The unabated wave of protests has put the Modi government on the back foot.
It is now acknowledged by all except Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party that India’s current economic downslide was the result of two decisions he took in his first five-year term.
As his second term progresses, it is becoming clear that two decisions he took after his re-election last year have drawn the country into a political maelstrom.
The first-term decisions that hit the economy were demonetisation of high-value currency notes in 2016 and roll-out of goods and services tax (GST) the following year. The fault lay not in the decisions but in the way they were implemented.
In 2015-16 the economy grew at a five-year high of 7.6 per cent. After demonetisation the growth rate dropped to 7.0 per cent in the third quarter of 2016-17 and 6.1 per cent in the fourth.
In a paper prepared in their personal capacities, International Monetary Fund Chief Economist Gita Gopinath, Harvard University Assistant Professor Gabriel Chodorow-Reich, Goldman Sachs global macro research chief Prachi Mishra and Reserve Bank of India research manager Abhinav Narayanan said demonetisation severely impacted both the informal and formal sectors of the economy and resulted in loss of jobs.
Three years later, in the last quarter of 2019, economic growth was at a still lower 4.6 per cent. Unemployment was at the highest level in 45 years.
The second-term decisions that have bedevilled the polity are alteration of Kashmir’s status and interpolation of religion in citizenship matters.
The decisions on both issues were in keeping with the ideas of BJP’s ideological mentor, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which wants India to jettison secularism and become a Hindu nation.
Last August, in one fell sweep, Modi abrogated the constitutional provisions that gave Jammu and Kashmir a measure of autonomy and reduced its status from that of state to Centrally-administered territory.
The change was enforced, keeping J&K locked down, cutting off all communications with the outside world. The state’s leaders were jailed. The national opposition was too cowed down to respond.
Six months later many of the curbs imposed in the Kashmir valley are still in place. The local Chamber of Commerce and Industry estimated the economic loss of the first three months of lockdown at $2.4 billion.
There has been no data on the economic loss since then but tourism, the mainstay of the economy, is in the dumps and apples, the main crop, are reported to be rotting in orchards.
The human costs of the lockdown remain uncounted. Large numbers of children are said to be experiencing effects of severe mental stress.
Modi justifies the high-handed actions in the name of checking terrorism. But they have actually created a political vacuum which is conducive to the growth of anti-national forces in the long run.
Three former Chief Ministers, Farooq Abdllah and his son Omar Abdullah, both of the J&K National Conference, and Mehbooba Mufti of the People’s Democratic Party, are detained under a law which permits one to be held without trial for up to two years. Incidentally, Modi’s party was a junior partner in Ms Mufti’s coalition government.
Last December the government brought into force an amendment to the Citizenship Act which empowers it to grant citizenship to non-Muslim refugees from neigbouring countries.
While piloting the Citizenship Act amendment (CAA), Home Minister Amit Shah told Parliament a National Register of Citizens (NRC) would be prepared in every state to identify and exclude infiltrators.
When this led to a furore the government said no decision had been taken yet on NRC. However, it has not forsworn the idea.
There is a suspicion that the Centre will use data gathered for the National Population Register (NPR) to prepare the NRC.
Citizens, mainly youth and women, have been staging massive protests against CAA, NRC and NPR across the country for weeks, braving repressive measures reminiscent of colonial days. States which account for more than 60 per cent of the population have said they would not undertake NPR work.
Threats of non-cooperation by state governments and citizens have sealed the fate of the NRC and put Modi in a bind. “Shoot ‘em” is the refrain of BJP’s middle-rung leaders.
What the country is witnessing is a conflict between two contradictory concepts: a secular India and a Hindu nation. This is not an issue to be settled through use of brute force. Modi must restrain the hotheads in his party, drop the controversial measures and explore the path of reconciliation.