Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing BJP’s Parivartan rally in Kushinagar. (Source PTI)

Modi’s Ideology-Driven Power Grab: Three Events In One Week

BloombergQuintOpinion

A week is a long time in politics, or so goes the cliché. But as the previous week showed, it’s also enough time to prove how dramatically India’s politics has changed since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took power. All the four pillars of democracy—executive, legislature, judiciary, and media—got redefined in a mere seven days. Finally, 2014’s extraordinary general election created sharp edges around India’s democratic institutions.

Modi’s Ideology-Driven Power Grab: Three Events In One Week

It’s now clear, with the wisdom of hindsight, that 2014 smashed India’s centrist consensus, injecting an avowedly right-wing government in office. Until then, it was thought that India would only tilt left or right, but stay within a circumference of centrist, moderate ideologies. This notion was reinforced during the six years of Prime Minister Vajpayee’s BJP-led rule, which swung rightward but preserved institutional structures created over half a century of independence.

However, the Modi government has now decisively aborted centrist politics.

I say this as a matter of fact, without passing any value judgment. Since it won democratically, it has used its mandate to begin building a majoritarian edifice.

  • It has expanded the state, nationalising a spectrum of free-market institutions, from the pricing of pharmaceuticals and sports rights to oil.
  • It openly bats for Hindu causes, from scrubbing minority insignia to encouraging differential treatment under the law.
  • It advocates a hard, militaristic nationalism which is imbued with religious fervor.
  • It aggressively conflates the political party with the government and ultimately with the nation. So if you are either against the BJP or its government, you are damned as being ‘anti-national’.
  • It mocks the language of moderation as weak pacifism.
  • It treats ideological opponents as ‘enemies’ who should be neutralised—casually charging them with treason, calling them traitors—instead of looking upon them as adversaries who need to be intellectually vanquished.
  • It wants to reconfigure institutional structures that are seen as too soft and accommodating.

Just see how three events rammed home this hard reality, altering the chemistry of democratic conventions in the wink of a week!

J&K Assembly Brazenly Dissolved

In 2015, the Modi government made a bold political departure from its hardline attitude towards Jammu & Kashmir. It created a coalition with the ‘soft-separatist’ Peoples Democratic Party of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulates  Mufti Mohammad Sayeed after the latter’s swearing-in as Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, in Jammu, on March 1, 2015. (Photograph: PIB)<a href="http://pibphoto.nic.in/photo//2015/Mar/l2015030162719.jpg"><i><br></i></a>
Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulates Mufti Mohammad Sayeed after the latter’s swearing-in as Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, in Jammu, on March 1, 2015. (Photograph: PIB)

People applauded, convinced that Modi had sued for peace. It was the season of hope and reconciliation, both proving ephemeral. The coalition collapsed in a welter of acrimony, and Modi reverted to his jack-boot policy on J&K.

A partisan Hindi heartland politician was appointed as the new governor. Backroom machinations began to split the PDP and install a BJP-dominated government. Alarmed, Modi’s three opponents—PDP, National Conference, and Congress—quickly buried their mutual animosity to cobble a strong majority of 50+ in a house of 90 members.

By all democratic canons, the new coalition had to be invited to form the government.

But the governor brazenly played truant. He switched off his fax machine and waited for a good eight hours until he had spoken with the rulers in Delhi. His instructions were clear. Dissolve the house. And he did that instantly, trampling over every legislative convention.

Home Minister Rajnath Singh meets Jammu &amp; Kashmir Governor Satya Pal Malik in Srinagar, on Oct. 23, 2018. (Photograph: PTI)
Home Minister Rajnath Singh meets Jammu & Kashmir Governor Satya Pal Malik in Srinagar, on Oct. 23, 2018. (Photograph: PTI)

Also read: Fax Machine & Omar-Mufti Bonhomie: Battle for J&K on Twitter

I concede that it wasn’t the first time that a governor had acted with such constitutional impunity. But this was J&K, a disturbed region with alienated people. Remember, over 95 percent had boycotted local polls in the Valley just days ago.

It was a suicidal moment to indulge in petty, muscular politics.

But right-wing ideological pressure had triggered an executive/legislature explosion; a delicate consensus was violated.

RBI Governor Leashed To The Board

The Reserve Bank of India’s autonomy used to be an article of faith. But the Modi government wanted to influence it politically. It wanted to mitigate the hardships that demonetisation, the Goods and Services Tax and slow economic growth had heaped on small businesses. It also wanted failed public sector banks to restart lending, but that would have required fresh capital. Ideally, the government should have used its fiscal book to achieve these objectives. But its budgetary arithmetic was fragile.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley speaks to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at the launch of the MUDRA Yojana, in New Delhi. (Photographer: Kuni Takahashi/Bloomberg)
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley speaks to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at the launch of the MUDRA Yojana, in New Delhi. (Photographer: Kuni Takahashi/Bloomberg)

So it simply threatened to use Section 7 of the RBI Act, which would have directed RBI to do its bidding. Such a coercive use of the law would have been unprecedented. Now, while pointing this legal gun, its hand-picked board nominees browbeat the central bank into submission. The governor relented and gave a few concessions. The regime pulled back on other demands by a few weeks, until the next meeting in mid-December.

It’s an uneasy truce, but the regime has drawn the first blood.

The relationship between the Governor and the RBI Board has been ideologically reconfigured, perhaps forever.

Also read: Modi Printing Rs 3.6 Lakh Crore Would Be Worse Than Demonetisation

Supreme Court, CBI, And “Noisy” Journalists: Unholy Discord

The Central Bureau of Investigation fiasco could challenge even the most imaginative authors of spy thrillers. The regime sent in its armed guards at midnight, installing a new chief, sacking the feuding top cops, raiding their offices and snooping into their gadgets and files!

After the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) on Wednesday, 24 October, sent CBI Director Alok Verma and Special Director Rakesh Asthana on leave, the CBI chief challenged the order in Supreme Court.&nbsp;
After the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) on Wednesday, 24 October, sent CBI Director Alok Verma and Special Director Rakesh Asthana on leave, the CBI chief challenged the order in Supreme Court. 

The next day, the sacked officers approached the Supreme Court and filed all kinds of petitions against the state and each other. A harried court tried to grapple with this extraordinary situation. It ordered a court-monitored enquiry into the allegations against the CBI chief. But one of his responses got leaked. The court flew into a rage.

Did the court then infringe a cardinal principle of jurisprudence by presuming guilt?

Because while the leak could have happened at any point in the chain—including from the defendant’s keyboard operator or the court’s clerks—the bench assumed that the CBI chief had committed a breach of trust.

Clearly, the judges were, somewhat understandably, unsettled by the unusual circumstances; so they overlooked what they had once advocated, that “noisy” journalists are the lifeblood of a democracy. But in the current context, they took great umbrage against the pesky, irreverent news portal that had dared to publish the “unprintable” stuff.

In one awkward moment, the chemical adhesive between the third and fourth pillars of democracy had come unstuck.
Chief Justice of India Justice Ranjan Gogoi in Guwahati, on Nov. 17, 2018. (Photograph: PTI)
Chief Justice of India Justice Ranjan Gogoi in Guwahati, on Nov. 17, 2018. (Photograph: PTI)

Political Battle That Can Only Be Fought At The Hustings

To be fair to the Modi regime, while its methods are questionable and extreme, its tools are ‘democratic’. After all, it did win a historic mandate in 2014; and Prime Minister Modi is using that to graft a new ideological skin on India’s political democracy. To peel away that skin, his opponents have to create a counter-narrative that appeals to the electorate, thereby wresting the political mandate.

In the ultimate analysis, Modi’s opponents cannot be squeamish, simply crying foul. They will have to mount a vigorous and energetic political response.

Raghav Bahl is the co-founder and chairman of Quintillion Media, including BloombergQuint. He is the author of two books, viz ‘Superpower?: The Amazing Race Between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise’, and ‘Super Economies: America, India, China & The Future Of The World’.