The decade of glory and scandals that ended with a new Hindu India story

Topics Year End Specials | UPA | NDA

If Costa-Gavras, Greek-French director of films that are both political arguments and entertainment, were asked to make a film about Indian politics in the last ten years, he would have the time of his life. His most widely discussed film ‘Z’, is about a political assassination, but the subtext is corruption and the limits to liberal democracy. His newest film Eden Is West, is about an illegal migrant in Europe, whose dream is to reach Paris, a part of a boatload of migrants who throw their identity documents overboard, leaving their pasts behind to join the ranks of the sans-papiers (those without papers).

From 2010 to 2020 India has been through all of the above. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA)’s second term (2009-14) began with glory but ended in ignominy. A tenure that will always be remembered for such farsighted social security interventions as education for all and the employment guarantee programme ended with the unmasking of massive corruption in Commonwealth Games that the government knew about but was apparently helpless in controlling; allegations of bribes in the auction of 2G spectrum; and cronyism on a scale that was shocking — as revealed in the CBI’s recordings of publicist Niira Radia’s conversations with politicians, bureaucrats, and journalists. With all the experience and cumulative administrative knowledge at its command, the UPA’s second stint was expected to unveil deep and wide administrative reform and restructure and find imaginative ways to maximise the demographic dividend. None of this happened. Instead, the enduring images of the Congress-led regime bowing out were spontaneous uprisings in Delhi over the brutalisation of a young woman and the government’s helplessness.

Little wonder then, that when Narendra Modi, sweeping aside the extant leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), came to power in 2014 on the strength of a party that was structured in a way so as to realise his ambitions, he rapidly decided what he would not permit: No scams of the kind that the previous government was mired in, no alliance partners who would speak out of turn, no tails that would wag the dog. Shiv Sena’s disaffection with the BJP dates back to 2014, when its nominee for ministership in the Cabinet, Anil Desai, was asked to skip Modi’s swearing-in and fly back home: Because Sena felt it hadn’t got its due. Those cracks were papered over, but they persisted, like an aching tooth. Ministers found Narendra Modi’s office, the Prime Minister's Office (PMO), vigilant and intrusive. Many, who considered themselves experienced administrators, found it irksome that PMO should micromanage their ministries, from cross-questioning them over proposals to turning down their choice of staff for their office.

But on a high and functioning on the advice of colleagues like Arun Jaitley who knew navigation of Delhi’s power corridors was like swimming in a sea of sharks, Modi embarked on his restructuring of India. The first initiative came a cropper. Legislation on land acquisition was sought to be amended to make it easier for the industry to acquire land. The BJP government wasted the first 18 months of its tenure trying to recast a rule they knew from first, would be defeated in the Rajya Sabha where they did not have a majority. Ultimately, the government came back where it had started — leaving it on the state governments to do what they could on land acquisition and inviting industry to invest.

Learning from this, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government launched popular programmes on which there could be no political argument or contestation. Congress leader Jairam Ramesh has conceded that the popularity of programmes like Ujjwala Yojana and Swachh Bharat Abhiyan caught the imagination of the people and the Opposition was politically wrong to criticise them. Modi’s audacity lies in the fact that few remembered how Swachh Bharat was, in fact, the repackaged Nirmal Bharat sanitation programme launched by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA government and later the UPA. But Modi became the first prime minister to take up the cause of cleanliness with such conviction and vigour, attempting to make a mass movement out of an issue that affected not just people’s health, but was also an attack on social ills like untouchability and manual scavenging. The Jan Dhan Yojana and digital delivery of services played their part in taking the government to people’s home.

This paid off and people stood solidly behind Narendra Modi even when his government took decisions that were patently unwise and not thought through. The 2016 demonetisation and the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections that followed will forever remain in Indian political history as the puzzle of the dog that didn’t bark. Demonetisation robbed people of livelihood: And yet, they voted for Narendra Modi with their heart and soul in the UP elections. He showed them they were right in putting their trust in him.

As the 2019 general election came closer, the BJP began to worry about the delayed effect demonetisation might have had. Two national security missiles — the playing up of a terror attack in Balakot and its retaliation through surgical strikes — ensured an even more emphatic victory in May 2019. This was underscored by a political discourse that created and justified a new Hindu India story. What we see today is the logical culmination of that discourse.

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