Saahil Menon Opinion
All too often, we are reminded that religion and politics simply do not mix. Nowhere is the calamitous outcome of intertwining these two components more acute than in today’s India. Carrying the badge of the world’s largest democracy entails far more than placing a ballot box in front of voters every four years and occasional shouting matches erupting between opposition figures in parliament. Once a beacon of peaceful coexistence for people of all faiths and creeds, Narendra Modi’s Hindutva agenda has eroded any shred of secularism which the country has traditionally prided itself on. Contrary to the non-partisan image he endeavours to project, his extremist ideology inspired by the right-wing Hindu organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) of which he remains a staunch adherent is still alive and well.
The BJP has indirectly taken aim at religious minorities by engendering a highly polarised and divisive environment in which these communities feel increasingly perturbed. The current government has repeatedly turned a blind eye to the worrisome rise of cow vigilantes and the widespread advent of mob lynching, much like then chief minister of Gujarat Modi did during the state-wide riots which saw innocent protesters from the Islamic community butchered en masse. Condoning this violence will forever remain a blemish on his record not only from the standpoint of gross human rights abuse but also due to the utter humiliation associated with being the only person in history to have their US visa revoked on the grounds of actively suppressing religious freedom.
Despite winning the national elections by a sizeable margin in 2019, Modi’s reinstatement into power was largely attributable to the absence of any viable competition as opposed to the party’s concrete socioeconomic achievements during its previous term or lack thereof. Bringing an end to so-called “dynasty politics” and nepotism has been heralded as a major breakthrough by Modi himself, however, the supposedly meritocratic premise upon which he has formed his cabinet leaves a lot to be desired. Illiteracy, fundamentalism and past criminal convictions are rife among existing members of the BJP whose questionable calibre and jumbled priorities risk turning India into a failed state should they wield enough autonomy over time.
Rather than seeking to remedy years of apparent mismanagement and backwardness by Congress, the Prime Minister appears to be fixated purely on having inspired the demise of the Gandhi family without the faintest idea on how to fill this vacuum. Each time Modi is rightfully accused of failing to deliver on his farfetched campaign promises, he cites 70-odd years of Congress rule as the main encumbrance to creating a “New India”. The question which subsequently arises is whether or not this blame game will be his permanent justification for falling short of the ache din or good days, he committed to inhabitants.
FromMake in India to Clean up India, every reformatory campaign spearheaded by the Prime Minister thus far has proven to be an outright flop. The nation’s infrastructure is just as dilapidated and laughable, if not more so than during the tenure of Congress.
New Delhi has officially become the world’s most polluted city with cases of lung cancer and respiratory illnesses skyrocketing in recent years. Local hospitals have been so overwhelmed by the volume of patients exposed to toxic air that they have been unsuccessful at curtailing the death toll linked to this tragic yet corrigible phenomenon. The capital has also reinforced its notorious reputation, both domestically and globally, as a hotbed for gang rape and paedophilia.
Modi’s craving for total centralisation of power has left the city’s Chief Minister and police force impotent in the face of this ongoing crisis to which little attention is being paid. Several of the accused violators have had their jail terms waived or trials conveniently delayed by virtue of being self-proclaimed RSS sympathizers. As far as cleanliness and hygiene are concerned, garbage stockpiles continue to be a ubiquitous sight throughout the nation owing to its outdated and highly inefficient waste disposal system coupled with the fact that no punitive measures have been enforced to deter citizens from littering the areas they inhabit. To make matters worse, barely any awareness is being raised at the grassroots level about tackling the filth and foul odour which abound public spaces.
Having witnessed the remarkable prosperity and advancement China enjoyed over the past decade, it would not be entirely unreasonable to assume that a discreet pivot towards totalitarian rule may ultimately reap the fruit. That said, being a half-baked dictator in a country as diverse and pluralist as India has certainly not done wonders for Modi. His blatant disregard for the needs of ordinary Indians and refusal to engage in constructive dialogue with the very people who brought him into prominence has backfired tremendously. Reckless and hastily-implemented decisions such as demonetization are a direct consequence of the Prime Minister’s disillusionment with the working-class as well as his failure to consult those more knowledgeable than him on a range of important issues.
By evading pressing yet pertinent questions from critics of the regime and using Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah as his mouthpiece at press conferences, Modi has done himself a huge disservice in revealing how thin-skinned he truly is. The revocation of article 350 on Kashmir’s autonomous status is another noteworthy example of an ill-thought-out stunt with far-reaching geopolitical repercussions. Despite making a concerted effort to mend relations with New Delhi, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has seen his gesture of goodwill repeatedly shunned by Modi.
Heightened tensions between two nuclear-armed powers are not in either country’s interest, though the Indian PM’s stubbornness clouds both his judgment and sanity on this subject. India’s defence spending has reached unprecedented levels as a result of the BJP’s provocative rhetoric towards the Pakistani government as well as the unresolved border dispute with China. Had Modi taken a more measured and rational stance towards dealing with both neighbours, the astronomical funds use to purchase state-of-the-art military equipment from war profiteers could have been allocated towards more productive causes such as combatting endemic malnourishment and fixing the country’s deplorable education system.
The Turkish and Malaysian leaders, who were previously subdued on the Kashmir conflict, have openly expressed their solidarity with Pakistan at the United Nations. In response to what the NDA government unequivocally deems an internal affair, they have banned the import of palm oil from Malaysia while issuing a travel advisory warning for Indian citizens visiting Turkey. Sadly, petty retaliation of this kind which is intended to underscore Modi’s pseudo-strongman status will only serve to rupture bilateral ties while exacting minimal damage on the economies of these two countries.
In order to fully understand and appreciate Modi’s sheer ineptitude as India’s head
of state, one need not look any further than the country’s abysmal macroeconomic barometers since he took office. During his speeches, he rarely misses the opportunity to remind listeners that India is the world’s fastest-growing economy in a lacklustre bid to attract foreign direct investment. Promising GDP growth of 6- 7% per annum is a legacy he inherited from the erstwhile government though continues to masquerade as his own doing.
What he consistently fails to account for are the projects and job creation initiatives towards which the monetary proceeds generated from this rapid development are being channelled. Having won over many supporters with his pro-business drive while pledging to root out corruption and improve wealth distribution, those who initially vouched for Modi are now beginning to turn their backs on him. There has been an exodus galore of multinationals whose patience ultimately wore thin with the nation’s bureaucracy.
The inadequately trained pool of labour that constitutes the lion’s share of India’s economically active population further dissuades these companies from continuing to operate there. Occupying the lowly position of 131st out of 189 countries in the 2020 UN Human Development Index bears testament to how substandard the local workforce is. Moreover, having been voted one of the least desirable nations for expats to live in a recent survey conducted by Internations, it is becoming increasingly tough to attract skilled workers from abroad. The brain drains India suffers from has contributed massively to record-high youth unemployment which currently prevails in the country. Those who have studied or worked overseas are so averse to returning to the appalling living conditions and facing the bleak career prospects India offers that they tend to settle down elsewhere. Unless the government can entice these qualified graduates to bring their much-needed know-how back to India, the country will plunge even deeper into the abyss.
The fact that immigration consultants are seeing a considerable spike in demand for their services speaks volumes about the desperation of frustrated citizens to find an escape route from the thankless lives they lead in India. Middle-class families are prepared to pour their entire life savings into exorbitantly-priced residence-by- investment schemes solely for the sake of their children’s future. The country’s passport, meanwhile, has plummeted to 85th place in the 2020 Henley Passport Index, rendering it one of the weakest travel documents in terms of mobility. The increased inclination of Indian visitors to overstay their visas given the rampant poverty and burgeoning population crisis back home is just one of many reasons why they are unwelcome in most countries.
On the foreign policy front, it is clear that Modi has chosen to embrace globalisation in stark contrast to his inward-looking predecessors. While this may seem like a logical undertaking, sceptics argue that his extensive travel has not yielded any meaningful progress in cooperation between India and the numerous countries he frequented. Having paid six diplomatic visits to the Chinese President, palpable friction from the Dokhlam standoff still exists between both nations as China continues to veto India’s accession into the UN Security Council.
The Indian Prime Minister has also attached great importance to strengthening commercial ties and people-to-people exchanges with Russia, however, their bilateral trade amounts to a measly $10 billion per annum. Succumbing to Trump’s maximum pressure campaign on Iran is symptomatic of Modi’s spineless leadership as the Indian government recently suspended crude imports from its long-standing and strategic Middle Eastern ally. Cosying up to Israel was admittedly long overdue as several areas of mutual interest have helped establish an undeniable bonhomie between the leaders of both nations.
Nevertheless, Modi’s penchant for erratic behaviour led to the Indian government voting against Jerusalem’s recognition as the righteous capital of Israel at the 2017 UN General Assembly and the Ministry of Defence inexplicably scrapping a landmark $500k missile deal with Israel days before Netanyahu’s reciprocal state visit to India. The Brexit saga has turned the United Kingdom into somewhat of a pariah within the European Union, which is why the Brits are now seeking to bolster relations with the Commonwealth. While most shrewd politicians would capitalize on this golden opportunity to dictate terms to a fragile state in dire need of new allies, Modi’s inability to negotiate the repatriation of high-profile fugitives residing in London, namely Vijay Mallya and Nirav Modi, is an additional though expected let-down.
Tapping into India’s tourism potential has been yet another futile pursuit by the Prime Minister. In spite of launching the Incredible India campaign early into his first term and greatly facilitating the issuance of visas to foreign nationals, the financial windfall he was anticipating from holidaymakers has certainly not materialised. As it stands, the vast majority of overseas visitors are economic migrants from Bangladesh, whose purpose of entry into India is recorded as leisure with the intention of inflating overall tourist arrivals. This is followed by American, Canadian and British passport holders – most of whom are naturalised citizens of Indian descent travelling to their motherland for family reunification.
The only segment to whom vacation in India really appeals is Western backpackers or yogis on a spiritually-enriching journey who spend the very least they can get away with. Instead of leveraging its rich history and ancient civilization to draw inquisitive travellers to the country, the government devotes less than 1% of India’s annual budget to arts & culture. The ruling party’s crackdown on Mughal remnants, including architectural gems whose upkeep has deliberately been neglected and calls for meat-based dishes to be stripped of local eatery menus, are aimed at downplaying the profound contribution of this empire to contemporary Indian culture.
The Taj Mahal’s has lost its brilliant white lustre to contaminants engulfing the run-down city of Agra. This repulsive colour change is predominantly ascribable to sewage from the Yamuna River which attracts insect faeces. Moreover, the smog- laden backdrop resulting from factory and vehicle emissions together with limited logistics have led many to question whether a day trip to one of the world’s most iconic monuments is really worthwhile. Filthy, overcrowded beaches in the south of India discourage those seeking a passive and laid-back holiday by the seaside, with Sri Lanka or the Maldives emerging as more preferable destinations.
The northernmost state of Jammu & Kashmir, which was formerly a picturesque summer retreat for British soldiers during the colonial era, remains strictly off-limits due to civil unrest and the looming threat of cross-border terrorism. Himachal Pradesh, also situated in the north, markets itself as a sanctuary from the unpleasantly humid climate in the rest of the country while showcasing its enviable location at foothills of the Himalayas. The ground reality, however, is far from the utopia this particular region makes itself out to be. Snowfall causes major disruptions to daily life with roads obstructed for days on end and power outages being a regular occurrence during the winter months. Modi’s time in power has seen Jet Airways go bust and the country’s flagship carrier Air India on the cusp of the following suit. In addition to this, a number of international routes from both New Delhi and Mumbai have been suspended due to low passenger traffic.
Poor direct air connectivity with much of the outside world and incompetently-run local airlines mean that travellers from India are often forced to transit through Dubai or Doha en route to third countries. The coronavirus pandemic will undoubtedly see more domestic airlines file for bankruptcy in the coming months while Indian tourists will increasingly find themselves flagged as undesirables when visiting other countries amid skyrocketing cases amongst the population.
Narendra Modi has single-handedly reduced an aspiring superpower to a mere laughing stock. Any attempt by the ruling party to execute their vision of a forward-thinking and prosperous India has all but fallen flat on its face. By sweeping the country’s main predicaments under the carpet in favour of appeasing Hindu fanatics and embedding the BJP’s radical ethos into every aspect of the societal fabric, the Prime Minister’s days at the helm are all but numbered. It is anyone’s guess whether the imprudent handling of the COVID19 outbreak and irreparable damage caused to the country’s economy will be the final nail in the coffin for Modi’s short-sighted government.
– The writer is an Associate Director at Wealth Advisory