We enter 2024 with the spotlight on the grand Ram mandir inauguration coming up in a few weeks, and a spectacular roadshow the focus of which is the promotion of the ruling party and in particular the Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The building of the temple is one promise that the BJP has delivered on, and it is only to be expected that its political machinery will be in overdrive to turn this into votes for the party in the upcoming national elections. The full-fledged involvement of the governmental machinery in a religious movement is of course problematic, first from the standpoint of constitutional correctness but equally for larger implications of governmental capture as opposed to a political mobilisation and of instrumental use of a religious sentiment. But it is a sign of the times that hardly anyone mentions this. There was a time when it was suggested that Narendra Modi should participate in the foundation laying ceremony for the temple in his personal capacity as a Hindu, not in his official capacity as the Prime Minister of India. Not anymore. We are clearly long past the stage where this is seen as something to be flagged, let alone protested.
The full-fledged involvement of the governmental machinery in a religious movement is of course problematic, first from the standpoint of constitutional correctness but equally for larger implications of governmental capture as opposed to a political mobilisation and of instrumental use of a religious sentiment
The narrative we have for the nation amid this frenetic start to the New Year was captured in the words of the Prime Minister as he signed off 2023: “Today every corner of India is brimming with self-confidence, imbued with the spirit of a developed India; the spirit of self-reliance. We have to maintain the same spirit and momentum in 2024 as well.”
We can’t fault the BJP for its quick mobilisation and superior messaging
To the extent that this sets the BJP’s agenda for the elections, adds a lot of colour and hyperbole, and presents the BJP as the favourites for 2024, the exercise is understandable and may even be hailed as good planning and agenda-setting well in advance of a significant national election. We can’t fault the BJP for its quick mobilisation and superior messaging.
Yet, it is plain that election-mode is not reserved by the BJP for election time. It appears to be an always-on mode, an ever-present bias towards celebration, overstatement and reiteration of claims that are sought to be turned into perceived reality by a party that is as much flush with funds and media support as the others are devoid of it. The danger is that the party begins to believes its hype, and the government’s energies are more towards story-telling and to that extent lesser towards problem-solving. Indeed, the only problem that the party probably sees is that the story has to be fixed, a real life living of that telling Apple ad which shows its rival Microsoft distributing resources between two buckets: fix Vista or do more advertising. The latter gets the bulk if not all of the money while customers complained about the problems created by Microsoft’s then new Operating System called Windows Vista.
How far have we moved in terms of our capacity to question authority, to expand our freedoms and to strength our democracy?
The trouble with this kind of governance is that the nation and its people will have to sooner rather than later come to terms with the real problems – raging unemployment, the monster of communal hatred, bitter disputes that are ever widening, mounting debt, decimated institutions, the weakening of the spirit of cooperative federalism, corruption and nepotism that favours a few chosen business leaders, increased concentration of power in a few individuals and a democratic decision-making process that remains only in name.
All these are old world problems that India has seen for long, and they have only gotten worse during the eight years of the BJP in power at the Centre. Fancy leaflets, well done graphs and nicely cut videos cannot fix these and a host of other problems that the nation faces today. Coupled with this is an anti- democratic tendency that seeks to decimate not only voices from the opposition but also kill competition from inside the BJP, or whatever little of it might be there, if political reports are to be believed. The demand appears to be total subservience to authority and the nation and the party has complied, raising questions on the inner strength of Indian democracy and its still-fledgling institutions.
Is this India more secure or less secure? Is our democracy better off when citizens can challenge authority and set new precedents for freedom or are we better off when all challenge is silenced using various means? How could the British have taken over India were it not for the self-defeating inner squabbles that the outsiders used to telling effect to subjugate an entire nation? How far have we moved in terms of our capacity to question authority, to expand our freedoms and to strength our democracy? What has the Emergency taught us, if anything?
The trouble with this kind of governance is that the nation and its people will have to sooner rather than later come to terms with the real problems – raging unemployment, the monster of communal hatred, bitter disputes that are ever widening, mounting debt, decimated institutions, the weakening of the spirit of cooperative federalism, corruption and nepotism
The words of Judge Murray I. Gurfein in what is known as the Pentagon Papers case of 1971 are significant. He ruled against the government and in favour of the publication of classified papers by the New York Times. His order, which became a First Amendment classic in the US, read: “The security of our nation is not at the ramparts alone. Security also lies in the value of our free institutions. A cantankerous press, an obstinate press, a ubiquitous press must be suffered by those in authority in order to preserve the even greater values of freedom of expression and the right of the people to know.” Gurfein was appointed by the Nixon administration and in his first case ruled against the government.
There is also the larger problem of a very un-Indian way of governance, a manner that is far removed from an understanding of the culture and ethos of the nation that the BJP is so proud to claim as one of its foundational grounds. For at the centre of the Indian ethos is values, a steadfast commitment to ‘dharma’ and a moral compass whose careful calibration of right versus wrong that is never to be compromised. It might be fashionable to argue that there are no values in politics. After all, which party is about values on the Indian scene? And if that is so, then it is possible to argue that the BJP has not risen to power, it has fallen in power and may be taking the nation down with it. We will need all the Lord’s blessings to come out of this sinkhole.
(The writer is a journalist and faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal)