Count-Down Begins

Modiā€“the Saffron Caesar-I

Bibekananda Ray

Following counting of votes in EVMs on 23rd May, a new government will be in office by the end of May, ending over a month-long excitement.In number of voters, phases and duration this election in the world's biggest democracy, will be the biggest and momentous, as it is going to be a battle for conflicting visions of India, a mini-Kurukshetra, as it were. People, the media, analysts, astrologers and even other countries are guessing the hue of the next government, particularly about whether Narendra Modi will be back on the saddle. As per BJP's manifesto (Sankalpa Patra), the party in its next incarnation wants to push its nationalist goal, i.e., Hindutwa, by amending the Constitution, whereas the Congress and other opposition parties want India to adhere to her secular democratic credentials. Five years ago, in 2014, this time, a wave rose across the nation in favour of the BJP's Prime Ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi; no such wave is seen yet, not even in the 19 States that went to the poll on 11th April. Mr Modi, as usual, lampooned the Congress with half-truths and downright lies in a 'holier-than-thou' race. Not relying wholly on his plethora of welfare schemes in last five years, he is using petty military 'successes' against Pakistan and even urging, new voters to dedicate their first vote to the armed forces, violating EC's model code of conduct. No polarisation is seen yet but one could form, if the 'United India' front, of 23 heads of States, coalesces after victory, or the Congress falls short of the magic figure of 272. The main contenders in national level are the BJP, the Congress, the TMC and the CPI (M), while in the States the fight is between some of these and regional parties. A kind of semi-final was played, when five States went to the State polls in November-December 2018, leading to the fall of three ruling BJP governments to the Congress in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh and the saffron party's failure to oust governments in Telengana and Mizoram. Earlier, BJP nominees lost in several bye-polls in Karnataka and Maharashtra too. Although the party played down these reverses, unlikely to affect the Lok Sabha poll, people see in these a waning of the so-called 'Modi magic' that helped the BJP sweep the 2014 General Election. He is likely to contest from Varanasi and some other constituency, as in 2014 and yet mocks Rahul Gandhi for doing so from Amethi and Wynaad. Amit Shah's forecast that the ousting of Mamata regime will begin 'immediately' after the announcement of results, though absurd sounds sinister.

The BJP's present generation made a virtual patricide, by undoing the founders and pioneers of the party, its Gurus, who had nurtured and expanded it from two seats in the Lok Sabha in 1998 to the landslide win in 2014 poll and made it the richest among all Indian parties; its income in 1918-1919 was above 1027 crore rupees, over five times more than the Congress party's (199 crore). After 2014 victory, elders like L K Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi were made the party's Margadarshak (Path-Finders) but were seldom consulted. Mr Advani's nomination was refused twice; Mr Joshi was asked not to contest from Kanpur. Former Foreign Minister, Jaswant Singh who helped resolve the 'Kandahar hijack' by JeM terrorists of Indian Airlines flight 814 from Kathmandu on 24th December 1999, was not only refused nomination but expelled from the party, as well that broke his heart. Mr Advani was appointed head of the Parliament Ethics Committee in 2014 but did very little to probe cases referred to it, like Rahul Gandhi's secret adoption of British citizenship. Ten septuagenarian BJP leaders were debarred from contesting on plea of old age (above 75 years) but actually to clear the path of return of the present top brass in 2019. The trauma caused by demonetisation downed the shutters of thousands of small traders whose coffers in scrapped currencies became illegal overnight; it also took toll of over a hundred sick and old men, who died while queuing before banks to draw money or get their banned currencies exchanged. Crony capitalists, close to the BJP, made their black money white by secretly opening compliant banks to exchange them between eight and 12 pm on 8th November 2016, as revealed in a sting operation.

Of India's 18 Prime Ministers, Mr Modi has been rather unique. His dynamism verges on aggressiveness; he is said to bulldoze his way in the party and the government, as former RBI Governor Bimal Jalan disclosed to the media, some time ago. He alone took many of his crucial decisions in defiance of the cabinet and without consulting concerned authorities. It is said, he even kept the Finance Minister, Mr Jaitley in the dark before announcing demone-tisation and did not wait for the RBI's formal consent. He has demonic energy and stamina, owing perhaps to his practice of Yoga and Pranayama and brags of his 56 inches chest and fighting fitness. He has a gift of the gab and high-flown rhetoric, and finds in the most abject situation something to glory about. From Day One of his elevation to Sambhag Pracharak (Regional Organiser) of the RSS committee for coordinating opposition protests to the Emergency in 1978, (when he was detained for a while too), his pastime and obsession have been lampooning the Congress party with accusations half-true, exaggerated or false and making self-serving comparisons, in which he and the BJP top brass are always superior and 'holier than thou'. In 2002, communal riots erupted in Gujarat that beginning in Ahmedabad raged across the State for the whole year; it was in retaliation of burning of a train, in Godhra station on 27th February 2002,and killing of 58 karsevaks returning from Ayodhya. Yearlong riots took a toll of 1,044 dead ((of which 790 were Muslims), 223 missing and 2,500 injured. Mr Modi, then Chief Minister was accused of instigating and conniving the anti-Muslim mayhem. Though a SIT, appointed by the Supreme Court in 2012, exonerated him, circumstantial evidences and eye-witnesses pointed to his complicity. He has a streak of megalomania (world's tallest statue of Sardar Patel on Sadhu island) and hyperbole ('world's best', 'India's best' etc.). He is said to be the world's best -dressed Prime Minister; his wardrobe, said to be made up on his own expense, bulges with a dizzying variety of turbans, suits, sleeveless (Jahar) coats, etc. that he wears for public appearances. The golden pin-striped suit that he wore to receive the US President, Barrack Obama at the Republic Day Parade in 2015 fetched a record 4.3 crore rupees by a Gujarati diamond tycoon in an auction in Surat. What a contrast to another Gujarati, Mahatma Gandhi who attended the Round Table Conference in London as Congress representative on 7th September 1931, wearing a half-dhoti and khadi wrapper, earning Winston Churchill's jibe, 'half-naked Fakir'. Everyday, he is said to spend hours on applying cosmetics, particularly a rouge, made of a rare mushroom, to give his face a crimson look.

Never before, any Indian Prime Minister made weekly address to the nation; on over 50 Sundays, Mr Modi 'poured out his mind" through the AIR in an hour-long programme, Man ki Baat which were re-broadcast, the same day, in translations in Hindi and regional languages. Some of these monologues were on trivialities like how to be tension-free for examinations and why parents should not torture their children to fulfil their expectations. No other PM led garbage-cleaners with a long broom in hand on Mahatma Gandhi's birthday on 2nd October, or demonstrated Yoga Asansas on TV on 21st January, ear-marked as 'Yoga Day' by the UN at his instance. He did not introduce Yoga to the world; it was Swami Vivekananda who did it over a century ago in the USA and England after his historic address in Chicago Parliament of Religions on 11th September 1893 and set up a number of centres in two continents, run by fellow monks of the Mission.No other Prime Minister, not even Indira Gandhi during the Emergency, infringed the autonomy of Constitutional organisations like the RBI, the CBI, the CAG, the National Statistical Commission (NSC), the ED, the IT department and the CVC etc.eroding their credibility in public eye. By constant debunking of the Congress by half-true, exaggerated or fictitious charges in bad taste, he undermined India's political culture. Political mud-slinging took the ugliest turn in his regime, when the RSS questioned Rahul Gandhi's gotra. Of late, he even branded the Congress and other opposition parties as 'traitors' and proxying for Pakistan for questioning the actual death-toll in Balakot aerial strike after Pulwama mayhem.

Like some successful men hailing from ordinary homes, Mr Modi too rose from a poor Gujarati business family of Vadnagar. When a boy, he is said to have helped his father run a tea-shop in a rural railway station. With meagre means and scope for regular schooling, he passed B.A. in 1978 in political science in third division from the School of Open Learning of Delhi and MA in the same subject, five years later, from Gujarat University, through correspon-dence course. In quality formal education, he thus is nowhere near J L Nehru, P V Narsimha Rao, Dr Manmohan Singh, Dr I K Gujral and even his party mentor, A B Vajpayee. Not inaptly, Dr Amartya Sen remarked that in a country of highly educated he was an 'uneducated' Prime Minister. He did not consummate his child marriage, probably never lived with her and for a while, inclined to be a monk in the R K Mission, Kolkata but was turned away. He became a full-time worker of the RSS in 1971 and after four years became the general secretary of the State Lok Sangharsh Samiti to coordinate opposition protests to the Emergency. Before he became Chief Minister of Gujarat on 7th October 2001, few people outside the State had heard his name. He made exemplary development of the State to rise in party ladder and in 2014 became a choice for the party, overruling the claim of L K Advani and manoeuvred to be the Prime Minister. Much hope was pinned on him then and his supporters believed that he was "the right man to pull India out of the quagmire of low growth, high inflation, joblessness and slack governance" (BBC, India). He was expected to reform the gargantuan and stubborn Indian bureaucracy, which has been described as 'Asia's worst'.

Since May 2014, the BJP, led by him launched new programmes under the slogan, "Sab ke Saath, Sab ka Bikash". Like every other party in India, the BJP focussed on welfare of the poor and the marginalised. India's politics is like that of outlaw Robin Hood of English folklore of the 13th century, whose motto was "to rob Peter to pay Paul". The State coffers are filled by taxes and other revenues in which the rich and the middle class contribute the most; yet they get comparatively less from the government through budgets or otherwise. His flagship schemes are Ayushman Bharat under which every poor family is granted free medical insurance to the tune of five lakh rupees in a year, addition of 25 small airports under the Udan scheme, (from most of which no or few flights take place), grant of Rs. 6000 annually to poor farming families, 10% reservation of seats and vacancies in government jobs and institutions, for the upper castes, raising the IT exemption limit to five lakh rupees, electrification of 18000 villages, benefitting 2.5 crore families, the MUDRA scheme under which easy loans are given by banks to unemployed youth for setting up ventures, Sukanya Samriddhi Yojana for education of girl children, provision of gas oven and cylinders to six crore families, one-time grant of 6000 rupees to pregnant women, extension of maternity leave to mothers for 26 weeks, building of 10 crore sanitary latrines, freeing some 5.5 lakh homes from open defecation, increase in Defence budgets, provision of bullet-proof jackets to jawans, sanction of One Rank One Pension (OROP) to eligible ex-servicemen.

Beneath the histrionic rhetoric and instant statistics, many of his claims have flipsides too. No longer Mr Modi and Mr Jaitley (his 'Tweedledee') go gaga over demonetisation and the GST. West Bengal Finance Minister, Amit Mitra quoted a Finance Ministry intelligence report that some 14 lakh suspicious bank transactions took place in 2016 and 2017, in the aftermath demoneti-sation. Although 82585 cases (i.e., only six per cent) were investigated but not even one was charge-sheeted. The enormously publicised Pradhan Mantri Aabas Yojana is a continuation and rejig of Indira Aabas Yojana of 1975-'76 which subsequent governments carried on too; his regime only enhanced its budget and made it more flexible. So is Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana which A B Vajpayee of NDA-I had launched and the subsequent Congress government continued. The much-hyped Ujala Yojana of free LPG connection to BPL families hides the fact that initially, cylinders were given for a hundred rupees each but refills have to be bought at subsidised prices; many refineries like the Indane give the ovens free to new subscribers. His Beti Bachao, Beti Parhao with the chicken-feed annual investment of 100 crore rupees is an after-thought and a dim shadow of Mamata Banerjee's world-famous Kannyshri scheme. He has been branding the Congress, the TMC, the CPI(M) and other opposition parties as pro-Pakistani 'traitor' after the Balakot air strike but on 10th April, Pakistani P M Imran Khan sounded pro-BJP, when he remarked that the BJP under him, not the Congress, could solve the Kashmir problem. Contrary to his present belligerence, Mr Modi made overtures to Pakistan; for example, on 25th December 2015, he made an unscheduled break-journey at Lahore to felicitate Nawaz Sharif on his birthday and to bless his grand-daughter before her wedding, all these practically uninvited, lowering the dignity of India's Prime Minister? Incidentally, Mr L K Advani in a blog commented that to call an opposition party a 'traitor' was not in the tradition of the BJP, referring to Mr Modi's recurrent jibe at the Congress, the TMC and the CPI (M).A recent media analysis of his latest promises found those for defence of the country as numerouno, followed by those on economy and welfare. Demonetisation, GST and 'Digital India' no longer figure high in the list and that about jobs is one above the lowest. The Infosys and a Gurgaon-based research firm have testified to the low skill of new-generation engineers, belying Mr Modi's extravagant praise for his flagship programme of 'Digital India'.

A frightening spin-off the programme has been revealed by an investigative journalist of Delhi, Swati Chaturvedi in her book "I am a Troll" (2016). In an expose of the "secret world of the BJP's Digital Army, she writes: "online trolls usually have right-wing views and are highly nationalist. They tend to attack anyone who appears to be against the government, the BJP or the nation". They mock 'secularism' which they spell as 'sickular' and on social media use foul language and sexist abuses like dubbing Mayawati "worse than a prostitute". Mr Modi set up his website in February 2005 and had a twitter handle in 2009. Among the innumerable Twitter handles, followed by Mr Modi, 26 routinely sexually harass, give death threats, send 'hate-mails' and abuse opposition politicians and journalists having sympathy for women, minorities and Dalits as well as issue communal statements particularly against Muslims, which often lead to actual violence and lynching. While Mr Modi remains mum over this hate 'digital army', Arun Jaitley condemns "horrific trolling that BJP supporters indulge in". The NDA government also does not rein it, functioning from 11 Ashok Road and the RSS headquarters in Jhandelwan, both in New Delhi. On the contrary, some BJP top brass publicly support these trolls while Mr Modi follows some of the offenders regularly from his Tweet. It is this digital army, comprising paid and volunteering semi-educated Hindu zealot youth that coins and posts the bizarre and false catch-phrases against the Gandhi family, the Congress and other opposition parties which Mr Modi delivers from podia often through tele-prompters. These attacks to mute the critics of Mr Modi and the NDA through social media forums like Facebook have the blessings of the BJP. BJP's meteoric rise was facilitated by its genetic anti-Muslim vitriol and hate, which his rival, Rahul Gandhi aims to replace by love, sympathy and brotherhood, if Congress comes to power.

In India, official statistics and data often vary from those by private companies, like Tata; the former are often favourable to government. This author asked a senior officer of the Central Statistical Organisation (CSO) in New Delhi of its reason; he admitted that the difference was due to difference in samples. The statistics rolled out by Mr Modi (and Ms Banerjee too) look different from ground reality, e.g., Mr Modi's claim of 100% electrification of homes, sanitary latrines and zero-balance bank-accounts. The same is true about economic data, cited by the BJP top brass which vary from those cited by Dr Amartya Sen, Amit Mitra, Pranab Bardhan, Raghuram Rajan and other renowned economists in their writings and interviews.

[to be concluded]

[The writer held senior positions in Government of India media until retirement in 2001.]

Vol. 51, No. 43, Apr 28 - May 4, 2019