Anand K. Sahay | Signs of churn in India, but is nation’s mood changing?

The Asian Age.  | Anand K Sahay

Opinion, Columnists

Political perversions abound in a hot-air democracy; media silence is the butt of jokes shared on smartphones around the country

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (PTI)

It was coming but now we can no longer be in doubt that we have, by slow degrees, become a Democracy by Propaganda. Projected for the first time beyond our shores and beyond the confines of the only-too-happy-to-oblige media, the 100th episode of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s monthly radio broadcast “Mann ki Baat” was beamed live at the UN headquarters in New York on April 30.

Whether there were any takers for it is not the point. Nor is the quality of the programme, about which finicky souls would rather not speak in public. What stands out is the worrying contrast this singular event offers to other happenings and advertises our current status as Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey (where the Opposition gets hell) in disguise, or a wannabe Israel under Benjamin Netanyahu defined by sticky allegations of high-order corruption and teaching the Muslims a lesson by religious extremists and the State.

Who could have missed that the crowning moment for Mann Ki Baat -- chirped about at an election rally in Karnataka by Mr Modi’s most consequential minister, and also extolled by India’s vice-president, whose day job is to preside over the Rajya Sabha and avoid partisan politics -- comes at a time when microphones of Opposition leaders were switched off in Parliament?

Earlier, the speeches of the key Opposition leaders in Parliament, which sought answers to uneasy questions about the dizzying rise of a business tycoon who suddenly finds himself among the most commented internationally due to a bruising dip in his fortunes, have been scrubbed clean from the records.

And the Opposition’s chief leader Rahul Gandhi, who is in the eye of the storm for marching almost 4,000 km around India denouncing the Modi government and asking searching questions of it on the Adani affair in Parliament, has been expelled from Parliament and may have to serve two years in jail if the higher judiciary doesn’t overturn lower court verdicts given in a patently motivated criminal defamation case.

Political perversions abound in a hot-air democracy; media silence is the butt of jokes shared on smartphones around the country. If it weren’t for the social media, we would be pretty much in the dark about the state of play in the run-up to next year’s Parliament election and in a year filled with Assembly elections.

In a democracy in which punishing opponents and dissidents has become second nature lately, inquiries will not be held when MPs demand it. The governing party will resort to barricading tactics, giving the presiding officer the technical reason to adjourn Parliament. The Prime Minister will remain silent when questions are asked, or deny outright that China has invaded India’s territory on his watch. Although he has no authority to do so, the vice-president will seek a written explanation from a Rajya Sabha member for criticising the home minister in a newspaper article, as has just happened with the CPI(M)’s John Brittas.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Since Mr Gandhi’s own Long March, the mood in India is turning. Rahul Gandhi probably wasn’t looking for professional reporting and commentary on television or in the large-circulation newspapers, and didn’t get any. However, hundreds, sometimes thousands, and at times even tens of thousands marched with him every single day through that five-month odyssey, going by eyewitness accounts. And many shot their videos and put them out in cyberspace. It is this that is getting the establishment nervous.

The Congress is the country’s largest Opposition party which is not a regional party. And it doesn’t depend on caste, class, language or religious bonding for votes. For many years it was everyone’s party and suddenly found itself being no one’s party as the era of emphasis on caste and religion identities took over the polity. The Congress also scored own goals along the way as it widely came to be seen as a dynastic party.

Much of this past baggage now seems out of the way as the party has elected a new president who is not a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family. In fact, the current president, Mallikarjun Kharge, is a well-regarded senior political figure from Karnataka who happens to be a Dalit. The symbolism of a Dalit Congress president has begun to worry the party’s opponents, especially the BJP. But the time window is small for Mr Kharge to set up even a rudimentary organisational structure in many parts of the country in time for next year’s general election.

This task may be rendered easier if the Congress can defeat the BJP in the Assembly election in Karnataka, the Congress chief’s home state, due in about a week from now. The Karnataka election is important for the conjuncture, being the first electoral test for the Congress as well as the BJP on the heels of a tumultuous period that has seen wholly unexpected and out of the ordinary events.

Among these are the Congress’ decision to throw in its lot -- conceptually for the first time -- with the idea of a caste census for India as well as reservations in education and jobs for OBCs according to their proportion in the population. In doing so, India’s former ruling party finds itself on the same page as the so-called “social justice” regional parties -- and better placed than ever before to appeal to OBCs for votes across the country, especially North India. These middle peasant castes had been voting against it since the 1960s.

These are novel times indeed. The incumbent and the challenger are both apt to be nervous -- the incumbent because the economic indices are shallow and run against the interests of the country’s non-privileged classes, and the challenger due to the great suspense caused by anticipation. It no longer seems the case that the BJP is visibly better placed than its challengers, unless the Election Commission goes soft on EVM-related irregularities.

On top of these considerations comes a major defection -- that of former Jammu and Kashmir governor Satya Pal Malik. In explosive interviews he has lately accused the Prime Minister of “not being averse to tolerating corruption”, and manipulating events to give rise to the Pulwama terrorist attack so that India may have a reason to drop bombs on Pakistan just months before the 2019 Lok Sabha election, and earn credit for fighting terrorism.

This is the first sign of contrary activity from within the citadel. Is Mr Malik acting alone? Is he a part of an influential, if not powerful, cabal? We shall only know in due course. But today is a time of genuine suspense in the political arena in our dwindling democracy.