for good and ill indias prime minister is hard at work - For good and ill, India’s prime minister is hard at work

LAST YEAR Pratap Bhanu Mehta, the most Olympian of India’s public intellectuals, infuriated many of his compatriots. Instead of lauding the audacity of a government that had just imposed direct rule on Jammu and Kashmir, India’s most troubled state and its sole Muslim-majority one, Mr Mehta issued a warning. We should not cheer the “Indianisation” of Kashmir, he said, but rather fear a creeping “Kashmirisation” of India. The focus should not be on what Narendra Modi, the prime minister, wanted Indians to see: an assertion of national (read Hindu majoritarian) will and an end to decades of flaccid ambiguity over the territory, which is claimed by Pakistan. Rather, argued Mr Mehta, it should be on what was meant to remain unseen in Kashmir: the failure of the world’s biggest democracy to respect its most basic constitutional responsibility, to seek the consent of the governed.

In his first term, before his thumping re-election last year, Mr Modi often reflected such dualities. He could speak of unity while practising the politics of division, or talk of freeing markets while entrenching the power of the state, or publicly champion the little man while privately pandering to mighty plutocrats. Now well into his second term, the prime minister seems not only to have kept his Janus face, but to have sprouted the extra arms of a Hindu deity.

In a few short weeks his government has pushed through an impressive stack of laws. Tackling issues that have for decades been cobwebbed by political point-scoring, it has among other things taken bold steps to free farming from state control, untangle stifling labour rules, revise public education and reform the bureaucracy. The new regulations on labour, for instance, collapse 44 laws into four simplified national codes.

The moves are understandably controversial. They take a sledgehammer to chunks of the patriarchal socialist state, erected in the early decades of India’s independence, that had escaped earlier bouts of liberalisation. Mr Modi’s numerous and noisy acolytes are proclaiming a great moment of transition. Even critics of his government concede that, whether or not the specific laws are well-considered, Mr Modi has at least shaken trees that needed shaking and at last shown the mettle to do what he had promised, but failed to deliver, in his first term.

Yet all this welcome vigour in the foreground cannot completely disguise what happens in the background. Just as with one arm Mr Modi unshackles India’s economy, with another he is quashing hard-won freedoms. His government used not only its bigger numbers, but petty rules, a highly dubious voice-vote and an opposition walk-out to ram more than two dozen laws through parliament in a single week.

Away from parliament, too, the Modi government’s disdain for due process grows ever more striking. To a degree unprecedented even in India’s murky politics, it has turned ostensibly impartial agencies of the state, such as the police, into blunt instruments of executive power. And in their zeal to promote a glowing narrative, the prime minister’s supporters go to bizarre lengths to mute or discredit contrary views. This is not just a matter of critics facing bogus lawsuits or tax demands. During one recent media frenzy, an army of sycophantic television anchors and online trolls screamed murder after a Bollywood actor’s tragic suicide, just to besmirch a political party that opposes Mr Modi’s.

Behind all the noise, what such antics reveal is an increasingly pronounced aspect of the Modi era that residents of Kashmir, in particular, are all too familiar with: hypocrisy. Consider foreign funding. Citing national security and the need for accountability, the Modi government has selectively throttled donations to groups it does not like. Over six years some 15,000 NGOs have been forced to shut, the latest being the Indian office of Amnesty International, a human-rights defender. Yet with another hand, Mr Modi pulls a veil over political funding, as well as over the personal “emergency” fund for the prime minister that was set up during the pandemic.

Whatever he is doing with all his other hands, Mr Modi is always sure to keep one free for waving at crowds. In “liberated” Kashmir last year, cameras caught him on a ship on Lake Dal, standing erect like an admiral of the fleet. More recently he was pictured at the opening of a road tunnel high in the Himalayas, standing aboard a jeep, again waving. But a closer view of both scenes revealed something else. There were no crowds, only security men.

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Modi the multi-tasker”

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