How 2019 Saw India’s Political Economy Diving In Deep, Troubling Waters…

Source: Author’s Collection

As one walks into a cold, foggy gray ascend of year 2020, a long casting shadow is left behind of 2019- a year that witnessed seismic political and economic shifts across India.

In the performative dialectics of Indian politics, 2019 would be remembered as a year that patented the rise of a New India, consolidating ideological majoritarianism through electoral and executive action.

A New India, combining the politics of appropriation emerging out of existing constitutional voids (in values of fraternity, equality, liberty, dignity) with a coercive executive, that acts to protect and promote a hegemonized, cohesive spirit of imposed cultural relativism (signaling Hindutva to lie in superiroty to any alternative political, social or religious belief), while normalising this in discourse and action.

With a thumbing BJP victory in National Lok Sabha Polls of 2019, the Modi-Shah invicible political-duopoly successfully mobilized the marginalized not only on issues of national security (after Pulwama-Balakot), but also helped establish a political narrative that, at least in its projection, appears to be the face of a pro-corporate yet welfare-driven party for their rising aspirations to be met, while subsequently furthering an agenda of ‘othering’ another.

In understanding some of these observed trends, the key happenings of 2019 can be categorized into two pathways:regression and progression.

Regression

The state of the Indian economy in the New India of 2020 started in mode of a deep, structural crisis of confidence.

At this point, this crisis has further deepened with almost all economic agents (firms, households, banks, investors, external sector) affected by what appeared to be a temporal economic slowdown at the beginning of 2019.The current situation can be understood as India’s worst economic contractions in last three decades where all growth engines seem to be failing in reviving growth.

For worse, it is difficult to trust government to do the right thing or even have realistic numbers on growth estimates (and other related indicators) with the statistical architecture experiencing a chronic crisis of credibility. A new statistical committee headed by Prof. Pronab Sen is a step in the right direction for this crisis of credibility to be offset but only time will tell on how much of effect this will have in months ahead.

Going beyond this, in terms of current economic activity, banks with higher debt are struggling to provide for credit, while those who can, are finding it difficult to find credible borrowers due to a deepening consumption slowdown and lowering aggregate demand. More NBFCs are likely to go down in months to come and one can experience a second phase of an Indian financial meltdown with a lot hidden debt getting unpacked ahead. India’s industrial performance still remains weak, with worsening export numbers, and the growth of service sector-which remained the rising star since early 1990s, is also seeing a contractionary phase.

With rising food inflation combined with high unemployment most states are in a stagflationary cycle as of now, and a higher fiscal deficit level emerging from thinning of direct and indirect tax government revenues, both, centre and state government spending is also likely to go down for the upcoming fiscal. This will not only negatively affect social and public-sector fund dependent projects (in areas of basic healthcare, education, affordable housing etc.) but worsen India’s exacerbating income (and social) inequities.

In spite of the current economic situation, 2019 saw political and legislative priorities concentrated towards issues core to the BJP’s Hindutva political project.

Triple Talaq criminalization, check. Ram-Mandir issue, check (even though the Supreme Court was seen responsible for its credit, still the political points were scored by a ruling BJP government). Abrogation of Article 370 check, followed by a unilateral action to Union Territorialize the State of Jammu and Kashmir, seeing a coercive crackdown by New Delhi leading to widespread detainment and arrests of political leaders and communication shutdowns for a state’s citizenry almost despicably, left to suffer for months.

These actions were then followed by the passing of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act in the Parliament, later seeing massive protests across the country led by students, civil society members and lawyers.

The protest movement, one of the largest in recent decades, gained national attention and momentum since 15th December, after a direct confrontation between the police and students of Jamia Milia Islamia. The protests so far have seen more than 20 deaths in less than 15 days, and where most BJP-policed states, especially the state of Uttar Pradesh witnessed brutal acts of violence and clamping down by the state police on peaceful protestors.

The case of violence and police-brutality witnessed in the state of U.P. over the past couple of weeks has been particularly tragic with horrifying details emerging with each passing day.

Under Yogi Adityanath’s ‘raw-Hindutva’ force, the most populated state in the country-U.P.’s governance machinery has seen an absolute transformation to the establishment of a Danda-Raj, with the police imposing Section 144-a colonial-era law to impose a blanket ban on public meetings across the state in one measure.

Riot police was deployed in Muslim areas without any recorded protest calls, and when peaceful demonstrations were held by members of civil society defying the ban, large scale detention and arrests were made across Lucknow and Varanasi (on December 18th). Explicit attacks were made in Muslim dominated neighborhoods across the state. In Bijnor, video footages show riot police assembling outside a mosque and initiating a lathi-charge on worshippers emerging from the mosque. This piece offers more details with evidence on what has happened thus far in the state.

Another sign of a deep regression seen in 2019, was the annihilation of institutional autonomy and further loss of trust in credibility, including the office of CJI and the faith imposed in the justice system to uphold citizen’s charter and basic rights.

From lower courts to the Supreme Court, the judicial record in upholding constitutional values of basic civil and political liberties for citizens, whether in context to New Delhi’s unilateral action in state of Jammu and Kashmir or in offering assistance to those unlawfully detained while protesting against CAA-NRC, remained dismal to say the least. 2019 also saw an epidemic ascent in reported cases of (violent) crimes against women, while law and order systems (from local police to courts) seeing limited success in resolving most reported cases swiftly. The Nirbhaya convicts are yet to be hanged.

Progressives

Despite the painted dark cloud of gloom, a key observation signaling a social progression in India’s socio-political landscape, emerged from the recent protest movement against CAA-NRC. This is evident in the rise of student voices, particularly women rising along with members of civil society, to vehemently oppose the ruling government’s diktats.

While it is important to acknowledge that historically women have always protested in large numbers from fighting for dowry, sati to India’s independence movement, this particular movement has seen women coming from all sections to peacefully protest in large numbers on an issue that not only affects women but the entire citizenry.

Photographs and images emerging from protesting women at Shaheen Bagh (in Delhi)- amongst many others, evoke a heartwarming image of hope and resilence. This, not only reflects a welcoming spirit of courage combined a clarity of assertion by young women (and men) to stand and fight for social injustice against fellow citizens, but doing so peacefully in a democratic manner.

Another key political observation, and one to keep an eye for in 2020, is the rise in regional political opposition against the centralizing politics of BJP which is struggling in its electoral performance across states.

Even though the Indian National Congress remains weak as a political opposition to the BJP at the Centre, still since 2017, despite BJP’s big Lok Sabha win this year, the party has seen a huge dent in its electoral performance in states of Haryana, then losing Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and now Jharkhand.

Despite a hegemonic accumulation of power at the Union level, the party seems to be losing ground to strong local, regional actors who seem to have a better connect with the local masses. An over-centralization of economic and political power has seen a subsequent rise of regionalism in India’s political landscape and upcoming state elections in Delhi, Bihar and then Bengal would be worth watching for this trend.

In retrospect, year 2019 witnessed the rise of an ideologically charged conservative political being who although projects to feel like a subaltern i.e. in claiming victimhood (from memories of injustice done in the past) but thinks on aspirational grounds as the elite. This political being, in today’s New India, stands for everything that lies at the cost of core constitutional values upon which the independence of an older version of India was established and now seems almost left behind.

Still, entering 2020 and a new decade, embarking on a path of progression shall require a greater political involvement by the current government to address India’s dismal economic condition. For worse, one might see a continuance in boarding towards a path of (continued) regression, where national politics may witness a further consolidation of BJP’s Hindutva project in praxis, along with the political entrenchment of an ideology that thrives on rule by law for majoritarian gains.

I (like many others) hope the young and those in the opposition can resist this through a sustained, peaceful, collective action.

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Associate Professor of Economics & Director, Centre for New Economics Studies, O.P. Jindal Global University…

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Deepanshu Mohan

Deepanshu Mohan

Associate Professor of Economics & Director, Centre for New Economics Studies, O.P. Jindal Global University…

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