During the election season an overview of governance under the incumbent government is of immediate relevance. But if you think Re-forming India is merely a ready reckoner that you can dip into for nuggets of information and data, you are mistaken. The 639-page tome is a lot more than that. It is a valuable critique of the economic, political, social and cultural impact of policies initiated post-2014 when the BJP government came to power promising radical changes.
A review of its performance has been undertaken through 32 essays specially commissioned for this volume by Niraja Gopal Jayal, professor at the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University. The contributors she has chosen bring to the table insight that either comes from their domain expertise or from years of reporting experience. The net result is an objective analysis that has a shelf life which extends far beyond the election season.
What is reform and re-form? The BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as Professor Jayal spells out in her introduction, envisioned and promised changes at two levels in its election manifesto. While it proposed to “reform” existing processes in the economy and governance through improvement and course correction, it also promised to “re-form” the country by reshaping the mould it had been cast in since Independence. This essentially meant a “fundamental re-visioning of India in social, cultural and even moral terms”.
Going by the assessments of several experts in the book, it may be concluded that the Modi government may have had modest success in bringing about economic and administrative reforms, but it certainly fared better in implementing its re-forming agenda which has resulted in the recasting of democracy as a “majoritarian project” and the rise of Hindu nationalism.
According to the experts, it is this “re-form” agenda of the BJP, backed by the government, which has encouraged widespread social disruption and a spike in communal hate crimes across the country. In fact, they fear, it may perhaps have caused irreparable damage to India’s secular tradition and popularised a disturbing narrative of hate which may be difficult to erase immediately.
The book opens with senior journalist Smita Gupta’s detailed account of the PMO under Narendra Modi. The opaque functioning of this high office perhaps symbolises the closed-door approach of the government which has been miserly or selective when it comes to sharing information with the public or journalists.
Writes Gupta: “Communication under him (Modi) has become a one-way street, with strictly regulated information being disseminated from his office, granting virtually no opportunity for journalists to seek clarification or a perspective on a government position or decision, leave alone ask actual questions of him or any of his associates.”
The government, by all accounts, runs on the opaque model that Modi tested while he was chief minister of Gujarat. It apparently suits his autocratic style of functioning and dislike of criticism.
In The Emergence of Right-Wing Populism in India, Ashutosh Varshney explains how Modi’s rise in national politics triggered a political churning of the kind India had never experienced. This churning was markedly different from the Left-wing populism one saw during Indira Gandhi’s time when “rhetoric and policies” were structured around the poor. In Modi’s case the populism has been such that it places the religious majority, the Hindus, at the centre of the polity while marginalising the minorities. This has led to communal tensions and damage to India’s organically consensual social fabric.
Both Left-wing and Right-wing populism, he further argues, are characterised by distrust of institutions. They seek to undermine “institutions of constraints and oversight, such as the judiciary and the press. Executive power, unconstrained by checks and balances, stands at the centre of the populist political vision. In trying to enact such a vision, Modi has turned out to be no different from so many populists currently ruling different polities in the world.”
From corruption to demonetisation, social welfare to higher education, unemployment to Kashmir, a wide range of issues have been subjected to analysis. The pluses and minuses of various policies have been dissected. The essays in the book seek to identify and interpret transformations that have taken place in the last five years and examine them in their historical context. It also looks at what these changes mean and whether they augur well for the country.
What makes Re-forming India a useful addition to your information resource is that none of the essays are attempts to dazzle the reader with data to prove a point. Neither are they shrill, impassioned outpourings that you often come across on the internet and in TV discussions. Instead it provides perspectives, interpretations and commentaries from persons who have domain expertise and have written on and researched the issues they are addressing.
Those who have contributed to the volume include Ashok K. Lahiri, C. Rammanohar Reddy, Indira Rajaram, Prem Shankar Jha, Anand Teltumbde, Harish Damodaran, Yamini Aiyar, Ramachandra Guha, Apoorvanand, Srinath Raghavan, A.K. Bhattacharya, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and Taberez Ahmed Neyazi.
The writer is a senior Delhi-based journalist and author