The past nine years have seen formidable progress on several fronts.
Taking seriously the challenges facing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the run-up to the general elections in 2024, Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a four-hour long meeting with the chief ministers and deputy chief ministers of BJP-ruled states on May 28, 2023, at the party headquarters. Ostensibly to take stock of the implementation of various welfare schemes and consider ways to accelerate its development agenda, the recent defeat in Karnataka would have underlined the need to avoid complacency, especially among states going to the polls in December 2023.
The Congress-led opposition boycott of the inauguration of the new Parliament building in the capital on May 28, 2023 highlighted the deep fissures in the polity. The Congress was especially incensed at the arrival of the Sengol, symbol of righteousness and royal (read political) power of the old Tamil kingdoms (Chola, Pallava, Pandya), and did much to discredit and disown its association with the transfer of power in 1947, despite a plethora of media accounts and archival photographs.
Unable to explain Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s decision to banish the Sengol to Anand Bhavan and then to the Allahabad Museum, the party’s antics were ignored as people were mesmerised by the Adheenam priests conducting the ceremony with aplomb and the artwork of the new premises that highlighted the nation’s civilisational moorings. The participation of all faith communities in the multi-religious prayer ceremony further underlined the multiple strands that contribute to the diversity of India.
The Janata Dal (United) struck a sour note by reprimanding Rajya Sabha deputy chairman Harivansh for attending the ceremony. The JD(U) would be aware that though Harivansh is a party MP, the Rajya Sabha deputy chairman is a constitutional post above party affiliations, at par with Speaker of the Lok Sabha.
However, the north-east, the site of the most unprecedented developmental investment in the past nine years, is suddenly rife with old fault lines. The Kuki-Meitei rivalry, allegedly aggravated by illegal immigrants from neighbouring countries, erupted on May 3, 2023, and has already taken 80 lives and displaced over 40,000 people. While Kukis were expelled from Imphal, Meiteis have vanished from Churachandpur or other Kuki-dominated hill districts.
The issue is complex. While the ostensible trigger was the Meitei demand for ST status, the Meitei comprise around 60 per cent of the population but occupy only 10 per cent of the total land area, mainly Imphal, while the hill districts are occupied by Kuki, Naga, and other tribes. Tensions are still high despite two visits by the Union Home Minister and a visit by the Army Chief; reports suggest theft of weapons from the armouries of Manipur Rifles and IRB (India Reserve Battalion).
Simultaneously, in Mizoram, the radical Young Mizo Association (YMA) has asked non-Mizo traders in Aizawl to leave the state, causing an exodus of ethnic Bengalis from the Barak Valley. This is widely perceived as an attempt at ethnic cleansing and augurs ill for social harmony in the region.
Nevertheless, the past nine years have seen formidable progress on several fronts, from defence production to the frontiers of space. The JAM (Jan Dhan-Aadhaar-Mobile) Trinity has enabled people in the remotest areas to have bank accounts to receive and deposit money safely and receive government subsidies and benefits directly, without leakages or commissions. Duplicate and fake accounts have been weeded out and other groups, such as farmers, also receive government subsidies directly in their accounts. Various platforms to make digital payments (BHIM, PhonePe, UPI, Paytm, etc) have revolutionised the economy and made life simpler for the common man across the nation.
The Ujwala cooking gas and Saubhagya Yojana to electrify villages across the county, piped water and toilets in every household to protect the dignity and safety of women, are successful foundational schemes for the overall rise of living standards in India. The Ayushman Bharat health scheme and housing for the poor (3.5 crore houses have been built so far under PM Avaas Yojana) are equally credible achievements.
Developments in infrastructure beggar all description, from highways and bridges across the nation, expansion and upgradation of the railway network, airports, metros, internet, smart cities, new IITs, IIITs and IIMs and new medical colleges outside of state capitals to distribute development more evenly. These investments made it possible for India to host the myriad functions associated with its G20 presidency in cities across the country, rather than be confined to major metropolitan cities.
The development of the Kashi Vishwanath and Ujjain Mahakal corridors and ongoing Vindhyavasini corridor, not to forget the construction of the Ram Mandir at Ayodhya, bear testimony to the multifaceted tasks executed at mind boggling speed.
The Covid pandemic, where India for a while suffered shortage of oxygen for the suffering victims, was heroically overcome by developing a vaccine with Oxford University (UK) and the British-Swedish company AstraZeneca, and the purely indigenous Covaxin. A nasal vaccine was also developed, and now, as another wave of Covid afflicts the nation, the panic of the last three years is no more.
India redeemed herself by sharing vaccines with over hundred countries; this was also a major item on the QUAD agenda. Despite the damage to the economy and the human suffering engendered by the Covid lockdown and its aftermath, India kept tight control on its monetary policy and emerged in relatively good health as compared to other nations.
Covid was closely followed by the Ukraine war of 2022, but India managed to float on the high seas, marketing Russian oil and gas!
The near absence of terrorist attacks in Indian cities, the response to the Uri and Balakot strikes, and the defanging of Article 370 that encouraged separatism in Jammu and Kashmir, are noteworthy achievements.
However, it would be churlish not to take note of challenges and critiques of the government. Opposition parties have alleged that raids by the Enforcement Directorate and Central Bureau of Investigation to detect black money are political vendetta and not anti-corruption measures. The Centre can direct officials to avoid such actions during elections (as in the recent Karnataka poll) and at family occasions. In 2015, the then Himachal Pradesh chief minister Virbhadra Singh was raided on the day of his daughter’s marriage, for a sum of Rs 6 crore of unaccounted wealth.
Some observers believe that the challenges to the party will grow in the run-up to 2024, owing to voter fatigue and concentrated action by the opposition that is striving to unite despite deep fissures in its ranks. This is inevitable.
But this writer does not buy the proposition that an aggressive pro-Hindu agenda is the way ahead. Certainly, temples should be freed from state control – by returning them to the groups from which control was seized to begin with. Tweaking the terms individual trustees can serve consecutively can be considered by the communities themselves.
Muslim women have been liberated from the fear of instant divorce and homelessness, but instances are still reported of the curse of halala. The community needs to be encouraged that education and economic empowerment are the way ahead. Resistance to enforced orthodoxy such as hijab in schools where girls happily wore the uniform till recently, will inevitably come from the community itself, as in the case of triple talaq.
On the other side, a small section of the Hindu intelligentsia is pushing for “Hindu Rashtra”, an idea that has been espoused by a spiritual guru in Madhya Pradesh, whose popularity graph has since surged enormously. This writer distrusts this notion for several reasons. To begin with, proponents of the idea of Hindu Rashtra do not know the difference between rashtra and rajya.
The latter is a theocratic state at par with Islamic Republics in our neighbourhood, which is anathema to the Hindu ethos. A recasting of our civilisational-cultural matrix in an Abrahamic mould would do untold damage to the soul of India. Hindu Rashtra is the triumph of the long-suppressed soul of India and is best expressed in the peaceful restoration of the sanctity of the Ram Janmabhumi in Ayodhya.
The fact that this does not satisfy the proponents of a more aggressive Hindutva is because Hindus have failed to unshackle their minds from slavitude to the Western intellectual and economic paradigm, something that Russia and China have managed successfully, and Africa and South America are actively striving to do.
The tide is inexorably moving towards a new multipolar world order; India has been moving with it, joining the new institutions that shape this new world. But the intellectual elite remains conflicted with deep attachment to the West (possibly economic strings) and will have to choose its side. This is not a task for Narendra Modi or his government.
Chintan India Foundation blog, 31 May 2023