Donald Trump damaged American democracy as much as Boris Johnson damaged the British. But the intrinsic strength of the American and British systems will make their recovery easy. Unfortunately that cannot be said about India.
The damage inflicted by Narendra Modi’s use of power to promote Hindutva partisanship on the one hand and his own persona on the other will not lend itself to easy repair.
Not only has he been at it for six years with four more to go; he has been mutilating the fundamentals of democratic assumptions that had served India well all these years.
Consider a few highlights of the Modi years. Parliament has been reduced to nothingness with (a) the abolition of Question Hour, (b) discontinuation of the system of parliamentary committees scrutinising bills, (c) discontinuing the system of “division”, a device to find out what members want done on a particular issue, and (d) virtually no debates; seven bills were passed in three hours when the opposition benches were empty.
The Union Cabinet has become a toothless wonder with no role to play. The civil services have largely been reduced to a pack of yes-men. And there is virtually no opposition, thanks to Rahul Gandhi who wants neither a defined role nor a clear-cut policy line. He just likes to drift.
In the circumstances how can Narendra Modi not be authoritarian. That he has become that is clear to all. Rahul Bajaj spoke of the “environment of fear” in the business community. Ajay Piramal referred to “mistrust between people who are in power and people who are wealth creators”. Kiran Mazumdar- Shaw said, “We are all pariahs.” Infosys legend Narayana Murthy who used to be outspoken about our “dirtiest rivers, highest pollution” went diplomatically silent. But Adani and Ambani rose to unprecedented heights of achievements. As Ravi Kant put it in ‘The Rise of Monopolists In Modi’s India’, “the key to Ambani’s soaring wealth is not innovation but monopoly... in telecom, oil, retail, entertainment. There are many instances where he has used his political support within the ruling government to subvert laws in his favour.”
The country’s economy suffered in the process. Industrialist Harsh Goenka listed it out: Fisheries are in a bad way, liquor companies are in liquidation, paper mills are folding up, road companies have reached the end of the road, bakeries have run out of dough, toy-making companies are winding down, restaurants are shutting down and it’s curtain time for cinemas. Any serious political leadership will concentrate its full attention on finding ways to meet such a crisis. Not Modiji. Look at the way he solved the Corona crisis. He simply declared: “The battle of Kurukshetra was won in 18 days. Our war against Corona will take 21 days.” (How meaningless can a nation’s leader get!)
Where action is needed, silence is the policy. China has been getting unusually aggressive; some areas in Ladakh have been occupied by them and some of our men taken out. Our Prime Minister does nothing. There are many instances of announcing grand plans and then forgetting them. In his Independence Day oration, he promised optical fibre connectivity for all villages, medical ID card for every citizen, etc. Nothing happened, perhaps because the Prime Minister wants to make the same promises at the next Independence Day oration.
The danger is that other nations pay less attention to oration and more to action. China has been gaining ground, not only in Ladakh but also in global influence. According to the Asia Power Index put out by an Australian think tank, “India exerts less influence in the region than expected given its available resources.” Even Bangladesh is overtaking India in GDP terms. Sri Lanka did so recently. And China is emerging as a powerful ally of these countries. Indian leadership is either not noticing what is happening or is unable to comprehend it and take action. The impression cannot be avoided that India is losing out because our Prime Minister understands success in different ways. That he can work magic with his oratory has perhaps led him to believe that that kind of magic-making is what a leader needs.
Words are what matter in Modi’s reckoning, deeds are secondary. The real tragedy is that Narendra Modi will never understand this. He is an orator, not a thinker. He is a man of words, not action. He talks. And that’s all.