Monday, April 15, 2019

India's Election: Selling BJP as Panacea and Parallel Universes

"This is the most important election of our lifetimes" is a constant refrain for any election and it has become laughable cliche except, sometimes, it is indeed true. Democracy is not a destination but a continuous journey and elections have consequences. India is certainly facing one of its most consequential elections in recent memory. Democracies are feeling the heat of populism and liberalism is in retreat. A crude form of tribalism is undermining notions of multiculturalism and majority communities are leading the charge fueled by a mythic notion of victimhood. The parallels, between the Trump phenomenon and an election in which Narendra Modi is the central figure, are troubling.



Modi's supporters and detractors, like that of Trump's, occupy parallel universes. Modi's supporters talk of free market, national pride, dispensing with the idea of secularism as useless hypocrisy, minority communities converting India to Islam or Christianity and fusing the Indian multitude into one single whole. Modi's detractors question what is being sold as economic growth, the muscular religious fundamentalism is frightening them, that men can be lynched on the basis of suspicions of selling beef shakes their belief in the society around them and they believe Modi is as corrupt as anyone. I, of course, belong in the latter camp.

Despite the antics of Trump and Modi facts do matter. Truth is neither relative not subjective. Here's why I consider the camps to be parallel universe. Monica Halan, writing for Livemint, says that the Congress party scheme of basic income will be a non-starter because India is "now not a predominantly poor country, but one with about 20% poor people. The rest of the 80% are left wondering what's in it for them".

One can scour the internet to find arguments about the poverty estimates of India and one could, as it happens, choose articles that confirm one's own view points. Economist Surjit Bhalla estimates that new economic data being compiled, published once in 5 years, will peg India's poverty at one third of its population. Ballah's estimation points to a downward trend that includes the growth that kicked in during the previous regime.  Even if we stick with Halan's estimate that 20% is 20% of more than a billion. Estimates say that "nearly 40% of India's children under 5 are short for their age". Between those two data points is a crucial human element that Halan nonchalantly glosses over. What is worse she says 80% of the remaining India would want to know who's paying for the 'dole'. Guess what, of the 80% a meager "0.23% pay 77% of India's taxes". "Only 81,344 individuals declared a gross total incomes of more than Rs 1 crore". India is a nation of tax cheats and for this class to smugly talk about the poor and undernourished is easy because this class lives in a parallel universe.
 g_110859_tax_280x210.jpg

























(Image source Forbes article. See Reference)

Halan's oped was titled, "Leaving 'maai-baap' behind, this is an India rising elections". The oped opened with an anecdote about an individual who was stopped by a traffic cop and who, instead of paying a bribe, insisted on getting a reciept for the fine due and if the cop refused that he'd email the Prime Minister's Office. The cop, Halan says, meekly fell in line and this, to the columnist, is evidence of a new India. Yes, it is a new India in her parallel universe.

In another universe a Washington Post article, amongst several others, spoke of how WhatsApp rumors fueled lynch mobs that killed individuals suspected of kidnapping children or robbing patients of body parts. "Cow Vigilante Violence" and "WhatsApp Lynchings" are wikipedia pages now. What sort of India does Ms Halan live in and what sort of India do readers who love her article live in?

Gurcharan Das, former CEO of P&G and then author of some books, recently published an article in 'Foreign Affairs', titled, "The Modi Mirage". Calling himself a liberal he speaks of an agonized choice in 2014 when he chose to support Modi risking India's "precious commitment to secularism and pluralism for the sake of prosperity, jobs, and fighting corruption". Now, if Das was truly a liberal he'd have no agony in making the choice and the choice would be that forsaking secularism for a few points of GDP is not worthwhile. These are liberals on a fair weather day.

Das excoriates Modi, on botching the implementation of GST, centralizing authority like he operated as Chief minister forgetting that he's Prime Minister, on being a 'pragmatic modernizer' and not a 'liberal reformer' and on causing a liquidity crunch through demonetization and affecting the lives of millions.

So why is Das disillusioned now? When he made the agonized choice Das depended on "India's democratic institutions" that he says are "strong enough" to prevail over Modi's "sectarian and authoritarian" style. Now suddenly Das is waking up to the fact that India's institutions, led by the IAS cadre, is not as strong.

Americans too made the same mistake in electing Donald Trump. While American institutions are certainly far stronger than Indian institutions Americans are realizing that the President does have lot of power and that unlike his predecessors Trump will not shy from tearing away gentlemanly behavior that restrained them from acting willy nilly. That's why Trump has a public feud with the Federal Reserve chairman and has the chutzpah to pardon potential witnesses against him in an inquiry.  People in high offices can test the limits of institutions. If we choose a candidate thinking institutions will retrain him or her then we are fools. Anyone requiring such restraints are unqualified to hold office in the first place.

Das adds, "some of the most robust government institutions have weakened: official data on jobs, for example, can no longer be trusted". If this is state of one of the key measurements of a large economy and if this is the comment by a former supporter can Modi's supporters have any legitimate argument to ask for his re-election? In a rational universe they'd not have any argument.

In the universe of Modi's supporters this administration has brought down or eliminated corruption, at least at high levels. Yet, only yesterday leading French newspaper Le Monde reports that France waived 143 Million Euro tax for Anil Ambani, who's company got the Rafale deal. If we make the argument that Modi is not personally corrupt then so was Manmohan Singh, for 10 years. BJP has the highest number of MPs with criminal cases and highest number of MPs with cases for crimes against women. How can this party not be corrupt? In a parallel universe it may be so.

The Attorney General, K.K. Venugopal, informed India's Supreme Court that the Indian voter has no need to know about the source of funding for parties. The Modi led government is liberalizing rules to raise money from sources, including foreign sources. Every party played along and the bill passed the Lok Sabha without a debate. This would've caused a furor in any civilized democracy. The BJP is India's richest party today. Yet, we are told this is a government where corruption trends downward.

BJP richest political party with Rs 10.03 billion income in FY17: ADR
























(Source https://www.business-standard.com/article/politics/bjp-richest-political-party-with-rs-10-03-billion-income-in-fy17-adr-118041001008_1.html )

If all the above are not reasons enough to boot Modi's government out Das, who expected the leopard to change its spots, bemoans that "India's prized social cohesion is under threat, and religious minorities feel insecure". That should qualify as a gross understatement.

Here's a cartoon that is doing the rounds on Hindtutva Facebook pages.


Modi certainly did not invent casteism or Islamophobia or hatred of Christians or other minorities. But what Modi certainly made it acceptable is the mainstreaming of such filth. People who share this do so publicly and even those who disagree with this filth feel its perfectly ok to be friends, whatever that may mean in the Facebook world, with such bigots. Dishing out unprintable names about castes and members of various communities used to be done in closed circles and now it is mainstream. This is why Modi gets the level of support that Vajpayee never got. Vajpayee, for all his bigotry, had his limits whereas Modi has none.

Modi's election campaigns have degenerated into open religion baiting and dispensed with dog whistles. Rahul Gandhi contesting from Wayanad, a constituency where the three religions and tribals form good proportion, becomes a reason to castigate him as contesting from a Muslim constituency. Wayanad is NOT a Muslim constituency. Rumors were first circulated that Pakistan flags accompanied Rahul Gandhi's visit. They were the flags of Muslim League, an alliance partner of Congress. Then another rumor started that Muslim League supporters were told not to wave their party flag for being mistaken for Pakistan flag. That was debunked too with visual evidence.

While minorities are hunted and lynched in one universe in another universe stories abound about conversions for money. India, a popular meme joked, has been under Islamic rule for 500+ years and under Christian rule for 300 years and yet has remained Hindu by a vast majority and therefore what's the big deal now? Nope there's no big deal now except that Modi has happened. Not all the money of Vatican or Middle East can fund converting India to Christianity or Islam. Yesterday BJP's chief in the state of Kerala has said that one has to only remove the dress of a man to know if he's a Muslim.

Much of what we see is really not new. Social media brings these to us faster and with visceral immediacy. Social media is also becoming a threat to Indian democracy (and yes I'll be sharing this blog on Facebook). India, analyst Tarun Pathak told Wall Street Journal, "is now the world's cheapest country to spread fake news". Another analyst estimates that "some 13.7 billion WhatsApp messages are sent every day in India". All parties indulge in this but BJP probably is the leader. Their echo chambers ricochet with not just fake news but hate speech. Not all universes are alike.

Modi's supporters spend their waking moments jeering at Rahul Gandhi as 'Pappu' and forwarding memes about Rahul's intelligence or lack thereof. In another universe Modi made a fool of himself, on recorded video, trying to spell the word 'Strength' and explaining the mathematical formula (a+b)2.

Which universe will triumph when the votes are counted?

Only W.B. Yeats can do justice to the moment.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.


References:

1. https://www.livemint.com/elections/opinion/opinion-leaving-maai-baap-behind-this-is-an-india-rising-elections/amp-1554900859061.html
2. http://www.forbesindia.com/article/india-rich-list-2018/indias-tryst-with-taxes/51833/1
3. Modi Mirage https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/india/2019-04-11/modi-mirage
4. https://www.cnn.com/2018/07/16/asia/india-whatsapp-lynching-intl/index.html 
5. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/as-mob-lynchings-fueled-by-whatsapp-sweep-india-authorities-struggle-to-combat-fake-news/2018/07/02/683a1578-7bba-11e8-ac4e-421ef7165923_story.html?utm_term=.a0e3878fa6ad
6. https://www.wsj.com/articles/fake-news-is-rampant-on-whatsapp-as-indian-elections-loom-11554055428
7. https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/voters-don-t-have-right-know-source-political-party-funds-ag-venugopal-sc-99867
8. https://www.indiatoday.in/crime/story/bjp-has-highest-number-of-mps-and-mlas-with-cases-of-crimes-against-women-says-study-1215840-2018-04-19
9. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/lok-sabha-passes-bill-to-exempt-political-parties-from-scrutiny-on-foreign-funds-without-debate/article23285764.ece
10. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2018/07/10/india-is-no-longer-home-to-the-largest-number-of-poor-people-in-the-world-nigeria-is/?utm_term=.ce61edc8498e
11. https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/india-is-middle-income-now-raise-the-poverty-line-5239269/
12. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cow_vigilante_violence_in_India_since_2014








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