Narendra Modi’s responses to questions from Saudi Arabian businessmen during his recent visit to the country showed that, uncertainties still remained about the economic reforms. “GST (goods and services tax) will happen,” he assured his listeners, but could not say when. Similarly, he said that the retrospective taxes were a thing of the past so far as the government was concerned, but it could not do anything about the pending cases because they were sub judice. While banking sector reforms were on the anvil, there was a need to “explore” with investors the areas of technology transfer and investment.
Clearly, the promised achhe din (good days) with all the catchy jingles which dominated the airwaves in 2014 are still very much in the future. For the present, all one can do is to wait. The “prudent gradualism”, noted by the US-based pro-Modi economist, Jagdish Bhagwati, has become even more gradual.
Arguably, the investors might not have been too worried about the slow pace of development if they believed that the government was moving in the right direction in both the economic and social fields. But doubts are being caused by the fear that economic advancement can be scuttled by social tension.
It is not only the violence threatened and unleashed against beef-eaters and those who do not chant Bharat Mata ki Jai, the new litmus test for nationalism, which can have an adverse impact on the economy, but also the disturbing signs of authoritarianism displayed by the government.
One of them is the directive to Urdu authors to give an undertaking that they will not write anything against government policies. Even if it is meant for those who seek monetary support from the government, extracting such a pledge from writers is unheard of in a democracy, as Zafar Mohiuddin, convener of the Forum of Urdu Writers and Artists, has said.
Art cannot be formalized by official diktat. Yet, this has been a longstanding pattern of saffron behaviour as the hounding of the celebrated painter, MF Husain, into exile (where he died), the ban on James Laine’s biography of Shivaji and the withdrawal of Rohinton Mistry’s work of fiction, Such A Long Journey, from the Mumbai University syllabus show. True, the Congress is guilty of the same sin. It banned Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses under pressure from the Muslim fundamentalists. But, at the moment, it is the conduct of the BJP and its allies which is under the scanner.
If writers are being harassed, can journalists be far behind. As it is, Union minister of state VK Singh, who was involved in a controversy over his date of birth when he was the army chief, has proudly coined the term, ‘presstitudes’ , for media personnel to show off his innovative use of the English language. The word is frequently used by the saffron netizens.
Against this background of abuse, an Editors’ Guild team found evidence of intimidation during a visit to BJP-ruled Chhattisgarh, where they came to know of arbitrary arrests of journalists, physical attacks and the resultant pervasive fear. It is no secret that the scribes in out-of-the-way mofussil towns live a lonely life unlike their brethren in Delhi and other metropolises who can use their links with the powers-that-be to fend off the political thugs. This kind of safety is not available in the districts from either the goons or the police, especially if the state government decides to teach the media a lesson for writing against it.
Far from being an “avatar of modernity and progress”, as Congress M.P, Shashi Tharoor, once called Modi, the Prime Minister appears helpless in the matter of pushing ahead with economic reforms or keeping the anti-social elements in check as when they forced the cancellation of a programme by a Pakistani singer in Delhi. The saffron hoods had done the same earlier in Mumbai.
To make matters worse, or perhaps to cover up the failures on these counts, the government’s keenness to suppress dissent by using the colonial-era sedition law is worrisome. The BJP’s senior citizen, LK Advani, may have had to clarify his remark that he did not have the “confidence that it (the Emergency of 1975-77) cannot happen again” by saying that it was not aimed at any leader. But as the Shiv Sena said, his disquiet cannot be brushed aside.
It is not without reason, therefore, that the Vice-President, Hamid Ansari, recently asked “whether a more complete separation of religion and politics might not better serve Indian democracy”. The hint that the present government was blurring the line between religion and politics made Subramanian Swamy, the Sangh Parivar’s in-house gadfly, accuse the Vice-President of making an “undignified comment” against the government.
But the uneasiness about the government’s intention will remain if only because it is known that it cannot ignore the pro-Hindu agenda of the RSS and its affiliates like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and associates like the Sri Ram Sene, the Hindu Sena, the Hindu Mahasabha and others.
With the decline in the investment rate from 33.4 per cent in 2013-14 to an anticipated 29.4 per cent this year, and the “deceleration” in tourist arrivals to “Incredible India”, noted by the Economic Survey, the scene is not what Modi had promised in 2014.
The writer is a former Assistant Editor, The Statesman.