Politics

Why Jats And JNU Are Least Of Modi’s Problems; India Is On The Verge Of ‘A Million Mutinies’

Jat protesters burning a truck (Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • As complaints mount from all sections of society, many will look to turn Modi into a scapegoat.

    Modi has to start a dialogue with various interest groups, explain the limits of what he can and can’t do, and propose amendments for accountable governance.

    Indian society is in churn, and this needs leadership of the highest order at every level, if Modi isn’t to end up as a mere footnote in history.

If 2015 was annus horribilis for the Narendra Modi government, 2016 and beyond could be worse. The Jat agitation and the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with student protestors are surely being fanned to make it difficult for Modi to govern, but these are merely sideshows invented by politicians seeking to gain from the underlying rage in society.

The reality is that India is again ready for a “million mutinies”, to use VS Naipaul’s evocative expression, as the various tectonic plates of caste, class, gender, religion, ethnicity and language start moving and clashing with one another. The upsurge is not about this government or that issue, but about the fact that our politicians, social leaders and economic pundits have refused to look at fundamental problems and find real solutions to them.

We have applied jugaad and patchwork solutions, and the time has probably come when all these underlying tensions and frustrations will erupt. It is not specifically anti-Modi, but it will surely become that, since rival politicians will seek to deflect blame and pin it on one villain – and that would be Modi, because he happens to occupy a high-profile political seat.

This phase of public frustration did not begin in 2015, but in 2011, when Anna Hazare began the anti-corruption agitation, followed by the Delhi gangrape protests. Both movements petered out after a while, largely because they were interrupted by a general election that allowed all positive hopes to converge on one man: Modi. Another, less important election, focused hopes on another maverick, Arvind Kejriwal. But the grace period for performance ended in 2014-15, and the revolt is brewing again. One many fronts.

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Consider the sheer number of revolts that have surfaced in the last one year. We had the Patidar agitation in Gujarat, followed soon enough by the Jat (Haryana) and Kapu (Andhra Pradesh) agitation for reservations. Then we had the sporadic Muslim ferment over the Yakub Memon hanging, which was actually a proxy for Muslim feelings of disempowerment over decades. A new Muslim leadership is seeking the power of agency, so far outsourced to various ‘secular’ parties that have not delivered either security or economic progress to the community; Muslim parties are rising in places like Assam, West Bengal, Telangana and Maharashtra.

Then we had the OROP (one-rank-one-pension) agitation, and the feminist fights over minor issues of equality like entry into Sabarimala and Shani Shingnapur or Haji Ali. The more important issue of female empowerment has taken a backseat in this fight over symbolisms. Then we had various minority groups protesting the alleged Hinduisation of politics, helped by provocative statements from various Sangh Parivar elements.

The Hindu groups too feel betrayed by the government for not backing their legitimate interests, whether it is in the slow movement to recover temples from the custody of government, or the excessive pandering to minority sentiments, or the refusal by the government to allow Hindus to run their own institutions without state interference. Then there are the student revolts, triggered by hasty action in IIT-Madras over the activities of the Ambedkar-Periyar Association, and the Rohith Vemula suicide in the University of Hyderabad, not to speak of the JNU protests.

As I said, a million mutinies are in the works, and more will surely erupt as the year drags on, no doubt fanned by Modi’s political opposition. Here are some predictions of where these next agitations may occur:

The OROP demand is likely to spread slowly to the other paramilitary forces, and ultimately to the state police forces. The demand won’t specifically be about OROP, but higher pay and perks, and more protection from prosecution when courts step in to uphold citizen rights against police ham-handedness.

It is worth recalling that policemen in several states went on a rampage during the Janata Party’s rule in the late 1970s, demanding the right to form associations; that agitation was defused after months of combat, including the confiscation of police arms and the bringing in of the army.

The discontent in police forces today is high, as is evident from the suicides and killings of senior officers in some police forces, and will ultimately not be contained. Politicians have abused their powers over the police to get their work done, leaving the police to face the music from courts and the general public over their underperformance and failure to uphold the law. Policemen are overworked and tense all the time.

Reservation agitations of various kinds will also bubble up to the surface; as the Uttar Pradesh elections approach, Dalit bodies will start demanding reservations in promotions in central and state services, and various other castes will demand backward status. Demands for reservations in private sector jobs will also surface. The Rohith Vemula affair and atrocities on Dalits will take centre stage as the fight for Dalit votes intensifies.

Muslim and Christian Dalits and non-Dalits will demand reservations, and Hindu parties will oppose them. The tribal belt will see a resurgence of violent revolts, as the Modi government seeks to make development and mining easier in these areas. The Maoists may be lying low, but they are not gone.

Atrocity literature, generated by the evangelical West and their groupies in India, will start surfacing with astonishing regularity, since Modi presents an inviting target. Pakistan and China will seek to harass India – on the border and inside – as their own internal troubles need diversion by shifting the focus to India.

Various sub-nationalisms – from Kashmir valley to Manipur and Nagaland – could also resume, even though they look benign at this moment.

The middle class will be unhappy and revolt over the sheer unaffordability of a simple roof over their heads in urban areas, and the urban poor will take to the streets over issues ranging from the lack of public transport, water, power, and other basic urban amenities in slums.

And businessmen will vote with their feet as they see draconian laws being implemented to satisfy social and judicial hunger for action on cronyism and black money.

One can go on and on by looking at the crystal ball for potential trouble-spots, but the underlying point is simple: these are not problems that are going to go away anytime soon, for the fact is that no political party has an answer to all of them or even some of them.

Consider how we have addressed issues, and offered scapegoating and non-solutions as solutions.

We have underinvested in mass transport, and the solutions being offered are odd-even and duty relief on cars and two-wheelers or cars. Private transport is not a solution to mass transportation needs. They make the problem worse.

We have a huge water crisis building up as water tables fall and deficient monsoons worsen the problem, but the solution seems to be to give free water upto 700 litres in Delhi for an increasingly scarce commodity. Pricing water correctly is important to prevent waste, even though the poor need protection. They already pay a lot for tanker supplies.

We have a problem of the economy being unable to create jobs, but the solutions being sought are reservations and NREGA make-work schemes. But neither government nor private sector entities are keen to add labour.

We have a real problem with bad education in state schooling, but the solution seems to be the RTE, where the idea is to handicap the 10 percent of private schools where the teachers at least turn up. We are starving public schooling by pretending that private schooling is the answer, when private schooling is often a charade to get cheap land from state governments.

We have a humongous housing problem in India, but the solution seems to be to offer a subsidy scheme for rural and urban housing by lottery. The fact that crooked politicians, businessmen and the land mafia have bottled up land availability that will facilitate mass housing is not even seen as a problem.

We have a first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system where 35 percent of the vote may be enough to get you elected in a multi-party contest, and the solutions are thus targeted on satisfying a small minority of voters. This means creating problems for the majority of Indians everywhere. State funding of elections and changes in the FPTP system are not even being discussed.

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We had the problem of land being essentially confiscated from the poor in the name of building infrastructure, but the solution is the UPA’s Land Bill that not only retards infrastructure growth, but offers a solution where four times the alleged market price has to be paid – when everyone knows that the market price is not the market price at all. The poor would be happy to sell their land at genuine market prices, plus 25 percent, for farming is unviable for small land owners.

We have an agrarian crisis, where food production is rising too slowly, and land is being degraded by excessive use of hyper-subsidised urea, but we think the solution is higher minimum support prices and more subsidies – in power, diesel, etc.

We have a malnutrition and stunted growth problem among children in large parts of the country, and the solution is to give people rice and wheat at Rs 3 and Rs 2 a kg, at one-fifth the procurement costs, when malnutrition and disease relate more to lack of other kinds of protein foods and bad sanitation.

We have a fundamental problem of gender inequality, but the solution seems to be to give death penalties for rape, or harassment of entire families through the dowry and domestic violence acts.

We are facing a serious public health crisis, but we are not even focused on finding new remedies to the failure of antibiotics to cure ordinary health problems, leave alone a Zika or SARS or cancer. Self-medication and overdosing are the norm, when doctors cost a bomb to educate and prefer to work only in private healthcare systems that will help them amortise their education costs. Our public hospitals are a menace, but we think the solution is universal health insurance or private medicare that again costs an arm and a leg.

India faces huge environmental degradation – in air, water and the earth - but we are still seeing it as a problem and not an opportunity. Consider the sheer amount of employment and manufacturing potential possible if environmental protection was seen as a manufacturing and service opportunity that will create jobs in environmentally-positive projects.

We have the problem of a serious loss of faith in the state, but the solution seems to be to ask the courts to do everything – from chasing black money to fixing the BCCI to cleaning up the Ganga or linking rivers or forcing buses to use CNG.

It is not that the Narendra Modi government is unaware of the larger issues, but it does not seem to understand that these problems cannot be solved by the centre, or the states or even local governments. We need all the parties to come together to find real solutions and not patchwork.

From the point of view of the Modi government, there are simply three things I would suggest as starting points for finding solutions.

One, the Prime Minister must lead from the front and start a dialogue with many, many interest groups (Dalits, Hindus, Muslims, women), and all state governments of every hue. He has to articulate a sensible view on the Jat agitation or Dalit empowerment or Muslim estrangement as much as on Skill India or Digital India or Startup India. The two are not unconnected. Dialogue is the way to progress, not hard work behind the walls of 7 Race Course Road. Visible leadership and dialogue are the ways forward, and it is Modi who has to lead it if he is not to become the scapegoat.

Two, Modi has to specifically explain the limits to what he can do, and this has to be part of the political discourse. Right now it is easy for every state government to blame the centre for the lack of resources of powers, when most important subjects (law and order, agriculture, health, etc) with them; every city government can blame both centre and state as mayors have become ceremonial offices.

We need changes in government structures and accountability systems. Modi has to say that states have to sort out certain problems, and he is willing to help them if they come up with real solutions, and not just a blame-inducing crib.

Solutions to India’s fundamental problems lie well below the responsibility areas of the centre, and this is where politics needs to focus. Modi needs to engage with the media, for this is the most uneducated constituency of them all.

Third, as a corollary to the above two, Modi must propose constitutional amendments for greater federalism, greater autonomy for public sector institutions and the police forces, more accountability from the judiciary, more electoral reforms (state funding, etc), and more sensible tax laws that encourage compliance.

Above all, Modi has to place the key connecting theme in all this: India has to become a strong state that can achieve law and order through normal laws and not draconian ones. It is only a weak state that needs draconian laws.

Strong states can implement the laws that already exist to catch criminals and rein in rogues. A weak state captured by vested interests is likely to become a rogue state by default. This is the real danger confronting India, and few people seem to be aware of this.

By the end of his term, Modi will learn that the fiscal deficit or jihadi terror are not his worst nightmares. Indian society is in churn, and this needs leadership of the highest order at every level. Modi needs to ride this wave, not try to duck it. Or else he could become a mere footnote in history – like his predecessor.

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