Timely Meditations: On the art of going backwards
In this day and age of progress, India has just taken a massive leap - backwards - over the last few days.
First, came the Indian Science Congress. It made news for all the wrong reasons. That a speaker claimed that some mythical figures were test tube babies is absurd; that he was given the opportunity from the podium of the Science Congress is a tragedy. Indian Science should be known for its achievements and not its resident fools. It's impossible to take all that was reported seriously - such as the proposal of renaming Gravitational Wave the Modi Wave - but one really doesn't know what to believe at a time when sense and self-respect seem to be in short supply.
The other big news in the New Year that a temple in Kerala, which banned women of a certain age from entering and was directed recently by the Supreme Court to let them enter, would perform a purification ceremony as two women - despite all threats of violence - managed to enter there. One would have thought the purification ceremonies, attached to untouchability, were things of the past. But, instead of respecting Supreme Court verdict, the party of government, BJP, unleashed the mob violence in Kerala and rhetorical defence of these archaic ideas on national television.
Then came the two big announcements today: A constitutional amendment, no less, to extend reservations, in education and government jobs, to poor upper caste men, and the amendments to Indian Citizenship bill, to open the doors to Indian Citizenship to Hindus in Bangladesh and Pakistan.
India instituted reservations for scheduled castes and tribes in the view of their economic and social disadvantage. This was to last ten years and no more. But the vote bank politics is such that one couldn't wean away Indian society from reservation even after 70 years. This latest round basically extends it to everyone in India except the income tax payers, which makes it about 97% of the population. One should admit that makes reservation meaningless. In fact, if anything, it is an admission of failure: More so for an administration which came to power promising 'development'. And this is what they finally delivered - universal deprivation!
And, further, India has opened the path to Indian Citizenship to Hindus in Bangladesh and Pakistan. A country which refused to take in the Rohingyas suddenly has found compassion for the persecuted people. And, indeed, despite the fulmination of some expat Bangladeshi Hindus, it is hard to see how these minorities are being seen as persecuted. Discriminated against, perhaps, but persecuted? Indeed, what this move is likely to do is two things: One, it would define India as a land for Hindus, something that it was not meant to be; and, two, it would stir up communal divisions in Bangladesh and Pakistan, as some of the religious fundamentalists would seize this opportunity to accuse Hindus of questionable loyalty and blame the governments for being soft on them.
Altogether, it seems that the Indian government is panicking with the general election due in May. The promise of development hasn't been realised. Most Indians would feel worse off today than they were in 2014. As it is, in a country like India, with high population growth and young population, not moving forward is going back. On top of that, there was the politically motivated demonetisation, which gave the ruling party an upper hand in the short term, but put the Indian economy back a few quarters and destroyed the lives and livelihood of quite a few. Abysmally poor governance - not just in the aftermath of demonetisation, but also in implementing the General Sales Tax and managing the banking system, as examples - have hurt where it should not have. Therefore, as the signs are clear that the voters are restive and they are unlikely to buy into empty promises again, the ruling party is desperate to create social divisions so that they can create a vote bank out of the Hindu majority. That has been their path to prominence: Since the 80s, a succession of BJP leaders, empowered with cash coming from their dominance in Western Indian states of Maharastra and Gujarat, have played this game to carve out a space in Indian politics. When all else fails, there has to be a temple somewhere to find refuge in.
However, one must remember that the Indian electorate are not easily fooled. They have always chosen wisely (including in 2014, when BJP provided, only if rhetorically, the better alternative) and this time, the failure of the government is stark. India's opposition is poorly led and have very little in terms of unifying ideas (The main opposition, Congress Party, dutifully voted to extend the reservation). But after having lost five years, Indian electorate is unlikely to give the current government another chance or fall for their invitation to take India back even further into the past.