Who's In Charge in Delhi? Not Modi, It Seems

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi holds up his hands in a "namaste," an Indian gesture of greeting, as he arrives at Britain's Heathrow Airport for a three-day official visit on November 12, 2015. Sometimes it seems as if Modi’s government does not want to succeed with its economic policies, the author writes. Jonathan Brady/Pool/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Riding the Elephant site.

Sometimes it seems as if Narendra Modi's government in India just doesn't want to succeed with its economic policies—or at least that it gives a higher priority to pushing repressive social actions favored by its arch Hindu nationalists and their often violent supporters than to achieving business reforms and attracting foreign investment.

Dramatically conflicting events in the national capital of New Delhi and the commercial capital of Mumbai in the past few days have illustrated this point. They raise the question of whether Modi is in charge or whether forces and rival factions within his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, plus some bureaucrats and other officials, are undermining what he is trying to do.

The alternative view is that he approves of the ultranationalist approach, even though it might undermine his ambitions for the economy, especially at a time when state assembly elections are looming in the coming months.

In Mumbai, a massive Make in India promotional week was launched by Modi on February 13. It aims to attract foreign investors to a job-creating manufacturing industry, with a vision of India as an open and liberalizing economy. Visitors have included the prime ministers of Sweden, Finland and Poland, together with top international industrialists.

Meanwhile, in Delhi the city's police and Rajnath Singh, the home minister, triggered escalating repressive and violent clashes with students and the media (which continue as of Wednesday) over an issue that should never have become important outside the gates of leftward-leaning Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), one of the country's leading educational institutions.

The clashes have dominated the newspapers and television, almost eclipsing the Make in India events, apart from a few hours on February 14 when a massive fire at a prestigious cultural event blazed for a few hours across TV screens.

Foreign visitors to Mumbai might regard the students' problem and subsequent violence as something that happens in most countries from time to time, and therefore is not significant to any investment plans. But if they inquired further, they would discover a government that has repressive overtones and restricts freedom of expression more oppressively than past governments have done, while allowing its extreme wings to create social unrest.

The way that the clashes with the students have been handled is also souring the political climate and giving the Gandhi family-led Congress Party fresh excuses to obstruct the parliament's budget session that begins next week. This will not block Finance Minister Arun Jaitley's budget speech on February 29, but it could upset new measures, including a fresh attempt to pass urgently needed sales tax legislation.

Meanwhile, in the world of business Modi's Make in India message has also been undermined by finance ministry bureaucrats who have warned Vodafone, the British mobile phone company that is one of India's biggest foreign investors, that its assets might be seized if it fails to pay Rs 14,200 crore ($2.1 billion) in disputed taxes.

This case is in arbitration, so there should be no threats, and Modi said that such tax demands were a thing of the past. As Vodafone put it Tuesday, "In a week when Prime Minister Modi is promoting a tax-friendly environment for foreign investors, this seems a complete disconnect between the government and the tax department."

So who is setting the agendas? Was Singh, who has sometimes been sidelined by Modi, not aware that the escalating students' row and the behavior of the Delhi police (who are under his charge) were undermining the prime minister's investment pitch. And did the prime minister mind?

On a different level, the Vodafone warning raises a question about Jaitley's control of his ministry's bureaucrats, because he was in Mumbai for the manufacturing promotion and would presumably not have wanted to see it undermined—he is also Modi's chief spokesman and the minister for information.

The students' crisis began on February 12 when Kanhaiya Kumar, president of the JNU student union, was arrested and other students were suspended after an annual protest against the 2013 hanging of a convicted Kashmiri terrorist. Singh condemned the students for "anti-national" activities and called for tough police action.

"If anyone shouts anti-India slogan and challenges nation's sovereignty and integrity while living in India, they will not be tolerated or spared," the home minister tweeted provocatively, shortly before the arrests. "I have instructed the Delhi CP [chief of police] to take strong action against the anti-India elements," he added, repeating the remarks on television.

The police gained unrestricted access to the university premises, and Kumar was arrested on charges of sedition amid protests and scuffles.

The home minister must have realized that, by sending the police into JNU and making such remarks, he was escalating what could have been an internal disciplinary matter into a headline-grabbing issue. He then went further and, on apparently weak evidence, suggested on February 14 that the student protest has been supported by Hafiz Saeed, leader of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group, who is on India's "wanted" list.

The minister's mission was carried out by the Delhi police chief, B.S. Bassi, who adopts what is widely regarded as a pro-BJP line on many issues, ranging from this case to hassling the popularly elected Aam Aadmi Party state government in Delhi that has just successfully completed its first year in office. Bassi retires on February 29, when he might enter politics or be given another job in the government.

Singh's statements and Bassi's actions were in effect curbing freedom of expression and the right to protest, while supporting the BJP's extreme and violent right-wing student organization, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, which led the unrest. The ABVP rivals other student factions, including the far-left Democratic Students Union and the Democratic Students' Front that was involved in a February 12 protest.

Singh's "anti-national" allegation and the use of a sedition law dating from the days of British rule have been widely criticized, while a claim by the human resources minister, Smriti Irani, that the nation would never tolerate such "an insult to Mother India" was widely mocked for being out of proportion to what was happening.

Both Congress and BJP governments have attempted to use the old sedition law to curb dissent, but there has never been a successful legal case, and the Supreme Court ruled in 1962 that it could be applied only where there was "incitement to violence" against the government.

Bassi's bias became evident when, having arrested Kumar before carrying out any investigation, the police did not arrest lawyers (or maybe ABVP activists dressed up as lawyers) who stormed Delhi's Patiala House district court where Kumar's case is being heard, attacking students and journalists over the past three days.

Bassi said he was investigating allegations against the "lawyers," even though their actions were being shown on television. A transcript of Kumar's speech shows he was not inciting violence.

The violence and attacks on journalists continued Wednesday, and there have been reports that Kumar was assaulted inside the court. The Supreme Court has stepped in, ordering the police to take action, make some arrests and clear the Patiala court of protesters.

Pointedly, it asked Bassi if he was able to maintain law and order, and Bassi himself has begun to sound less belligerent about Kumar, presumably having been told to do so. The government has also shown some signs of trying to calm the political mood, promising at a Tuesday meeting of all parliamentary parties, presided over by Modi, to allow full debates on the events next week.

Kumar's detention in jail was extended on February 17 by the Patiala court until March 2, which seems unnecessary given that the student leader's speech is fully available and he has told police he has not voiced anti-national views. His detention underlines concern that the government, and especially its right-wing ministers and violent allied organizations, is bent on restricting the independence of academic institutions and curbing freedom of expression.

The escalating crisis of the past six days need never have happened and could have been ended on any one of the days by competent political management, unbiased and measured policing, and a respect for the rights of individuals—if the government had wanted to do so.

The question, as raised by an Indian Express cartoon, is: What kind of India does Modi and his government think they are making?

John Elliott is the author of the book Implosion: India's Tryst With Reality (HarperCollins India).

Editor's pick

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to Newsweek.com
  • Ad free Newsweek.com experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to Newsweek.com
  • Ad free Newsweek.com experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts