In the early days of the Narendra Modi government, Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai was stopped from boarding a flight to London. Pillai was scheduled to speak before a group of United Kingdom parliamentarians on Madhya Pradesh’s Mahan coal project and the violation of forest rights of tribals. The activist was later told that her name figured in a database of people who had been barred from leaving the country. The central point in the government’s argument was that Pillai’s views on the Mahan coal project would have lowered India’s image at an international forum, besides hurting the country’s investment prospects.
Worse still, the government slapped its favourite ‘anti-national’ tag on Pillai.
That was back in January 2015, just six months after Modi rode to a triumphant victory at the Centre. Since then, a lot of water has passed under the bridge. The political landscape of the country has drastically changed. Dissenters like Pillai have increasingly been pushed to a corner.
Paradoxically though, amidst high-pitched rhetoric of financial cleansing and multiple grand announcements of systemic reform, hardcore financial offenders are getting away scot free. Business tycoons – from Jatin Mehta and Vijay Mallya to Nirav Modi – rolling in wealth and siphoning money from public sector banks, have blithely escaped the police and the legal system’s dragnet. Some may ask what is so novel about the 1%, who leverage their wealth and influence all the time, dodging the eye of the law? The systems of regulation in India surely did not break suddenly overnight. They have been bent for a long time regardless of which political party is at the helm.
The point is not to gesture towards the Modi government as the originator of all systemic flaws and distortions. The system, no doubt, has always been heavily loaded in favour of the well-heeled and influential. Yet never before has the establishment been so publicly audacious in preaching one thing and practicing another.
Indeed, the Congress government was neck deep in a series of scams – its tarnished record no doubt contributing to its decimation in the 2014 general elections. The BJP, then in opposition, charged the Congress with promoting crony capitalism. The electorate keenly listened to then Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi assuring voters that, if elected to power, he would function as their ever vigilant “chowkidar” (guard) and protect national wealth. They believed him and continued to support him through the travails of demonetisation. Notwithstanding contradictory ground realities, people believed that demonetisation would be instrumental in cleaning up a corrupt system. The most prominent slogans this dispensation has ratcheted up time and again is of reforming the systems, bringing the corrupt to heel – especially powerful economic barons.
Over four years into governance, the present establishment, has failed to live up to those words. In fact, as recent revelations about the defaulters have shown, the present dispensation has been as lax as previous ones and has lowered its guard in keeping tabs on corrupt businessmen and financial bigwigs. What is noteworthy is that while it has let all the big scammers run amok at home and abroad, the BJP has been unceasingly vigilant in monitoring dissenters in various sectors, slapping a range of cases on renegades, critics, and activists who have called the government’s actions into question.
Consider for instance the case of the Bhim Army founder Chandrashekhar Azad. On June 8, 2017 Azad was implicated in an incident of violence in Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh. That Dalits were implicated and sent to jail in an incident where the houses of Dalits were set of fire is of course a separate matter of discussion. Nearly 42 members of the Bhim Army were imprisoned. Gradually, all were released barring three – Sonu Pehlwan, Kamal Walia and Azad. Five months later, Azad and Walia were given bail by the Allahabad high court. But just a day later, the UP government slapped the National Security Act (NSA) on Azad and Sonu Pehlwan. The NSA allows governments in states and at the Centre to keep a prisoner in preventive detention for as long as one year without bail or trial.
The vigilance has been equally tight for non-governmental organisations. In fact, NGOs have been high on the radar of the Modi government from the very beginning of his tenure. Time and again it has used the Foreign Contribution (regulation) Act (FCRA) to tighten the screws on NGOs whose politics and policies challenge the politics of the BJP and the Modi government.
According to media reports in 2015, the government cancelled the registration 9,000 charities for allegedly not declaring foreign donations. Well-known NGOs – from the Lawyers’ Collective to the US-based Ford Foundation – were under government scrutiny. The government even put the Ford Foundation on a security watch list, which meant that the organisation would need government permission to carry on any activity in India.
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And the mother of all targets has been Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Since the arrest of three students – Kanhaiya Kumar, Anirban Bhattacharya and Umar Khalid – in February 2016, JNU hasn’t strayed out of the eye of the storm. With new controversies erupting every day, the government hasn’t eased its watchfulness around the university and activities of students and faculty. In the latest, JNU authorities have filed an FIR implicating students in an alleged gherao of officials, besides petitioning the high court to launch contempt proceedings against students for violating an earlier order.
Finally, consider this – the BJP-government in Uttar Pradesh, has upgraded the security cover of Gupta brothers, Ajay, Rajesh and Atul, under investigation in connection with their proximity to the former discredited South African president Jacob Zuma. The businessmen have been accused of using their connection with Zuma to amass huge amount of unaccounted for wealth.
This state of affairs raises obvious questions about the mismatch between the government’s lip-service to ‘the common man’ and its practice of making life for common people more difficult and terrifying. If Manmohan Singh was accused of falling asleep at the wheel, then the Modi government seems to be indulging in selective somnolence.