It’s as official as it can get, because Home Minister Amit Shah has said so in Parliament. The National Register of Citizens – a citizenship crucible – will be repeated in Assam, and be conducted across India now. The exercise will unleash, once again, a new set of anxieties among all Indians, just like it did in Assam. Another trial by fire, even for those singed already.
But the political question to ask is this: How do Amit Shah and Narendra Modi keep Indians perpetually anxious and ensure that the voters still keep voting for them in elections? Keep citizens busy, and make sure the report card reflects on them and not the BJP government.
It all began with demonetisation, then GST, ED raids, NRC, fear of Pakistan, Article 370, the talk of a new multi-purpose digital ID card, phone tapping, WhatsApp surveillance, and the Ayodhya verdict. Many of these have been called bold and decisive solutions, but all of them have stirred disquiet, at least among a large section of Indians. But BJP duo Modi and Shah have continued to top popularity ratings year after year and win many states and the Lok Sabha elections.
The GST was part of a big bang reform that India has been working toward for years. But even after more than two years, the spiral of compliance paperwork that it has locked small businesses in is massive. The long, painful days after demonetisation, the queues and paperwork triggered by the NRC in Assam remind you of the famous 1951 painting called ‘House of Stairs’ by Dutch artist M.C. Escher – people busy climbing a claustrophobic maze of stairs, constantly going somewhere, arriving nowhere. That’s India now.
All this activity and anxiety that the Modi government creates for the population in the middle of an economic slowdown, unemployment, downgrading of India’s ratings by international agencies is a bit counter-intuitive. This is the time when politicians should be calming the population, making them confident, not insecure. And this is also the time when the citizens should be questioning the government on delivery, not complying to prove their citizenship, honesty and patriotism.
But PM Modi did assure thousands of overseas Indians in the ‘Howdy, Modi!’ event that in India “sab achha hai”. All is well.
There are three ways how this conundrum has worked for Modi and how he gains people’s confidence. I learnt this first when I was reporting on demonetisation, and again during the Lok Sabha election this year.
Decoupling Modi from delivery
In people’s minds, Modi, and now Amit Shah, are above the mundane matrix of delivery of jobs, economic growth and well-being. They have decoupled one of the most fundamental expectations that voters have from their leaders – tangible outcomes. I witnessed this first during demonetisation in 2016. So many villagers said – yes, we suffered, but Modi is great.
The same happened during the 2019 Lok Sabha election campaign. The economic slowdown and loss of jobs weren’t a factor at all, even though many articulated it. My colleague Kritika Sharma travelled to Kota, Rajasthan to interview scores of IIT aspirants during the campaign. Almost all of them complained about fears of not finding jobs in a slumpish market, but they also absolved Modi of the responsibility of creating jobs.
“I feel the government cannot do much to change this situation. It totally depends upon the individual efforts of a student to be able to get a job,” said one youth.
This decoupling is deeply confounding for observers of politics. It means voters look at Modi not as a politician but as a visionary leader, an elder statesman who is beyond performance expectations. He is not a project manager who needs to deliver.
Ask not what the country can do for you
In the Modi era, it is the citizens who must deliver and prove themselves worthy. It is they who must change India. He keeps people busy. By doing that, he creates a sense of purpose and activity among citizens. No wonder then that after the NRC final list was out in August, some residents in one posh south Delhi RWA took on the task of identifying ‘true Indians’ themselves. They went to neighbouring slums asking people to show Aadhaar cards, and posted these videos in their RWA WhatsApp groups – followed by other residents saying that there needs to be an NRC in their neighbourhood. I was shown these exchanges. This is how Modi-Shah’s narratives keep the nation busy, including out-of-work vigilantes.
The number of things Modi government has made the citizens busy – complying with GST and citizenship paperwork, proving they are not hoarding dirty cash, not criticising the government on WhatsApp and downloading Telegram and Signal instead, saying they stand with the Indian Army on social media DPs even when they tie citizens to jeeps and drive them around, saying they stand with dilution of Article 370 even when an entire population is cut off and politicians detained overnight.
These tests of good-citizenry stand in contrast after a decade of the silent and almost absent-from-public-view Manmohan Singh era, when citizens did not know what he did or thought, and he didn’t push them to do anything new either.
The famous John Kennedy mantra of ‘ask not what the country can do for you’ can now be applied to Modi-Shah – ask not what the government can do for you, but what you can do for the government.
The other reason, schadenfreude, is the simplest one. If you are suffering, you should derive comfort from the idea that someone else is being punished. Those who stood in the demonetisation lines felt chuffed that rich people were suffering too (though many rich people got away using their contacts in banks).
If you are suffering while putting together your paperwork to prove you are a citizen, you should be happy that those ‘evil’ Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants will suffer more.
Waiting for the Revolution
Three decades ago, Steve Coll, my first American boss at The Washington Post asked me, “Where is the Revolution?” He asked me this every time he encountered government injustice, cruelty, incompetence and corruption in India.
Today, I have the answer. People are not questioning because they think by voting for Narendra Modi, they have ushered in the revolution already. Modi is the revolution.
And in many ways, he is. Just not your traditional textbook revolution.