Covid-19 isn’t the only problem on India’s hands right now
A perfect storm of warning signs is converging in India, with devastating implications for the future. The pressing concern is Covid-19, as new records are set each day for the most cases in any country. But there are many other problems popping up red flags, even in the pandemic predicament.
We have learned that economic growth cratered 22.8% in the April-June 2020 quarter, and India is officially the worst performing big economy in the world.
But at the same time, crony capitalism is running amok. Industrialists close to the regime are busily building monopolies, often with state interference on behalf of their interests.
After immense pressure over months, the previously high-flying GVK group has effectively surrendered its glittering crown jewel -- the Mumbai airport -- to Gautam Adani, who has also been awarded airports in six other cities. Meanwhile, Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance sold a third of its Jio Platforms (which is alleged to have gained from massive government intervention to the detriment of the state-owned BSNL) for $27 billion, while avoiding any payment of tax via “smart deal structuring.”
These kinds of monopolistic power plays might have been mitigated by checks and balances in India’s institutional framework, but those bulwarks are also being shredded.
Earlier this week in the New York Times, the outstanding legal scholar Madhav Khosla pointed out courts are under majoritarian pressure in many countries, but “nowhere has the collapse of judicial power been more extreme than in India.”
Khosla wrote: “The Indian judicial approach of not only approving the government’s actions -- like the courts in Hungary, Poland, and Turkey -- but also being absent, remaining silent while the state acts, raises a genuine puzzle … On questions such as the biometric project or the building of a Hindu temple on disputed land where a mosque once stood, it has offered its stamp of approval. On a great many matters, it has been missing in action.”
This deleterious slide could have been somewhat countered by an independent media, but -- despite exceptions -- that function has also almost entirely ceased to exist in India.
Recently, many people have made the the comparison between the country’s vituperative television channels to Radio Rwanda, which blanketed airwaves with false information leading directly to the 1994 genocide. In fact, the similarities are easily apparent.
“As a nation, as a people, as a society we are split wide open” says Rakhshanda Jalil, the brilliant Delhi-based writer, whose But You Don’t Look Like A Muslim is one of the best recent non-fiction books from the sub-continent.
She told me: “All our pettinesses, our frailties, the meanest and worst qualities amongst us are out in the open -- be it the level of public discourse, or the biases we harbour in the deepest recesses of our heart. What was the looney fringe is now the mainstream.”
Jalil says: “We must have always had some of these qualities (surely they could not have sprung to life in the past six years) but few of us had them, and fewer still thought of holding them aloft like a badge of pride.
A new normalcy has been given to airing them in public. Certainly, we are teetering at the cusp, looking into a deep, dark ravine, but we can walk back. After all, reform and rehabilitation of the worst of criminals has been known to happen. But for that we have to be stop being fed our daily dose of hatred, toxic masculinity, of othering. It’s a vicious cycle that feeds into itself. Somehow, that cycle has to be broken.”
The public policy expert, Nitin Pai of Takshashila Institution, told me: “Even before the pandemic, the Indian republic was faced with many simultaneous crises: Economic growth was faltering, constitutional institutions were fraying, the media had lost its way, and society was rent with sharp fractures in ways that we haven’t seen since the 1970s. Covid has not only compounded these crises but taken our energies and resources away from confronting the crises.”
All is not lost, says Pai: “Even in this unprecedented situation, we should not assume that the course of history is linear, nor underestimate the capacity of free societies to self-correct.
Are our darkest moments today worse than those of 1947? I don’t think so. Are they even as bad as 1976? I doubt it. But India emerged as a secular democracy out of the ashes of Partition.
The 1977 elections returned us to the path of freedom. Our history shows that far-sighted political leadership and a self-interested electorate have emerged to steer India in the right direction.”
He concluded: “I’m sure the same will emerge in India again, sooner or later. I hope it is sooner, for every day wasted is an opportunity lost for millions of people to make a decent, dignified life for themselves.”
Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.