Punjab police stand guard in Amritsar on Sept. 25 during a nationwide farmers' strike following the recent passing of agriculture bills in India's lower house of parliament. (Photo: AFP)
There is a mixed bag in governance in India these days. On one hand, Muslims are demonized, Christians’ charity and philanthropic works are linked to the forced conversion debate and quite often sedition laws or the controversial Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA) are used to silence dissent.
Then there is the latent anguish of the middle class and poor. There is also an agrarian crisis.
In any other political set-up, opposition parties could have gone in for the kill and cornered India’s ruling dispensation under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
But often the misguided moves by opposition parties like “creating pandemonium” in parliament come to the rescue of Modi’s publicity wing. The goalposts are changed and the battle which should have been to expose fault lines in the new farm bills goes into another realm.
Steered by an ostensibly decisive and determined prime minister, the Indian government is in serious confabulation with the Chinese leadership these days. But there could be a brief lesson for Modi's leadership to learn from the Chinese context.
Some years back, it was widely held in China that without adequate economic growth, the Communist Party would be history. The saffron party of Modi almost faces the same harsh reality vis-a-vis economic challenges.
The pandemic has exacerbated the situation as GDP has nosedived and unemployment has increased manifold.
The reasons could be multiple but how long can Modi brave through the situation with the argument that the prime minister of the world's largest democracy cannot be solely blamed for all the ills and limitations?
Modi stormed to power in 2014 with the promise of 'Acchhey Din' (Good Days) for the people, but on multiple fronts things have turned out otherwise.
The latest problem is the agrarian protest, as contentious bills have been passed. Of course, the migrant workers, the lower middle class and poor, who certainly formed a major voting bloc for him, were also left high and dry.
Left to the party's propaganda spin masters and a huge army of Modi admirers — mostly Hindu voters — the expectation from Modi is still humongous.
On social media, the hashtag 'ModiHaeTohMumkinhae' (With Modi around, everything seems possible) is a big hit among his support base. An independent survey in August found that while 40 percent of those surveyed described him as a “good” prime minister, an additional 38 percent said Modi's performance has been “outstanding.”
Obviously on the ground, things couldn’t be more different. The middle class and poor are allegedly the direct victims of some of his policies, starting from his few corporate-friendly moves, demonetisation and a uniform tax structure.
It is like the “juvenile state of capitalist exploitation,” says senior Marxist leader Prakash Karat.
"It is the working class and the working people who are going to bear the brunt of the economic and social consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic has laid bare the actual conditions of the working class — through the migrant worker crisis,” he wrote in an article.
This ugly face of India has always remained hidden from the mainstream media.
In some cases, activists say whenever there have been efforts to galvanize support to campaign against Modi, the dissent has been dismissed as “anti-nationalism” or “Tukde-Tukde gang” (groups committed to breaking India).
“It is appalling that human rights defenders are locked up in overcrowded prisons and continuously denied bail despite calls by the UN to decongest prisons and release political prisoners during the pandemic," says Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Asia-Pacific civic space researcher.
As many as 332 people were reportedly arrested under the sedition law between 2016 and 2018, though the conviction rates were very poor.
Often the battle is between a secular India and the BJP's Hindu and fragmented agenda.
Charges of sedition against 49 people, including well-known movie stars, were processed last year for writing an open letter to Modi over hate crimes targeting minorities. Only after a public outcry were the charges dropped.
In February, there were riots in Delhi but the authorities chiefly blamed the Muslims. Angry activists and Muslims often say the Delhi police stand by the BJP, not by the constitution or the rule of law.
The BJP's Virendra Sachdeva from the good governance cell counters this.
"People take elections very seriously in India. In the 2017 assembly elections in Gujarat, though we managed to retain power, it is true our tally had gone down from 122 in 2012 to 99. And people in rural Gujarat did vote against us," he said.
“But people also admire Modi's leadership and thus when it came to the 2019 general elections, we won all 26 seats in Gujarat. Ultimately, people decide, and not English media and opinion pieces written in Western magazines."
Of course, even in other states, people have shown the BJP and Modi's candidates their place.
In states such as Bihar, the saffron party suffered a humiliating defeat in 2015. The BJP lost two consecutive provincial (assembly) polls in Delhi (2015 and 2020), though the same voters maintain faith in Modi in parliamentary polls.
Besides credit to the BJP's manipulation, the fault line also lies in the opposition camp.
The communists lost their Tripura stronghold in 2018. Modi's party now runs coalition regimes in two other northeastern states — Nagaland and Meghalaya — where the overwhelming majority of voters are Christians and tribals. Congress has been routed in these states.
But the ills of misgovernance persist in Christian-dominated states or elsewhere wherein common people continue to suffer due to corruption and imposition of draconian laws — the AFSPA, the strong counter-terror measures of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and section 124A on sedition of the Indian Penal Code.
In BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh, a court in Bijnor district in January granted bail to 48 people accused of rioting and attempted murder during the violent December 2019 protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. In his bail order, the judge said: “The police FIR says the mob fired at the cops, but no evidence has been presented in court to show any recovery of weapons."
This is perhaps an all-India syndrome and just the tip of the iceberg.
Coming to the woes of migrant workers, it has to be said that hundreds of thousands suffered during the lockdown.
But what is seen as worse is what happens to workers’ rights. "With the online system of working from home, there have been many job cuts in the banking and insurance sector. And for those who still have jobs the conditions are not so good. Our office or clients want at least 14 hours a day if working from home," says Akash Mahapatra, a banker from Noida, near New Delhi.
The government seems to be clueless about what will happen to the workforce, the struggling middle class and poor. Migrant workers have lost their limited rights to healthcare, housing and education.
This situation has resulted in reverse migration and in some states the authorities have appealed to workers not to leave the state.
Interestingly, BJP-ruled Gujarat and Congress-ruled Rajasthan and Punjab have modified the existing labor laws to increase the daily working hours from eight to 12 for factory workers.
Leftist trade unions recently expressed concern about the federal government's move to pilot the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code Bill. If enacted, this law will render the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act meaningless and some protection now being given to laborers and migrant workers will also go up in smoke. The code would bar civil courts from hearing disputes.
Religious minorities such as Christians and Muslims remain a target and rules under the FCRA are used to deprive overseas funds coming to the churches and Christian NGOs.
A number of legislative and executive steps perhaps seek to undermine the status of Muslims, says Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury.
Mob lynchings were carried out between 2014 and 2019 in various parts of India and in many instances it has been suggested that there is now perhaps a type of institutionalization of the communal venom.
In a previous article, UCA News analysed how the Modi regime has been able to keep its detractors at bay with a "slew of media management strategies and headline management" in electronic and social media.
Weak and fragmented opposition is one of the chief reasons that give Modi almost a free hand.
The principal opposition Congress party is practically leaderless as the country's oldest outfit has been headed for more than a year by an ailing interim president, Sonia Gandhi.
Incidentally, Sonia and her lawmaker son Rahul Gandhi are now abroad for Sonia's treatment. While they were away, India's parliament session was on and the government was faced with a severe crisis due to the passage of two controversial farm bills and its mishandling of the coronavirus crisis.
Of course, as other opposition parties and Congress leaders in Delhi are fighting the government, the refrain in the corridors of power is: you cannot corner a powerful regime like Modi's by remote control or Twitter politics.
Among other opposition parties, most have their respective regional or parochial agenda and limitations at the national level.
There is no pan-India opposition leader or even a face among social workers who can take on an extremely popular person — Narendra Modi.
Thus, when the agrarian issue could have actually pushed the Modi regime to the wall, opposition lawmakers created chaos in the upper house, Rajya Sabha, and tore up the rule book.
This resulted in the suspension of eight opposition MPs including those from Congress, the Communist Party of India (Marxists) and regional outfits.
"Creating chaos in parliament was a misguided move. When the battle should have been to expose the fault lines in the new bills, the goalposts have been changed. The people are instead talking about parliamentary privileges and conduct in the house," says political commentator Vidyarthi Kumar.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.