Monday, 30th October 2017

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April Fool Banaya!

Jumla wasn’t the only joke Prime Minister Narendra Modi pulled on the nation. On the appointed annual day for tomfoolery, Upala Sen takes sombre stock of the many rides the nation has been taken for 

By Upala Sen
  • Published 1.04.18
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It was always apparent for anyone who chose to see it for what it was. By the time the Bharatiya Janata Party's prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, was done campaigning for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, he had participated not only in 400-plus rallies but also 1,350 3D hologram-based interactions that were broadcast to 5,390 locations.

Now, a hologram is a three-dimensional image, created with photographic projection. A sleight of light on eye and reason. It was reported that in several remote parts of the country, when projectors beamed the image onto the darkened stage, villagers took the hologram for the man. And when the lights came on at show-end and he was nowhere to be found, it puzzled them a little. But it was nothing compared to the thrill of having such a big leader interact with their humble selves.

The BJP's 2014 campaign was not only high on visuals but also on rhetoric, and when it came to power, it became its manner of functioning. With a year to go before the next general elections, here's a look at some of the promises that captured the imagination of the electorate and then, in large measure, remained imagination.

Promise 1: Jobs

'If BJP comes to power, it will provide one crore jobs.'

Narendra Modi

November 2013, at a rally in Agra

Modi had promised to create 10 million jobs every year if voted to power. There is no one way to measure this, nor any one consolidated figure, but according to a report published by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy Pvt. Ltd - a business and economic database and research company - in February 2018, post demonetisation, the unemployment rate continued to rise steadily. And by February end, it was at 7.1 per cent. In 2013-2014, India's unemployment rate had been 4.9 per cent.

In the report titled "Sharp increase in unemployment rate", Mahesh Vyas states that the estimated number of persons unemployed and actively seeking employment almost touched 31 million by February end. He writes, "The labour force shrunk by 30 million - from about 450 million before demonetisation to close to 420 million within six months of demonetisation... The labour force has still not recovered entirely."

The government instead of owning up to the employment gap has been busy looking for new narratives to explain away the shortfall. The PM said in a television interview not long ago, "In one year, EPF [employees' provident fund] accounts of 70 lakh youth... have been opened. Seven million new EPF accounts, doesn't this show new employment?" In that very interview, he also made the comment about pakoda selling being a viable employment but one that would not reflect in any consolidated data.

The EPF-employment generation connect was borrowed from a paper titled "Towards a Payroll Reporting in India" that was actually making a case for creating a more foolproof measure of employment in India. Its optimistic note was recognisable in this year's Economic Survey too, when it stated: "Notwithstanding the caveats regarding the specific numbers, the broad conclusion is likely to be robust: formal payrolls may be considerably greater than currently believed."

And while everyone here was looking for hopeful signs, definitions, maybes and playing down the reality, China continued to keep its nose to the grindstone. Against its 2016 target of 10 million annual jobs, it created more than 13 million new jobs a year.

Promise 2: Farmers

'You will be surprised to learn that the number of farmers who have been forced to commit suicide is more than the number of jawans who died fighting the wars.'

Narendra Modi

April 2014, in Pathankot, Punjab

In its 2014 manifesto, the BJP promised to ensure for farmers a minimum of 50 per cent profits over the cost of production. Other than that, the party spoke of adopting a National Land Use Policy, implementing farm insurance and so on and so forth.

In January 2018, NGOs ASHA-Kisan Swaraj Alliance, Jai Kisan Andolan, NREGA Sangharsh Morcha, People's Action on Employment Guarantee, Rythu Swarajya Vedika and Swaraj India came out with the Kisan Green Paper. The report exposed how the government had reneged on its minimum support price (MSP) promise "by solemnly affirming in the Supreme Court that this formula suggested by the National Farmers' Commission... as unworkable".

Some of the other points the Green Paper makes are: MSP was not only not increased to the promised level, it was brought down to a level lower than what it was during the UPA regime; how the government had tried to stop state-specific bonus on select crops offered by the state governments and tried to dilute the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013.

The Centre, it says, even made a "determined bid" to scrap the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and when it could not - owing to public opinion and the Supreme Court - it "choked the programme of adequate and timely funds".

It makes the point that when farmers were just about recovering from a spell of droughts, the demonetisation blow left them gasping for air. And it also takes note of the fact that the debt relief burden was shifted to the states, which in turn were doing a poor job of the loan waivers announced. It reads: "This, despite the fact that much of the agrarian crisis can be attributed to Union Government's policies."

Last month, thousands of farmers in Maharashtra embarked on a long march demanding loan waivers and, among other things, the implementation of the Swaminathan Committee report, which says farmers should be paid one-and-a-half times the cost of production.

In full poll mode, party president Amit Shah said while campaigning in Karnataka this week, "We are often told by the opposition parties that there are rampant farmer suicides in the country but I would like to inform you that there have been BJP governments in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh for the last 15 years and the number of farmers committing suicides in these states has been very low."

Suicides by farmers, according to Shah, have happened mainly due to depression and personal issues.

Promise 3: Fighting Corruption

'Mera mantra hai, na khata hoon, na khane dunga... My mantra, I won't indulge in corruption, nor will I allow anybody else.'

Narendra Modi

May 2014, in Amethi 

The main thrust of the 2014 polls was ending corruption. The UPA's contribution to the rhetoric cannot be ignored - 2G spectrum scam (2008), Commonwealth Games scam (2010), chopper scam (2012), cash-for-vote scam (2011), Antrix-Devas scam (2011), coal scam (2012)... All through the pre-poll campaign Modi harped on his seminal identity - that of a chaiwala as opposed to the Congress's shehzada.

In the manifesto, the party had also promised transparency in governance. Because of all this, when the PM urged countrymen to go through with the demonetisation exercise, a lot of people decided that even if they couldn't keep the grin, they'd bear it. A year on, even when it started to get clearer that no obvious gain had come off it - experts also pointed out that the fake currency in circulation was a tiny fraction of what had been killed - there was no chorus of complaint.

In the meantime, there surfaced allegations that a company co-owned by Jay Shah, son of Amit Shah, had grown "16,000 times" in one year. More recently, it came to light that diamantaire Nirav Modi had run out on the Punjab National Bank and the Indian taxpayer with Rs 11,000 crores. NiMo fled the country in the first week of January. Weeks later, before the scam became public, he was spotted in a group photo with the Indian PM. Before NiMo, Vijay Mallya had been allowed to slip away. Even the judiciary has not been exempt from suggestions of compromised honesty, as indicated by four Supreme Court judges.

But the biggest breach of transparency and one that makes a fool of the Indian electorate is the introduction of electoral bonds. In the 2017 budget speech, finance minister Arun Jaitley introduced this mechanism, which will legitimise anonymous donations to political parties and also open up Indian elections to foreign lobbying for the first time. And it did so by tweaking four different statutes - the Reserve Bank of India Act 1934, the Representation of People Act 1951, the Income Tax Act 1961 and the Companies Act 2013 - which, because they were part of the finance bill, didn't have to be tabled before Rajya Sabha. On one hand, Jaitley maintained: "These bonds will be bearer in character to keep the donor anonymous." And on the other, he insisted this was going to be, "a substantial improvement in transparency".

Promise 4: Ek Bharat 

'Acche din aane wale hain... Good times are a coming.'

Narendra Modi

May 16, 2014, after poll victory

The BJP manifesto read: "The biggest reason for a sorry state of affairs is bad intentions on the part of those who have ruled... And this where we would show the first difference... the goal of the policies and practices would be: Ek Bharat, Shreshtha Bharat."

Indeed. In the past four years, BJP has done everything to lay over the plurality of India with a monolithic construct of Indianness. And all square pegs have got the message that they have to recast their old ideas and beliefs, somehow, anyhow, to fit into the round hole.

The measures have been varied. Genial suggestions: read the Vedas, practise yoga, say Bharat Mata ki Jai or else... Blanket diktats: stand up in movie theatres when the national anthem plays or else... Rituals: convert to Hinduism or else... Brute force: venerate who we venerate or else... Rampant vigilantism in the name of cow protection has claimed many lives and left millions of cattle-farmers fear-struck. According to data journalism initiative IndiaSpend, since 2012, the country has witnessed 78 cow-related hate crimes and 97 per cent of these occurred since BJP assumed power. News reports suggest there were 8,000 instances of ghar wapsi or ritual conversion in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh in 2014; 53 in Jharkhand in 2017.

Post the BJP's Tripura triumph over the Left last month, party supporters vandalised Lenin's statue in the state triggering similar lumpen behaviour across the country. As statues of Syama Prasad Mukherjee, Vivekananda, Ambedkar and others fell, the PM, who is known for his characteristic silence off campaign trail, stirred. The PMO issued a statement that read: "Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi has strongly condemned the reported incidents of vandalism in certain parts of the country and said stern action will be taken against those found guilty."

When it comes to this party, imagery - light or stone - is serious business. You might express surprise or discomfort now, but it was always apparent for anyone who chose to see it for what it was.