In 2014, just before the onset of the ‘Modi era’ in India’s politics, the prime minister at the time Manmohan Singh had said, “It will be a disaster if Narendra Modi becomes prime minister of India.” In his book, ‘Price of the Modi Years,’ journalist, writer and former executive director of Amnesty International India, Aakar Patel, uses facts, figures and various deliberations to elaborate on why this would be a disaster and how the Indian economy, society, culture, values, mindsets, constitutional institutions and the image of the state have under changes in the Modi era. He has been blunt and open in this interview with Prothom Alo’s New Delhi correspondent Saumya Bandopadhaya
What prompted you to write this book – a kind of an evaluation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi - at a time when he is at the helm of affairs, riding high on popularity, and still has three years to complete his second term?
I felt there was sufficient evidence across the polity to form a thesis and to demonstrate it. The thesis was that India has suffered since 2014 because of its leadership. On the side of the economy, India’s GDP growth began to collapse according to government data starting in January 2018, meaning 2 years and one quarter before the pandemic. Bangladesh, whose per capita income was around 50% behind India’s in 2014 is today ahead of India. This is a fine achievement for Bangladesh that we should all applaud it but we must also ask why this happened. The book examines the causes of this decline in India’s growth trajectory and theorises on what the reasons are. To my mind it is the leadership of Narendra Modi that is the principal problem in India today.
You have listed 59 international indices to prove an all-round failure of Modi as a statesman. What could be the magic behind such a big failure to become so popular and almost invincible?
Popular politics in India is removed from performance especially on the side of the economy. Given the data from the government it appears that this is also true of mass unemployment, which does not affect popularity. There are five crore fewer Indians with jobs today — approximately 40 crore individuals in all — than had jobs in 2014. Under Modi, India’s labour force participation rate, meaning the number of individuals over age 15 who are either working or looking for work has fallen by more than a fifth from over 50% to around 40%. This is the lowest rate of labour participation in South Asia (behind even Afghanistan before the Taliban takeover) and one of the lowest in the world.
On the other hand, the government programme of MNREGA, has become four times the size it was in 2014. So people want work but there are no jobs under Modi, according to government data. It may interest people to know that after Make in India was launched, India’s share of manufacturing in GDP fell from 16% to 13%. In that same period Bangladesh and Vietnam were able to raise their share of manufacturing in GDP so it was possible, but Modi did not know how to do it. So the failure is apparent. On the other hand the BJP’s thrust against India’s minorities keeps it politically attractive to a large base.
Even during the Vajpayee–Advani era, the RSS was the main guiding force of the BJP. Modi seems to have changed this. Does that mean henceforth the RSS will play second fiddle to Modi as long as he lives? If yes, how did he make this happen?
He was able to achieve what the RSS has sought, which is the political defeat or marginalisation of Muslims and also their legal persecution through law and policy. This has made him beloved within the RSS cadre. Today in India’s 28 states there is no Muslim chief minister, there is no Muslim minister in 15 states, in 10 states there is one Muslim minister usually given minority affairs. Of the BJP’s 303 Lok Sabha MPs none is a Muslim. Of its previous 282 Lok Sabha MPs in 2014 none was a Muslim. This is electoral apartheid which the BJP practices and which has the approval of a large number of Hindus.
On the side of the laws, Indian states have criminalised possession of beef with a reversal of burden of proof. A Muslim man was sentenced to 10 years after being accused of serving beef at his daughter’s wedding. The police was not able to prove that this had happened so the judge sentenced the man, saying it was him to show that the meat that had been consumed was not beef. The sentence was later reversed but such discrimination is now common in law in India. Six BJP states since 2018 have criminalised marriage between Hindus and Muslims and an adult woman’s testimony she converted of free volition is insufficient evidence. It is for the man and the family she is marrying into to prove no coercion. These laws are not needed. South Asia is the most endogamous part of the world and even the wealthiest only marry among their sub castes. But the BJP pushed an absurd theory of love jihad with no evidence. The RSS approves of it.
According to you, Modi is ‘decisive’ and ‘transparent’. If he is transparent then how, according to you, did he take the decision of demonetization or nationwide lockdown keeping key ministers and government functionaries in the dark?
He is transparent in the sense that he does not conceal who he is. He does not care for what his own ministers think and doesn’t adhere to the collective responsibility traditions of parliamentary democracy. He doesn’t hide this contempt of them either, which is why he decides without seeking their counsel.
You have mentioned an old interview of the then CM Modi with Madhu Kishwar, where she described his unique talent of listening less and thinking more about the problems and taking instant decisions towards possible solutions. Is this special skill one of the main causes of India’s all-round slow progress in most of the international indices?
I would say it is responsible for many of the decisive strokes we have seen from the prime minister. The decline in the indices comes from a variety of reasons. For instance the deliberate attack on minority rights and institutions has reduced India’s stature and position on the democracy indices.
Now let me focus on our neighbours. Very aptly you have described India’s Pakistan-centric inconsistent foreign policy which led us nowhere. You hold Modi responsible for souring relations with most of the neighbours. You have especially mentioned Nepal and Bangladesh in this regard. You suggest that there is a huge trust deficit. What, according to you, could be the main reasons for that?
Hindutva has a hatred and fear of Muslims and this has run into trouble with a foreign policy that ostensibly seeks a more integrated neighbourhood. For years India has assumed that the primary national security threat is terrorism from Pakistan and the response should be to do unto your neighbour what is being done unto you. This is the so called Doval Doctrine. For years India has focussed on counter insurgency especially in Kashmir and that is why we were caught off guard by what China has done in Ladakh. Today there is a state of panic because there is no strategy, Modi is incapable of producing a theoretical framework of national security and so is his team. In this space, China has taken charge.
India does not want Bangladesh to slip out of its zone of influence and towards China. However this is not possible to do given that the BJP has an inherent contempt of the Bangladeshi citizenry. With Nepal, India inserted itself into its constitutional process and either encouraged or participated in a blockade in 2015. This blockade, about which most Indians know little of, angered the Nepali people because of the suffering it caused.
India describes relations with Bangladesh as ‘Shonali Oddhyay’ (Golden Period). This may be correct in terms of trade and business, but in other parameters is this a true reflection of a friendly relationship? Various reports suggest that the ground situation is not that conducive.
There is little connect at the level of the people, which is why the relationship is weak unlike, say, the relationship between the United States and Canada or the US and the United Kingdom. What is happening to Muslims in India under Narendra Modi is not hidden from the world. The language that the BJP and its senior ministers use against Bangladeshis is damaging. On the other hand, India has weakened as an economic power since 2014. This is why Bangladesh will continue to drift towards China, with which it trades twice as much as it does with India.
You have mentioned detailed effects of the CAA and NRC in your book. If you think these have caused considerable damage to the Indo-Bangladesh relationship how can the situation be reversed? Does it require PM Modi to walk the extra mile?
Things will not improve under PM Modi and the BJP because the anti-Muslim sentiment is coded into their gene. It is the primary element of their worldview and will not change. This is why any outreach India might make towards Bangladesh will be artificial and unable to change or reverse the primary problem with the relationship. The relationship will remain transactional and not civilisational. India’s home minister alluded to Bangladeshis as termites twice. First in September 2018, when the remark drew condemnation from then minister Hasanul Haq Inu.The second time just before the passing of the CAA law in 2019, attracting the attention of the US state department. After the CAA was passed, three Bangladeshi ministers — Foreign Minister A K Abdul Momen, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan and Md ShahriarAlam — cancelled visits to India. The many protests against Modi during his visit to Bangladesh after this reflect what the common Bangladeshi feels and knows about what is happening in India in the Modi years.
You suggest that the Modi administration is sceptical about Bangladesh’s leaning towards China. How can India come out of that? To offset the China effect how can India extend its hand to Dhaka in solving outstanding problems like the Teesta issue?
India does not have the capacity to prevent Chinese influence over its own borders leave alone prevent its influence over India's neighbours. China’s GDP is more than six times the size of India’s. On Teesta, the Union government doesn’t have full control because West Bengal also has agency. This has made it difficult for India to solve the issue even when the Union (as was the case previously also under Manmohan Singh) reached out to Bangladesh.
Irrespective of the outcome of the UP elections, Modi has to face the 2024 verdict. As depicted by you with facts and data, with this all-round failure what is there in store for India if Modi forms his government again?
More of the same. The economy is shattered and will not achieve the growth rates of the past. Very high levels of unemployment and lack of productivity will continue. The persecution of minorities especially Muslims through law and policy will escalate because it has been devolved into society. India’s fall in stature as a pluralist democracy which is a genuine force for good and partner of other civilised democracies will be hard to reverse in the next decade. The loss of influence over the neighbourhood and inability to resist Chinese domination over South Asia will also remain.
In your book you have referred to a three-decade-old Modi interview by Ashis Nandy where he had described the then Sangh Pracharak as a ‘textbook case of a fascist’. After reading your book and noting your observations, it seems that your view is the same as Nandy’s. Any further comments on this?
Nandy says he used the word in the diagnostic and clinical sense, which I am not qualified to speak of. However, it is indisputable that what Mr Modi has given India is an ethno-nationalism aimed internally against fellow Indians.
In this Modi era what has India gained as a nation and what has it lost?
On the side of the economy, we have lost the trajectory we thought we had. It could be argued that not all of this is Mr Modi’s doing and that the era in which a large population could be transitioned out of poverty through the traditional ways is now behind us permanently. However, it is unarguably the case that he has made it worse and refused to acknowledge the problem which has meant that there is no possibility of a course correction. On the side of its society, the damage has been as severe and India will remain divided with a constant negative focus on its religious minorities.
India has given up its identity as a secular and pluralist and modern nation.
If ever the BJP loses its control over the Indian polity and the government, do you think it will be the end of the Modi doctrine?
Yes, because there is no real doctrine. But the time available for India to transition to a higher middle income or high income nation is insufficient even if the Modi era ends soon. The damage to society will remain for a generation because the State has allowed it to devolve and authorised and empowered Hindu mobs.
In the end you have posed the question what exactly is Hindutva good for and why should India embrace it. Should it be left to fate? What will be your answer to this?
It should not be left to fate and we should fight it in every way we can.
Thank you too