Someone has cast a curse on the Modi government. The curse of incessant, violent protests that have been a constant feature in the last eight years of Narendra Modi’s tenure as Prime Minister. The Modi government really knows how to set itself up for vehement criticism with every policy, law or scheme that it announces. It is confident, or rather over-confident, of its role as a big-time disrupter of the status quo that India has been caught up in for the last 75 years.
But in steam-rolling his vision for India — be it through the Army recruitment scheme Agnipath, farm laws, land acquisition bill or labour laws — Modi has awakened the nation, and given democracy a shot in the arm by resuscitating the power of protest. The people of India have refused to be silent spectators to policies that are keeping them at a disadvantage. The response to the Agnipath, or ‘Tour of Duty’, scheme is just the latest in a spring of protests. It is an indicator, though a violent one, of a society unwilling to be muzzled.
That said, multiple international agencies, like the Economist Intelligence Unit, has shown how India has slipped from the global ranking of 27th in 2014 to 53rd in 2020 in the EIU’s annual democracy index due to “mounting pressure on India’s democratic norms” by crackdown on civil liberties and “democratic backsliding” by authorities. It has only slightly improved its rank to be placed at 46 in 2021, as per the latest democracy index report released this year.
And depending on which community is protesting, democratic expression is more often than not bulldozed. The Modi government, however, cannot fathom doing that to the youth of the country, or even the farmers.
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Forgetting the cardinal rule
In its attempt to be an innovative trail-blazer, the Modi government often forgets the practicality and efficacy of the policies it is implementing. It also forgets a cardinal rule of governance in India. That the government must do everything keeping the interests of the people in mind, first. India is a democracy, after all!
Instead, most of the Modi government’s policies end up being chest-thumping milestones, which it then boasts about as reforms that no other leader in the 75 years of India’s independence had the courage to execute. The trope of Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajiv Gandhi, and Indira Gandhi making blunders that the BJP is now correcting comes from the same psychological space of Modi attempting to be India’s ultimate iconoclast.
Changing settled institutions is indeed a daunting task, but in a country with 1.4 billion people, asking for feedback from stakeholders isn’t only a morally correct thing to do but also basic common sense. Not so for the current government.
Come to think of it, the trend was set in the winter of 2016. Indians, it seemed, were like deer caught in headlights, frozen by what had hit them: Demonetisation. It was a big disruption in India’s cash economy. And people really never got time to accept or criticise it because everyone was literally running for their money.
Then again, in August 2019, the abrogation of Article 370 also saw a big disruption in the status-quo maintained in Kashmir for the last 75 years. The opposition from stakeholders there was completely muzzled with the internet and telecommunication bans, arrests of political leaders and strict security cover that prevented people from assembling.
The passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) brought about the change. Spontaneous protests erupted nationwide but the government remained adamant on its stance. But these protests really started a trend. After the 2019 Lok Sabha results, every major policy of the Modi government in its second term has met with nationwide protests. The best example is the farmers’ agitation, and the subsequent repealing of the farm laws. It set a precedent for future protests, which is perhaps why the central government is going out of its way to assert that it won’t roll back the Agnipath scheme.
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Must communicate with people
Contrary to Modi’s recent claims of response to “reforms” being given a political colour, the absentee opposition of India — the Indian National Congress — has been busy on the streets of Delhi opposing the summons issued by the Enforcement Directorate to Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi in the National Herald case.
The Congress has only now woken up to the nationwide protests against the Agnipath scheme, with what can be best described as a lousy ‘dharna’ at Jantar Mantar. It lacks the shine and lustre of the struggle that the party’s supporters and workers showed last week over the perceived injustices done to the Gandhis.
The silence of the BJP’s allies is another telling tale of the holes the Modi government is digging for itself with every passing unpopular policy. The farm laws have already seen the BJP being dumped by its allies in Haryana and Punjab. With young aspirants marauding the streets of Bihar, the loud silence of Nitish Kumar — chief minister and Janata Dal (United) president — is being heard by one and all.
The tall claims of the Modi government of bringing reformative policies for the benefit of “Bharat Mata” is a noble thought indeed. But what is Bharat? A mass of land? A concept from Vedic books? No. It is the people of this country that make Bharat a real, tangible, habitable area of prosperity. And keeping them as the last priority seems counterintuitive.
A true democracy works through dialogue. And the sooner Modi realises the power of communicating with the people of his country — a two-way un-orchestrated dialogue—the faster the curse of the protests in his tenure will end.
The author is a political observer who tweets @zainabsikander. Views are personal.