In an impassioned speech in the Lok Sabha during the Article 370 debate, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor – who purely on his parliamentary skills should be Congress’s leader in the House instead of the bumbling Adhir Ranjan Chaudhary – warned that the step to remove special status for Jammu and Kashmir was the ‘political equivalent’ of demonetization (DeMo). At the time, the remarks appeared hyperbolic but on more careful examination, there are striking parallels between the manner in which Article 370 has been rendered ineffective and how Rs 500 and Rs 1000 currency notes were de-monetised. The equivalence being drawn offers a glimpse into the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah school of political decision-making.
In both instances, landmark decisions were taken by stealth and with minimum consultation. In the case of demonetization, it could be argued that the very nature of ‘note-bandi’ demanded complete secrecy in execution. In the case of Article 370, the BJP could claim that abrogation has been on the party’s agenda in elections stretching back to its Jan Sangh avatar and so it should come as no surprise that a BJP majority government has gone ahead and implemented a long-standing poll promise. Till as late as 2015, the BJP while tieing up with Mufti Mohammed Sayeed to form a government in J and K, agreed to keep the contentious provision on the back-burner. Now, freed of its coalition limitations, Modi-Shah 2.0 feel they can push through contentious legislation without consulting any stakeholders, in this instance the people of the Kashmir valley.
In both DeMo and Article 370, institutional processes in a democratic set-up have been disregarded and rendered ineffectual by a creeping authoritarianism. When taking the currency withdrawal decision, it was the Reserve Bank of India whose autonomy was badly compromised when being over-ruled by the executive; now, on Article 370, it is the parliament which finds itself emasculated, and is being treated, to quote Tharoor again, as a notice board and not a forum for discussion. When was the last time a bill of such major import was tabled without even informing the opposition and a debate immediately insisted upon?
Both the controversial decisions have been couched in terms of lofty principles: DeMo was projected as a ‘moral crusade’ against the corrupt while the removal of Article 370 is being seen as part of a ‘one nation, one flag, one constitution’ commitment to national integration. The reality though has little to do with any exalted value systems in either case. DeMo, after all, hurt the small trader and businessman more than it did those who had the means to convert their black money into white; the effective removal of Article 370 has been accompanied by the brazenly constitutionally immoral manner in which a state has been broken up into two union territories with the sole purpose of reducing the clout of the Kashmir valley over the other regions in the original state. The federal spirit enshrined in the constitution has been set aside by an obsessive desire to centralize and control a troubled state.
There is also a well-defined ‘enemy’ in both cases. In DeMo, it was the moneyed class who were trapped in a class war, now it is the dynasties of the Kashmir valley who are being singled out. That these dynasties have been propped up by almost every government at the Centre, including the Modi government between 2015 and 2018, is being all too easily forgotten. There is, of course, another, more obvious ‘enemy’ in Kashmir: it is after all, the jihadi terrorists and their backers from across the border who are principally responsible for Kashmir’s violence and blood-letting. But since you cant directly target Islamabad as Kashmir is, after all, an ‘internal matter’ of India, so much easier to single out the Abdullahs and Muftis as the villains. Ditto with DeMo: when you can’t act against the main sources of black money through curbs on election funding, so much easier to create the perception of bankrupting a few cash-rich families.
Both decisions taken by the Modi government have hugely disruptive effects on civil society. DeMo devastated a large segment of the cash-dependent informal sector, many of whom are still to recover from its fall-out. Article 370’s removal has come in peak tourist season and just ahead of Eid and imposed enormous hardships on the common Kashmiri at a time of joyous celebration. Would any political leadership even dare contemplate a similar step ahead of Diwali in any other part of the country where basic services including landline, mobile and internet connections are blocked?
It is also apparent that the Modi-Shah duo have taken a huge risk with Article 370 as was the case with DeMo too. To have removed 86 per cent of the currency out of the financial system almost overnight was a big call, one which revealed a willingness to take a chance with the health of the economy. Article 370’s withdrawal is just as risky: in a political environment where a Kashmiri Muslim’s sense of alienation has been heightened by a rising Hindutva majoritarianism and the demonization of the Muslim as the ‘other’, the move may only give radical Islamists another reason to feel aggrieved with the Indian state.
And yet, there is a visible endorsement of both these unsettling moves by a large section of the electorate. In the case of DeMo, this was proven by a series of electoral successes the BJP enjoyed in the aftermath of note-bandi. Article 370 has still to pass the election test but anecdotal evidence so far is enough to indicate that the BJP may have scored another poll winner by stirring up ‘nationalistic’ passions in the name of an ‘India First’ battle-cry.
Interestingly, DeMo wasn’t a major issue in the 2019 election campaign, quite simply because as an eight per cent growth economy slid towards a six per cent growth rate, job losses and falling agrarian incomes meant that the government could no longer play up economic dislocation as an ‘achievement’. Where demonetization was once pitched as a anti-terror/counterfeit currency move, the goalposts were rapidly shifted to digitizing the economy. Which is why it maybe best to wait for another year, maybe even two, before pronouncing a final judgment on the removal of Article 370: we still don’t even know whether the government has a plan B in case unbridled state power fails to deliver. Between the fear-mongers and the cheerleaders, surely there is a need to test whether the constitutional coup pulled off by the Modi-Shah pairing will actually create a ‘Naya’ Kashmir of hope and opportunity or push the troubled state further down a dark tunnel of despair and uncertainty. The jury is still out.
Post-script: A joke in the political circles of the national capital points to the changing nature of decision-making from DeMo in 2016 to Article 370 in 2019. Then, it was a one man show, now its been widened to include two and a half persons: Modi and Shah as the two unquestioned ‘supremos’, with national security adviser, Ajit Doval as the ‘half’ voice in the mix!