A year of disruption, change and continuity
IN 2020, Indian politics was marked by a triangle of radical disruption, incremental change, and continuity. The disruption has, of course, happened due to the most devastating pandemic India has witnessed in a century. Millions of citizens have had to battle Covid-19, and hundreds of thousands have lost their lives. The economy contracted by an unprecedented 23.9% in the first quarter and while there has been a degree of recovery in the second quarter, India will face a recession this fiscal year, with millions having lost their livelihoods. The deep impact on both public health and the economy is accompanied with a drastic transformation in the way we live, work, travel and interact with others, our hopes and fears, and how we articulate those aspirations and apprehensions.
The pandemic-induced disruption has also been supplemented by the most serious and disruptive national security threat India has faced in at least two decades, since Kargil, but perhaps longer since the direction the conflict will take is still unclear, with Chinese troops entering and staying put in eastern Ladakh. Though the government is circumspect about acknowledging it, China today occupies more Indian territory than it has at any point since 1962.
But this process of transformation is taking place in a political context where certain trends have only got reinforced over the past year or where change is incremental at best. The hegemony of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi remains intact; the principal national Opposition party – the Congress – is in disarray, regional parties are in the process of discovering a new vocabulary of politics, Hindu-Muslim divisions have deepened, tentative signs of class-based political consciousness are visible, the federal compact is under stress, civil liberties stand eroded, and the legitimacy of democratic institutions is being questioned.
What emerges from the dynamic between disruption, change and continuity in one of India’s most challenging post-Independence years will, eventually, decide the largely trajectory of India’s democracy; the mechanics of how power is distributed and exercised, and for whose benefit in the political structure.
In terms of radical disruption, Indian politics now has to contend with three distinct departures in the realm of health, economy and national security – which were born out of the circumstances specific to 2020 but will last for much longer and can shape politics.
One, the pandemic has the potential to reshape how India will think about public health. A particular feature of India’s electoral politics has been the demand for the provision of private goods rather than public goods. Voters have long expected their representatives – from the member of parliament to the local gram panchayat member – to help them process basic paperwork, get seats in educational institutions or jobs for their children, help support weddings in the families, get a bed for an ill relative in a premier hospital, mediate local conflicts in which they are involved, protect them from the administrative excesses, or defend their community interests at different platforms. This forms the staple of the everyday political interaction on the ground. But this has often not got articulated as larger and more organized demands – for larger health care systems or administrative reforms or better access to justice or more comprehensive economic measures.
This means that politicians have to deal with a diverse set of private issues. Engagement with citizens through mechanisms such as Janata darbar represent this model of engagement. Indeed, they find it easier to do so and provide band-aid solutions, rather than focus on larger provision of public services, say an overhaul of the district health infrastructure, which requires far more systemic coordination and resources than available to individual public representatives. In that sense, both voters and politicians view the role of elected representatives not as legislators but as intermediaries in administration and delivery of state-provided services and benefits.
At the more macro-level, governments have focused on issues which have both electoral salience and enhanced rent-seeking opportunities – so a provision of a private house, a gas cylinder, a toilet, or even a rural employment guarantee scheme provides electoral benefits while enhancing infrastructure spending is both potentially electorally rewarding and financially lucrative. Public health has never received adequate attention because of these two interrelated issues – the lack of organized demand from the ground and the absence of incentives at the top.
The Aam Aadmi Party government’s focus on health in Delhi is an exception which proves the rule. Inaugurating a hospital or two in their constituency during their term – or getting an All India Institute of Medical Sciences in their state – is the pinnacle of achievement for a leader when it comes to health. To his credit, Modi did launch India’s most ambitious health insurance scheme so far (Ayushman Bharat), but it is but a dip in the larger crisis faced by the health sector.
With the pandemic, there are two possible – but not certain – changes in the offing when it comes to the politics of health and incentives of both politicians and citizens. One, there is a top-down recognition in policy circles that ignoring public health can no longer be an option. The fact that when the pandemic started out, India had limited hospital beds and testing labs, a paltry number of ventilators, and barely any productive capacity for even personal protective equipment came as a shock to the system. While it has successfully ramped up its capacity on these fronts substantially, there is a realization that pandemics will recur.
It is also not sustainable to have private enclaves where the best health care is available at unaffordable rates coexisting with a broken public health infrastructure. The interlinkages between the health of a poor citizen and the health of a prosperous citizen has become much clearer to elites given the virality of the infection – protecting oneself is not enough if those around you are not protected. Ignoring health also has implications for education, economy, resources available to the government, and even national security.
Two, there are signs of a possible bottom-up demand for greater health care facilities. India has only had one state election in this period, but over the cycle of the next few state-level polls, leading up to the 2024 parliamentary elections, it will be instructive to see whether, due to public pressure, political formations are forced to make health a key priority and what form this will take. Promising free vaccines, as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) did in Bihar, will gain increasing political currency in the immediate context – but the question is whether this enormous disruption will force India to overhaul its health systems, and re-examine the disjunct between public and private health care worlds, more seriously. The answer to this question will eventually hinge on how political aspirations are now articulated at both the top and the bottom of India’s governance system.
The second broad disruption India witnessed in 2020 was both humanitarian and economic. The lockdown revealed the fragility of India’s formal economy, the scale of the informal economy, and led to the recognition of an entire category of the workforce which had, strangely, escaped policy attention so far – migrant workers.
It did not help that India’s economy was already in a slowdown mode much before the pandemic. What the disruption laid bare was the weakness of the underlying fundamentals of the economy. With the lockdown, companies either shut down or saw profits shrink. There were severe job losses – across classes. Supply chains were disrupted, affecting a range of actors. Real estate came to a grinding halt in the initial weeks of the lockdown, affecting a sector which is among the largest employers outside agriculture. The service sector was devastated. Demand plummeted.
But the biggest story of this year was captured in the images of hundreds of thousands of men and women walking hundreds of kilometres – wiping their sweat, sleeping where they could on the highway, crying for help if they saw a vehicle move past, holding their children – just to return home and to their own communities which constitute India’s only real social safety net. They were walking because of an abruptly announced lockdown which did not anticipate the daily needs of millions of India’s urban and semi-urban working poor; they were walking because owners of the one room homes they shared with half-a-dozen other people in city slums and colonies did not waive off rents and their employers refused to pay them wages; they were walking because it took the Centre 36 days to decide to resume rail services for stranded workers; and they were walking because they had recognized that at a time of crisis, they were all alone – and they could not depend on the sarkar but only their samaaj.
As Chinmay Tumbe has pointed out in his new work on the age of pandemics, internal mass migration has been a feature of all major pandemics in Indian history, which makes the failure to anticipate it even more glaring. This is also surprising because the Modi government did invest intellectual energy in understanding internal migration patterns, in an economic survey by Arvind Subramanian when he was the chief economic advisor. Yet, the government did not take the next step and create a database on what is the largest pool of India’s workforce and failed to factor it in during policy formulation. The pandemic has been brutal for all, but the management of the pandemic has undoubtedly been far more brutal for the poor.
The Indian state’s response to this unprecedented disruption was two-fold. On the one hand, it relied on established welfare instruments – expanding the scope of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme; announcing a special scheme for migrant workers; providing free ration to 800 million people, belatedly realizing the need for portability of ration cards (but stopping short of universalizing PDS, as advocated by thoughtful commentators such as Yamini Aiyar who had warned of the food and labour crisis just as the lockdown was announced); and ensuring cash transfer to limited segments of the vulnerable population. In itself, this did not really reveal an imagination commensurate with the scale of the crisis. There is no doubt that the government has improved delivery systems on the ground, primarily with the use of technology, but in terms of its welfare toolkit, it relied on the old – primarily NREGS and PDS – rather than experimenting too drastically with the new.
The government’s second response has been the announcement of a campaign for a self-reliant India. This could be dismissed as yet another rhetorical device used by politicians to boost national confidence – except that Aatmanirbhar Bharat has real policy implications. The government’s rationale was simple – the pandemic had made the world more insular, protectionism was growing, globalization had led to an extraordinary degree of dependence on China, trading arrangements had not benefited Indian industry which was not equipped to compete, what India needed was to boost local capabilities, local manufacturing, local service firms, local technologies, local supply chains, and the state would provide support for this to create local (national) champions.
As deceptively simple as this sounds – some of the arguments ironically mirror that of left economists who had been critical of trade agreements and globalization for three decades – this is a political economy strategy laced with risks. The fact is, as shown by Arvind Subramanian and Shoumitro Chatterjee in a recent paper, India has been an exemplar of export-led growth. The government has been at pains to clarify that the current approach is not a return to autarky and the era of import substitution but to integrate India further in global supply chains – it is a plea to make in India, for the world.
But the exchange of goods and services is a two-way street. A degree of state support to industry is essential, and in fact, a degree of protective cover may be needed too. But neither has Indian capital, barring exceptions, shown the ability to truly shine globally, nor does the Indian state have the power to dictate the terms of its external economic engagement unilaterally. A return to protectionism, couched under any name, also will invite counter-measures. To think that India can reduce its reliance on imports from the world, but the world will happily continue to import from India may not be wise.
Irrespective of the specific direction this policy will take, there is a break in India’s post-1991 economic strategy – which was hesitant but definitely tilted towards closer integration with the global economy as a strategy to provide choices to Indian consumers, a platform to Indian enterprises to engage with the world, embrace the technological know-how that came with this integration, and deepen flow of the movement of goods, services and labour. There was, as Montek Singh Ahluwalia has underlined, a strong consensus for weak reforms. Now, it appears that the old has broken down, but the new is yet to take roots.
What is clear is that India’s political economy over the next decade could look very different. The reliance on welfare and a shift in economic strategy geared towards domestic production and consumption, in the larger backdrop of continued structural weaknesses in the economy and the country’s most severe recession ever, is the key element of Indian state’s rather limited imagination of a new economic paradigm. Which national champions indeed become powerful as a result of this move, which sectors grow and which sectors shrink, whether local manufacturing can indeed create enough jobs, and whether the welfare instrument is enough for the poor are all variables which will shape India‘s politics.
And finally, the big national security disruption of the year has put China firmly back at the centre of national consciousness, after close to six decades. Since 1988, India and China had developed a framework to deepen ties – manage the border and keep it peaceful and tranquil, and let the rest of the relationship, especially the economic dimension, bloom.
This framework had been under strain in recent years with frequent Chinese incursions across the Line of Actual Control (which could not always be explained by perceptional differences on the alignment of the LAC), its military assertion in Doklam (where India scored a tactical win but China appears to have wrested the strategic advantage), a much deeper China-Pakistan strategic embrace, Beijing asserting itself to block Indian ambitions at global platforms, an increasingly unequal economic relationship and concerns over Chinese presence in core strategic sectors such as telecom, Beijing’s conscious attempt to undermine Indian interests in South Asia and the deepening of the India-United States partnership – though it is open to debate whether the Delhi-DC dance alienated Beijing or whether a belligerent Beijing led to the Delhi-DC dance in the first place.
But this strain was largely in the theatre of high diplomacy. What has happened this year – with the People’s Liberation Army personnel intruding across the LAC in eastern Ladakh, the Galwan clash, the scale of mobilization on both sides, and the persistence of the stand-off in a cold winter – has made the India-China relationship a matter of domestic politics too, where the system has to take into account street sentiment. There is, of course, no comparison of this external security challenge to the depth of public sentiment provoked by the other security challenge – Pakistan. But if taking a hardline against Islamabad-Rawalpindi was the only test of Indian nationalism so far, taking a strong position against Beijing will increasingly become important in the domestic political theatre. And there will be an increasing trend of the ruling dispensation using its record against Pakistan to buttress its nationalist credentials, and of the Opposition using the gaps on China to question the government’s track record.
This is a challenge for any government because of the fundamental reality of the asymmetry of power and capabilities between the two countries. Indeed, this will force the Indian state to pull off an extraordinary balancing act in diplomacy, with domestic implications. How India leverages Chinese capital without becoming hostage to it; how it capitalizes on trading arrangements without allowing its domestic strengths to be undermined by China’s predatory practices; how it mediates between the reality of Chinese presence in Indian markets (note the number of Chinese phones around you) with the need to resist the Chinese digital push (including stopping Huawei from 5G trials) will shape Indian political economy for years to come. How India invests more deeply in arrangements such as Quad while retaining the room to signal to other powers (such as a Russia or an Iran) that it is not within the US security grid will shape India’s trajectory externally.
And more immediately, how the political leadership balances the need for a negotiated settlement of the current dispute with China – when Beijing is not particularly reasonable – with an increasingly hostile mood against China in the public sphere and, relatively speaking, limited national power will determine the possibility of peace in the Himalayas. The China challenge is only the strongest evidence that the era when the external climate was most conducive for Indian growth, peace and stability, say from 2000 to 2012, is decisively over – the world is becoming a more difficult place.
But there is often a time lag between disruptive events and political change, and so, it is prudent to examine what are only preliminary signs of change. The first sign of political change as a result of the economic disruption has been in the emergence of a degree of class-based consciousness. This was most acutely reflected in the Bihar elections, where the migrant workers and the response of the state to their plight emerged as a key issue. How it translated into voting patterns, or whether mobilization around caste overwhelmed the mobilization around identity, can be debated – but there is little doubt that the aspiration for stable and secure jobs, which can help withstand disruptions such as the pandemic, united young people of different castes.
In the backdrop of an economy in contraction and the glorious days of the boom in private sector a fading memory, the natural recourse to addressing this is offering government jobs. But while there are plenty of government vacancies which lie unfulfilled across all departments, the state neither has the resources nor the capacity to absorb the millions who enter the workforce.
It then leaves the political puzzle unresolved – young people want jobs; instead of job creation, there is increased joblessness; the Centre’s abrupt economic policies and general mismanagement hasn’t helped; the state can’t employ everyone; and the private sector doesn’t have the room at the moment to expand job creation. This also results in the enhanced demands for reservations by a range of interest groups, so much so that reservations have moved from being viewed as an instrument of correcting historical injustice and creating opportunities for the disadvantaged to being seen as an employment generation scheme based on power-sharing between communities. The government doesn’t admit it but it doesn’t really have an answer – except encouragement to make in India efforts and incremental policy tweaks to create a few thousand jobs here or there. But politically, this means that the Opposition will continue to ask questions on jobs and the government will continue to trot out selective data to underplay the scale of the crisis.
Another sign of class-based consciousness is, of course, the farm protests, most acute in the Punjab-Haryana belt. There can be different views on the desirability of the farm bills and whether it reforms and liberalizes the sector with adequate protection and, thus, will enhance farm incomes or whether it will impoverish farmers and subject them solely to market forces. But the opposition to it by landowning agriculturists in the northern belt has brought forth the class contradictions within Indian agriculture. The BJP is playing its own class politics here – with an attempt to posit small and marginal farmers against the big farmers and intermediaries who dominate mandis – while the Opposition is hoping to leverage the strength of the more dominant segment of the farming community to drive an agitation.
Along with a relatively efficient welfare delivery mechanism, the BJP hopes that its income transfer to farmers and now, farm reforms will actually deepen its base among the more marginalized and that’s why it is attempting to battle the narrative of the reforms being anti-poor and anti-farmer and staying the course with the reforms. Whether this approach yields political benefits or not is open to question but the fact that all political parties are steering their rhetoric with an eye on class politics is a partial shift. Those parties which are able to grasp the complexity of India’s class structure, its overlap with identity, and avoid easy but inaccurate binaries – rich versus poor, urban versus rural, farmers versus industry – but instead understand the overlap between distinct categories and delve into contradictions within each category will do better in the task of political mobilization.
The second incremental change – and this, in some ways, neutralizes the sharpening of class-based political consciousness – is the fact that the Hindu-Muslim divide in India has only grown over the past year. This is not new, and the roots of this division go long back – but there is little doubt that the BJP’s electoral gambit of uniting Hindus as the most effective route to power, in the backdrop of the stated goal of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to unite Hindu society and create a Hindu rashtra, has led to a series of political and policy measures which have deepened this divide.
In terms of the macro picture, the nature of the Indian state is undergoing a change. The close association of the head of government with one religion; legislative moves such as the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, seen as deliberately projecting India as welcoming to all other communities but Muslims; proposals such as the National Register of Citizens (the government insists this is not on the formal agenda), which generated apprehensions about large-scale disenfranchisement of Muslims; the triple talaq legislation, which has led to fears among Muslims that their personal laws would be altered and a possible uniform civil code is in the offing; the spate of anti-conversion legislations, sparked by the flawed and almost absurd theory of ‘love jihad’, which stems from both patriarchy and bigotry and is seen as almost entirely targeted at members of the minority community and a reminder of segregation-era laws are significant moments in this evolution.
Add to this the Supreme Court’s decision on Ayodhya and the subsequent grand bhoomi pujan to begin the construction of the temple (with constitutional functionaries such as the PM and UP CM sharing the stage with Hindu saints and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat) and the change in the constitutional status of India’s only Muslim-majority state. All of it has collectively presented an image of an Indian state which will not just prioritize the sentiments of the majority but, in the process, is happy to neglect, or actually undermine, the sentiments and aspirations of minorities.
This macro change is accompanied with sharp political rhetoric and action, especially during elections. The role of the ruling party’s leaders in creating the climate which led to Delhi riots of early 2020 – the worst episode of communal violence in the capital in the last 36 years – is well documented. But it is important to note that Delhi 2020 was not a pogrom as many mistakenly label it; violence happened from both sides; there was an undercurrent of resentment that had grown among Hindus against what was being seen as Muslim obstructionism affecting everyday life (Shaheen Bagh was an act of tremendous courage and bravery but its polarizing consequences must not be underestimated); and this resentment was stoked and leveraged.
This does not in any way justify what happened, or take away from the fact that city’s Muslims were targeted and suffered disproportionately in the violence. And it does not take away from the partisan role of the Delhi Police, which is under the ministry of home affairs. Not only did it fail in restoring order, but its investigation pattern appears to turn a blind eye to those who may have had a greater role in inciting violence and instead targeted those who may have been opposed to the government but did not encourage violence. This, indeed, is a departure from India’s already dismal record in providing justice to victims of mass violence. In 1984 and 2002, political regimes protected their own. But now, not only do political regimes protect their own but they use episodes to frame dissenters and score political points in a clear travesty of justice.
But it is not just the legislative moves or the episodic bouts of localized violence – indeed violence has been mostly local and contrary to fears expressed in 2014, the government does not want a bloody, large-scale riot under its watch – that worries Muslims the most. It is the lack of representation at the political level (Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have over 57 million Muslims, and in neither state does the ruling dispensation have an elected Muslim legislator in the legislative assembly) which affects access to services in a system where public representatives often mediate between their communities and the state. It is the everyday rhetorical violence – where Muslims have to consistently prove their nationalism or feel blamed for all of India’s ills (the hateful discourse around Tablighi Jamaat when the pandemic broke out is another example) – that has led to greater alienation.
All of this has resulted in three strands within Muslim politics. The first is of retreating from politics – and focusing on community reforms in the social realm. The second is banking on secular formations – even if these secular formations, for tactical reasons, are reluctant to take up issues that matter to minorities. And the final strand is an increasing shift, for the first time in Independent India’s history, towards exclusivist Muslim politics. The success of Asaduddin Owaisi’s formation in Bihar’s Seemanchal will have national consequences – instead of accusing him of ‘cutting votes’ and weakening other non-BJP formations, Owaisi’s performance should be seen as a product of the disillusionment of a segment of Muslims, who feel pushed to the margins, with existing mainstream parties. It will also only deepen polarization, where Hindu and Muslim politics will collide with each other and feed each other’s worst impulses.
Whether this set of legislative and political moves, which has deepened Muslim alienation, were born out of a strong ‘nationalist’ commitment or whether they are a result of cynical electoral calculations or whether these measures are in tune with long-held political commitments, which an elected mandate enables the ruling party to implement, or whether they are not, in letter, targeted at India’s Muslims or whether these moves are being misrepresented by a power elite that is struggling for relevance or whether it marks the last gasp of a Muslim leadership which is coming to terms with the loss of its value or even veto in electoral politics need not detain us. The fact is that India’s Hindus are today a more consolidated bloc than at possibly any point in electoral history – and a key factor that binds Hindus across castes is a shared distrust of Muslims, which is now finding way in policy and law formulation – and India’s Muslims are increasingly feeling under siege about their own place in Indian democracy.
From the prism of constitutional values, social stability, and internal security, this is a worrying trend which has grown in the last year and exposes a clear tension between the BJP’s political ambitions and ideological commitment on one hand, and its commitment to the values of the Constitution and need for stable governance, on the other hand.
These two changes – the possible emergence of a certain class consciousness around livelihood issues, but also the hardening of religious identities – is leading to a third incremental change. There has been a transformation in the way political formations opposed to the BJP now tailor their messages and organize their politics, especially in state elections. This has a set of elements – stay focused on local leadership and local governance, stay away from attacking Narendra Modi, avoid getting into a debate on nationalism (and related issues such as the change of the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir) which can so quickly slide into a debate on majoritarianism, assert one’s own Hindu religious identity while remaining largely silent on minority-focused concerns, ensure that the support of Muslim constituents is muted rather than vocal, project one’s own leader, and stay focused largely on economic and governance issues.
This was partially visible in Rahul Gandhi’s attempts to mount a challenge to the BJP in 2019 but he was handicapped by the fact that the election revolved entirely around Modi and his nationalist and welfare credentials. The temple-hopping and the belated announcement of income assistance (Nyay) was overwhelmed by the entirely ill-conceived Rafale campaign directly targeting the PM for corruption and Gandhi’s own lack of credibility among a vast segment of the electorate and the weakness of the party’s own political brand. In 2020, the crisis in Congress only deepened – with uncertainty over leadership; a part-rebellion by 23 senior leaders which got crushed, but perhaps not entirely, as quickly as it had risen; the exit of Jyotiraditya Scindia and the fall of the Madhya Pradesh government; the mutiny by Sachin Pilot which was managed; and the loss of a key figure who had the ability to instinctively weave together diverse strands with the objective of winning power, Ahmed Patel.
But even as the Congress remained in crisis, two other Opposition parties sought to replicate the same model, with success in varying degrees, in Delhi and Bihar in 2020. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), ever since its loss in the Punjab election in 2017 and its subsequent rout in the Lok Sabha polls, stayed focused on governance in Delhi, championing itself as sensitive and efficient, especially in the realm of education and health. It supported the Centre’s moves in Kashmir and Ram Temple; it projected Arvind Kejriwal as a Hanuman bhakt; it kept the Muslim support it enjoyed muted and stayed away from both Shaheen Bagh protests and the Jawaharlal Nehru University violence for the fear of alienating Hindus; it kept quiet on Modi and focused on the absence of a strong local leader in the BJP; it kept its organizational machine intact; and it played the same media game as the BJP, using government resources to get favourable coverage or at least avoid the negative press Kejriwal had been subjected to earlier for his seemingly anarchic politics.
Despite the polarized discourse of the time, AAP won comfortably – but the fact that BJP still commanded more than a respectable vote share was attributed to this very polarization. The lesson AAP has learnt is to double down on its strategy – even at the cost of antagonizing its more liberal supporters, for the party knows that this constituency will have little choice but to back Kejriwal when the alternative is possibly a Kapil Mishra.
In Bihar, Tejashwi Yadav attempted a similar strategy – focusing his attack on Chief Minister Nitish Kumar rather than Modi; changing the frame of his party’s discourse from social justice – which alarmed upper castes – to economic justice, focusing on issues such as inflation, health, and most importantly jobs with a promise of a million new government jobs. He also attempted to tone down the emphasis on the Muslim element of the Muslim-Yadav alliance that forms the bedrock of Rashtriya Janata Dal’s support base. Yadav did not succeed because of the baggage of the past where the possibility of a return to ‘jungle raj’ of the 1990s, synonymous with Yadav dominance in power structures, led to a counter-consolidation of other castes. He also did not succeed because his allies including the Congress dragged him down, even as BJP lifted its ally, Nitish Kumar, even while weakening him.
But the point is that despite the loss, Yadav made his mark as a leader. And he was able to make his mark by waging a sharp political battle but not an ideological battle. The space to challenge the BJP on its ideological values has clearly shrunk, indicating unparalleled legitimacy of its ideas in the public sphere, leading to new and creative – even if less ‘pure’ – ways to challenge the saffron party. The limitation with this approach is that those leaders who have a baggage such as Yadav in Bihar or an Akhilesh Yadav or Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh find it hard to create winning coalitions. The more obvious limitation is that this strategy of silence on Modi and nationalism can work in states, but cannot work nationally where the electoral discourse largely revolves around his leadership. This is a key reason why the Congress, unlike other state parties, is finding it hard to come up with a formula and act on it consistently and effectively.
But both the disruption and the incremental change is accompanied with what are becoming some entrenched features of the political landscape. The first is Narendra Modi’s astounding popularity and appeal. Political scientist Neelanjan Sircar has attributed this to the ‘politics of vishvaas’ – and indeed, as the Bihar elections showed, the PM’s personal brand largely remains undiminished despite the distress of the past year because of the faith a large section of citizens continue to have in his intent.
But is it merely intent? This faith in the PM’s intent is backed by substantial faith in his judgment – for instance, anecdotal reports from the ground suggest that despite the distress caused by the lockdown, many believe that the PM had little choice and if he had not exercised this option, India would have been in greater difficulty. The government suggests that this intent is also backed up by a conscious effort to tackle distress through welfare. The Centre’s welfare toolkit has indeed played a part in ensuring that popular anger over the economic loss is not directed at the BJP. Modi also continues to be seen as a leader who is selfless and honest, committed to both a resurgent nation and public welfare, and proud to wear his Hindu identity on his sleeve – he has therefore projected himself as a combination of vikas purush, gareebon ka neta, Hindu hriday samrat and deshbhakt.
The fact that a large segment of the Hindi-language press, almost the whole of the Hindi television news space, a substantial portion of the English television news milieu, and parts of the English-language press serve to amplify the PM’s message, rather uncritically, reinforces this narrative dominance – the dominance over the social media space (where smaller digital outlets and Twitter may pose a challenge, but the world of WhatsApp is largely dominated by the ruling party’s messaging) helps too. Modi realized early on that with the advent of social media, he did not need the media and its gatekeepers as much as they needed him, and adopted an approach based on monologues and one-way messaging rather than hard interrogations. This has worked.
This means the Opposition’s repeated attempts to either challenge this narrative or dismantle Modi’s image hasn’t worked, which is also due to its own internal organizational failures and the fact that no other leader is seen as having the same stature and credibility as Modi. There is, thus, a Catch-22 here. The Opposition believes that till the media space opens up in terms of it performing its role of questioning power, they cannot pose a challenge to Modi. But till the Opposition becomes stronger and challenges Modi – which is its core job – the media space for more critical coverage is unlikely to expand. This, then, helps the ruling dispensation in sustaining the popularity of the leader.
But while the causes of Modi’s popularity will be open to interpretation, winning elections from Parliament to Panchayat in one leader’s name has consequences too. Politically, it has meant the PM exercising almost complete control over the party on key issues, and a shift in the balance of power between the PM and the RSS quite decisively in favour of 7, Lok Kalyan Marg – though the ideological convergence means that the Sangh has little room to complain and the PM is careful to engage with the Sangh. It also means that the only competition in the BJP at the moment is to pitch oneself in a post-Modi landscape as a potential leader – Amit Shah is clearly the front runner here, but keep an eye on Uttar Pradesh in 2022 where a comfortable Yogi Adityanath win will catapult him as a serious future leader, perhaps a decade from now. Remember, no incumbent has won UP in over three decades and Yogi’s win, especially if it is seen as much his victory as that of PM Modi, will boost his credentials.
But as much as its impact is felt in the political realm, the consequences of Modi’s centrality will shape the theatre of governance. Travels on the ground during the 2019 elections showed clearly that the difference between a BJP with Modi as the face and a BJP without Modi was the distinction between the party winning 300 plus seats and the party perhaps being able to muster 150 seats. This then enhances the pressure on the PM to deliver and to be seen as delivering.
As scholarly work by Louise Tillin, Yamini Aiyar and Neelanjan Sircar has suggested, there is a centralization of credit when it comes to welfare schemes – often at the cost of the credibility of state chief ministers, including those who belong to the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). It also has meant an overburdened PMO, which has to straddle the tasks of maintaining political dominance, monitoring key ministries, paying close attention to foreign policy and external security challenges, carefully tracking project implementation both in infrastructure and welfare schemes, and handling everyday crises. This then has an impact on the functioning of the cabinet system, but more significantly, overall government performance hinges on the PMO’s ability to perform all these tasks with competence.
Trends suggest that when it comes to project implementation – with a corporate style dashboard approach where targets can be set and then closely monitored – the PMO is good, but when it comes to the macro economy – which doesn’t lend itself to linear progress based on a neat input-outcome matrix and there exist a range of variables outside its control – it struggles. But irrespective of performance, the centrality of Modi to both Indian elections and Indian governance – a trend that only deepened this year – will continue to shape politics.
The second trend which has continued – and deepened – in 2020 is the increasing strain in India’s federal compact. When the lockdown was announced, state chief ministers were largely on board with the Centre’s approach – even urging the government to continue with the strategy when economic costs were becoming clear – for their states were not quite equipped to deal with the health crisis. But the pandemic ended up eventually deepening the Centre-state divide – on a range of issues from allocation of financial resources, the protocols related to the movement of migrant workers, the enhanced but conditional contours of additional borrowing by states, and the political colour that the management of the pandemic assumed, where the Centre often monopolized the credit while the states were left handling the blame.
But the divide has gone beyond differences on a specific policy issue to a constitutional rupture. The increased tensions over the delayed payment of the Goods and Services Tax compensation to states, the increasing pattern of states ruled by non-BJP formations passing their own legislations to undermine the Centre’s legislative moves, which was visible in the CAA resolution passed by several state assemblies and then in the farm-related legislations passed by states such Punjab, the trend of several states withdrawing their automatic consent to Central Bureau of Investigation for pursuing investigations within their jurisdiction, the apprehensions around the yet-undisclosed recommendations of the 15th Finance Commission, the dispute over credit-sharing around welfare schemes, and the persisting issue of governors acting merely as the instruments of the ruling party at the Centre, present a worrying picture for Indian federalism.
With this tension, India’s federal compact has now entered what can be tentatively seen as its fourth phase from a historical perspective. The first phase was marked by a strong Centre and weak states, both largely ruled by the Congress, within the framework of a quasi-federal Constitution in the initial decades of independence; this was followed by stronger states and a relatively weak Centre from 1989 to 2014 when coalition governments depended on assertive regional parties and states became economically stronger; the third, somewhat brief, phase saw a resurgent Centre and relatively weaker states, both ruled by the BJP, between 2014 and 2017-18 (if not for this dominance, the Centre may not have been able to push through the Goods and Services Tax regime).
And, now, in this fourth phase, a new equilibrium is emerging between what remains an extraordinarily strong Centre but also strong and assertive states governed by non-BJP formations. The fact that this has an element of identity and regional division adds a more difficult political dimension to the federal crisis.
And the final element of continuity – though a cause for greater worry now than even last year – is the erosion of civil liberties, the absence of adequate judicial redressal for the protection of liberties, and the general weakening of democratic institutions.
The Indian state is democratic but has never been really been instinctively comfortable with liberalism. The Constitution restricted the scope of free speech – and Jawaharlal Nehru further restricted this through the first amendment. Successive governments have used a variety of instruments to restrict the ability of citizens to keep a check on executive authority. The most egregious example of this was of course during the Emergency. The Congress has been more than comfortable undermining personal liberty and values of freedom when it has been politically convenient. And therefore what is happening now must not be seen as a new template and departure from the old, but a continuation of the old – what is, however, definitely different is the scale of attack on liberty and the willingness to seek total domination over both institutions of the state and key social spheres.
This has taken different forms. The fate of citizens in Jammu and Kashmir is the most obvious example, where the state felt it was entirely within its right to lock up a range of leaders and activists, curtail communication and connectivity, and restrict free political activity – while some of the restrictions have been relaxed, the fact that the executive was able to do this and the judiciary did little to act on even habeas corpus petitions is not particularly healthy. The fate of protesters and dissidents – many of whom have been arrested or detained or interrogated on what seem like charges influenced by political rather than a legal outlook – is yet another worrying sign. From Sudha Bharadwaj to Kafeel Khan, from Anand Teltumbde to Stan Swamy, a range of India’s civil society voices have found themselves facing the onslaught of the might of the state.
The perception that the decision of the courts is increasingly in alignment with the preferences of the executive, or that it is enthusiastic about taking up charges of contempt against the court while not showing the same enthusiasm on a range of other cases which can cause grievous damage to democracy, is increasingly gaining ground. As Gautam Bhatia has persuasively argued, the conduct of the judiciary has been marked by evasion (where it has not taken up urgent cases), deference (where it has, perhaps too willingly, accepted the version of the executive) and inconsistency (where its decisions on personal liberty have been marked by contradictions). With all respect to the judiciary – which still commands legitimacy as the final institution of justice and evokes faith in citizens – it is time for both the bench and the bar to pay close attention to the discourse around courts.
But the democratic challenge is also reflected in the working of other institutions. Parliament barely met in 2020 – even when there have been multiple examples of democracies with far less resources and infrastructure being able to hold sessions during the pandemic. Parliamentary committees have faced an increasing challenge in executing their work. Legislations have been pushed through, often bypassing the route of examination by committees where deliberative democracy works at its best behind closed doors.
And so, with a relatively weak judiciary and a legislature which it can largely manage, an already powerful executive has become even stronger. A key, and counter-intuitive, reason for this is the weakening of Indian capital, which is quite intricately dependent on the Indian state. Indeed, and this is fodder for thought for the Left in particular, American institutions were able to withstand Donald Trump not just because of the constitutional protection on offer or its longer history but because American capital was not entirely dependent on the state. This allowed media institutions to thrive, the private sector to speak up, the big tech firms to assert themselves (though this was way too inadequate in the case of certain digital behemoths such as Facebook), and created an enabling atmosphere for critics whose very right to work was not jeopardized.
It is not that India’s big capital has always been an ally of democracy or is clean – it has plenty of skeletons in its closet. But one would have assumed that it has the strength to resist the overreach of the state or criticize its economic management even if its social agenda does not provoke worry. But capital is hesitant to speak up because of the need to keep the state in good humour and the government’s willingness to use investigative agencies to send a message. India’s problem is perhaps not too much of capitalism (and it has the wrong kind in the form of crony capitalism which has got further entrenched with both electoral bonds and resource allocation and policy tweaks which end up helping a set of perceived favourites) but too little of it especially when faced with a powerful state.
And so, till political power gets distributed more evenly, the restoration of checks and balances is difficult – but the process of ensuring a more even distribution of political power itself requires the system of checks and balances to work better.
And in that sense, India’s Opposition is competing on a field where an aggressive ruling side is backed up by a somewhat partisan referee; the rules of the game can often change according to requirements of that dominant side; red and yellow cards are largely reserved for the Opposition players; most commentators roar in cheer when the ruling side is scoring; the Opposition’s own goalkeeper is often missing, defence is weak and centre-forward players are either inconsistent or keep shuffling; and the scattered supporters of the weaker side are either shouted down or have to leave the stadium altogether. But the mechanics of the game can only change if the Opposition scores a big goal in these difficult circumstances – by capitalizing on the openings left by the ruling side, for it too makes errors – rather than only complain about the larger infrastructure surrounding the game, which is unlikely to change anytime soon.
It is this interplay of factors – the pandemic-induced devastation, the lockdown-induced distress, the China-engineered national security threat, the sharpening of class politics, the persistence of religious polarization, the continued erosion of the Congress and the effort by regional parties to find a new template to challenge the BJP, Modi’s overwhelming popularity, and the general democratic erosion as a result of pliant institutions and either aligned or frightened capital – which will shape Indian politics in 2021 and beyond.
* Prashant Jha is the author of How the BJP Wins: Inside India’s Greatest Election Machine (2017).
** The author would like to thank political scientists Milan Vaishnav and Rahul Verma for their comments on the piece. The views expressed are personal.