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(First published on September 12th, 2020)

When coronavirus panic struck the world, populist leaders in many countries were averse to shutting down the economy. On the one side there was the myth of strongman mystique, on the other a genuine concern for the financial wellbeing of an average citizen. For a while, it seemed India’s Modi would go down the same route. There is no dearth of gimmickry in Modi’s India and the culminating point of his requested “Janata curfew” (people’s curfew) where citizens were asked to beat and clang pots and pans from their balconies brought this reality home. The event was full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. But then something shifted and the government announced the lockdown. And one harsh lockdown it was. It was plain that no homework was done. Millions of economic migrants left stranded had to travel hundreds of miles on foot to their villages. As videos of their suffering trickled in a friend wondered what kind of leader would inflict such misery upon his own people. If the taste of the pudding is in its eating it is plain that these measures did not stop the spread of Covid. The only thing the Indian shutdown hampered was the Indian economy.

But this was not the first time Modi had put his people through such an ordeal. One fine morning, during his first tenure, Modi came up with the bright idea of banning the 500 and the 1,000 rupees notes. Since the entire scheme was hatched in the name of seizing black money, stealth was necessary. Consequently, no one had prior knowledge. Banks had not prepared to keep their ATM machines well supplied. The replacement would take time to be printed. When your economy, mostly rural, depends on hard cash and you delegitimise 82% of the country’s legal tender in circulation this is bound to lead to widespread anguish. India’s bourses fell by 6%, the economy also contracted in the long term. Poor people died waiting in long queues. But there were no consequences for Modi or his government. As if the people of India had simply given up.

Two more examples. Although it is not correct to call Kashmiri people Indian citizens as the Indian union has made its hatred of Kashmiris quite plain, the manner in which the lockdown in the state was imposed on the eve of the abolition of Article 370 highlights a pattern. Come up with a Quixotic plan in the name of national security, impose it without any preparation or wiggle room for the local populace and leave them to their own devices. In Kashmir, the citizens were forced to stay indoors without much provisions or communication. And this shutdown continues in one shape or the other even after over 400 days of its start. What happens to the common man cooped up in his house is not Modi’s concern.

When Assam updated the National Register of Citizens (NRC) some two million (mostly from poor and minority communities) were rendered stateless. At the time it was stated that these people would be provided legal recourse through Foreigners Tribunals. Later it transpired that many ideologically charged xenophobes were being engaged to head the tribunals. But despite that and after over one year of the announcement of the list, those left out have not been provided rejection slips which are mandatory to approach a bench for review. And in the middle came the pandemic and floods. The suffering of the poor and vulnerable is unimaginable. But instead of being moved by their suffering Modi’s home minister had promised he would replicate the model across the country and to enforce a nationwide NRC they also got a Citizen Amendment Act passed from parliament. Again, zero consequences.

Today we know that in comparison to the same quarter last year the Indian economy has shrunk by 23.9% and this contraction would continue for at least six quarters. Meanwhile, the Covid-19 infection rate has surpassed that of Brazil and India is now second after the US. Modi’s so-called muscular policy in Kashmir has heated border disputes with China and Pakistan. His disregard for sentiments of close regional allies like Bangladesh and Afghanistan (evidently because of the NRC and CAA) has alienated the governments and citizens there. His continued bullying has even forced the once only Hindu kingdom in the world (in 2015 it adopted a new secular constitution for which India punished it dearly), Nepal is forced to confront Delhi. So how does one remain in power despite such ineptness and open display of incompetence?

The first answer lies in the nature of the Indian state. Unlike other South Asian countries, the Indian state has always been significantly richer than its people. The fact that there are approximately 1.4 billion citizens means the state treats the poor and the backward as expendables. When some politician throws some morsels at them, he/she expects total worship. In a deeply stratified society, the poor have reconciled to this fate. This callousness is systemic.

But Modi government’s arrogance and propaganda methods can put Goebbels to shame. It now has the Indian media and Supreme Court in its pocket. No other democratic country can boast of the ruling party’s absolute control of major media outlets. Consider how craven the media is when at the time of such huge stories like the economic meltdown, widespread distress and worst relations with all its neighbours, the Indian media is busy magnifying an actor’s suicide and arrest of a woman allegedly involved. When election came, an Indian film actor was found asking Modi how he preferred to eat mangoes instead of substantive questions about policy in a televised interview.

But that’s not all. Only the media cannot get Modi this kind of power. Granted that almost all these media outlets are owned by a few businessmen who have remained chief beneficiaries of Modi’s rule. Granted that during the elections shady financial pipelines were created to ensure Modi’s party gets huge sums both from home and abroad in lieu of campaign finance without much accountability. But even that is not enough.

Many branches of these businesses abroad are fronts or shills for India’s intelligence foreign operations. You may notice that while intelligence agencies around the world including the CIA, Mossad and the ISI often come under discussion in media, there is hardly any mention of India’s premier intel agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), or for that matter any other. When a blind spot of this magnitude emerges, it can mean only either of the two things. First, that the agency in question is totally inept. Untrue. Two, it is deeply entrenched. Remember, Ajit Doval’s “Defensive Offense” speech only months before the 2014 elections? That was a pitch to this powerful community for 10 years of power sharing arrangement. Total support abroad to shape and reshape the world order while letting us do whatever we want at home. The Indian deep state started with trying to make the clash of civilisations thesis a reality. Now it is busy investing heavily in the rise of far-right elements both at home and abroad. Sadly, Indians have been thrown to the wolves in exchange.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 12th, 2020.

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