Sometimes it seems as if Narendra Modi’s government just does not want to succeed with its economic policies – or at least that it gives a higher priority to pushing repressive social actions favoured by its arch Hindu nationalists and their often-violent supporters than it does to achieving business reforms and attracting foreign investment.
Dramatically conflicting events in the national capital of Delhi and the commercial capital of Mumbai in the past few days have illustrated this point.
They raise the question of whether Modi is in charge, or whether forces and rival factions within his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, plus some bureaucrats and other officials, undermine what he is trying to do.
The alternative view is that he approves of the ultra-nationalist approach, even though it might undermine his ambitions for the economy, especially at a time when state assembly elections are once again looming in the coming months.
Meanwhile in Delhi, the city’s police and Rajnath Singh, the home minister, triggered escalating violent and repressive clashes with students and the media that have continued till today over an issue which need never have become important outside the gates of the leftward-leaning Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), one of the country’s leading educational institutions.In Mumbai, a massive Make in India promotional week was opened by Modi on February 13. It has been aimed at attracting foreign investors into job-creating manufacturing industry with a vision of India as an open and liberalising economy. Visitors have included the prime ministers of Sweden, Finland and Poland, together with top international industrialists.
The clashes have dominated the newspapers and television, almost eclipsing the Make in India events – apart from a few hours on February 14 when a massive fire at a prestige cultural evening blazed for a few hours across the tv screens.
Foreign visitors to Mumbai might regard the students’ problem and subsequent violence as something that happens in most countries from time to time, and therefore not significant to any investment plans. But if they have inquired further, they will have discovered a government that has repressive overtones and that restricts freedom of expression more oppressively than past governments have done, while allowing its extreme wings to create social unrest.
Meanwhile, in the world of business, Modi’s Make in India message has also been undermined by finance ministry bureaucrats who have warned Vodafone, the British mobile phone company which is one of India’s biggest foreign investors, that the company’s assets might be seized if it failed to pay Rs 14,200 crore ($2.1bn) in disputed tax. This case is in arbitration, so there should be no threats, and Modi said in Mumbai that such tax demands were a thing of the past. As Vodafone put it yesterday, “In a week when Prime Minister Modi is promoting a tax-friendly environment for foreign investors, this seems a complete disconnect between the government and the tax department.” The way that the clashes with the students have been handled is also souring the political climate and is giving the Gandhi family-led Congress Party fresh excuses to obstruct parliament’s Budget Session that begins next week. This will not block finance minister Arun Jaitley’s Budget speech due on February 29, but it could upset new measures including a fresh attempts to pass urgently needed sales tax legislation.
On a different level, the Vodafone warning raises a question about Jaitley’s control of his ministry’s bureaucrats because he was in Mumbai for the manufacturing promotion and would presumably not have wanted to see it undermined – he is also Modi’s chief spokesman and the minister for information.So who is setting the agendas? Was Rajnath Singh, who has sometimes been side-lined by Modi, not aware that that the escalating students’ row, and behaviour of the Delhi police who come under his charge, were undermining the prime minister’s investment pitch – and did the prime minister mind?
The students’ crisis began on February 12 when Kanhaiya Kumar, president of the JNU student union, was arrested and other students were suspended after an annual protest against the 2013 hanging of a convicted Kashmiri terrorist. Rajnath Singh condemned the students for “anti-national” activities and called for tough police action.
The home minister must have realised that, by sending the police into the JNU and making such remarks, he was escalating what could have been an internal disciplinary matter into a headline-grabbing issue. He then went further and, on apparently weak evidence, suggested on February 14 that the student protest has been supported by Hafiz Saeed, leader of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist group who is on India’s “wanted” list.“If anyone shouts anti-India slogan and challenges nation’s sovereignty and integrity while living in India, they will not be tolerated or spared”, the home minister tweeted provocatively shortly before the arrests. “I have instructed the Delhi CP [chief of police] to take strong action against the anti-India elements,” he added, and repeated the remarks on television. The police gained unrestricted access to the university premises and Kumar was arrested on charges of sedition amid protests and scuffles.
The minister’s mission was carried out by the Delhi police chief, B.S.Bassi, who adopts what is widely regarded as a pro-BJP line on many issues, ranging from this case to hassling the popularly-elected Aam Aadmi Party state government in Delhi that has just successfully completed its first year in office. Bassi retires on February 29, when he might enter politics or be given another job in the gift of the government.
Singh’s statements and Bassi’s actions were in effect curbing the freedom of expression and the right to protest, while supporting the BJP’s extreme and violent right-wing student organisation, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) that led the unrest. The ABVP rivals other student factions, including the far left Democratic Student’s Union (DSU) and a Democratic Student’s Front that was involved in February 12 protest.
Singh’s action criticised
Singh’s “anti-national” allegation and the use of a sedition law dating from the days of British rule has been widely criticised, while a claim by the human resources minister, Smriti Irani, that the nation would never tolerate any such “an insult to Mother India” was widely mocked for being out of proportion to what was happening. Both Congress and BJP governments have attempted to use the old sedition law to curb dissent, but there has never been a successful legal case and the supreme court ruled in 1962 that it could only be applied where there was “incitement to violence” against the government.
Bassi’s bias became evident when, having arrested Kanhaiya Kumar before carrying out any investigations, the police did not arrest lawyers (some with strong BJP connections and maybe ABVP activists dressed up as lawyers) who have stormed Delhi’s Patiala House district court where Kumar’s case is being heard, attacking students and journalists over the past three days. Bassi said he was investigating allegations against the “lawyers”, even though their actions were being shown on television. A transcript of Kumar’s speech shows he was not inciting violence.
The violence and attacks on journalists have continued today and there have been reports that Kumar was assaulted inside the court. The supreme court has stepped in ordering the police to take action, make some arrests, and clear the Patiala court of protestors. Pointedly, it asked Bassi if he was able to maintain law and order. The government has also shown some signs of trying to calm the political mood, promising at a meeting of all parliamentary parties presided over yesterday by Modi to allow full debates on the events next week.
Kumar’s detention in jail was extended today by the Patiala court till March 2, which seems unnecessary, given that the student leader’s speech is fully available and he has told police he has not voiced anti-national views. His detention underlines concern that the government, and especially its right wing ministers and violent allied organisations, have no tolerance for students’ anti-establishement views and are bent on restricting the independence of academic institutions and curb the freedom of expression, which has been seen on many other occasions since the general election in 2014.
The escalating crisis of the past six days need never have happened, and could have been ended on any one of the days by competent political management, unbiased and measured policing, and a respect for the rights of individuals – if the government had wanted to do so. The question that has been raised, as a cartoon in the Indian Express illustrates with the Make in India lion carrying off a JNU student, is what kind of India does Modi and his government think they are making?
John Elliot is a former correspondent of the Financial Times. This piece was first published in his blog ridingtheelephant.wordpress.