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‘Behavior of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party since returning to power represents a fundamental threat to the future of India’s democracy’

Project Syndicate: Since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, it has been keeping a tight lid on the pressure cooker, to borrow your metaphor. What are the most immediate risks you foresee?

Shashi Tharoor: The abrogation of Section 370 and Jammu and Kashmir’s bifurcation into two union territories is already being mourned as a dark day for Indian democracy. As I’ve previously stated, it is the political equivalent of Modi’s 2016 demonetization: an idea that was poorly conceived, and implemented with little consultation with any stakeholder group. The removal of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status amounted to an assault on India’s democratic values, and almost two months later, the government has offered little in the way of a truthful accounting of the current condition of the state and our citizens who reside there.

India’s constitution rests on the idea of an inclusive country, on the spirit of cooperative federalism and democratic practices, and on guarantees of individual and group liberties. Jammu and Kashmir has, in many ways, benefited from these ideals. Now, in a constitutional sleight of hand, it has seen them indefinitely suspended – indeed, seemingly wiped out.

As I argued in Parliament, there is an immense risk that the short-term damage done by this decision will overshadow any of the hypothetical long-term gains. Consider the economy: Jammu and Kashmir has long depended on tourism. By bringing the Kashmir Valley suddenly to a standstill, upending any sense of normalcy there, India’s federal government has effectively discouraged tourists from visiting. Similarly, investors shun warzones; with the state unlikely to return to a state of normalcy anytime soon, the investment that is needed to fuel development is likely to stall.

The political risks are even larger. The federal government has placed popular leaders in Jammu and Kashmir – including some of my colleagues who have represented the state in Parliament – under house arrest. It should be working with them to find an amicable solution with regard to the abrogation of Article 370. With these democratically elected leaders’ voices excluded from the discussion, I wonder who will take their place. After all, when you render democratic opponents irrelevant, you create space for undemocratic forces. With the people of Kashmir feeling deeply betrayed, individuals who have previously resorted to violence and acts of terrorism, and who had been marginalized for some time, may once again find popular acceptance.

And finally, there is the risk posed to the very federal structure of our country, which has been organized as a “union of states” since independence. The fact remains that asymmetric federal relations (such as Article 370) have always existed within this union of states. Could the government use the same – until now, unprecedented – methods they have used against Kashmir against other states tomorrow?

PS: You suggested last month that the action in Kashmir has broader significance, because the Modi government “signaled to the world its abandonment of its previous emphasis on economic growth and foreign investment” in favor of national security and Hindu chauvinism. At this point, what would it take to reverse the Indian economy’s downward slide?

ST: The cracks caused by the present government’s five and a half years of economic and fiscal ineptitude are not just showing; they are weakening the economy’s foundations. Unemployment stands at a 45-year high – particularly worrying for a young population like India’s. Worse, agriculture is in such distress that farmer suicides have broken all records, production has fallen, and exports have stagnated.

The average Indian is genuinely hurting, with a fast-emptying wallet, and fears what will happen if the government upholds its wanton disregard for sound economic management. And while India’s finance minister recently announced a series of U-turns in her disastrous budget proposals and has slashed some key tax rates, many worry that it’s too little, too late.

Whenever the current administration feels politically cornered, it resorts to a hyper-nationalistic narrative, rather than taking stronger action to clean up the mess its own ineptitude created. What the economy needs is a major boost, in order to overcome the consequences of demonetization, which removed 86% of the country’s currency from circulation overnight, and the botched implementation of the new national Goods and Services Tax.

Demand is down because people don’t have money to spend, and investors aren’t producing things people can afford to buy, which also undermines job creation. We need to bring in experts to overhaul existing structures. Since trickle-down growth hasn’t happened, the needed change must be implemented from the ground up. We need more and better jobs, more productive investments, and less lofty rhetoric. This government has been great at selling dreams; but people will not continue buying the same empty package forever.

PS: And yet your latest PS commentary highlights the sharp discrepancy between Modi’s poor record and his enduring popularity. To many Indians, you observe, he comes across as a “decisive, no-nonsense leader, willing to break with tradition and attempt bold solutions” to “intractable problems.” The problem is that the tradition Modi would discard includes democracy itself. How serious is the authoritarian threat in India, and what sources of democratic resilience remain?

ST: I believe that the behavior of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party since returning to power represents a fundamental threat to the future of India’s democracy and the freedoms that we have taken for granted since our independence from colonial rule 73 years ago.

In its second term, the BJP has introduced and adopted far-reaching legislation – such as the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Bill, legislation criminalizing talaq-e-biddah (the Muslim practice of “instant divorce”), the abrogation of Article 370, and the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Bill – with breathtaking speed. With no parliamentary standing committees constituted, a record number of bills have been pushed through with only minimal parliamentary scrutiny.

Far more worrying, however, is the remarkable shift in the BJP’s political ambition. They have gone from whispering about changing the constitution to openly undermining it; from suggesting that some Indians rank higher than others to openly ensuring that, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, the very experience of what it means to be an Indian is different; and from asserting control over independent national institutions to openly using them as instruments of their political agenda.

As a cautious optimist, I would argue that there are enough Indians, including young people, who are committed to resisting these recent chauvinistic trends and to ensuring that the BJP’s project to remake India in its distorted image does not succeed. They will continue to fight for a national discourse that is constructive, recognizes and respects our diversity of faith and conviction, and promotes inclusive politics.

Similarly, the opposition has largely been united and unanimous in their rejection of these forces, and challenged the one-size-fits-all “Hindi-Hindutva-Hindustan” agenda that the government seeks to impose on all Indians. Even if our numbers haven’t allowed us to do more than raise our voices, we have rejected this agenda passionately in parliament and will continue to do everything in our power to resist the dismemberment of democratic India that the BJP seems determined to carry out.

PS: You noted in July that India is alarmed by US President Donald Trump’s direct negotiations with the Taliban. Since then, Trump tried to set up a last-minute meeting with the Taliban at Camp David, presumably to score a big win before the 2020 election. While that meeting was canceled, it seems to confirm Trump’s determination to cut his losses in Afghanistan. What, if anything, can India do to mitigate the risks posed by the return of a Taliban regime?

ST: India is the second-largest investor in Afghanistan after the US, and remains committed to playing its part in promoting the region’s economic and social development, including safeguarding basic rights and access to essential amenities for the Afghan people.

From a social perspective, fostering and promoting a strong Afghan civil society is key to ensuring that the Taliban does not gain traction. As far as India is concerned, the Afghan people have given us a lot of love. Not only do we have historical and cultural connections; there are plenty of contemporary ties that bind us, including cricket, Bollywood, and Indian television. India welcomes Afghan refugees and is committed to providing various benefits – such as military training, administrative guidance, cricket facilities, and health care – for Afghans in India. These efforts have strengthened mutual feelings of brotherhood between the two countries.

At the same time, to complement our goodwill and to protect against the dangers posed by the Taliban regime, India ought to support Afghanistan’s economy. Its investments there already amount to over $2 billion. We have helped to build Afghanistan’s largest hospital for women and children, erect schools, construct the Afghan-India Friendship Dam (formerly known as the Salma Dam), carve the Delaram-Zaranj Highway across the country’s southwest (to open trade routes to the West), ensure uninterrupted electricity in Kabul, and build the new parliament. As a country with no “boots on the ground” in Afghanistan, but one which has won many hearts there, India must hope that development cooperation can serve as the key to neutralizing the dangers posed by a possible return of the Taliban to power.
By the Way…

PS: At a time when Indian media is, in your words, plunging into darkness, which local publications and journalists do you trust?

ST: I believe that some within the Indian media remain committed to the fading practice of ethical journalism and are not afraid to perform their central duty of holding the country’s leaders accountable for their actions. In English, these include print publications such as The Hindu, The Indian Express, The Telegraph, and The Week, as well as their digital comrades, such as The Wire, Scroll, The Quint, and The Print, to name a few. (I am proud to have been associated with most of these publications, and in many cases, continue to offer regular contributions.)

PS: You’ve said that your latest book, The Hindu Way, is an introduction to “your” Hinduism, as you understand and practice it. Presumably, at a time of rising Hindu chauvinism in India, it will be received differently there than outside. In an ideal world, what lessons should all readers, Hindu or otherwise, take from the book?

ST: I think one of the most remarkable aspects of Hinduism – something that I deeply admire, and reiterate in the book – is that while versions of the faith come with their own prescriptions and proscriptions, there is no universal liturgy or regime to which every believer must subscribe. The faith is not monolithic. You are free to choose what you believe in, which manifestations of the divine you worship and when, which of multiple sacred books you engage with, what convictions you hold most dear. You are equally free to reject any assumptions or demands that do not sit well with your worldview.

The beauty of Hinduism is that we have no pope to lay down the law, no imams issuing fatwas as to what constitutes the “truth,” no single sacred text from which deviations are impermissible. There is no such thing as a Hindu heresy. That is the Hinduism I describe in my book – and it stands in stark contrast to what India’s current leaders and their allies propagate today.

The BJP government’s Hinduism is not Hinduism in any true sense. It is, rather, a grotesque deformation of a glorious faith, which they have converted into a narrow-minded political tool to serve purely political and electoral goals. They have taken the soaring majesty of spiritual texts such as the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Puranas, and the Gita and reduced them to irrelevance. For them, loyalty to Hinduism is no different from a British football hooligan’s identity-based loyalty to their team.

In their cynical pursuit of majoritarianism, India’s ruling party forgets that no version of Hinduism promotes violence or discrimination against those who don’t subscribe to our views. As the great Swami Vivekananda memorably said in the nineteenth century, true Hinduism is not just about tolerance; it is about acceptance, including of difference, both within the faith and of other faiths. This message falls on deaf ears among those who care only about securing political gains from “Hindu consolidation.”

PS: You’ve had a wide-ranging career: peacekeeper, refugee worker, United Nations Under-Secretary-General, cabinet member, author, and currently, member of India’s parliament. In some sense, all have been public-service roles. Have you ever considered a private-sector career?

ST: I briefly took up a private-sector role between my departure from the UN and my formal entry into Indian politics. But the bottom line proved an insufficient motivator; to me personally, public service has always had a different kind of appeal. There is an immense sense of satisfaction from knowing that your actions could make a difference in real human beings’ lives.

Years before coming back to India for good, I remarked to an interviewer that “India matters to me, and I would like to matter to India.” Politics has given me the chance to fulfill that wish. I believe that in the time I have served in public positions, including as a member of parliament and a government minister, I have, in my own little way, managed to effect positive change. That has been immensely gratifying.

In addition, as a public intellectual, I have been able to contribute to the national conversation on a number of issues that are crucial for the evolution of the country. So even if one day, when my time in Indian politics comes to an end, a private-sector career comes calling, I will probably say no. I’d much rather dedicate the additional time to my writing and to the world of ideas, which has always mattered to me.

PS: You’ve gotten attention on Twitter for your use of rare and interesting words, from farrago to kerfuffle. What other words should people be using more?

ST: Ha! But, to clarify, despite the kerfuffle (and the farrago of misrepresentations) over my tweets in the past, I have always maintained that I choose the words I do because they are the best ones for the idea I want to convey. After all, the purpose of speaking or writing is to communicate with precision. That said, I will admit that I have occasionally thrown in a word here or there just to enjoy the fun of getting the Twittersphere all worked up again…

I think that people should use the words they want to, but I’m all in favor of giving more currency to words that don’t deserve their current desuetude. For example, “defenestrate.” Aren’t there many arrogant politicians and pompous celebrities you’d like to remove from their positions of power by throwing them out of a window?

Published Date: Tuesday, October 1st, 2019 | 06:31 PM

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