Strategic silences won’t help Congress lead the idea of India towards safer shores.
Grace, humility and sobriety marked the address by the Congress president Rahul Gandhi in his moment of triumph after his party wrested three major states from the BJP. These are qualities that, sadly, have become rare in public life in India today. His measured words were, therefore, significant not just for what he said, and indeed for what he chose not to say, but also for how he said what he did.
With leaders like Donald Trump and Narendra Modi in many countries around the world, we have witnessed a precipitous decline in the civility of public discourse. They never flinch or tire as they hector, savage and caricature their political opponents, most often with abundant recourse to untruths. Gandhi chose, instead, in the glow of his victory, to walk his own path, as he generously thanked the three outgoing BJP chief ministers for their work, and promised to carry on from where they left off. He also acknowledged his mistakes and setbacks from the past.
Gandhi went on to list what he judged to be the country’s paramount challenges. The first of these were of job creation for young people; the second, the grim distress of farmers and the agrarian crisis; and the third, corruption in high places. Each of these catastrophes indeed represents some of the country’s gravest crises, all of which the government led by Modi has spectacularly failed to resolve.
But in the run-up to the midsummer 2019 general elections, the people, not just of these three states but the entire country, will watch closely how the Congress led by Gandhi intends to resolve these three calamities. Each of these are humungous crises which would, of course, require exceptional courage and vision to settle. But the test that Gandhi faces is far greater because these challenges were far from absent even in the decade of the stewardship of the UPA government. On the contrary, the high noon of India’s economic growth from 2004 to 2010 saw 57 million people added to India’s workforce, and only 2.7 million new jobs. The loan waivers for farmers in 2004 by the UPA government were not followed by steps to reverse the chronic and near-terminal crisis of Indian agriculture. And crony capitalist corruption has grown like a cancer on India’s political economy during all of the last three decades.
To meet these challenges would require the Congress governments — in the states as much as in the Centre — to chart a radically new path. We need, therefore, to hear from Gandhi what the Congress governments would do differently from what they have done so far. It requires him to bravely acknowledge that market-led economic policies have indeed resulted in a massive growth of wealth, but these have failed abjectly in their central promise to create decent work opportunities for millions. Jobless growth lies at the core of India’s mounting inequality and the despair of our young people. The solution cannot be more of the same policies of the past. We need to hear what the Congress governments will precisely do to ensure growth with job creation.
Similar is the situation of India’s agrarian crisis. Farmers need to hear Gandhi acknowledge that loan-waivers are necessary as a balm to help farmers cope with their suffering today, but these would be a temporary palliative unless his governments show the new paths that they would follow to actually lift farming from the dark depths into which it has slipped. Without extensive state support, cultivation has long become completely unviable. Public spending for a sector that employs more than half of India’s workforce has fallen to a trivial 2 per cent of the budget. The crisis of India’s farmers can be reversed only with massive public investments in agriculture, including through innovative forms of farmer income support and protection, massive infusions of cheap farm credit, and huge investments in watershed development and micro-irrigation.
My great disappointment with Gandhi’s speech is around his conspicuous silence on the fear and hate generated by the huge spurt in religious and caste-based hate crimes in the country, in recent years. The three states in which the Congress fought so hard for the hearts and minds of its voters were badly singed with religious violence. In our journeys of the Karwan-e-Mohabbat to these states, we found religious minorities living with greater levels of fear of hate attacks than ever, since the Partition riots. Rajasthan is the state where Pehlu Khan was lynched by a mob of cow vigilantes, as was Rakbar; and, where the migrant Afrazul was hacked and burned alive before a video camera. Madhya Pradesh is where carol-singing priests were forced to spend the night in a police lockup, men badly injured by cow vigilantes were jailed while their attackers walked free, and Muslim villagers were imprisoned for weeks on charges of sedition only because of rumours that they cheered the Pakistani cricket team.
Data portal India Spend’s ‘Citizen’s Religious Hate-Crime Watch’ found that 90 per cent of the religious hate crimes since 2009 occurred after Modi was elected to office in 2014. At least 87 per cent of the victims of cow-related attacks were Muslim, as were 62 per cent of victims of all hate crimes. Christians constitute just a little more than 2 per cent of the population, but were victims in 14 per cent of the cases of religious violence.
The Indian people have become accustomed to PM Modi’s refusals to condemn, let alone display compassion for victims of religious hate crimes. But if his main political adversary adopts the same silences whenever he walks the election trail, then this is deeply troubling. It is not Gandhi’s conspicuous temple-visits that worry me nearly as much as his strategic silences about the predicament in which India’s Muslims and Christians find themselves today, during all his election campaigns, whether in Gujarat and Karnataka, or in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.
India was created as a country that belongs equally to people of every faith. The imagination of the BJP and the RSS is contrarily of a country that belongs to its Hindu majority, in which religious minorities must live only as second-class citizens. Modi’s BJP must be fought not just for its failures to create jobs or salvage India’s farmers, or for its crony capitalism. It must be fought because of the poisons of majoritarian hate that it has inserted into India’s social fabric, leaving India more divided than ever since Partition. This can be fought with the courage of convictions that the leadership of the Congress must locate in these dark and threatened times. This battle for the soul of India cannot be fought by stealth and strategic silences.