Economic liberalism over societal liberalism?

The elevation of the NDA coalition to the Union Government in April 2014 was no surprise. The UPA-II faced extreme corruption charges along with anti-incumbency from the electorate. What Prime Minister Modi did correctly, and strikingly differently, was to run a presidential-style election campaign for the BJP whereas the Congress party was left faceless and got decimated to a mere 50 seats in the general elections.

The BJP came to power on a mandate of infrastructure development, anti-corruption, efficiency and economic growth. Let us look back at the last three years and ask if this has been achieved, even so if partly. On the front of infrastructure development, all project backlogs barring a few have been cleared and roads are being laid around the country and bridges being made. Trains are being refurbished and services have improved and gotten timely. All cities are dug up everywhere. On the front of corruption, yes, at least at the ministerial level, there have been no exposes or scams. Corruption at the lower level will slowly vanish away as tax determination and collection will become increasingly automated over the years.  As far as efficiency is concerned, things have become faster under the current Government. Be it the rise in ranks in the Ease of Doing Business Index, or the passage of GST law replacing the current cascading indirect tax system, the Government surely has accomplished a lot in a short period of three years.

However, all of this had to come at a cost. BJP is a product of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a hindu extreme right wing institution, where most party members are a member of the RSS as well. This became very visible especially after the party came to power in 2014. It started with the Rohit Vemula case in University of Hyderabad, a dalit who committed suicide due to utter discrimination. This was followed by the all famous JNU case, on which I can write separate article. The most recent case has been that on the ban of cow slaughter and beef consumption. Cow are placed on a holy pedestal in the Hindu religion, and hence considered a sin to slaughter them and consume them. A lot of violence has been committed for this cause by Bajrang Dal, another faction of the RSS, which consists of youth charged with the feeling of Hindutva. But they fail to understand that, simply, everyone in Hindustan is not Hindu.

A lot more follows. People who have complained against party members or said anything “anti-national” have been charged with sedition. There is clearly no freedom of speech and expression. Movies have been censored, Youtube videos forced to be taken down, political appointments at institutions of national importance, and currency notes being declared not to be legal tender, all in an extremely undemocratic way. Yes, no doubt, India is the fastest growing economy in the world today, and wealth is increasing year on year. The system is getting cleansed at a rapid pace and loopholes are getting plugged slowly. But the societal restrictions that are being increasingly imposed on citizens is intolerable with every passing day.  And after all this, BJP leaders claim that they are not trying to interfere with food habits of people.

BJP won the mandate of the electorate because it promised to increase peoples’ incomes in the urban as well as rural areas, and to do that in both areas is a different challenge. My businessman father, along with lot of his other clients and suppliers, lost faith in the Government within a year that they came to power. This was because there was a lot of uncertainty in policy that was just imposed on businessmen and they could not carry it out in peace. Another reason is the way the crackdown on black money is happening. People are getting Income tax and Sales Tax notices for everything that they have tried to hide. And this amount, along with genuine taxpayer’s money is going to banks for recapitalization because of bad debts created by large borrowers where low to no action is being taken. This sends out an extremely wrong message. There needs to be an equal amount of stringency that needs to be followed when dealing with large borrowers. Demonetization took the sheen away from India’s growth story, and now, we are not even able to produce half a million new jobs a year.

If you still overlook everything, India is growing well and is at a good position in the world economy. But are looking for economic liberalism over societal liberalism? Yes, the world is seeing an upsurge in right wing ideological parties coming to power, or just missing it. But are we overlooking the fact that taking a step away from globalisation backwards to nationalism is not going to benefit anyone in the long run? Take Trump’s case in the US. He came to power with an anti-minority, pro-white narrative. And now, he is practising it. He is delivering what he promised. There is no surprise. There is no restraint in his lunacy. But here, the reason people elected Modi was different. Though he is partially delivering on it, he is taking a lot more away in the form of our basic civil rights.

To borrow from Edward Luce, the Financial Times chief US commentator, Modi is a Jackal and Hyde figure. He is a Jackal and wants to deliver on his infra and anti-corruption promises. And holds a tight leash on his ministers and civil servants. He is definitely an action man, but he is also, Dr. Hyde, who is a “fascist”, and if he continues to be so, it might cost him the 2019 election dearly. I do not know where my vote is exactly going, but I definitely know where it is not!



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