Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh have been in the news for the wrong reasons. During his 2014 campaign for the prime ministership, Narendra Modi trumpeted the ‘Gujarat model of development’, saying it needs to be replicated across the country. Today it is clear that it has come unstuck. Apart from stories of mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are also reports that substandard ventilators were supplied by a company whose promoters included a business family that had gifted Modi an expensive suit in 2016. The Gujarat high court severely criticised the deplorable conditions in Ahmedabad’s civil hospital terming it as “good as a dungeon, may be even worse.”
The BJP’s hegemonic UP model, on the other hand, has attracted some positive attention because of chief minister Yogi Adiyanath’s supposedly robust response to the coronavirus crisis. The tough enforcement of the lockdown and creation of containment zones have been cited as important reasons why UP has done better than other states. But the jury is out on UP’s performance because there’s no evidence that the government responded in a systematic and effective manner. Testing rates are low in UP compared to the rest of the country and the return of migrant workers has spiked infections, apart from aggravating the employment crisis.
The origins of the UP model can be traced to the BJP’s decisive victory in the assembly elections in 2017, based on a campaign that openly pitted Hindus against Muslims with its top leaders insinuating that the majority community was not getting a fair deal under previous governments. The appointment as chief minister of an authoritarian (not populist) like Yogi Adityanath – whose entire politics revolved around a militant brand of Hindutva and fuelling antagonism against Muslims – was a turning point in this process.
In the rush to strengthen majoritarian consolidation, an undemocratic model of governing gained currency marked by erosion in civil and political rights and a wave of intolerance against Muslims. Indiscriminate arrests is a key feature of the UP model, which seems to rest on the belief that law enforcement is not a measure for ensuring justice but a means to impose harsh punishments for crimes the government claims have been committed, regardless of whether they have actually been committed or not.
The ruthless suppression of protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) is by far the most unconcealed evidence of the notion of communal-authoritarianism – the spine of this model. Nowhere was the crackdown so cruel and so openly communal in its subversion of justice and in exacting of revenge against a community. Muslims were the main victims of state brutality and maximum casualties in the protests occurred in UP. People across the state were served notices demanding monetary damages for alleged acts of vandalism of public property. Posters were put up at busy intersections in Lucknow displaying photographs and addresses of people who were served recovery notices. This decision hit a new low, even by UP’s standards. No other state went this far. In effect, public protests were either not allowed or harshly dealt with by selectively using the law enforcement machinery to prevent Muslims from raising their voice against a discriminatory law.
The pandemic presents an opportunity
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic presented an opportunity for the even greater play of communal-authoritarian impulses. Like many other BJP leaders, the chief minister pinned the blame for the spread of the coronavirus solely on the Tablighi Jamaat. This controversy was effectively used to widen the reprehensible arc of communal politics and to deliberately sow social divisions. Eight out of 18 coronavirus hotspots in Lucknow were named after mosques, adding communal colour to an illness and blaming one particular community for it.
The penal approach to the culture of protest and citizenship (which is, in any case, weak in UP compared to other states like Kerala) was extended to the health crisis, which was promptly turned a into a law and order problem – a distinctive feature of the UP model. The government has used the pandemic to give itself sweeping powers to combat the virus. An ordinance was passed that prescribes a maximum punishment of life term if a person causes death by “intentional affliction” of contagious disease. Even though it is difficult to establish criminal intent, there is huge scope for arbitrary action by state actors. Needless to say, much of this will be used mainly against Muslims who would be accused of concealing the infection and spreading it.
Taking advantage of the lockdown, the UP government was also quick to dismantle protections for labour. On May 6, the UP cabinet, through an ordinance, suspended 35 of the 38 labour laws being implemented in the state. Barring three, all laws, rules and regulations covering factories, shops and offices, stand suspended for three years. If the ordinance is approved by the Centre, it will entail far reaching changes in breach of fundamental rights and will substantially worsen the conditions of workers.
Adityanath recently said that states hiring migrant workers from UP need to take his government’s permission, but seemed to backtrack on the suggestion. If such a move were to be implemented, it would take UP to a stage where, in the words of Ayn Rand, “the government is free to do anything it pleases, while the citizens may act only by permission.” Such a decision will also face a legal challenge as it violates the constitutional right to free movement. The right to travel freely is a right which no citizen can be deprived of without due process of law. Moreover, the state does not have the capacity to absorb all the returning workers. UP has the highest levels of unemployment in absolute numbers in the country. Unlike the Gujarat model, the UP model is not known for high economic growth. The per capita income of UP is half of the national average even today.
Dignity of workers given short shrift
Typically, the stated concern for the dignity of workers was given a short shrift when the UP government refused the Congress party’s offer to provide buses to transport lakhs of migrant workers who are still trudging hundreds of kilometres under the scorching sun to reach their villages. This compounded the structural suffering of millions who work in the informal sector, a consequence of various acts of commission or omission of state and Central governments.
Any state government acting in the interests of workers would have accepted the proposal, but the UP government didn’t. It is wary of the Congress making political headway in UP in the middle of the lockdown, but this cannot justify the attempts to block help being offered to the workers, especially at a time when the government has not been able to come to their aid effectively. UP’s underdevelopment and failure to provide gainful employment leads labour to migrate to the more developed states.
Hardening authoritarianism is the real problem since the BJP won a massive majority in 2017. The UP government’s multiple actions clearly suggest that it sees democratic rights as an obstacle to majoritarian consolidation and the strategy of mobilising Hindus, traditionally divided by caste distinctions, into a larger voting bloc.
Long before the virus hit, UP was already experiencing a decline of democracy. The political context and the decision on recovery of damages from anti-CAA protestors and the suspension of labour laws are two big steps in accelerating the formation of a communal-authoritarian regime while seizing the opportunity to advance the Hindutva agenda. The key to this transformation is what Arjun Appadurai calls the production of authoritarianism by means of authoritarianism.
Zoya Hasan is professor emerita, Jawaharlal Nehru University.