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A legacy of rage and loss

July 09, 2018

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THEY were showing Lincoln on TV recently, a rerun of Steven Spielberg’s riveting 2012 film on the last few crisis-ridden months of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency when the politics of hope triumphs over the remains of a bloody civil war. The film focuses on the 13th amendment, the historic legislation abolishing slavery in the US, that the president pushes through a deeply divided House of Representatives. Abolishing slavery by constitutional provisions was to settle not just “the fate of the millions now in bondage, but of unborn millions to come”.

It is an uplifting film that uses Lincoln’s powerful speeches, his fondness for telling stories and quoting Shakespeare to paint a compelling portrait of a politician who looked into the future and did what was right. However risky it was politically, he had the courage to speak forthrightly, in the most desperate hour of the nation’s history, blaming both sides for the Civil War and for profiting from slavery. But then, Lincoln was a statesman thinking of the next generation and not the next election as most politicians do. His concern was to ensure a decisive end to the war and to stop the Union from breaking up.

Watching Lincoln which was airing around the time the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party was marking its four years in power was to enjoy a brief respite from the unpleasant reality of politics at home where the ruling party is set on exactly the opposite trajectory to the one that 16th president of the US set himself on. It was “to bind up the nation’s wounds, with malice towards none, with charity for all”. The BJP under Narendra Modi has shown little regard for binding the country together or setting aside the malice that has been the hallmark of its political ideology. Instead, it has continued to fan communal hatreds and to exploit the many fault lines of Indian democracy in its singular obsession for power.

Power at any cost has been the driving force of the Modi regime, leaving the nation volatile and fearful.

Since it swept to power at the centre in 2014, Modi has been in overdrive to expand the party footprint across the country in all the states where elections have been in the past four years. The unstated principle is power at any cost, no matter the harm caused to the polity or the damage inflicted on democratic institutions and norms. Never before has a prime minister campaigned as relentlessly as Modi has in state elections, not even skipping by-elections to launch his no-holds barred attacks on the opposition, attacks that have been marked by rhetorical excess and factual misrepresentations.

It was Asia Times, a Hong Kong-based English-language news organisation that came up with a startling figure: that Modi had spent 15 months of his four years in office travelling abroad and to different states. Of this, 313 days were taken up by domestic travel, mostly for electioneering. That’s a revealing statistic on the priorities of the BJP and the prime minister. Development naturally has taken a back seat.

In state after state, the BJP election juggernaut, led by Modi and his trusted aide, Amit Shah, the party president, has brazenly cast aside democratic norms in its single-minded pursuit of power. And so it formed governments in 21 of the 29 states, even if it did not win a respectable number of the seats much less the required number for a majority. Compliant governors and acquiescent arms of the state helped its march as did once autonomous institutions which have been compromised. And so did an enervated opposition that was fumbling till recently for a strategy to match the resourcefulness of the BJP.

Perhaps, power alone was the goal of the party since it is hard to find any achievement of substance. However, in the adrenalin-filled times that India lives in, where dissent can be dangerous and an overwhelming sense of sycophancy pervades the establishment and especially its cheerleading media, it would seem that the Modi regime has wrought major changes. Even foreign policy disasters and the anarchic demonetisation have been hailed as remarkable achievements that changed India’s profile at home and abroad. The most cringe-inducing report card came from the editor-in-chief of a leading media group who wrote unblushingly that he did not “recall any other government that has been so proactive in launching reforms or schemes”.

More than the claims were the omissions in the report cards issued by experts and the media, all of which concentrated on the economic issues or on foreign policy initiatives. Not many, if at all any, dwelt on the social costs of the regime’s polarising and divisive strategies. With the BJP and allies in power in the majority of states, the network of Hindutva organisations spawned by its ideological parent, the Hindu supremacist RSS, are being allowed a free run spreading fear and unease as they set out to erase the idea of a secular India.

The leitmotif of the times is the sword, and rage, whipped up by communal propaganda and polarising politics, appears to be the dominant emotion. Lynch mobs are galvanised at a moment’s notice, no longer needing the excuse of cow protection to kill and brutalise unsuspecting people. While so far Muslims and Dalits were the targets of these public outbursts of rage, now almost anyone is fair game as mobs strike with deadly frequency. An investigation by the Indian Express newspaper revealed a chilling pattern. The victims of the lynchings are usually migrants and the killers are mostly jobless young people or daily-wage workers. As a country with the largest number of young people in the workforce — half of its population of 1.3 billion is below the age of 25 and two-thirds less than 35 years — Modi has his work cut out for him to provide a substantial number of jobs before he approaches the electorate in May 2019 for another term in office.

Modi is no political neophyte. He has been in power for 16 years, 12 as chief minister of Gujarat. At the centre he has enjoyed untrammelled power, unfettered by a cabinet that has been rendered voiceless and almost invisible. As Lincoln said a long time ago, men can stand adversity but to test a man’s character give him power. One wonders what kind a report card he would have given Modi.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, July 9th, 2018