As We Waited for the Prime Minister’s Televised Address…
The same guesses drew opposite reactions
Around 11.30 am on March 27 came news that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was soon to make a surprise televised address to the nation at noon. Initial curiosity gave way to suspense - with the election code of conduct in place, it had to be a matter of considerable import, we reasoned - and then to a level of alarm when the event did not begin as scheduled.
In the end we learnt of India’s successful anti-satellite missile test and emergence as the fourth country in the world (after the USA in 1959, and Russia and China) capable of destroying an enemy satellite.
The speculation triggered between the news of an announcement, and the announcement itself, needs more analysis. For the directions in which it went and the reactions it evoked say much about government in the Modi BJP years, and how it has inured us to extreme and unpredictable scenarios.
Three guesses kept coming up in the wait for Modi’s address. One: Demonetisation 2.0 was on the anvil. Two: We were going to see a formal declaration of war on Pakistan, and likely a postponement of the upcoming parliamentary elections. Three: An election rule change or a giant sop that would effectively take the wind out of the opposition’s sails.
The very fact that these possibilities were entertained, even if half in jest, is concerning. It suggests that this government is not seen as above inflicting a second round of demonetisation despite the disastrous experience of the first.
Or going to war, despite the dust barely having settled after the Pulwama-Balakot-Nowshera exchange, and without exceptional provocation from the Pakistani side thereafter.
Or taking unfair advantage of its custody of the state to amend or break elections rules for its own benefit.
Notably, the speculation among BJP supporters was also on similar lines. Only their reactions to impending currency withdrawal, war, or illegal out-maneuvering of the opposition were diametrically opposite. Their gleeful welcome was clearly driven by faith in the ‘demonetisation as masterstroke’ narrative, the belief that the case for war on Pakistan is ever-present and ever-pressing, and the notion that it’s not an altogether bad idea to tinker with the rules of the electoral game as long as it boosts their side’s chances.
This convergence and divergence reflect, in many ways, how the contours of the 2019 contest have come to be defined.
On one side are those worried about the Modi-led BJP government’s hubris, its obdurate refusal to acknowledge mistakes and indeed insistence on projecting them as successes, its war-mongering and resort to anti-Pakistan rhetoric when pushed to the backfoot, its contempt for the political opposition and the underhand methods it is capable of deploying to defeat it.
They believe that the intent reflected in unpopular and drastic decisions such as demonetisation and war, must not be rewarded. In this frame of thought, the arbitrariness, high costs and few beneficiaries of such decisions are a measure of their unwisdom, and not otherwise.
The other side seems to believe that if the opposition is squealing, the government must have done something right. Further, if rewarding intent requires a systematic undermining of the opposition cause, so be it. For at this apparently crucial juncture in India’s history, India’s supposed choices are between cacophony and intent, between a Pakistan-friendly, inertia-laden government and a decisive, ‘nationalist’ one.
The central issue running through all this is respect for democratic tenets.
This includes the question of whether one’s stance on war with Pakistan, or on any other issue, should define one’s Indianness. And whether one’s Indianness, however defined, has any bearing on their worth as a citizen or a person.