Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The political weather is turning: BJP gets the chills

The BJP has squandered its massive mandate and is playing a blame game

(Published on October 7, 2017 in Business Standard)

The weather in Delhi is finally turning, as is public opinion in India. The bluster and gloating are gone. Three and a half years into the Modi government, those who never liked the BJP are furious and openly derisive. Those who wanted to give it a chance have lost patience, and are openly derisive. Traders and shop owners, core BJP constituents, practically spit their disappointment, and are openly derisive. Social media is openly derisive. Even the shouty trolls have gone quiet.

On Dussehra, Prime Minister Modi provided the perfect visual metaphor for why this is so: He raised a bow to shoot an arrow into the effigy of Ravan, failed twice, then just threw the arrow a lame couple of feet. A grand set-up for an embarrassing flop. The cartoons just draw themselves.

The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) seems to have squandered its massive political mandate. Rampaging all over the electoral map off a springboard of public opinion made of similar disappointment and derision aimed at the UPA, it set itself up as a soaring, decisive doer. But the perception was more PR than substance, and the government’s least controversial achievement has been to prove that. It has punctured its own overinflated image with a spectacular set of unforced errors.

Nobody forced the government to promise us Rs 15 lakh each, then snigger that that was just election gimmickry. Nobody forced Modi to wear a wildly expensive suit monogrammed with his own name. Nobody forced the BJP to use photoshop and fake images to manufacture fake credit. Nobody put a gun to its head to appoint prehistoric sexist moralists to states and certification boards and universities.

Nobody forced its silence over horrific lynchings of Muslims and Dalits, making beef the huge livelihood-destroying issue that it now is. The government decided to drape Mohammad Akhlaq’s murderer in the tricolour. No one forced it to treat protesting students like criminals, or threaten Pakistan on national television. Nobody made it force Aadhaar down the throats of unwilling citizens. Nobody told it to jettison a competent RBI governor. Nobody forced it to start dictating citizens’ dinner plates, culture, dress, religious, and sexual habits. Nobody made it turn nationalism into a bigot’s weapon. Nobody asked it to trample science under superstition and religion, or turn institutes of learning into Hindutva finishing schools. 

Nobody asked it to force digital transactions on a nation where bank access, data connectivity, and electricity are partial at best. Nobody asked it to force-feed children rewritten textbooks filled with lies. Nobody pressured it into massaging data repackaging old schemes with new names as never-before misrepresenting their impact and effect.
And the Prime Minister is solely and wholly responsible for the unnecessary, cruelly incompetent bullet in India’s economic heart that was demonetisation. He is responsible for rolling out GST in the cumbersome, chaotic manner that is oppressing many businesses.

Having first successfully discredited and marginalised its critics, the government is now blaming the sour national mood on ‘panic’ spread by ‘pessimists’. It blames citizens for not creating their own jobs. It is trying to find scapegoats. But it has only itself to blame for dragging the country into an economic quagmire, poisoning social relations, infecting administration with religion, and snuffing out talent and progress with regressive orthodoxy and destructive hubris.

The truth is that this government is made of people with a talent deficit and an ego surplus, peddling a tiny-minded vision consisting of vainglorious dreams built on sand, hot air, empty gestures, and overlarge statues. It’s like a shaky, tinsel-draped billboard on poles stuck in the mud, advertising a five-star hotel. The words that stick to it are ‘jumla’ and ‘feku’. A skilled actor and clever lighting can only take a useless script so far—the play is still lousy.

Today, servile television channels masquerading as news keep huge farmers’ protests off the air and hammer at the opposition; people are working harder at fewer jobs to afford less; and people wish their daughters could grow up elsewhere. Meanwhile, crony capitalism is thriving. Is it any wonder that even those voters who ignore or approve of the BJP’s vile Hindutva agenda, are fed up with its economic incompetence? Is it a surprise that consumer confidence has crashed? People look at the endless boastful claims, then look around them, and see the disconnect. 

You can, as they say, fool all of the people some of the time; and some of the people all of the time; but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. The last government was deeply flawed, smug, and infuriatingly corrupt, but on a steadily progressive path. This one inspires only international editorials warning of regressiveness and illiberality.

Yes, the weather is turning. We can all agree to blame the climate.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

What about 2019?

We need an Opposition with a clear vision

(Published on September 23, 2017 in Business Standard)

In the merry storm of democracy, political winners and losers trade places constantly by design. It’s such a busy two-way street that it’s creepy when traffic suddenly goes one way. Seeing the country one-sidedly in Bharatiya Janata Party hands makes you miss the annoying days of coalition politics, not so long ago, when decision-making was fraught, but then again, nobody got too big for their boots. 

The thrust and parry of gaining and retaining power takes up so much national headspace that we often forget about the power of vision. In 2014 the United Progressive Alliance failed to articulate a vision, or no longer had one. The BJP has vision in spades. It is of a Hindu chauvinist nation that privileges religion, reactionary cultural values, and national pride via material prosperity and loud Hindu cheering. While many voters related to this and still do, many others flocked to its promises of development and no corruption, thinking that these could be cherry-picked from the larger vision. 

They can’t. Buy one BJP development, get one RSS control freak problem free. Development mainly spends its time inspecting our underwear and censoring art, breathing down our data, lecturing us about lifestyles and morals, reducing education and media to propaganda, destroying the economy, glorifying anti-intellectualism, propping up shabby right-wing icons to erase established national figures, sacralising tradition and military to replace debate with nervous compliance, throwing individual rights under a homogenous social bus, and forcing all this with legislation—or force, if need be.

Some promises were insincere ploys; others, like jobs and economic growth, are unravelling scarily. Corruption has disappeared only from the front pages of newspapers. Hatred and fake news run high. Disillusioned voters are now waking up to the toxicity of the BJP vision. But the question is, understandably, Who else? There is no articulated alternative out there today, just shades of same-same.

Many regional parties hold their ground, but the only pan-Indian opposition party is stuck in the quicksand of public opinion as a dinosaur steered by a loser. The BJP wiped any memory of any good the UPA government did, by relentlessly reminding us of its infuriating second-term record of inefficiency and corruption. It so successfully mainstreamed a portrait of Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi as a debauch and idiot that, between noise and peer pressure, it’s now uncool to point out that he is neither.

(The BJP itself is aware that he is neither. When Rahul made a smart move recently by speaking to less brainwashed audiences and media in the US, and got positive press and social media feedback for it, the Indian government reacted by sending an army of spokespeople into television studios to freshen up the paint on the duffer-loser cutout. If he’s a joke to them, it’s not a funny one.)

Today, social media is savaging the once unassailable Prime Minister and his pushy, incompetent government. There has never been a greater opportunity, and need, for an Opposition to go on the offensive. Yet the Congress has failed to step up, and Rahul is still seen as a malingerer in political purgatory, mocked for his presence and pilloried for his absences. If the party is to fight back, it has to rectify three great weaknesses: It needs to rethink, rebuild, and recommit to a coherent, articulate vision; find a leader who can and wants to lead with the energy of a startup captain; and fix its crappy communications strategy. It cannot look like the Congress of 2013.

But forget the Congress. Whichever the party, whatever the coalition, whoever its head, India needs a viable opposition. Voters deserve one. Democracy requires one. We need an alternative that people want, not just an anti-vote.

As a citizen I know the vision I want to vote for. I want a party that overtly stands for the Constitution of India—that emulsifier that holds together all our various differences and stands by each individual Indian. Today, it’s just a piece of paper they use to swear in bigots. I want an Opposition that isn’t BJP Lite, that will make the Constitution their mission, and run a countrywide campaign to publicise it and remind Indians of their rights and responsibilities. I want a party that will weave into every specific promise, the democratic, egalitarian, just, humanistic, inclusive, pluralistic, secular values that we give to ourselves in that document. I want a party that puts health, education, jobs, and law enforcement at the top of its agenda. A party that takes on corruption like it means it, builds itself through merit and expertise, thinks out of the box, and never forgets that it is in power to serve, not rule. That party would stand strongly and clearly in opposition to what we’ve got now. 

That party would give the BJP a scare in 2019.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Gauri Lankesh and the culture of impunity

The hallmark of this Rashtra is, and will be, impunity, from top to bottom

(Published on September 09, 2017 in Business Standard)

Last Tuesday was a terrible, difficult night, when news broke that outspoken Kannadiga journalist Gauri Lankesh had been murdered in Bengaluru. Lankesh was not in a conflict zone, or a riot, or a hostage crisis, or in any of the other dangerous situations that journalists often encounter. She was doing what working people do—coming home in the evening, parking, maybe fiddling with keys, maybe looking forward to some food and rest. It was in this most banal of urban commuter moments that she was executed at point blank range.

The impunity of the act is shocking. Should it have been so easy?

Everyone is at pains to stress that we do not know, yet, who killed this fiercely anti-RSS, anti-Hindutva, secular, liberal journalist-activist and publisher. This is true.

But we do know that on social media, the people who howled with glee and gloated over her death seemed to belong entirely to one side of the political spectrum. We do know that the BJP has not issued a clear, strong condemnation of it, saying instead that liberals are entitled to be upset, but what about RSS workers in Kerala? We do know that there is a concerted effort to float the idea that the comrades themselves did it. BJP MLA Jeevaraj has gone so far as to say that if Lankesh hadn’t written about the RSS, she might have been alive today—a pretzel of a statement that both openly threatens dissidence, and takes credit for what the RSS and the BJP are assiduously denying. We do know that Lankesh’s brother Indrajit, who claims both that she was never threatened, and that it was Naxalites who threatened her, aspires to join the BJP.

We do know that this woman fit, to a tee, the description of those who are constantly vilified by right wing forces, including by self-declared journalists and media channels who serve as government public relations retainers.

I was grief-stricken and sleepless for much of Tuesday night, and enraged thereafter—and I didn’t even know Gauri Lankesh. Her family, friends, and colleagues will bear this trauma forever. Whether they knew her or not, many journalists and writers, also struggling with shock and grief, feel a coldness on their own necks. Yet, nothing disperses the chill of fear like the warmth of anger, and Lankesh’s murder has infuriated the press corps, sparking protests all over the country, and spurring many journalists to rededicate themselves to the integrity and courage that the profession demands. One can only hope that this anger will translate into the kind of united effort that is increasingly going to be necessary to defend freedom of expression and democracy.

There has been much heated argument on the question of ‘balance’ in these polarised times. Should firebrand activist Shehla Rashid have asked the Republic reporter to ‘get out’ at the Press Club protest? Are protests over Lankesh’s death meaningless unless protesters have also spoken for slain RSS workers? Should the debate be focused on the Karnataka government’s pursuit of justice, and not on the long-standing and far-reaching effects of social engineering? Is shutting down hate-mongering social media handles compatible with free speech?

I submit that this is now a smokescreen of hair-splitting, and that we are long past splitting hairs. We will, in time, see justice for Gauri Lankesh—or we won’t, as we didn’t in the similar execution-style murders of Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, and MM Kalburgi. There will be more fear, more executions. There will be endless sickening finessing and justification and deflection to so-called liberal hypocrisy. There will be more discrediting of media and more lies popularised on Whatsapp.

I submit that we are not ‘in danger of becoming’ a Hindu Rashtra, the dearest dream of the RSS-BJP combine. We are there. Today, right now, we are a baby Hindu Rashtra taking its first messy, unsteady steps. This is what it looks like. Nurtured by hard-core supporters, but also by fence-sitters, the naive, and the wilfully blind, it will very soon lose its baby dimples to become much bigger, much stronger, and much, much uglier.

The hallmark of this Rashtra is, and will be, impunity—from top to bottom, from government policy to street murder. You see it already in the clumsy attempt to force-feed us Aadhaar; in demonetisation; in lynchings; in interference into cultural and personal freedoms. You see it already in the vilification of minorities, in the brazen rubbish being fed to children as history, in the unabashed propaganda sent out as ‘general knowledge’, and in the welding together of state and religion. Here’s a prediction: You will see it in changes to the Constitution of India.

Indian democracy is in the fight of its life. And if you think this is alarmist nonsense, you are helping it happen.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Puttaswamy vs Union of India: The power of one

The right to privacy judgment reinstates the individual as VIP 

(Published on August 26, 2017 in Business Standard)

On Thursday, August 24, a nine-judge Supreme Court bench delivered a unanimous verdict upholding privacy as a fundamental right intrinsic to Article 21, the right to life and personal liberty. You cannot possibly overstate the importance of this judgment. If you don’t like detail, just eyeball its magnitude by counting the number of pages it took up in your Friday morning newspaper. I counted eight pages in mine.

Sounds nuts, right? It’s 2017. Do you have the slightest doubt that privacy is fundamental to living your life in peace? And yet, until now it has never been legally spelled out, even as privacy is being battered by governments and corporations who see leverage and money in ever more access to your personal life. 

Hearing Justice K S Puttaswamy’s petition for a fundamental right to privacy was made urgent by another Supreme Court petition challenging the government’s attempt to forcibly link PAN and Aadhaar numbers. The petitioners argued that collecting, sharing, selling, or using biodata, mandatorily and without consent, violates bodily integrity, informational self-determination, and personal autonomy. They were barred from arguing on grounds of privacy, because the government insisted that there is no such thing, and that the 9-judge bench hearing that matter should first come to a decision.

In fact the government took an obnoxious anti-people, anti-rights legal stand, arguing that the idea of privacy is bogus, that the Constitution deliberately left it out, that Indians don’t need privacy because they tell their life stories within five minutes to strangers on a train, that the poor don’t care about privacy and are too backward to deserve it, that it’s an elitist concern, that it impedes transparency and social justice. It argued that making privacy a fundamental right would open a flood of litigation.

Damn straight it will.

This judgment is, of course, a much-needed boost for those challenging Aadhaar while the government and its cheerleaders sing loud hosannas to an intrusive data raj in the name of prosperity and national security. Keep your eye on those hearings, good people, if you oppose legal sanction for state surveillance and non-consensual data access. 

But Justice K S Puttaswamy (Retd) vs Union of India is not a judgment so much as a legal earthquake. It explicitly overturns the infamous 1976 ADM Jabalpur ruling which allowed Articles 20 and 21 to be suspended in a situation of Emergency. (Historical frisson: Justice Chandrachud fils overturned Justice Chandrachud père). It places sexual orientation in the realm of privacy, eloquently shredding the illiberal reasoning in the Koushal vs Naz Foundation ruling which junked LGBTQ rights. It is now probable that LGBTQ Indians will win an absolutely foundational victory.

The judgment touches on many things that liberal-minded Indians have been growling about—what we eat and wear, who we love, what we say to whom, what we are forced to do in schools. I’m not a lawyer, but it seems to support challenges to such momentous things as the beef ban, and those who would impose social vetoes on food or thought and expression, and would force religious compliance, social homogeneity, and brute nationalism. 

It is, in sum, a clear, elegant, and rousing reaffirmation of India’s best liberal, rights-based, pluralist, Constitutional values. It comprehensively rejects majoritarianism, restrains the state from overreach and impunity, and reinstates the individual as the autonomous building block of national life, with a “right to be let alone”. 

The judgment dropped on India like one of those faraway mega-tonne bombs that isn’t heard so much as felt as a blast wave. It isn’t yet law; it merely sets the ground for law that the government must now pass. Its contours will continue to evolve on a case-by-case basis. Like all fundamental rights, it is subject to reasonable restrictions, which will be much debated. But for hundreds of millions of Indians, Thursday August 24 was a great day.

Days like this are rare at a time when justice can be so perverted that a state prepares for shutdown and puts the army on standby in the face of bullying threats because an alleged rapist might be pronounced guilty. It was a day when Twitter felt like a warm bath of endorphins, and right wing trolls were too flattened to fling faeces. The government did made a contemptible spectacle of itself, trying to claim credit for what it brazenly opposed, but that’s all right, we all needed a good laugh.

The euphoria that this judgement produced, the goosebumps and lightness, is how citizens want to feel—validated, free, joyous, and hopeful about India.  

And it proved the power of a single person with initiative. I’d like to envelop 91-year-old Justice K S Puttaswamy (Retd) in my arms, and give him the hug of his life.