir, led to jingoist war cries and fanned pseudo-nationalism that ebbs and rises with government policy.
This ideology integrally carries the idea and justification of the caste hierarchy within it. As a result, discrimination and atrocities against Dalits and Adivasis too heightened and further contributed to social strife. Modi government's policies of being initially silent when protective laws were diluted, or of continuing attacks on Dalits and Adivasis in the name of cattle smuggling, and the miserly approach towards spending on such essentials as scholarships for these sections displayed this hidebound casteist approach.
The former ideology led to euphoric celebrations in the country’s corporate sections (or their apologists in the intelligentsia and the media) while the latter segued into social violence, riots, mob lynchings, siege of minorities, with even the state machinery being facilely deployed to pave the way for it. This part of the deal was to manage the people – it was the social weapon to keep people divided and distracted from the economic destruction that was being carried out.
How The Economy Was Destroyed
Over the past seven years, the Modi government has put in place a ruthless machinery for the exploitation of India’s labouring classes in order to benefit the super rich. Some of its major economic decisions, like demonetisation of currency in 2016 and the bringing in of Goods and Services Tax (GST) in 2017, the enthusiastic sale of public sector industrial assets to private buyers, the freedom to foreign capital to invest in everything from coal mines to defence production, the relaxations and exemptions in taxes given to corporate entities (amounting to Rs.6 lakh crore last year), the massive cut in corporate tax rate, which potentially led to losses of Rs.1.45 lakh crore to government revenue, the privatisation of many public services ranging from healthcare to railways, are some examples of this policy.
This was not all. After its victory in the 2019 elections, the Modi government became so brazen that it brought in the now infamous black laws for corporatisation of agriculture, and also, four labour codes that dismantled the protective labour laws, throwing workers to the mercy of employers.
These policies led to a slump in demand because there was no buying power left in the hands of the common people, and you can’t run the whole economy on the basis of spending by the super rich, even if it is as wild as it could be.
So, even before the pandemic, in 2019 itself, the economy went into a slowdown, unemployment became higher and higher, wages became frozen and, in the case of agricultural labourers, even declined in price adjusted terms. This became a vicious cycle and the mandarins running the Finance Ministry could not think of any way out except committing the same mistakes of giving more rope to the corporate sector while cutting government spending. This was like adding fuel to fire.
Then came the pandemic and the lockdown. A misconceived and mismanaged policy in handling the worst crisis this country (or the world) has faced in decades, led to the bottom being knocked out of the economy. The GDP (gross domestic product) fell by a historic 8% last fiscal and unemployment reached unheard of levels of 24% in April 2020. As the ongoing second wave of COVID-19 rages through the country, unemployment rates are reported to be in double digits again. Consumption is falling, as families deprived of earnings scramble to feed themselves.
The Modi government continued to push the same policy of putting its trust on the ‘animal spirits’ of the corporate sector – it offered cheap credit and more concessions in the vain hope that the corporate sector would invest and create more jobs. But nothing happened. The government – caged in its neo-liberal dogma – refused to increase spending on giving economic support to people, which would have pushed up demand – and more importantly, alleviated untold misery. The same policy continues now, in the second wave, even as most of the country has been in an undeclared lockdown.
Destruction of Democracy and Its Institutions
No account of Modi’s seven-year rule would be complete without noting the immense damage to democratic institutions. The use of government agencies, like Central Bureau of Investigation, Enforcement Directorate, Income Tax Department etc., for narrow political gains, the subversion of Opposition-run state governments, filling up of institutions with RSS fellow travellers, pushing legislation through Parliament without proper debate, use of Governors to unconstitutionally interfere in State governments’ functioning, holding up mandated financial transfers to states, use of draconian laws, like Unlawful Activities Prevention Act or UAPA to imprison dissenting voices, harassing or physically attacking those who protest – has corroded the twin pillars of the Constitution -- democracy and federalism. With secularism already thrown to the winds, the very spirit of the Constitution is now under threat.
This approach is borne out of necessity, and hubris -- necessity, because the Modi government’s policies have caused increasing anger among people, and hubris, because of the drummed up belief that they have support of the people.
However, as the series of protests and strikes in the past seven years have shown, and as have the results of a series of state government elections, Modi’s popularity is eroding very fast, and the mishandling of the pandemic, especially the vaccination programme fiasco, has further damaged it.
In the coming days, the Modi government will have to face the growing discontent that is gathering steam across the country. Perhaps there is some instinctive awareness in the BJP about this. That is why they have called for the seven years’ rule celebrations to be observed as “sewa hi sangathan’ meaning through service the organisation is built. They are planning to start ‘serving’ people’s needs of masks and sanitisers, and organising blood donation camps. Your guess is as good as any whether this ‘service’ will help save the BJP.