Sunday, July 30, 2017

India in 2017: The Coordination of The Bihar State

I am now in India, after a gap of several months. A lot has changed in the few months since I was last here. Most visibly, the money has changed - the Rs. 1000 notes have vanished and the ubiquitous Rs. 500 notes have a new look, and there is a strange purple-pink Rs 2000 note in circulation, which very few people want to accept. It is one of the signs of the great experiment that is now underway in India, where even the most fundamental things can change overnight.

One such event in the few days I have spent here was the coordination of the Bihar state. Bihar, which is one of the most populous states in Eastern India, has a large lower caste population, and have consistently rejected the upper caste Hinduvta politics of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). True, BJP had participated in the Government in coalition with one of the other 'caste' parties in the past, but they were never the senior partner. And, in fact, Bihar electorate dealt a severe blow to Mr Modi's ambitions in 2016, when BJP was defeated rather decisively in the state elections, by a coalition of parties that included Indian National Congress, the main opposition, and Janata Dal (United), BJP's erstwhile partners who broke ranks citing Mr Modi's communal past.

And, yet, this week, Mr Modi appeared triumphant again, as the Chief Minister of the State, Mr Nitish Kumar, kept his scruples about BJP's communalism aside and dumped his electoral allies. The excuse was the corruption cases against one of his coalition partners, but that is as filmsy as it can get: The corruption charges were old and well-known. It was as if Mr Kumar seemed to have discovered a new scruple as it discarded his old one about communalism.

In the world of Bihar politics, such U-turns are unsurprising. Mr Kumar is a known opportunist, and the only thing his latest move means is that he has given up on his Prime Ministerial ambitions, which was perhaps the real reason why he did not like the elevation of Mr Modi in 2014 and deserted the BJP.  But this latest turn has more significance than his vanity, and even the disarray in opposition. Mr Modi's demonetisation, which has caused enormous difficulties for the ordinary people and achieved little in removing 'black money' (Rs. 2000 note allowed a better mechanism for storing it), has achieved its key goal: He has demonetised the opposition! Since then, despite all the marginalisation of minorities and poor people, BJP appeared unstoppable, winning some big electoral victories, but also winning where they lost electorally - like in Goa or Manipur - where they could buy out the seats whereas the opposition, mainly Congress, watched helplessly. They have also been successful in destabilising state governments, where internal rebellion was encouraged and brought down Congress governments. Mr Kumar's latest moves were perhaps prompted by a pragmatic acceptance of such prospects: He knew the writings on the wall and decided to be on the winning side.

As Journalist Sekhar Gupta pointed out, Bihar was a big one. Now the BJP controls all of India's big states, barring the Southern ones. The changes in Bihar is being seen as a decisive turn for the 2019 General Election, which Mr Modi is now almost certain to win. The opposition, unable to come up with any alternative ideas, looks toothless. The media has been hounded into submission. The courts are largely sympathetic to the government agenda and too inept and self-obsessed to change anything. The Government now has one of its own as President. Every opposition-ruled state is feeling the undercurrent of communal tension, which is usually the precursor of the ascendancy. Mr Modi's tactic of 'If you can't win them, break them' seems to be tearing apart the Liberal politics of India.

The worst fears we had about a Modi premiership have now come to pass, but it is plain that a majority of the middle class voters (though some, from the Linguistic or Religious minorities, remain strongly opposed) are still cheering him on. However, in the last several months, the nature of the Indian government has changed. As total power was achieved, the masks have started coming off. The claims of economic development has taken a backseat and Indian economy has started slowing down (though the GDP figures were massaged and made to appear higher), and the political and social agenda of the ruling party has taken precedence. The global charm has also started fading and the global media has started noticing Mr Modi's authoritarianism and his lack of interest in any fundamental reform except in people's eating and dress habits. 

This is the transformation I am witnessing now as I travel around India. I should guard against crying foul too soon, and I don't want to exaggerate and claim that India has already turned a Dictatorship. And, the path it is taking possibly does not lead to the totalitarianism, as there are different interests and personalities are competing for ascendancy rather than being subjected to the whims of one man. But, not being like Nazi Germany is not a great achievement, particularly if India seems to be on the way to become one of those states where the politics of the majority and the interests of a few corporations seem to drive the agenda. India in 2017 and beyond will perhaps give a new model of illiberal state for the future historians to ponder. And, this 'coordination' of the Bihar state would possibly be seen as the all-important inflection poimt when this transformation became clear, and the social agenda finally and decisively trumped the rhetoric of economic development.



 

 


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