By Nikhil Vaish
Capitalism and democratic freedom go hand in hand. In order for India’s economy to succeed, people need to stop fearing backlash for religious or political beliefs, and have no fear in publicly criticising the government, the PM, elected officials and even the army.
Silence is no longer an option; it will be deemed as acquiescence at worst, cowardice at best, at a time when moral policing, anti-Muslim bigotry, religious intolerance, frivolous accusations of anti-nationalism and vigilantism continue to grow.
In order for Modi’s vision of India to succeed, he needs to go well beyond cutting a few layers of our bureaucracy and corruption, and also start championing free society where diversity of thinking is encouraged, where there is respect for rule or law (and consequences for breaking it) and where there is a very clear separation between religion and state.
These are the fundamental underpinnings of every successful free market economy. India cannot progress economically with one-hand tied behind its back. If Mr. Modi continues to allow apolitical institutions like the army to be used by his political cronies as instruments of faux nationalism, he will pay a very heavy price and so will India.
The bottom-line is that every month between 2011 and 2030, nearly 1 million Indians will turn 18 and if India is unable to create well-paying jobs, no matter what else Modi achieves, his tenure will be viewed as a failure.
In my estimation, there are three things Mr. Modi must do to change the tenor of the current discourse in our nation and lay the foundations for a more cohesive and inclusive India.
As one of the few politicians who understand the power of social media, Mr. Modi must make an appeal to all digital lynch mobs to make clear that this behaviour will not be tolerated and most certainly should not be done in his name. He needs to be unequivocal in his condemnation of social media misogyny, bullying and hooliganism, but stop short of passing new laws.
His needs to be a plea for civility without limiting free speech; it is about appealing to people’s good sense and getting them to take the higher ground, just like Modi did when he met with Nawaz Sharif and invited Pakistan’s SIT team (against the wishes of his own advisors).
For a man who took office promising to attract foreign companies and investment by changing the backward, corrupt, bumbling and bureaucratic image of India, his government’s own PR has been nothing short of an unmitigated disaster.
In a world where perception is reality, the BJP is increasingly being seen as a government of overreach. One that regularly tramples on civil liberties and constitutional rights. Granted,
some of this is overreaction, media bias and orchestration by opposition parties, but truth is that beef bans have been enforced in BJP-led states, independent documentary films have been banned, funding has been blocked for NGO’s, college students have been charged with sedition and there was an attempt to blacklist an independent TV channel without judicial oversight. All of this has transpired under Mr. Modi’s watch.
The point is that the world is watching and taking note. Ultimately, nobody wants to invest in a country where rule of law is regularly trampled and sound economic policy decisions are overtaken by religious fanaticism and medieval ideology.
It is easy to forget that at sixty-nine years we are still a young and nascent democracy. Witnessing the machinations of the last two Congress governments, the Aam Admi party’s complete ineptitude and the BJP’s Hindutva antics, it tells me that to begin our evolution into a mature democracy we need to start creating non-partisan institutions, independent think tanks, civilian ombudsman bodies and numerous other apolitical and non-partisan groups that have the ability to monitor our government’s activities and prevent overreaches.
Such institutions are the bedrock of every mature democracy. We have seen how these independent organisations ultimately held the US government to task over recent overreaches like the illegal Iraq invasion and the torture of enemy combatants, and put a stop to intelligence agencies’ infringing on citizens’ rights through opaque domestic spying programs.
India needs this type of independent oversight to hold the government and elected officials accountable when they stray, as they all inevitably do. Mr. Modi can become the PM who championed the creation of these public institutions.
If he does not start to address these underlying civil and social issues, all the good he continues to do – his recent bold move to combat black money, removing foreign equity caps
(from defense to railroads), launching Jan Dhan Yojana (bank accounts for the poor), smart city initiatives, fast track projects, divestment of PSU’S, women’s empowerment programs – will all seem inconsequential as they are overshadowed by beef bans and the use of antiquated British laws.
I believe it comes down to a very simple question that Modi needs to ask himself: What does he want his legacy to be?
Does he want to be remembered as the Prime Minister who put India on the path to achieving its full potential – by promoting free thought, gender equality and rule of law, or the PM who allowed India to be reshaped by wildly misguided notions of Hinduism and pseudo-nationalism?
History certainly will judge how he chooses to answer, but long before that we will decide at the ballot box.