By the time the largely silent Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao finished rolling out his reforms via then Finance Minister Manmohan Singh, the licence-permit raj had become history. The country was actually on the point of bankruptcy in 1991, brought on by the heavy borrowings of the previous five-year-long Rajiv Gandhi government. The reforms were, in fact, dictated to India by the World Bank, in return for a sorely needed bail-out. It made Prime Minister Rao’s given task easier. And it is anybody’s guess where his own economic instincts lay.
The infamous shipping of RBI gold to Switzerland during the short-lived Chandrashekhar administration, and the permission given to refuel American war planes, when India was on the point of defaulting on its loans, is not altogether forgotten.
But the moot point today is that Prime Minister Rao, who had the temerity to keep his own counsel, put in place and unleashed the energies of a new, liberalised era. One that could not be rolled back by his successors even if they had wanted to. Not only that but after even another quarter-century going on three decades, no further reforms have quite equalled those unveiled in 1991. Land and labour reforms are still pending, keeping major foreign investment at bay. But, even in 2020, taking on the many powerful trade unions is no mean task. Just trying to disinvest money-losing Air India is a multi-headed Hydra, one of which is its unionised staff.
GST, the reforms in income tax, company, and trust laws, the bankruptcy code, from Modi 1.0, are all good economic developments, but they have come in a linear progression, rather than all together, as in 1991. There is much to be said for doing what one must as quickly and efficiently as possible despite the possible fallout. It tends to be epoch-making and the turbulence fades with time.
The very birth of modern India is a case in point. Lord Louis Mountbatten, not only India’s Viceroy but with plenipotentiary powers, decided to accelerate and advance the partition of India and independence by many months. This, before, in his estimation, any fragile agreements he had put together with the INC and Muslim League unravelled, and the rioting got a lot worse.
As it happened, a subcontinent that had never been a theatre of war under the British crown, lost over half a million dead on each side, with millions more dislocated and impoverished by the loss of all they owned. Yet, Britain has never second-guessed its decision to pull out of India and Pakistan as rapidly as it did.
Today, India stands at an ideological and philosophical crossroads once again. To go back is unacceptable to the millions that support the BJP and its NDA government. There are those who are not part of the NDA, who are quite willing nevertheless to support its initiatives in the Rajya Sabha. The upper house is no longer a sticking point in the passage of legislation. But parliamentary success has had the consequence of pushing the battle on to the streets.
It is a noisy if vainglorious challenge that looks better on TV than it does in reality, with its street thuggery and arson. But many take it far more seriously. Still, given that the mayhem is unlikely to stop throughout this second term, can the government afford to turn back now? The dramatis personae include the lib-left, largely stripped of power; the enormous almost 200 million-strong Muslim minority; Maoists, communists, socialists. And then, there are the expert sections of the opposition backed by inimical foreign powers.
Foreign interests that include the Pakistanis, with their military, intelligence, and terrorist arms; the Chinese, clandestinely promoting the Maoists; some Wahhabi forces from West Asia and other OIC countries; separatist forces of Kashmir and Khalistan operating from Europe and Canada. These, and also those that do not want India to make rapid progress, from the West, and elsewhere.
These powers are funding direct and indirect activism and organising protest too. They have been doing so for a long time via a tribe of NGOs and madrassas, but the government is pushing this back too. Yet, it is seen, despite the considerable investment, that the earlier envelope of minority favouring secularism is torn, and cannot, it seems, hold fast any more.
With the rapid developments since May 2019- J&K integrated, the triple talaq law passed, and the resolving of the Ram Temple at Ayodhya in favour of the Hindus; the old status quo is shattered. The pace adopted for the core agenda of the BJP in Modi 2.0 is much faster than in the first term.
Today’s CAA, NPR, NRC and campus protests orchestrated by agent provocateurs are harbingers of more landscape-altering laws to come. This means that either the government has to be frightened into retreat right now, or it will steam-roller on to create a New India — as advertised and promised. The legion of the government’s supporters is looking forward to a population control act and the Uniform Civil Code any day soon.
Going back will destroy the BJP’s credibility with its legions of voters. These are, after all, ideological and civilisational issues, more important than livelihood and food in the minds of many.
Paradoxically, it is the economically much better off middle classes from the lib-left who are fanning the flames of discontent amongst the Muslims. Some amongst the Muslim leadership, if not that of the communists, have read the writing on the wall. They are, therefore, exhorting their followers to fall in line. The tone of the leadership at the politically important Jama Masjid in Delhi is a case in point. But, there are others who want to take the battle to the enemy, regardless of the cost. That they are mostly communists and Jihadists that have everything to lose is not to be ignored.
However, the latter may see their bluff called continuously, between now and 2024, till there is nothing material left of their revolt. The old tactics of intimidation, stone pelting, sloganeering, arson and occasional murder on the streets will not carry.
This modern republic has not been fair to its majority Hindu population. It is remarkable that the original Constituent Assembly debated the issue of adding “secular” and “socialist” to the Preamble and rejected it. These words were added, without discussion, much later, during the notorious Emergency of the 1970s.
This present political construct and narrative from sections of the Opposition cannot be allowed to prevail. All talk of a polity where majoritarianism must be stamped out probably lost value decades ago. It was when the minorities, aided and abetted by politicians dependent on their votes, decided to abuse the covenant, and blatantly push their envelope. Today, it has gone too far. Its fringe elements baldly seek to overthrow the majority and threaten daily retribution. This wild fantasy, it will find out, will not stand. Even though Muslims elsewhere, in the West, have typically started a disproportionate assertion, even at 5% of the population to our 17%. They call for Shari’ah law in Muslim majority areas. This is increasingly resented by the natives- who are now pushing back.
By the time this country goes to elect a new central government in 2024, it will, for its very survival, be a much-changed place from what we can see in the first days of 2020. The INC has made it clear, would like to bring this government down even before its term ends by creating mass public law and order problems.
This is the beginning of a new decade, when the emergence of a New India will see to it that this country is not run for, to an extent by — and largely on behalf of — the minorities. Dressing it up in terms of freedom of expression, plurality and justice is just so much self-serving propaganda for the government’s opponents and a longed-for return to the status quo. This means that, as in the economic reforms of 1991, there is no going back. And the quickened pace of the move forward will leave nobody harbouring false illusions on rolling the time-clock backwards.