Saturday, 21 September 2019

Another Big Economic Blunder

Another Big Economic Blunder

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 21 September 2019


The Indian government is flailing around trying to solve the problem of the economic slowdown that was caused by its own previous wrong economic policies, especially demonetization and a badly-thought-out GST. The latest move of the Finance Minister in lowering corporate taxes by 10% is not only going to be ineffective in solving the root cause of the slowdown, but has the potential to make things worse by reducing India’s financial cushion in the face of further global economic shocks.

The statements of the Finance Minister, Ms. Nirmala Sitharaman, yesterday, lowering the corporate tax rate by about 10% have led to euphoria in the stock markets. Industry leaders are ecstatic about the “pro-business” attitude of the country. Supporters of Mr. Modi are also thrilled and have begun to hope that the long-promised “acche din” will finally come after 5 long years.

However, while it is true that this is a business-friendly policy change, it is unlikely to change the current economic situation on the ground. Industry leaders are understandably happy — who would not be if they had to pay less tax? And shareholders of companies are also understandably happy — the companies their money is invested in are making lower losses.

But what are they going to do with the money they are thus saving? Are they going to set up new factories and increase employment? Are they going to re-hire the staff that they fired in the last few months? Are they going to increase the capacity utilization of their existing factories?


I repeat, NO. The problem with this government is that it has fundamentally failed to diagnose the problem — partly because the correct diagnosis would reflect poorly on its own past performance.

The correct diagnosis is that demonetization devastated the informal and the rural economy, and a badly-formulated GST destroyed whatever was left. Because of this, people have no buying power, no money, and no jobs. Small-scale industries and the rural economy have been destroyed in the past 3 years because of these misbegotten economic policies of PM Narendra Modi, leading to widespread unemployment and shattered businesses. So nobody has money to buy anything.

The root of the current slowdown in India is that there is no demand. People are not buying underwear and even Parle-G and Britannia products, such as biscuits. And when that is the case, it is quite clear that they will not buy cars and motorcycles, let alone homes.

The solution to the current malaise is putting money in ordinary people’s pockets by generating jobs on a massive scale. This can only be done by large public works, such as irrigation works and replenishment of water bodies (on a permanent basis). Water works are important also because India faces a looming water crisis. A large government program to shore up water resources would therefore achieve two objectives simultaneously – eliminate unemployment and ensure the country’s water future, which in turn will kickstart development in the future. Building highways is not the solution because these days, it is a largely mechanized operation. In addition, is unlikely to yield immediate returns, because we are not being constrained by transport bottlenecks. Trucks are not being sold today because there is reduced merchandise to ship because of the slowdown. Trucks are sitting idle in the depots of transport operators because they have no goods to transport. So what will more highways achieve?

Instead, the government has been barking up the wrong tree, by emphasizing supply-side economics. They put more cash into banks by making the RBI part with a huge dividend. They lowered interest rates. And now they are reducing taxes on corporates.

But why would corporates hire any more workers or build any more factories when people are not buying their existing stock of goods? Auto companies like Ashok Leyland (a truck manufacturer, notably, not a car manufacturer – which tells you the problem is more widespread than “millenials not buying cars” - as the FM opined recently) are shutting down factories for half of September because they already have excess inventory.

So, even if you did not tax companies at all, and even if you made interest rates close to zero, companies will not, in today’s business climate, either create new factories or increase production at existing factories, because there is no demand for their products. They will just sit on that pile of cash. If anything, they will invest abroad with that money, as Anand Mahindra is doing – Mahindra recently announced that they are doubling their infrastructure and job creation in the US. That’s a sensible business decision for Mahindra, because Modi and his government have brought India down to such a low level that the US is now looking like a more attractive destination for investment than India.

On the other hand, the amount that the government is forgoing because of this corporate tax cut is around Rs. 1.45 lakh crores. Just recently, the government forced the RBI to part with its biggest dividend ever to the government – of Rs. 1.76 lakh crores. Clearly, most of that amount is going into this tax rebate for corporates. And it is not going to result in any increased consumption of goods or greater employment of people. It will not change the slowdown.

So who will benefit from this largesse? India, Inc., will, and so will those who depend on it. Those who will reap the biggest dividends of this largesse will be those with the most shares in the companies — namely, the promoters. Individual shareholders, either directly or through mutual funds, will benefit to the extent of their shareholding; but clearly, the lion's share of this reduction in taxes will go to the promoters of companies — the Ambanis, Adanis, Birlas, Tatas, Mazumdar-Shaws, and the like. Nothing wrong with that if part of that goes back into the ecosystem by creating more jobs. But as we have already seen, the business climate today is not conducive to the creation of more jobs, because the problem is not supply-driven but demand-driven.

So the government, after blundering monumentally by Mr. Modi’s disastrous policy of demonetization in November 2016 and a badly-thought-out GST policy, and many other mistakes, such as its surcharge on FPIs (which it has belatedly backtracked now), has committed another major blunder which will not only not have any immediate effect, but will further deplete the already depleted treasury of the government, making it vulnerable to any external shocks such as a steep rise in oil prices, which has already started due to the drone attacks on the Saudi oilfields that has taken out half of the Saudi crude supply out of the market. Thanks to the RBI transferring vast quantities of its reserves to the government, which the government has been profligate with, India has very little financial cushion for any more global surprises. If there were a war in the Persian Gulf or a war with our western neighbor, that would be the last nail in the coffin of the Indian economy.

This is not to say that a reduction in corporate tax rates is undesirable or a bad policy per se. It would have been a great boost to business in a good economy where we have robust demand and where growth is constrained by supply-side policies, such as interest rates or high taxation. But when there is a growth slowdown because of lack of demand, this is not the prescription the doctor ordered. It will fail to solve the country’s economic problem, and in fact will make things worse. The only people who will benefit are the promoters and shareholders of companies, because this cash saving will mitigate their current losses, and that is why Dalal Street is cheering.

But there is nothing for the common man to cheer about. This move is a big blunder, because this money that was received from the RBI could have been used to really kickstart the economy, but the government has chosen to use it on a measure that will have no tangible benefits. Now the government has no more money left for any more major interventions. This was their last chance, and they have blown it. In addition, this will lead to an increase in the fiscal deficit, with all the accompanying evils of that development.

It is in times like this that we understand why Harvard is more important than hard work.

Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of Dr. Seshadri Kumar alone and should not be construed to mean the opinions of any other person or organization, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the article.

Sunday, 1 September 2019

When Bigotry and Stupidity Combine – The NRC Mess in Assam

When Bigotry and Stupidity Combine — The NRC Mess in Assam

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 01 September 2019


The story of the NRC in Assam is that of two competing streams of bigotry — one of Assamese chauvinism and the other of Hindu chauvinism. It had its roots in the Assam movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s, which ended in the misbegotten Assam Accord of 1985. One of the provisions of the Assam Accord was the fateful decision to expel foreigners from Assam. Successive governments since 1985, both at the Centre and at the State level, including Rajiv Gandhi’s own government, had wisely refrained from actually implementing the provisions of the Assam Accord. But the BJP and the AGP have, through their vote-bank activism (the former for the Hindu vote-bank and the latter for the Assamese vote-bank), opened the Pandora’s Box of strict implementation of the Assam Accord, with unpredictable consequences for the peace and stability of Assam, not to mention the profound humanitarian costs of declaring millions of people as noncitizens — people who have known no other country than India from the time of their birth.

This entire push to implement the Assam Accord in letter and spirit is irresponsible, cynical, and heartless; and now the crows have come home to roost, with the National Register of Citizens mentioning in its second count that 1.9 million people in Assam have been identified as foreigners and will have to be expelled from India.

The verdict has pleased no one. The BJP is unhappy because the NRC count has revealed that a large number of Bengali Hindus are illegal immigrants, and that a large number of Assamese Muslims have been identified as citizens — something that busts their narrative of India being inundated by waves of Muslim immigrants. The AGP is unhappy that more Bengalis, both Hindus and Muslims, have not been identified as foreigners. And, of course, those who have lived their entire lives in India and are suddenly being told that they are no longer Indians but foreigners are not happy.

The issue that no one in the more-than-hundred-year-old history of the Assam agitation seems to have thought of — be they political parties, leaders, or courts — is where the so-called foreigners will be expelled to — because no country will accept them. This is the stupidity and short-sightedness of the entire movement that, when combined with the bigotry of the prime movers in the issue — the BJP and the AGP — has led to a complex and unpredictable situation in Assam today. To make matters worse, the BJP is threatening to pass the Citizenship Amendment Act — a backdoor way to make illegal Hindu immigrants legal in Assam — something that will certainly lead to chaos and violence in the entire Northeast.

Background of Immigration Into Assam

Most people in India must have heard of the NRC in Assam by now. The NRC is the National Register of Citizens. Even though the name has “national” in it, this register pertains only to the state of Assam.

The NRC is a list of “legitimate citizens of India” in the Indian north-east state of Assam. The purpose of this list, according to the people who were responsible for it, is to identify who are legitimate citizens of India and who are illegal immigrants (specifically, from Bangladesh — or East Pakistan, as that region was known before 1971). This list was first created in 1951 in Assam. On January 1, 2018, the first revised list of the NRC in nearly 70 years was published. It identified 4.1 million people as non-citizens of India in Assam. Following this, the government said that this list was not final; that people could appeal their exclusion and a second list would be created after further checking. That second list came out on August 31, 2019, and it has now identified 1.9 million people as illegal immigrants; the petitions of around 2.2 million people to be included in the list have been accepted.

The purpose of this article is to tell you what this NRC is all about and why these 1.9 million people are going to be made stateless.

The issue of illegal immigrants, or “foreigners,” moving in to Assam is an issue dating to 1886, when the British, after defeating the Burmese in the First Anglo-Burmese war of 1824, gradually took control over Assam and then opened Assam up to migrants from the rest of the British Raj in India, particularly Bengal. This was followed by various waves of immigration into Assam, fuelled mainly by the tea estates which the British had established in Assam, for which the British brought in Bengali workers.

Although immigration to Assam was continuous during British rule, involving both Hindus and Muslim immigrants, there were two important waves post-Independence. The first wave came during Partition, when Hindus migrated to India from East Pakistan following persecution by the Muslim majority there. It is estimated that around 500,000 immigrants from East Pakistan came in to Assam during Partition. Many of these settled in Assam. There was serious concern about the changing demographics of Assam. In response, the Indian Government passed the Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act, 1950. This act came into effect on 1 March 1950. It mandated the expulsion of illegal immigrants from Assam. But how was the Government to know whom to expel? For this purpose, it created the first National Register of Citizens in Assam in 1951 as part of the 1951 census. The implicit assumption in the Act was that the Indian government would be able to send immigrants from East Pakistan back there. Nobody seems to have considered the possibility that East Pakistan might refuse to take these people back. In the event, no one was actually sent back, so the hypothesis was never tested.

The second wave came to India because of the crimes committed against Bengalis in 1971 in the events leading up to the Bangladesh independence war. Since then, both Hindus and Muslims have continued to migrate from Bangladesh to India.

Things came to a head when, following the death of Hiralal Patwari in 1978, by-elections had to be held in the Mangaldoi assembly constituency in Assam. It was noticed that the number of registered voters had risen dramatically since the previous election – much more than could be explained by population growth. This triggered a popular outrage against the “takeover” of Assam by foreigners, spearheaded by the All-Assam Students Union (AASU), led by Prafulla Mahanta.

The Assam Accord and the IMDT Act

The Assam movement of 1979-1985 became extremely violent and, to put an end to this, former PM Rajiv Gandhi agreed to the “Assam Accord” that he signed with Prafulla Mahanta on 15 August, 1985. One of the key provisions of the agreement was that those immigrants who came in to Assam before March 25, 1971 would be considered legal immigrants, whereas those who had entered Assam on or after March 25, 1971 would be deemed illegal and expelled. To enforce this, the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, also known as the IMDT Act, 1983, was used. This act provided the mechanism by which people could be identified as either citizens or illegal immigrants. Prafulla Mahanta subsequently founded the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) party, the political incarnation of the AASU, and subsequently became the Chief Minister of the State of Assam.

This was an unwise agreement, despite having had the effect of stopping the violence, because no thought was given to what would be done with those deemed illegal immigrants. Deporting them to Bangladesh was the likely thought in the minds of the Assamese, but the Assam accord was drafted without ever taking consent from Bangladesh, and so there was never any assurance that anyone identified as a Bangladeshi immigrant by India would ever be accepted back by Bangladesh. In fact, Bangladesh has recently reiterated that under no circumstances would it accept anybody back from India.

Despite this fact, the Assam Accord did not result in large-scale deportation of illegals, because the IMDT act had many safeguards for the immigrants that made deportation difficult. The most important among these was that the onus of proving that someone was an illegal immigrant was on the accuser, not the accused. If someone was accused, they could prove their citizenship by simply providing a ration card as proof. If the case still went further, it would be brought before a tribunal of retired judges who would decide on it. The central government also had the option to decide to throw out any petition for naming someone as an illegal immigrant on the grounds that the petition was frivolous. All this provided substantial safeguards for immigrants.

The End of the IMDT and the Revival of the NRC

It should be noted that the IMDT Act had some key differences with the Foreigners Act, 1946, which applied to the rest of India. Under the Foreigners Act, 1946, the onus of proving citizenship is on the accused and not on the accuser. Under the IMDT Act, on the other hand, the onus is on the accuser to prove that the accused is not a citizen. Because of this, very few people were actually deported under the IMDT act.

To change this, Sarbananda Sonowal of the AGP (now of the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP) challenged the IMDT Act in the Supreme Court in 2005 and won the case. The Supreme Court said in its observation that because of the generous safeguards in the IMDT Act, less than 0.5% of all cases filed under it resulted in deportation, and struck down the IMDT Act as unconstitutional. The Court said in its judgement that “the Bangladesh nationals who have illegally crossed the border and have trespassed into Assam or are living in other parts of the country have no legal right of any kind to remain in India and they are liable to be deported.”

However, the honourable SC does not seem to have seriously considered the question of where the said illegal immigrants were to be deported, given that no country would accept so many migrants back into their country. Furthermore, the decision on whether someone was an illegal immigrant or not was to be decided by India, not Bangladesh. Why any country would accept the verdict of another country on a matter regarding those it would be forced to accept as its own citizens is hard to imagine.

With the disbanding of the IMDT Act, the question of how illegal immigrants were to be identified and dealt with came back to the fore. The issue was finally settled by the Supreme Court in 2013 in its judgement in response to writ petitions by Assam Public Works and Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha & Ors. In its judgement, the SC ordered that the NRC should be updated to identify illegal immigrants, and the illegals should be expelled.

Accordingly, the process of updating the NRC was begun in 2015, and the first draft of the revised NRC finally made it on 1 January 2018. This was then revised, taking appeals and objections into account, and the revised list was announced on August 31, 2019.

Hindu vs Muslim Immigrants

One of the central poll planks of the BJP had always been that Muslim migration from Bangladesh to India had been unchecked and had led to a rise in the Muslim population of India. They had always accused the Congress of not doing enough to stop the immigration because Muslims formed a useful vote bank for the Congress. The BJP had promised that, if elected, they would put a stop to illegal Muslim immigration into India.

To this end, they decided to support the AGP. A political alliance was formed between the BJP and the AGP to form a government in Assam. The BJP reasoned that the AGP was against immigration into Assam, and the BJP was against immigration into Assam as well, and so this was a natural partnership.

But this was anything but a natural partnership.

The AGP’s objection to immigration was ethnic. They were opposed to the immigration of anyone who was not ethnic Assamese. This included both Hindus and Muslims. In particularly, the AGP was violently opposed to Bengali Hindu immigrants living in Assam. The AGP’s prime consideration was that Assamese culture was being wiped out due to Bengali influence.

The BJP’s objection to immigration was religious. They were opposed only to the immigration of Muslims into Assam (and into all of India.) The BJP had no problems with Bangladeshi Hindus who had settled in Assam.

The alliance between the BJP and the AGP was, therefore, an unholy marriage of convenience on a shaky foundation.

The Citizenship Amendment Act

The BJP realized this problem and, to solve it, introduced the Citizenship Amendment Act. This act would confer Indian citizenship on all Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Christian, Parsi, and Jain immigrants, but would specifically exclude Muslims. This suited the BJP’s strategy of hate politics very well, because it selectively excluded Muslims. But it was absolutely unacceptable to the majority of the Assamese, because the Assamese correctly saw the Citizenship Amendment Act as a means to legalize illegal Hindu migrants into Assam through the back door. The BJP tried to pass the bill in Parliament, but was unable to because of the opposition to the bill.

Despite all this, the BJP went ahead and encouraged the creation of the NRC to determine who was an Indian citizen and who was not, in line with the Assam accord. In doing so, the BJP was supremely confident that most of those who were about to be classified as foreigners would be Muslims.

The whole thing is ugly on both sides. On one side of the coin is ethnic hatred, of Assamese for Bengalis; on the other side is religious hatred, of Hindus for Muslims.

Now the revised list has been published, and according to most reports, a large percentage of the identified illegal immigrants are Hindus, in contrast to the BJP’s expectation that most identified illegal immigrants would be Muslim. This is why the BJP frantically (and unsuccessfully) tried to delay the publication of the NRC list, because when a large number of Hindus are denied Indian citizenship, it will hurt the BJP’s Hindu vote bank.

The surprise that the BJP has expressed is evidence of its ignorance — after all, at the time of India’s independence, nearly a fourth of all Assamese residents identified themselves as Muslim; so the fact that a large number of Muslims in Assam are legitimate residents of Assam should not be a surprise to anyone who had done the minimum research on the demographics of Assam.

If the leaders of the BJP had actually done some demographic research, they would have realized that this was going to be the outcome of the NRC. The facts have been in the public domain for a long time. But apparently, they believed their own rhetoric, which they used to whip communal frenzy among the people of India and win elections — that Muslim immigrants were streaming through the border and were going to make Hindus in India a minority. Their ideology blinded them to the fact that the community that was going to be affected most by the NRC in Assam was the Bengali Hindu community.

It is astonishing that the BJP could not see the writing on the wall. The officials conducting the NRC drive are all Assamese, and bear no loyalty to the BJP’s religion-based agenda. Now the BJP will have to deal with the backlash from the Bengali Hindu community. Their only hope to avoid this is to bring in the citizenship amendment bill in Parliament. Just as they finagled their way with the Triple Talaq bill and the abrogation of Article 370, they might be able to pass this law in Parliament as well. But while they may succeed in Parliament, Assam will likely erupt in revolt if they indeed pass the Citizenship Amendment Bill to save the Bengali Hindus facing an uncertain future after being excluded from the NRC. One wonders if the government will send another 100,000 paramilitary forces into Assam to “maintain the peace” as they have done in J&K for the last month, and introduce the Citizenship Amendment Act in as stealthy a fashion as they did the abrogation of article 370. Will yet another state be put under martial law, with curfew for weeks, the state leaders imprisoned, and all communication cut off, in order to fulfil the BJP’s political objectives?

One further point needs mention. The issue of “foreigners” is a sensitive one not only in Assam but in the entire Northeast. This is because of colonial history; when the British ruled in Northeast India, most of the administrative cadre came from Bengal. This has led to a lot of anti-Bengali resentment in many parts of the Northeast. Therefore, any attempt by the BJP to bulldoze its way with the Citizenship Amendment Act will have consequences not only in Assam but in the entire Northeast. Meghalaya and Tripura are prominent examples.

Whither Human Rights?

No matter how the NRC is conducted — whether the target is all non-Assamese or whether it is only Muslim immigrants into Assam — the entire idea is completely heartless and cruel. Not only is the standard of proof being demanded unusually stringent, in a country where the standard of record-keeping is so poor that a large number of people do not even possess birth certificates, but the entire process seems to have been conducted without any endgame plan in mind. That any court, let alone the highest court of the land, the Supreme Court, even allowed this register of citizens to proceed without careful consideration of the consequences is astonishing in the extreme.

For, the entire NRC exercise offers no enlightenment as to what is to be the fate of those declared non-citizens of India. The Bangladesh government has made it clear that it considers the entire matter an internal matter of India, that it does not consider anyone who does not make it to the list of Indian citizens a Bangladeshi citizen, and has clearly said it will not take back any of these people. So what is the plan for these people? Does the government, and does the SC, propose to make these people who were hitherto living freely as Indian citizens prisoners and house them in internment camps? And for how long? No country will take them. If India will not accept them as Indian citizens, does India intend to keep 1.9 million people in jails for the rest of their lives? That would constitute an appalling violation of fundamental human rights.

It is also worth noting that 2019 is a long way away from 1971. Think of someone who may have moved from Bangladesh to India in 1972 – 47 years ago. If this person was in his mid-thirties in 1972, he might not even be alive now. But his children might have been born and might have lived in India for nearly half a century. India is the only country they know. If you suddenly pronounce them non-citizens, where will they go? It is extreme cruelty to send them to another country at this age, even assuming that you can find another country to accept them in the first place.

Incidentally, it is worth pointing out that getting “legal documents” in India is not very difficult if you have the money. Those with the money, even if they are illegal immigrants, whether Hindu or Muslim, would have found it fairly easy to establish their domicile in a country like India, where everything from birth certificates to passports to news can be faked. The present climate must have been a bonanza for forgers in Assam, as the going rates for fake documents must have gone up at least tenfold. The people who will be affected most, therefore, will be those without the means to buy their freedom.

The entire issue of the NRC is a monumental, national disgrace for the people of India. It was a compulsion that forced Rajiv Gandhi to agree to the ethnic basis of the Assam Accord, but he did it as a stopgap bandaid to stop the violence. He also linked the Accord with an instrument like the IMDT Act that would actively nullify the Accord. It would have remained as an unfulfilled promise, had not the greed of the BJP for votes based on dividing people on the basis of religion gotten the better of them.

This entire ugly affair is a stark reminder of what happens when a base impulse – bigotry – is combined with a lack of intelligence to see the consequences of that bigotry.

The story does not end here. We have come so far in this tragedy that we must soldier on to the bitter end. There is no happy ending to this story. Hatred, once allowed free rein, always has victims. Allowing our basest instincts to rule our actions can and will only result in tragic consequences, and the NRC drama is no exception to this rule.

Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of Dr. Seshadri Kumar alone and should not be construed to mean the opinions of any other person or organization, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the article.

Monday, 27 May 2019

Tumhari Hai Tum Hi Sambhalo Ye Duniya: An Appeal To Fellow-Liberals In India

Tumhari Hai Tum Hi Sambhalo Ye Duniya: An Appeal To Fellow-Liberals In India

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 27 May, 2019


Liberals in India have tried for the past five years to convince their fellow-Indians that Narendra Modi should not be re-elected in 2019 — and failed. Modi has come back to power with a bigger mandate than in 2014. What this means is that the other side is not receptive to the arguments of us liberals — for whatever the reasons may be. There is therefore no point in continuing to highlight what we liberals believe about Modi being bad for the country — the strategy has clearly not worked.

It is therefore time for liberals to take a step back and to disengage from political discussions for a year or two, and watch what actually happens in India under Modi 2.0. If things are bad as we fear, then Modi's supporters will realize the facts for themselves. They will be more likely to admit that things are wrong if they do not have to constantly defend Modi against attacks from liberals. And if things in India actually end up being as rosy as supporters of Mr. Modi believe, then it will be the best of all possible worlds for all Indians.

A Time to Understand Reality

It is now 4 days since the election results were announced. Liberals who fought the war of ideas on social media with the supporters of Mr. Modi are shocked, angry, and depressed that he won with such a large mandate.

They say grief is a multi-stage process, and many of my friends are in different stages. I understand it is hard. I myself have been very involved for the last five years in pointing out the problems in this administration and in trying to convince people not to vote for Modi for a second term. I only achieved closure after I posted my last post titled “A Farewell to Arms” (Apologies to Ernest Hemingway.)

So, while I understand what all of you are going through, here is my appeal.

We tried to convince people that re-electing Modi would be a mistake. We pointed out the various problems, whether economic, social, intolerance-related, related to the scientific temper, or relating to foreign policy. We argued. We shared opinions.

But we failed in convincing people. Modi was re-elected with an even bigger mandate.

What does this tell you? I don't know, but it tells me that whatever I have been doing for the past 5 years has not worked. And so I have understood that repeating that pattern will not convince the other side, either.

Unfortunately, I see many of my friends getting into the same pattern again. That was fine for the last five years, but to continue it is destructive and futile. Yesterday some community leader made some inflammatory statements, and everyone has been posting the video of those statements today, talking about how things in India are getting worse. Others are still arguing as to whether this was a “stolen” election — whether EVMs were selectively tampered. (It does not matter. Even if you somehow discover that they were, the ECI is not going to rerun the election.)

All this is not going to help. These are the things that we tried explaining to them for 5 long years. The other side is not interested in listening. I found recently in a WhatsApp group that I belonged to that highly educated folks from the other side were not even reading my posts — including even instances when my posts had nothing to do with politics. Such is the rift between the liberals and supporters of Mr. Modi. They have closed their minds off and will not read anything you write — because it is you, a liberal, who is posting it. As symptomatic of that, I just responded to a Modi supporter who commented on FB regarding my “Farewell” post without even reading it and started telling me that I was wrong - even though he did not even know what I had written in it.

That is how things are today. You can post all your arguments on how things are bad under Modi. The other side is simply not listening. And, with Modi having won a resounding mandate, they have even less incentive to listen to you.

The Way Forward

So what should we liberals do? I would say we should just take a deep breath, and stop posting on politics, Modi, Rahul, Muslims and Dalits getting beaten up (there are going to be a lot of such incidents now, because lumpen elements on the street will feel vindicated and think they have carte blanche now), and similar topics. Post absolutely nothing on any of these.

Wait for a year at least. Maybe two. Let us see how things pan out.

This has been a war of ideologies. There are those who believe that Modi will bring a golden age to India. There are those of us who believe that he is going to ruin India. Let us understand one thing: both sides genuinely believe that they are correct.

Let us see who is correct here. If we are correct, the other side will realize that things have gone terribly wrong without us telling them a single thing or reminding them by sharing news links. They can read newspapers and websites too.

If they are correct, then that is good news for us too. If the country is indeed going to be better because of Mr. Modi's wise leadership, all of us will be happy. We opposed him only because we are worried that bad things are going to happen. As of now, I believe that, based on what has happened during the last five years. But if the results are different in the next five years, I will have no problem with Mr. Modi. He has been making inclusive speeches since he won. Let us see if he delivers on those words. And let us hope his handling of the economy is better than it was in the last five years.

But clearly, arguing on Facebook is not helping any of us. If the objective is to learn, then we seem to have come to a pass where the other side is simply not interested in even looking at what we share, let alone absorb and learn.

Either they will learn the hard way that what we were saying was right all along, or we will learn the happy way that what they were saying was right all along.

So that's my appeal to you: stop arguing, stop posting news links talking about all the bad things that are happening. Cede the social media space to them. Stop wasting your time arguing. And even if they taunt you, don't respond. After you stop responding a few times, they will stop taunting you, because there is no fun if the other person does not react.

Maintain complete radio silence at least for a year. Or two. There may be times in the next year or two when terrible things happen. Maybe a village of Dalits gets burned (I am not saying it will, just giving an extreme example to make a point). Resist the temptation to say, “See? We told you so!” Let them introspect and come to the same conclusion on their own, without any prodding from us. As long as we are taunting them, they will defend Modi even if something indefensible has happened — just because we are attacking them.

Let us see the worst (or best) that Modi can do.

As Guru Dutt says in the immortal song in “Pyaasa,”

Tumhaari hai tum hi sambhaalo ye duniya (“The world is yours; you take care of it.”)

So, my fellow-liberals, take care of yourselves and your families, use the time that you were spending on Facebook and WhatsApp all these years on reading, music, travel, whatever. Cherish your loved ones. I would even advise not watching news on TV. I have stopped doing that. I get the newspaper anyway — I do not need to know what is happening minute by minute. If Rahul Gandhi is going to resign, it is fine if I find out next morning — it's not like I will go to his home to convince him otherwise if I find out at 3.43 pm.

With that, I will keep my end of the bargain and post nothing more about Indian politics, at least for a year. I will wait and watch what happens and what Mr. Modi does.

I would like to thank all those who have been part of this journey of the last 5 years with me. Your feedback, encouragement, and engagement have meant the world to me.

But now it is time for me to rejuvenate myself. A writer needs to read a lot. Without that, he cannot write informed commentary. Unfortunately, there are only so many hours in the day, and so if you write a lot, you do not get that time to read. I hope to use this hiatus to catch up on my reading.

I have also made many great friends through my writing – people who I admire and in whose presence (real and virtual) I delight to be. These friendships will continue, and I would aver that, in the end, that's what really matters.

With that, Adios, and good luck in all your endeavours!

Peace to all.

Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of Dr. Seshadri Kumar alone and should not be construed to mean the opinions of any other person or organization, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the article.

Sunday, 26 May 2019

A Farewell To Arms

A Farewell To Arms

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 26 May, 2019


The 2019 General Election in India represents a fundamental shift in Indian thought. The foundation of the Indian state in 1947 was secularism, that India was a country for people of all religions, in sharp contrast with Pakistan, which was conceived as a state for Muslims alone. India’s founding fathers wanted to prove that Pakistan was a mistake; that Muslims could live and thrive in a Hindu-majority India. India was conceived as a rejection of the “two-nation” formula on which Pakistan was predicated. That era is over now, and India is now a de facto Hindu nation if not de jure. It will become a Hindu nation in law in a few short years as well. And in such a state, there is no space for a secular party such as the Congress of old to survive.

The Three Cassandras

Five years ago, I formed a Facebook chat group with two of my close friends. The name I gave the group then, though we changed it later, was “The Three Cassandras.”

For those who don't know, Cassandra is a character in the Trojan war, in the epic by Homer, the Iliad. She is the daughter of the Trojan king Priam, and is a priestess of the temple of Apollo. It seems that the god Apollo (the Sun god) was infatuated by her, and wanted her to be his lover, and as an inducement gave her the gift of seeing the future. But even after getting the gift, Cassandra refused to become his lover. An angry Apollo cursed her, saying that her gift of prophecy would be useless to her, because nobody would believe her prophecies from that time on.

So, when the Greeks pretend to leave Troy after 10 years of fighting, and leave a huge wooden horse on the beach as a gift to Apollo (but within which Greek warriors were hiding) — the famous Trojan Horse — Cassandra realizes this is a false gift, and warns the Trojans not to bring the wooden horse inside the walls of Troy, which the Greeks could not breach for 10 years. But because of the curse of Apollo, nobody believes her. The result is that the Greeks come out of the horse at night and kill all the Trojans.

Now I think that name I gave the group was very accurate. The three of us were certainly Cassandras — nobody listened to us as we pointed out the dangers of majoritarianism and of electing an unlettered and ignorant person as the PM. Now the Troy that is India is going to be saffronized, irreversibly. To me that is as good as destroying India. India without its secular fabric and scientific temper — and a religious state is the very antithesis of scientific temper — is as good as dead. A religious state, by definition, implies that there is only one version of the truth, and that everyone must conform to that version, under pain of punishment, and such dogma is antithetical to scientific thinking.

IAC as My Inspiration for Blogging and Facebook Posting

I was inspired to write by the political movement of the IAC — the India Against Corruption movement led by Anna Hazare in 2011. Until then, I was one among most Indians who was only worried about making my life more comfortable. I did read the news in the paper, but not very critically or analytically. The 2011 movement started the process in my life when I started reading the news more critically, started examining whether what politicians were saying was true or not, started delving into various domains like law, the Constitution, the history of independent India, economics, etc.

While I lost my fascination for IAC and the AAP a little later, I continued to examine issues critically. I started writing a blog, and that started right at the time of the IAC agitation, because I realized, after even participating in an IAC rally in Pune where I shouted slogans like “Ek sur, ek taal, Jan Lokpal, Jan Lokpal,” that street politics and organization were not my cup of tea. So I started thinking about how I could contribute — and I realized that maybe writing about issues was a way to contribute, since I could write. But I knew I could not sit idle — I had to do something. I was inspired by what Gandhi had said: “Be the change you wish to see.”

Although I was initially fascinated by Modi in 2013 and 2014 (I was not very familiar with what had happened in 2002, because I was away in the US then and not at all connected to Indian politics then — it was a different time, with little internet access), I gradually found my voice as a liberal. To me, it is the only position that an educated and critical thinker can have. The idea that all humans are essentially equal, no matter what their differences are, is a powerful one, and so I became opposed to majoritarianism of any kind.

Being a Liberal In The Modi Years

And so I found myself in constant opposition to the policies of this government. I found myself repeatedly horrified by the silence of Prime Minister Modi in the face of repeated public lynchings of innocent Muslim men. To me, that was and still is tacit encouragement of violence towards minorities, and no amount of whataboutery can change that. Or the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which seeks to treat Muslims as the “other” — it is hard to think of a policy that is more polarizing than that. And telling me that well, the people of India voted for Mr. Modi again, does not change that. If a principle is wrong, it is wrong, no matter how many people support it. And a liberal is all I can be, no matter how much the environment around me changes. I cannot find myself discriminating against someone else because he or she belongs to a different religion, or supporting anyone who does.

I realize the current political environment does not offer choices in terms of principled politics. Is there a single party that resonates with my liberal ideology? No. The Congress Party had adopted a line of soft Hindutva in these elections that seemed to serve it well in Kerala, but not in the rest of the nation. Clearly, pandering to soft Hindutva in the matter of Sabarimala helped them unseat the Left. Digvijay Singh publicly performed a puja to help him in his re-election with the help of “Computer baba,” but was defeated by Pragya Thakur, a terror-accused out on bail.

How about the AAP? This was the party that forced Bollywood composer Vishal Dadlani to apologize for criticizing the Jain monk Tarun Sagar giving a sermon to the Haryana legislature.

So no, there is no party in the country that actually completely subscribes to a liberal ideology. But as a practical matter, what does a liberal do when these are his choices? The only thing possible is to vote for the lesser evil. With all its flaws and hypocrisies, the Congress is still the lesser of the evils. And its manifesto for these elections was a breath of fresh air, and a clear departure from the past — exactly the things a liberal would wish for — and so I hoped the Congress would win. It was not to happen.

The Congress Party’s Shifting Ideologies

Several articles criticizing the Congress Party have appeared in the print and online media following their loss in the 2019 general elections. Many of my friends are in denial, but the points need to be seriously considered. Think, for example, about the point that the Congress does not have a consistent ideology. Isn't this true today? It used to be that the Congress was the secular alternative, and some might say with some justification that they went too far in trying to be secular.

But after seeing the BJP inflict drubbing after drubbing on them in state elections after 2014, the Congress decided to rework itself into a soft Hindutva party. Shashi Tharoor even justified it in an interview by saying we are a democratic party and so we have to cater to what our constitutents want. So essentially, when the people of India moved to the right — and I don't think any clear-headed person will dispute that — then the Congress party, in order to represent them and so win elections, decided to move to the right as well. Rahul Gandhi proclaimed that he was a “janeu-dhari” (someone wearing the Hindu sacred thread) Brahmin and a Shiva bhakt, and went on a pilgrimage of holy shrines to prove it to the public.

The problem with that is that the party is seen to have no fixed ideology.

Compare that with the BJP. They have had a consistent ideology for decades. Hindu Rashtra. Ram Temple at Ayodhya. No Muslim appeasement. End the subsidy for Muslim travelers to the Haj pilgrimage. End Reservations. etc. etc. No change in any position, just keep hammering away at it until it happens.

Even the regional parties have more consistent ideologies than the Congress. BSP stands for Dalit upliftment, DMK stands for Dravida upliftment, and the SP stands for OBC upliftment. Caste based parties have a clear ideology. They exist to uplift the condition of the people from their caste, be they Jat, Patidar, Yadav, Bodo, or whatever else.

The Changing Face of India And The Irrelevance of Secularism Today

Why did the Congress abandon its long-standing philosophy of secularism? Because they were losing.

And there is the rub. India is changing. While there is still some room for caste-based politics (Hindutva does not mean the end of selfishness), there clearly is no room for a secular philosophy, a liberal philosophy, in India today. To be clear, the people of India at large are not interested in oppressing or killing Muslims. They just want a better life. But if oppression or killing does happen, they don't care any longer. Who is responsible for this? The blame should fall on the shoulders of the people of India for the unsympathetic attitude they have taken. But this does not mean that politicians are not responsible. The RSS has been propagating the poison of intolerance ever since Independence, but this was taken to new heights by Advani and Vajpayee during the Ram Janmabhoomi movement of the late 80s and early 90s. While people still bear the responsibility for their actions, the hate speeches of the BJP leaders during the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, culminating in the destruction of the Babri masjid, definitely poisoned the minds of countless Indians. When you constantly hear about how someone like Aurangzeb oppressed our Hindu ancestors, and when you hear a big leader like Advani equate the Mughals with the ordinary Muslims of today, not everyone possesses the discrimination needed to understand that a leap of logic has suddenly been made. The hardline intolerance of most Indians today definitely owes a lot to the speeches of Mr. Advani and his companions, such as Uma Bharti.

The BJP tradition of stoking the anger of the Hindus at wrongs committed centuries ago and blaming the Muslims of today continued over the years and found a new messiah in Narendra Modi after the 2002 riots. Modi is infamous for having given a sspeech in Ahmedabad mocking the Muslim community for its birth rate with his infamous “Hum paanch, hamare pacchees” (“We are five, our family is 25”) speech. More relevant is his speech during the 2014 election campaign, where he said in a speech: “We have heard of the green revolution, we have heard of the white revolution. But under the rule of the Congress party, they have created the pink revolution” referring to the slaughter of cows for beef and the implied suggestion that Muslims are responsible for this. When the atmosphere is constantly vitiated by hate speech such as this, is there any surprise that cow vigilantism has been a major issue during Modi's first term? Supporters of Modi ask me how Modi can be held responsible when someone decides to lynch a Muslim - can he be monitoring every citizen? No, but all this violence is a consequence of the hate he spewed against Muslims in his speeches. People don't forget.

And so, while it is the people who are responsible for their choices, politicians do make things considerably worse. Since winning the elections on the 23rd of May, Modi has made fairly inclusive speeches. And I am inclined to believe he is sincere now about not wanting to target minorities. As a Prime Minister, widespread violence in the country does him no good. But the problem is the Jekyll-Hyde character of Mr. Modi. Modi the campaigner is a different animal from Modi the Prime Minister. PM Modi would like Hindus and Muslims to fight poverty and not each other. Campaigner Modi would like to further cleave apart faultlines between Hindus and Muslims because it helps unite the Hindus to vote for him. Unfortunately, the two cannot coexist. What has happened is that the continuous infusion of hate for the last 30 years from the BJP has fundamentally altered the character of the Indian people. I have actually criticized Modi for his silence when an Akhlaque or a Pehlu Khan or an Afrazul was killed and people of his party support the killings or garland the murderers. But Modi is silent for a reason — and it is not that he wants these people killed.

Modi is silent because if he criticizes those who commit these atrocities, he risks losing his support. After having been egged on to think of Muslims as the enemy for decades, if his followers now commit acts of violence against the Muslims and if he criticizes them, he will be seen by them as a turncoat. Modi is a keen student of history. He has seen how his mentor, LK Advani, fell from grace not too long ago. Advani was the darling of the right wing, and it was a given that if and when the BJP came to power again, he would be the PM since Vajpayee would retire soon. But he ruined his chances in one moment of weakness — in a visit to Pakistan in 2005, he visited Jinnah's tomb and publicly praised him as a secular person and as an ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity. That moment of weakness cost Advani the Prime Ministership and future leadership of the BJP. It was a key factor in the BJP cadre deciding to support Modi over Advani in 2013. Modi was seen to not be weak like Advani. And so, if, in the interest of a stable country, Modi actually chides his followers for committing acts of violence against Muslims, the backlash against him will be severe. Already the right wing of the BJP is upset that so many promises are pending, such as the construction of a Ram Temple in Ayodhya. That's why he will make token noises about “never forgiving Pragya Thakur for her comments against Gandhi,” but he will never take concrete action.

In fact, as I have stated many times on social media, the big mistake the liberals in India have made is to imagine Modi as this villain who is solely responsible for all the ills happening in India. Modi is simply an agent. Even though liberals do not like to acknowledge it, democracy is alive and thriving in India, even under Modi. Elections in India are never perfect, but I do believe that Modi being elected is the full expression of a democratic country. I am not a believer in EVM conspiracy theories, and I do not believe that 2019 was a stolen election. And that is, to me, the scary part. Modi said in his victory speech that the 2019 victory was a positive mandate for the good things he did. I am not arguing with the idea that many people voted for him because they thought he was the Messiah who would make India a great country. My only point is that none of the people who voted for him was the slightest perturbed about the persecution of minorities and the total silence from the ruling government on the atrocities. Nobody was bothered in the least as a Union minister garlanded murder convicts who were released on bail, or when another minister draped the body of a man who was part of a lynch mob that murdered a Muslim (for allegedly eating beef) in the national flag and paid homage to him on his death. To me, these things represent the death of secularism in India.

Some of my friends might disagree with my analysis because the Congress’ vote share has actually gone up by around 2.5% in this election compared to the 2014 election. Isn’t that a vindication of secularism, one might ask. But then you would forget the fact that in this election, the Congress abandoned secularism as their platform. I would argue that the Congress did so well only because it abandoned secularism — that if it had continued to talk about secularism and the protection of minorities, it would have done worse than it actually did.

Media has played a major role in this election — and in fact, for the past 5 years. And this is not just because of the large sums of money that Mr. Amit Shah has given them. Most of media is owned by upper caste Hindus, and most of them are sympathetic to the Hindutva cause. Just one look at the coverage of the election campaign by the various TV channels would have made that abundantly clear. Media anchors were behaving like cheerleaders for Modi. This is why a major scam like Vyapam, in which 40 people died (tell me how many people died in 2G?) was quietly swept under the rug. Just imagine — a scam is so big that 40 people are killed to prevent them from speaking up — and yet the media hardly spoke about it. Would this have happened if the Congress Party was ruling the country?

Or think about demonetization. What a massive scam that was! The bank in which Amit Shah was a director made a killing. Dozens of BJP functionaries were found with hundreds or thousands of crores of freshly minted 2000 rupee notes in their possession. Yet, was there a national outcry about corruption due to demonetization? No.

But is it only the media? How many of you have the guts to go to your offices and criticize Modi and the BJP when you go for a tea break? Just try it, and 20 people will descend on you like hawks on a mouse. Some of them will gently tell you you are deluded and falling for “sickular” propaganda, others will denounce you outright as an “anti-national.” What does that tell you? Forget whether you are right or wrong. It tells me that Modi has wide public support.

Or go to the villages. I have seen interviews in which villagers would rationalize on Modi's failures. Such as saying, “Yes, the stray cows ate my entire crop, and caused me huge financial loss, but I will still vote for Modi. I think he will fix all this.” There were others who blamed the state leadership even though demonetization was a central measure.

As some in the media have commented, some of Modi’s development initiatives may have had an effect. But that is not my focus here. I am not going to argue here on whether there has been enough progress in the country or not, or enough rural development. I have done enough of that, in excruciating detail, elsewhere.

My key point, as a liberal, is that secularism is no longer an issue in India. And that was obvious even before the election. That we could see a Shambhulal Regar could torture and kill Afrazul in front of a camera, and then see people protest his arrest in Rajasthan, spoke volumes of the change in values of this country. Similarly, that a Pehlu Khan, clearly an innocent, was publicly slaughtered in Alwar by cow vigilantes, with someone filming the killing, and the police letting the killers off, citing lack of evidence, tells you how deep the rot in values is.

There are many more instances, and the point here is not to discuss who was responsible for the killings or for the inaction in prosecution. More importantly, it is to highlight the complete indifference of the public to these public murders. The nation as a whole was not shocked or stunned. No candlelight vigils. No protests on the street demanding that the government of the day should do more in protecting its minority citizens. Nothing. About all that happened was that a bunch of liberal commentators wrote articles about it in the media and hyperventilated in debates on TV. Nobody cares in India about murdered Muslims any longer. Once they had a national party called the Congress that cared. Now the only party that cares is Asaduddin Owaisi’s MIM.

And there is a cautionary tale in that observation. If Muslims feel that there is no moderate party like the Congress that will stand up for their rights, and if the Congress has vacated its role as a guardian of secular values, then some other party will step into that vacuum — and the new entrant may not be moderate at all (I am not referring specifically to the AIMIM). This bodes ill for religious harmony in India in the coming years. Mr. Modi might find the lack of the use of the secularism slogan in this election something to gloat about, as he did in his speech on the evening of the 23rd, but this very thing can come back to bite his government in the times to come.

The Existential Crisis of the Congress Party

Many have analyzed this election as a failure in leadership of the Congress Party, and have put the blame on Rahul Gandhi. But is this the right diagnosis? The big news today was that Rahul Gandhi had given the Congress Working Committee his resignation and they had rejected it, but that he was firm on resigning anyway.

One of the things blamed on Rahul Gandhi is his failure to stitch together an alliance with the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, along with the Rashtriya Lok Dal, in Uttar Pradesh. But look at the vote shares of all the parties. The BJP got nearly 50% of the vote share in UP. The BSP got 19%, the SP got 18%, the RLD got less than 2%, and the Congress got around 6%. Add them all up, and you still have only 45%. They could still not have beaten the BJP. So the Mahagatbandhan could not have won UP even if the Congress had joined them.

Or take Delhi. Again, Rahul was blamed for not being able to reach an alliance with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) for the elections. But look at the vote shares: the AAP got 18% of the vote, and the Congress got 22% of the vote. In comparison, the BJP got nearly 57% of the vote!!

In Karnataka, by mighty striving, with phone calls almost daily, Rahul managed to save the alliance with the JD(S). What happened? The BJP got 51% of the vote. The Congress managed only 32%, and the JD(S) 10%. Even with the alliance, they could not beat the BJP. Or take Haryana, where the BJP itself polled 58% of the vote. Even if all the other parties had united in an alliance, they could not have beaten the BJP.

No. There are larger forces at work here — and it is beyond your and my poor power to add to or to detract from the damage these forces can cause and are causing.

The larger problem the Congress faces is not one of leadership, but of philosophy. They can replace Rahul with, say, Shashi Tharoor — but will that solve their problems? I don’t think so.

Why? Because the foundational philosophy on which it rested for 70 years since Independence — secularism and inclusiveness — has become irrelevant in today’s India. There was a reason why India became a secular country whereas Pakistan became a Muslim country. It was Jinnah's contention that Hindus and Muslims could never live together, and that was the basis of his demand for Pakistan. This is popularly known as the “two-nation theory” — one nation for Muslims alone and another for Hindus alone. The founding fathers of India, in contrast — Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, Azad — all felt this was a wrong prescription, that India could be a successful secular state that accommodated all religions, and argued that this is why partition was a bad idea. This prescription worked well for 70 years. But now Indians, by and large, have rejected secularism – a point not lost on PM Modi who, in his victory speech on the 23rd, proudly said that in this entire election campaign, not one person had the guts to say the word “secularism.”

Mr. Modi is a very smart man politically. He knows what is at stake here, and what the BJP is fighting for. And he knows they have achieved their objective.

The Congress understood this shift in the Indian polity, but its response — an attempt to reinvent itself as a soft Hindutva party — was destined to fail. In Tamil, there is a saying that translates to “selling halwa to Tirunelveli.” Tirunelveli is a town in Tamil Nadu that is very famous for its halwa (a sweet). So selling halwa to a person from Tirunelveli is a metaphor used when you are trying to compete with an expert in the topic he is already an expert in. There is no way on earth the Congress could have competed with the BJP on Hindutva and won — the BJP practically invented the term.

Some may say the Congress won in Kerala using soft Hindutva, especially in its position on Sabarimala. But Kerala is a very different state from the rest of India. Hindus, Muslims, and Christians have been living in harmony in Kerala from the time of the Arab seafarers and Vasco da Gama. It has never been invaded by Muslim invaders. So what works in Kerala will not work in the rest of India. Sabarimala was more of an issue of Kerala culture than of gender equality under the law. The fact is that although the SC verdict was legally correct, the people of Kerala really did not care about it. The ban on menstruating women was a tradition that had to be respected in Keralite society. And the Congress understood this.

Concluding Thoughts

So where does all this leave the Congress – and India? The Congress Party has clearly no future in present-day India. It is not about Rahul Gandhi’s leadership. Many other parties have a clear ethnic basis for their existence. But not the Congress and its offshoots, such as the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) of Sharad Pawar, which also lost heavily in this election. The writing is on the wall for another Congress Party offshoot, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) of Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, where the BJP made astounding inroads this election. And why is this? Because all of these parties are secular. And secularism has become a dirty word in India today. The BJP even made inroads in Telangana, which has a Chief Minister, K. Chandrashekhar Rao (KCR), who is always traveling on pilgrimages, spends public money on renovating private temples, and spends public money on conducting “yagnas” for the long life of his government. That's because there is a difference between Hinduism and Hindutva. KCR is a devout Hindu. But it is not enough to show that you are deeply religious in today's India. You have to be seen as capable of putting the fear of God in the Muslims. That is Hindutva - Hindu majoritarianism. And KCR cannot afford to do that (or thinks he cannot afford to do that) because Telangana has a large Muslim minority whose support he believes he needs to win elections. The BJP, in contrast, believes it does not need a single Muslim vote to win an election — because 80% always trumps 14%.

Secularism has been comprehensively rejected by the people of India in the last five years. And the result is that the Congress Party has lost its moorings. It cannot try to ape the BJP and become a Hindu party, no matter how many pilgrimages Rahul or Tharoor do. Because, as I said above, it is not enough to show that you are a devout Hindu. You must also show that you are capable of frightening the Muslims so that they can be “put in their place.” It requires an ability to be silent when people lynch Muslims in broad daylight, with full video recording of the act, and pretend that the murder never occurred. And since the Congress cannot bring itself to do this, it will die, because it is this kind of “toughness” that the people of India want — a hard, ruthless, unbending attitude towards Muslims. Narendra Modi’s dream of a “Congress-mukt Bharat” (A Congress-free India) will become a reality very soon. But Modi has succeeded not just in killing the Congress party; he has succeeded in destroying the very foundations of the nation that Gandhi and Nehru built. If Gandhi or Nehru had been alive today, they would have been denounced as anti-nationals. And there is no point in blaming Modi or the BJP for this degeneration of values. They are only doing what the people of India want. They have learned, sooner and better than others, that a tough and ruthless attitude towards minorities is necessary if one is to win elections in India comprehensively. Just look at the high-profile lynchings of Muslims that have happened in the past five years — Mohammad Akhlaque, Pehlu Khan, Afrazul, Junaid Khan — think of how many BJP leaders publicly supported these killings; and then think of the fact that the overall vote share of the BJP has jumped from 31% in 2014 to 37.4% in 2019. If the people of India were repelled by these murders, they certainly did not show their disgust at the ballot box.

India appears all set to become a Hindu nation. The wish to transform India from a secular to a Hindu nation has been clearly articulated by several BJP leaders in the last five years, and no one should be in doubt. Most of today's BJP leaders have been raised in the RSS, which considers the secular Constitution of India an insult to Hinduism and to Hindus. They have said so publicly too many times to recount. Several BJP MPs, such as Anant Kumar Hegde, have publicly said that the Constitution should be changed. Modi himself has been a lifelong pracharak of the RSS, and there is no reason to think that he differs with his colleagues on this matter.

All that stands between them and their dream is numbers. To change the Constitution to make India a Hindu-majority state, you need a 2/3rds majority in the Lok Sabha, a 2/3rds majority in the Rajya Sabha, and the approval of 50% of the states. With 350 seats in the NDA, the coalition is only marginally short of a 2/3rds majority of the total strength of the house (543), which is 358. After this resounding victory, more allies will join the NDA, and the BJP will have the requisite 2/3rds majority in the Lok Sabha. The Rajya Sabha will be reconstituted in 2020 and 2022, since 1/3rd of its members are replaced every 2 years. Given that the BJP controls most of the state legislatures, a 2/3rds majority in the Rajya Sabha will also be achieved by 2022 at the latest. The BJP already has governments in most of the states, so getting 50% of the states to approve the amendment is easy.

Some will point out that there is something known as a “basic structure doctrine” of the Constitution that will prevent this. But I will simply remind them that the Judiciary, too, come from the same mass of Indians, and they, too, have been infected with the same Hindutva virus. If you have doubts about this, think of this election. The role of the Election Commission is to ensure a free and fair election. And yet, this was the most biased Election Commission in history. Every complaint against Mr. Modi and Mr. Shah was summarily dismissed, and opposition leaders were being pulled up for minor offenses. So if the Election Commission, which is supposed to keep elections free and fair, will not properly discharge its duties, why do you feel that the Supreme Court, which should protect the Constitution from being tampered with, will do the right thing as we see it? Remember that these are all judgment calls: what constitutes an element of the basic structure is a matter of interpretation. If the government proposes a bill to amend the Constitution, somebody will definitely challenge it. Then it is up to the SC to decide if the amendment is violative of the basic structure doctrine. If the SC then decides it is not, then there can be no further challenge. If a hate speech that is clearly violative of the Model Code of Conduct can be given a clean chit, then so can a Constitutional Amendment that is violative of the basic structure doctrine. People should at least now give up their naivete.

And so India, by 2022, will become a Hindu rashtra. There will not be much outcry about this, because a majority of Indians have voted for this. They will say that they did not vote for a Hindu rashtra, but for Swacch Bharat or Ujwala or whatever. But they were under no illusions that this was the intent of the BJP - several MPs and MLAs have made it very obvious that if they returned to power, they would make India a Hindu rashtra. So you may have voted for Modi because you think he will make India a “vishwa guru,” but you also ignored the clear signal that the BJP intends to make India a Hindu rashtra — it was not important enough for you. Some liberals will shout until they are hoarse when this happens, but it will matter little. I have already written about what this entails for India. And anyone who reads that will realize that even many of those who are celebrating today will mourn in a few years. But they will only learn through bitter experience.

And, as for me, I now know that there is no space for a liberal commentator in India. The problem with Cassandra was that she kept advising the Trojans, even though nobody was listening to her. That only causes pain. Five years of writing about this has not yielded much result for me. I have only managed to convert one person in five years to my point of view – and that is one more than most liberal commentators can boast of doing. I spent so much energy on my blog and on social media because I hoped to help avoid the eventual transformation of India into a Hindu state. But now I see that it is inevitable, and am giving up my struggle. It will not change who I am as a person, but clearly speaking about this has not helped in changing minds. Will I stop posting on social media? I don’t know, I still might through force of habit, but eventually you can only bang your head on a concrete wall until it starts hurting. But the fight has gone out of me, because I realize that what is coming in a few years is inevitable. Our last chance was the 2019 election, and now it is over.

One thing I must mention is that in many ways, India’s rightward tilt was inevitable — after all, this is a global phenomenon. From Erdogan to Trump to Brexit to the AdF in Germany to the neo-Nazis in Austria, the right has been gaining ascendancy everywhere. And there is a reason for that.

Right-wingers unite very easily, and they operate very cohesively. It is very easy to get 10 million people to like a toxic and hateful post that targets minorities on the basis of outright lies. The post may be badly written and badly composed — this is often seen in India where English is not the first language of many of the people who post this. But nobody cares. Every right-winger cooperates in spreading the message. Right-wingers in any country do not worry about differences of opinion. If I hate someone, and you hate someone else, it doesn’t matter. We’ll add him or her to our list, too.

But trying to get liberals to share a post is asking for the moon. I know a friend who will not share a post if there is a single typo or grammatical mistake in it. Every liberal has his own fetish. If two liberals agree on 99% of all issues — the economy, environment, trade, helping the homeless, universal health care, acceptance of minorities — you name it, but have a difference of opinion on one issue, say, abortion, one of them might block the other for it. Liberals can be incredibly petty about small differences of opinion. Most of them are highly educated, and fight on largely irrelevant and minor points of difference. And so liberals are never united in their causes, and make easy targets for conservatives, who gloss over such fine details. That is what has happened in India as well.

India is sinking into a deep abyss. Only the people of India, if they can one day get out of this madness in their majoritarian thinking, can change things. That might take a very long time — perhaps decades — Iran is still unable to get out of the control of the mullahs, 40 years after their Islamic revolution. I fervently hope that day will come before I die — if not for me, at least for the next generation.

Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of Dr. Seshadri Kumar alone and should not be construed to mean the opinions of any other person or organization, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the article.

Friday, 26 April 2019

Confessions of a City Slicker: Understanding Land Acquisition in India

Confessions of a City Slicker: Understanding Land Acquisition in India

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 26 April, 2019


Part 1. Childhood to College to America

I was raised a city dweller, never having seen a village in my entire life. In the summers, we would go to my mother's native place, which was a town, not a village. So I had never seen a real Indian village.

Like many Indian middle class kids, I studied engineering after XIIth standard. After four years of engineering in IIT Bombay, my plans were clear — go to the USA for a Masters degree, like two-thirds of my graduating class.

For our convocation, IIT Bombay invited Professor Yash Pal to give the convocation address. Professor Yash Pal was an eminent educationist and scientist, having obtained his PhD in Physics from MIT in 1958. At the time IIT-B invited him, he was Chairman of the University Grants Commission (UGC). Professor Yash Pal had a Padma Bhushan at the time of our convocation; he was later also awarded the Padma Vibhushan. He died in 2017 at the age of 90, after a long and productive life.

The main thing I remember from Prof. Yash Pal's address to us — and I remember it so well because it annoyed me so much at the time — was his suggestion that after obtaining our B.Techs, all of us students should go and serve two years in rural India. He said that we needed to go there to understand the real India, to understand what problems India faced, and to know what solutions it needed.

I was incensed. Here I was, taking steps to “advance” myself, launch myself into the greatest country in the world, and here this man was telling me that I needed to go backwards, to a “bloody village,” a “gaon???” I remember angrily telling my classmates — “who asked this guy to come talk to us? If he loves the villages so much, why doesn't he go live there?”

Like many (most?) city dwellers, I had a certain contempt for villages and agriculture. Even the word “gawar” (meaning villager) was said by us in a voice dripping in contempt. It was customary to address someone who seemed not to be very savvy about things — a fellow-student, for example — as a gawar. Farming to me, then, was something illiterate and uneducated folk did. (Today I know, thanks to some amateurish attempts at growing vegetables in pots, how complex the science of agriculture is, and how much technology is needed to be a successful farmer; but then I was just an ignoramus.)

So I got my advanced degrees in the land of the free and the home of the brave, worked there for several years, and decided to come back to India for personal reasons.

Part 2. Return to India

I took up a job with an MNC in Bangalore, and went around my mission to make money and create a better life for me assiduously (nothing wrong here.) I was still very much a city slicker, and knew little about the realities of life in India's villages.

This went on until 2011, when I finally started getting seriously interested in politics in India, thanks to the Anna Hazare movement. I had always been very interested in politics, from childhood — I used to read the newspaper carefully every day — but after the Anna movement, I started to read everything a bit more carefully and critically. That is when I created my blog and started writing publicly. My express purpose at the start of the blog was to write in support of the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement, though my views have matured a lot since then - I would agree today that the excessive focus on a single person / organization like the Lokpal, with unlimited powers, is probably a misguided and potentially dangerous focus.

I also started getting interested in things like economics for the first time, and in a few years, even started to write on topics connected with economics along with politics. It was then that I started understanding the immensity of India's agricultural sector and the importance of rural India.

But in 2011, this enlightenment was still quite far off. So when Rahul Gandhi introduced the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation, and Resettlement Act (LARR) that year, I criticized it savagely. Why? Because I felt that the clauses in the bill were extremely restrictive and would throttle productivity.

Land Acquisition is one of the major hurdles that delays projects in India. Projects get announced, and then they run into cost and time overruns, with hundreds or thousands of crores of rupees wasted.

What did the LARR do? It greatly increased the compensation to be given to the owners of the land that was acquired for industrial projects. But that was not all. It also put in a mechanism for grievance redressal that would allow people to stop a project if it did not have community support. In the past, the government could use “public interest” (known as eminent domain in the US) to evict villagers from a village and pay them whatever compensation it saw fit. The new bill not only greatly enhanced the compensation and put stringent rules about how to calculate it, but also allowed villagers to stop any project that they felt was against their interest.

I said to myself, now no projects will ever get done. Thanks a lot for ruining India, Rahul Gandhi.

Part 3. Anger

But I had not understood the history behind this decision. For 64 years since independence, India had treated the villages with the same derision that I had for them when I was a fresh IIT graduate. Part of this is the result of the complex dynamic between Gandhian and Nehruvian views of India's future, with the Nehruvian vision winning. Gandhi believed that India lived in its villages. Nehru was a suave, sophisticated urbanite whose vision was focused on the cities; on steel, concrete, and dams; and all the other indicators of modern progress.

And because of this urban vision that won in the battle of ideas, India tended to treat the villagers that came in the path of its urban “development” as nuisances, to be disposed off through “public interest” and a pittance for a payoff. If we wanted a dam, and some pesky villagers’ homes were going to be destroyed, well, that was a small price to pay for progress.

Ok, if you want to be humane, give them more compensation, but let them get the hell out of the land, so that the dam or the factory or the highway can be built! Why were these Luddites, these anti-progress idiots, blocking our paths, we who were aiming to reach the moon, Mars, Jupiter, and the Andromeda galaxy? We who were trying to make India a first world country? Bloody plebians. Why can't they take the money and go? No, they have to organize a dharna, a protest, what have you. Like that irritating troublemaker Medha Patkar.

Having lived an entire life without exposure to rural India endowed me with an astonishing level of apathy and indifference to the real problems and complaints of rural India and its inhabitants. To me, these were just people who were constantly holding us back from reaching higher and farther. The concerns they expressed during their protests were not sincere: they were just excuses from ignorant people who did not understand the great things we were trying to do as a nation. It was much later that I understood the answer to my question: “Why don't they just take the compensation and scoot?”

Part 4. Enlightenment

The answer, of course (which would have been obvious had I thought more carefully about it), is the counter question: “What are they going to do with that compensation money?”

If you have been a farmer all your life, then that really is all you can do. You cannot suddenly become a lathe operator in a factory at age 50 with no training. It is also harder to learn as you get older.

So what? Use the money to buy some land elsewhere, I would have said then. If farming is all you can do, go and farm somewhere else.

Except, who is selling land for you to buy?

Nobody will sell good agricultural land to you in India. And all the good land is already taken. If other farmers sell good land to you, then what are they going to do? They have the same problem as you do - they can do nothing else but farm. So the bottom line is: you cannot buy good agricultural land to replace the one you are being evicted from.

Which means only one thing: you have to give up farming.

Farmers who are forced to give up their land and give up farming end up becoming rootless and aimless. Typically, what happens to these people is that they blow up the fortune that they get through the sale fairly quickly, and end up as alcoholic paupers, who then work as watchmen on the same land that they once used to be masters of. I have personally known of examples of these in Pune's IT corridor in Hinjewadi.

And this is why Rahul Gandhi's LARR bill had the right idea. Communities must be consulted with more widely before their land is taken away from them. It is a life-changing decision, and must involve a negotiation with the buyer and the government on the future of the farmer.

This problem is highlighted with great wit in Douglas Adams’ classic, “The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy,” in which the opening scene has the setup that an advanced alien civilization is building a cosmic highway, and our “backward” Earth happens to be in the path of the highway, and must therefore be destroyed. The aliens then infom Earthlings that our planet has been earmarked for destruction, and so residents of Earth have an extremely limited time period to make alternative arrangements before their planet is completely wiped out.

Sometimes the government gives farmers alternative land tracts to the displaced farmers. But as we have already seen, there is no good agricultural land left; so what the farmers get as compensation is typically worthless land on which nothing can grow.

So, when farmers are persuaded to sell their land, the government must invest in their re-training so that they are able to work in the factories that are coming up on their land. The state must have a commitment to the displaced farmer, to ensure that he can survive after his land is taken away.

And this brings me to the start of this piece. Had I listened to Professor Yash Pal in 1990, and spent two years in a village in India then, it would not have taken me 30 years to understand all this.

Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of Dr. Seshadri Kumar alone and should not be construed to mean the opinions of any other person or organization, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the article.