The 2014 election was won on a promise of performance encapsulated in the slogan Maximum Governance, Minimum Government. Like acchhe din this one too is something of an illusion, though acchhe din happened overnight when the new calculation for GDP was introduced, as it soared by over one point. Of course, no one pointed out that the much maligned UPA’s economic performance was far better than its detractors said. That performance was the central point of the BJP-led NDA election campaign. Everyone was willing to believe that the new government would actually emphasise process over personality or family.
Perhaps the best gauge of its style would be demonetisation. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on November 8 that 500- and 1000-rupee notes were being withdrawn in order to cripple the black economy, he gave the impression of a systematic process to purge the system. So the announcement was received with a sense of anticipation that turned into uncertainty and descended into chaos when ATMs shut down, people across the country waited hours to exchange their money at banks which had to ration the notes as government presses couldn’t print new money fast enough to replace the old.
It soon appeared that no one gave thought to the logistics of demonetisation or even the objectives, which changed by the day. Now it was about eliminating corruption, now crippling terror funding, now destroying counterfeiting and most recently and lastingly about shifting to a cashless society. The process has reduced the Reserve Bank of India to an arm of the finance ministry. RBI will take a long time to recover from this blow. Its pronouncements will lack the authority of old and it just will sound like the government in a different voice.
To still the clamour on demonetisation the government unleashed its attack dogs, like the IB, CBI and ED, on unsuspecting depositors, criminalising their actions before any evidence of crime. From giving bank managers power to interrogate account holders to mass surveillance of deposits the Modi government has left no stone unturned in its show of zeal to show how hard it is working. Due process is no longer on the table and governance increasingly resembles the big stick.
This is maximum government with minimal process, a tale repeated in its prosecution of opponents. The case of Teesta Setalvad, who exposed the actors in the Gujarat massacre of 2002, is a warning. While the CBI hammers away at West Bengal’s Sarda scam, Madhya Pradesh’s Vyapam, surely the worst scandal of the last 40 years, gets a quiet burial. The agency, in its own initial report, counted over 40 suspicious deaths connected with Vyapam.
On one issue, however, the NDA has ensured minimum government. Its performance is in fact exemplary. BJP governments in the states have succeeded in raising visceral communal passions over the beef ban and cow protection and outsourced the job of enforcing the ban and protecting the cow to local vigilante groups who address it with the cheerful brutality of true believers. In Haryana, for one, police are expected to assist the volunteers, making a complete nonsense of their law and order function, investigating complaints of harassment and assault from Muslims. The fear and loathing generated by these campaigns are likely to be permanent.
Two years on, this government is increasingly intolerant of independent oversight. Its rejection of Supreme Court picks for high court judgeships punishes the citizen and overloads an already burdened system. It seems prepared to emasculate a respected institution if it doesn’t toe the line. Using the Intelligence Bureau to collect information on recalcitrant journalists reflects its paranoid insecurity.
The recent supersession of senior officers in the appointments of the army and air force chiefs is unlikely to strengthen either institution. It is hard to believe, in the first instance, that anyone who makes it to Lt General is unfit for the next step. And did it establish any new principle? In opposition the BJP was a fierce champion of the Lok Pal to check corruption. The office is empty even today. And the HRD ministry’s assault on the independence of universities is a disgrace.
In some ways the present is an echo of the Indira Gandhi years, when institutions were ripped up for the greater glory of the Prime Minister’s Office. Today, as then, it seems as if the PMO is all that matters, in a clear subversion of the open society.
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