PRICE OF MODI YEARS: IN CONVERSATION WITH AAKAR PATEL
The year 2014 represents a watershed moment in Indian political history. This year marked the beginning of the rapid rise of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the beginning of what many see as a new phase in Indian politics. The brash, unapologetic, and bold politics that the BJP has projected over the past seven years have enabled it to capture the imagination of the Indian electorate across the country at both the national and sub-national levels. BJP's electoral success, however, is to a large consequence attributable to one man at the centre of its meteoric rise-Narendra Modi. It is no exaggeration to claim that the rise of the BJP was largely due to the popularity of Modi.
Once ensconced in New Delhi, Modi built a brand and a personality cult that convinced the electorate that he would be the vehicle that would usher in a "New India." This India, he claimed, would be brave, fearless, innovative, and aspirational. After more than seven years since Modi assumed office, several questions persist. How has India performed under Modi? How have public institutions fared under his tenure? What could be said about the personality cult of Modi and the direction that our country is headed towards? Has he achieved what he set out to?
Journalist, Author, Political Commentator, and Chair of Amnesty International India, Aakar Patel, in his new book Price of the Modi Years, seeks to answer just that. The book traces the history and performance of the Modi government since he came to power in 2014. A close observer of Indian politics himself, Patel provides an extensive, thorough, and cut-throat assessment of Modi’s performance through the use of facts, surveys and data. Patel uses indices such as the UN Development Program Human Development Index, Lowy Institute Asia Power Index, Brand Finance Global Soft Power Index, government data, and Reporters Without Border's World Press Index, to name a few. The book assesses the performance of different facets of India’s body politic ranging from the economy, national security, federalism, foreign policy, legislations, judiciary, media, and civil society.
In a scathing critique, Patel passionately illustrates the poor performance, damage, and loss of credibility that India has wrought under the Modi leadership.
Aakar Patel is also a syndicated columnist who has edited English and Gujarati newspapers. His books include Why I Write, a translation of Saadat Hasan Manto’s Urdu non-fiction (Tranquebar, 2014), Our Hindu Rashtra: What It Is. How We Got Here, a study of majoritarianism in India and Pakistan (Westland, 2020), and Price of the Modi Years, a history of India after 2014 (Westland, 2021). The JSIA Bulletin speaks to Aakar Patel on the subject of his recently published book Price of the Modi Years.
Q. Could you describe what motivated you to pursue a project on this subject?
Traditionally, history is seen as a study of the distant past. But I felt fairly early on, after 2014 and even before that, that this would be an important era for our country, and I felt it necessary to start documenting certain critical institutions and policy-making areas in our country, such as the economy, civil society, the judiciary, foreign policy, and national security over subsequent years as it was happening. Based on this work, I felt there was sufficient evidence to form a thesis and document it in the form of a book. This formed my primary motivation to pursue this project.
Q. What, according to you are the greatest achievements of this government under Mr. Modi in the past seven years?
One of his greatest achievements is his success when it comes to the minorities issue. He was successful in passing several government legislations with respect to minorities. Since 2014, for instance, we have had a series of legislations that target minorities of this country, particularly Muslims. One of the earliest manifestations of this was the criminalization of the possession of beef which started in two BJP states-Maharashtra, and Haryana-which ignited a spate of lynching. This law was pushed by Modi through what he referred to as a 'Pink Revolution' as he did not want the country to become an exporter of beef. This was the rationale for adopting the legislation. The latest manifestation of this series of legislation which targets minorities is in the form of a ban on interfaith marriages. In six BJP states after 2018, Karnataka is the latest one and the first one from the south to have this law wherein marriages between Muslims and Hindus have been criminalised, and the testimony of an adult woman who says she was converted of her free will is not sufficient evidence for the state. It needs for the man she is marrying and the family of the man to prove to the satisfaction of the state that she was not coerced into converting her religion. And then, of course, you have got laws like the Citizenship Amendment Act, which is not yet implemented, which excludes Muslims.
So, if you were to look at it ideologically, I think he has been successful in implementing laws, which before 2014, many Indians or most Indians would not have seen belonging to a secular framework. That is one area where he has succeeded. I think he has also succeeded, in large measure, in capturing bits of the state. Just like Indira Gandhi was able to bend the judiciary to her will when she was Prime Minister, Modi has also been able to do that in substantial measure. He has also managed to impress his personality and views on the foreign service, which I believe no longer portrays India as this secular—Nehruvian space. Rather, it chooses to say, 'we are more rustic, more Hindu, and we are proud of being this .'That would be another success. The third achievement would be his ability to impress upon the population at large, his charisma and his personality which have remained and survived despite what might be seen as some as the failures on the economic front.
Q. In the run up to the 2014 general elections, Modi was touted to be someone who possesses expertise when it comes to the economy and issues related to development due to his ‘Gujarat Model’. In the book, however, you dispel this by saying, “it was not only a stretch but a fabrication to claim that he [Modi] was the author of a new form and some new model which produced a revolutionary shift”. Could you elaborate why this is the case?
Firstly, the ability of an individual state to influence its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth is limited because it does not have the freedom to legislate on many subjects that the union government does. In the case of Gujarat, what Modi inherited was a reasonably fast-growing state with a history of industry and trade. The first factories in the subcontinent, for instance, were set up in Ahmedabad in the 1850s. And, of course, the city of Surat was extensively involved in trade. In fact, Surat was the city where the Mughals procured most of their taxes from. So, Gujarat has a long history of being industrially more developed than the rest of the country.
Gujarat’s economic standing was further accelerated by the post-congress, post-liberalization era. This, in a nutshell was what Modi inherited. The real question here is to what expanse did he improve on it? To a large extent, the numbers clearly show that he did not—Gujarat has remained where it was in terms of the national ladder and in terms of GDP growth. It also fell on some indices including human development as the focus was no longer on health, education, and nutrition. Modi, for instance, told the Wall Street Journal that the reason anemia was so high among Gujrati children was that Gujrati girls "didn't want to drink milk" as they wanted "to be slim". In reality, this was what was going on in a state which was projected to be some sort of a miracle economy, when in actuality it was not. Modi's seven years in New Delhi demonstrated that there was no such thing as the Gujarat model.
Q. In your book, you cite the 14 themes of ‘Moditva’. The 5th theme of the book states that Modi would prioritise “Development politics over vote-bank politics”. During the 2014 elections as well, Modi’s appeal to the electorate was largely based on the development aspect and slogans such as ‘Sabka Sath Sabka Vikas’. Ever since then, unfortunately, you point out that much focus has been paid to politics of religion and less to development.
I do not think the slogan makes sense in the first place, purely because BJP and Modi are not coy about advancing the ideology of 'Hindutva', which is by definition divisive. When you look at what they have done on the legal side, when it comes to making legislationlegislation, it is not an inclusive legislation. It is explicitly divisive. Under this government, every week we seem to have something new. This week it is whether women should be allowed to wear what they want to in colleges. Last month it was whether people can pray in the designated areas in Gurgaon. Due to these incidents, the slogan to my mind is not an honest one and comes off as hypocritical.
I believe their undue electoral focus on religion has always been part of their outlook. The very first states that the BJP won on their own, for instance, was predicated on their take on the Ayodhya issue. So, what brought them from a single digit vote share to a double-digit vote share, to a majority is due to their politics on the issue of minorities. That has always been there.
But what happened between 2014 and 2019 was that there was sufficient data even within the government to illustrate that the economy is not performing to the standards that it was projected to perform by Modi and his proponents. Beginning in January 2018, for instance, our GDP growth rate dropped for 13 consecutive quarters, and this took place before the pandemic. During January to March 2020, the growth rate was just 3%, of which the former chief economic advisor pointed out that this includes inflation of a couple of points which means that we were not actually growing. When it comes to employment, government data shows that five crores more people had jobs in 2014 than now, and this was the case before the pandemic. The Labor force survey and the employment/unemployment survey of 2013-14 show that 45 crore people had jobs in 2014, but the most recent one shows that only 40 crore people have jobs today. So, you can't talk about your economic performance when you take these statistics into account. However, Modi was smart enough to know that even without that, he had enough to talk about to win again in 2019.
Q. On the issue of legislation, you extensively list out the legislation passed by the government which threatens basic freedoms and liberty. Modi, on the other hand, uses legislation such as the triple talaq ordinance and the ban on religious conversions as evidence of his government's commitment to liberate Muslim women. What do you make of this?
Essentially, what happened is that the Supreme Court declared triple talaq to be invalid. What does that mean? It means that if a Muslim man offers talaq to his Muslim wife and then waits for one menstrual cycle, says it again after the second menstrual cycle and says it for a third time after a third menstrual cycle, then that talaq is valid. On the contrary, if he should say ‘talaq' three times in one sitting, it is invalid. Hence, they will cease to be divorced, and they remain married. This is what the Supreme court had to say, and it struck down triple talaq from the Muslim personal law. What the BJP did after that is they criminalized the saying of that word, which they should not have done as it is not valid in any case. Due to this law, we now have a situation in India wherein if a non-Muslim man utters these three words to his wife, they are not divorced, and it does not count as a crime. However, if a Muslim man is accused of saying this to his wife, they are not divorced, and it is a crime. As you can see, this makes no sense. I don’t think it liberates women as well. If you believe that triple talaq was a bad social instrument, it was already made invalid by the Supreme court. Hence, there was no need to have that new legislation. So, I would disagree with the statement that it has improved the lives of Muslim women. It is just another instrument to go after Muslims, as is the case with many other laws.
Q. The theme of "majoritarianism" and its dangers to Indian democracy is one which features prominently throughout your book. However, some would point out that a democracy and a democratic setup, by its very nature, is built on the concept of a majority taking precedence. Given this, majoritarianism could be viewed as an inherent quality of a democracy. By this logic, could majoritarianism be justified since it involves the overwhelming will of the electorate?
You are quite right. In most democratic nations, majoritarianism plays out in politics by ganging up against the minority. That is the nature of democratic politics in many parts of the world. However, does this justify it? I would say no. This is because the aspirations you have are defined in the constitution. The question is whether you are moving in that direction through the use of democratic politics or not. And, I would say that we are not.
In India, many of the laws post-2014 have been communal in nature and have targeted specific minorities. So, what our constitution says, what our nation-state stands for, and what it should be moving towards is not the direction we have been following since 2014. It would be true to say that this sort of a polity could be justified by what is called ‘realpolitik’. That is to say, if you want to bully the numerically smaller, you would do so. Does it justify it? I would say no.
Q. When it comes to Indian foreign policy towards Pakistan, we have seen a more assertive and muscular stance. This could be seen in India's response in the Balakot airstrikes, Mr. Modi's insistence on pressing on the terrorism issue during talks with then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Modi canceling talks between the Pakistani High Commissioner to India and the Hurriyat group of Kashmir. Do you agree that India's foreign policy towards Pakistan has become more productive under Modi?
The problem India has is that we do not have any conventional superiority over Pakistan. When it comes to Balakot, the attack was not on the Pakistani armed forces, it was on Jaish-e-Mohammed. Terrorism, as measured in fatalities, has not decreased but has increased in Kashmir since 2019. So, if you say that the approach is muscular and assertive, it must reflect in the data. There should be a material difference in what you have sought to achieve and what you have achieved. On this aspect, we have not seen any evidence that this has worked in terms of improving the lives of the people of Kashmir.
He was successful to communicate this as some sort of departure from the strategy of the past which I do not think it was. So far as India’s foreign policy towards Pakistan is concerned, I think it has always been poor because we have not been able to achieve what we want. Now the question that arises here is, what do we want from Pakistan? I believe there are two things in this respect. Firstly, we want them to stop playing mischief in Kashmir and to ensure that there is no violence in India which is fomented there or originates from there. The other thing we want is to use our larger economy and create a market in Pakistan. Pakistan, for instance, has a population of 200 million, and Bangladesh has around 160 million; the same goes for Sri Lanka and Nepal. There is a tremendous opportunity for India to use its robust economy to become the dominant player in the subcontinent. Unfortunately, we have not done that.
Now, the next question is—how do you engage with somebody who is an opponent? You employ one of three strategies. One is you talk to them, which we are not doing. The second is you get a mediator, which India is vehemently opposed to as it perceives this is a bilateral issue. The third is, you go to war, and you compel them to agree with you. Unfortunately, India is doing neither of these three. It is essentially sulking. This, however, doesn't achieve anything, and this is the nature of the foreign policy that we had with Pakistan in the past, and we continue to have them today.
Q. In the book, you characterize Modi as an individual who lacks a long-term vision when it comes to governance. In response to that, many of his proponents would cite the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the Dhan Jan Yojana, the significant increase in Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), India's improvement in the ease of doing business ranking as evidence of successful schemes and decisions taken by Modi. What do you have to say to that?
You need to look at schemes through the prism of what you seek to achieve through them. Government surveys show that after Swachh Bharat was launched, which was renamed from a scheme called ‘Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan’ which was the UPA’s version of the Swachh Bharat, the levels of malnourishment, stunting & wasting, and anemia have actually increased in several states. Now, contrary to popular belief, the aim of Swachh Bharat was not to reduce litter. Its aim was to increase sanitation and ensure an open, defecation free India. The scheme was initiated to ensure that people do not consume food that was contaminated by fecal matter. The exact opposite has happened in many states. In states such as Gujarat and West Bengal, for instance, the gains made in stunting and wasting have been reversed. To those who regard the scheme to be a success, I would urge you to evaluate whether the scheme has managed to achieve what it set out to achieve. However, it is good to have schemes such as Swachh Bharat and Ujjwala, although in the case of the latter, people usually resort to purchasing firewood due to the high price of the second cylinder. In any case, it's great that we have such schemes that provide entitlements to the poor. The real question, however, is whether these schemes have achieved what they seek to achieve? To answer that, you need to bring in the efficiency of governance. Beyond the naming, branding, and conception of the scheme, I believe the ability of the scheme to achieve its outcomes is crucial. Again, I would urge people who believe the scheme is a success to analyze the outcomes of the scheme.
As far as FDI is concerned, to what extent could we say that it is a measure of a healthy economy. I think one of the things Mr. Modi has done, whether deliberately or otherwise, is to move the focus of government from the small & the medium size to the gigantic. As a consequence, a large chunk of the Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises (MSME) sector is losing out to the corporate sector. And this is not my data, this is data from several sources and surveys which I have listed out in my book. The issue, however, is that most employment in India is from the MSME sector and not the corporate sector. So, what we are doing is strengthening a few large companies at the expense of many small ones. Will this really help India? Well, the government would say, "this is part of the formalization process", wherein the small will get wiped, and the big will prevail as they are more efficient, "and this will make India globally competitive". However, we do not see any evidence of that.
Q. Which three areas of our polity, according to you, has suffered the most under the current dispensation?
The first one I would say is the economy, as it is materially speaking, affects us the most—it has suffered the most. The second one, which materially affects us the least but has endured a lot of damage, I would say, is our foreign policy. India has moved away from being seen as a chaotic but an optimistic place to one that is nasty. I believe that the damage done on the foreign policy front will eventually play out over time. The third is institutions. I think what has been done to the judiciary, what has been done to the election commission, what has been done to the Indian Foreign Service, Indian Police Service, an Indian Administrative Service, and what has been done through the initiation of electoral bonds. I don't think these are going to be undone by a change in governments. We have made the BJP's anti-Muslim rhetoric acceptable across a very large part of our polity to the extent that it is acceptable to do things today that would be unthinkable prior to 2014. So, these would be my pick for three areas of our polity which have suffered the most under this government. It would be the economy, foreign policy, and our institutions.
Cover Image: Adnan Abidi
About the interviewer: Akhilesh Balaji is a second-year student pursuing his BA Honours in Political Science at the Jindal School of International Affairs. He is interested in foreign policy and broader questions of world order.