Ledger book of Modi’s tenure

Published December 28, 2021
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

AAKAR Patel’s book on Narendra Modi took me to an acerbic poem by Gorakh Pandey, JNU’s resident Marxist poet from the anti-Emergency struggle of 1975-77. The pithy lines uncannily capture the spirit of Patel’s survey of PM Modi’s resounding incompetence and undiscussed failures on key fronts, juxtaposed with a divisive and potentially doomed project called Hindu rashtra. Pandey died in harness as student activist at JNU, some 45 years before the book would be published.

The 488-page tome — Price of the Modi Years — is an archival work with detailed notes and cross-referenced accounts of the prime minister’s shortcomings against core challenges. A veteran journalist from Modi’s home state of Gujarat, Patel led India’s chapter of Amnesty International before the unit shut shop following harassment by the new order.

Pandey pithily described post-truth India, anchored as it was (and still is) by a shamelessly servile media. “Raja bola raat hai/ Rani boli raat hai/ Mantri bola raat hai/ Santri bola raat hai/ Ye subah subah ki baat hai!” (The king said it was night. The queen adlibbed it was night. The minister and the sentry agreed with their majesties, and affirmed it was night. The exchange took place this morning.) The Indian media, barring obvious exceptions, has been conducting, under Modi’s watch, a repeat of its timid and mostly indulgent showing from Mrs Gandhi’s Emergency. Of which Hindutva’s own L.K. Advani would say: “Journalists were asked to bend, and they chose to crawl.”

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The abject surrender and unabashed fudging undermined a truer picture of the Emergency then, as it does today with Hindutva’s moves to supplant India’s secular, democratic state with a majoritarian supremacist theocratic one. Upright journalists did make up for the media’s poor showing by writing their exposés of the Emergency as books. They are doing it with Modi’s tenure too.

Pandey pithily described post-truth India, anchored as it was — and still is — by a shamelessly servile media.

Patel’s is an exceptional work in this realm. The cover of the book is damning to begin with. The main graphics depict Modi’s abysmal performance since 2014. The plunging indices straddle democracy, human development index, individual rights, rule of law, press freedom, women’s safety, prosperity, civil liberties, corruption, social cohesion et al. Modi sees himself as hard on terrorism. Patel cites examples to call out the exaggeration.

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Six months after the Gujarat pogroms, there was a terror assault on a Hindu temple in which 30 worshippers and security men were killed. Two alleged cross-border gunmen were shot dead. In the probe supervised by Modi who additionally held the home minister’s portfolio, six men were arrested and tried. Three were handed capital punishment and the rest jail. The Gujarat high court for its own reasons heard the appeal in camera. The matter went to the supreme court. Somehow, the apex court’s angry censure came on the day Modi won the May 2014 election, and the verdict, according to Patel, was buried. What did the court say?

Acquitting all the men, it stated: “Before parting with the judgement, we intend to express our anguish about the incompetence with which the investigating agencies conducted the investigation of the case of such a grievous nature, involving the integrity and security of the nation. Instead of booking the real culprits responsible for taking so many precious lives, the police caught innocent people and imposed grievous charges against them, which resulted in their conviction and subsequent sentencing.” Patel dons his Amnesty cap here to quote faithfully from page 280 of the judgement.

It’s anybody’s guess what may be happening in Modi’s tenure as prime minister, particularly with regard to the so-called terror cases. The mind naturally turns here to human rights workers, public intellectuals, outspoken journalists, even stand-up comedians facing the wrath of a wilful establishment. Of the shoddiness of the prosecution case, notes Patel: “The bumbling goes on and on. The Gujarat police had a handwriting expert — J.J. Patel — who verified the Urdu handwriting of the accused, while admitting he knew no Urdu and could not tell Arabic from Persian.”

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On civil liberties, pluralism, political culture and electoral process, Patel quotes The Economist Intelligence Unit’s ‘Democracy Index’. India slid from 27 in rank in 2014 to 53 in 2020. Other embarrassing ratings are cited on this score, reaffirming how India fell under Modi’s watch.

On the economic front, too, Modi’s performance set off a drop in India’s ranking. See the World Economic Forum’s Global Economic Competitiveness study. India dropped by 28 places from 40 in 2017 to 68 in 2020. Other indices from renowned agencies affirmed the conclusion. Thomson Reuters Foundation in its report on the world’s most dangerous countries for women, lists discrimination, healthcare, sexual violence, non-sexual violence, cultural traditions and human trafficking as parameters. India dropped four places from number four in 2011 to number one in 2018, “to become the most dangerous place for women, behind Pakistan, Congo, Somalia and Afghanistan”.

Home Minister Amit Shah claimed recently how under Mr Modi the Indian passport had gained respect. Patel quotes the Henley Passport Index to challenge the claim. Indian passports fell in global ranking from 74 in 2013 to 85 in 2021, a fall by 11 places. Reasons cited showed how few nations give Indian nationals visa-free access. In the air quality index, there were 11 Indian cities in the top 30 most polluted in 2017. They increased to 22 in 2020.

As the fawning media goes gaga over ‘Moditva’ and ‘Modinomics’, Patel says Modi himself has never defined the terms. “We are left with a series of mantras offered as acronyms and alliterations through which he has on several occasions pronounced his ideas.” A couple of acronyms may be recalled from the book: 5Ts — talent, tradition, tourism, trade and technology; 3Ds — democracy, discipline, decisiveness. Gorakh Pandey would be smiling heartily at the book’s robust challenge to India’s drift towards a post-truth nation.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.


Published in Dawn, December 28th, 2021


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