Opinion: “Modi Will Forever Have To Live With His Cowardice”

Even though I never supported the BJP, I was not blindly anti-Modi and was willing to give him a chance when he was first elected Prime Minister in 2014. I also remember the depth of frustration and disgust, the majority of Indians felt, at the time, with the Congress-led UPA-II government’s unchecked and brazen corruption.

Modi worked hard to position himself as an economic reformer, promising to function more like a dynamic CEO and less like a paper-pushing bureaucrat.

This frustration was further fueled by disillusionment with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s leadership, which, in my opinion, was spineless. And an utter sense of hopelessness about the stranglehold that the Gandhi family maintained on the Congress Party; refusing to allow a new generation of competent leaders to emerge. So when a number of friends and family confided in me that they were going to vote BJP for the first time in their life, I was not surprised.

As a deeply polarising figure, even within his own party, Mr Modi was aware of the trepidation most Indians had about his chequered past, a past that had earned him a ban from entering the USA. For this reason, he was careful to avoid religious and communal themes during his campaign and championed the slogan, “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas” (Together for all. Development for all).

I Was Cautiously Optimistic About His First Tenure

He worked hard to position himself as an economic reformer, promising to function more like a dynamic CEO and less like a paper-pushing bureaucrat. He vowed to cut red tape and deal with an incessant graft, to unleash the latent promise of the world’s seventh-largest economy. Most of all, he promised to work tirelessly, to create jobs for what will be the world’s largest and youngest labour force by 2020. For these reasons, India Inc. was also willing to support Mr Modi.

It would be fair to say that I was cautiously optimistic about his first tenure, albeit always remaining clear-eyed about his deep RSS roots, and the dangers of extreme Hindutva lurking beneath the surface of the BJP’s political façade.

No rational person expected Modi to become a different person as Prime Minister, suddenly embracing Muslims, and behaving like the grand statesmen that Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were. However, we did expect him to pour his energy into pushing through bold and much-needed reforms, to modernise India’s socialist-style economy, and privatise poorly functioning public sector organisations.

To achieve his economic aims, we also knew Mr Modi would have to walk a tightrope around furthering the RSS’s long-held vision of turning India into a Hindu nation. The gamble was that if he succeeded economically, then the RSS’s vision would not have the fertile breeding ground that a weak economy and high unemployment can offer.

Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s Prime Minister in 2014, at Modi’s swearing-in ceremony.

I was heartened when he invited Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistani Prime Minister, to his swearing-in ceremony. It was a grand gesture, the first by any Indian Prime Minister and one that went against the wishes of many in his advisors. Similarly, I applauded his decision to allow the Pakistani Joint Investigation Team (JIT) to visit the crime scene of a Pakistani-sponsored terrorist attack on Indian soil, even though he was lambasted by the public and every opposition party for kowtowing to Pakistan. To me, it was the right signal by a confident leader looking to find a diplomatic and peaceful resolution to long-running India-Pakistan animosity.

Similarly, I was glad when Mr Modi was persuaded to change his mind, based on new facts and information, about the Aadhar program. While in the opposition, he had staunchly opposed and relentlessly targeted the program, dubbing it a fraud schemeFurther, I supported the implementation of the single national goods and service tax (GST). It replaced an archaic and cumbersome matrix of central, state and local tax regimes that included excise duty, service and customs duty, surcharges, state-level value-added tax and Octroi. No question the rollout was messy and painful, but it was the necessary first step to make India more competitive and investment-friendly, and could be improved and finessed over time.

Why Did Modi Fail To Take Advice From A Former Chief Economist?

I was even willing to cut Mr Modi some slack when he suddenly announced on live TV in 2016, that his government was getting rid of all 500 and 1000-rupee notes, to combat black money and help digitise the Indian economy, even though I did not understand his logic. We now know that Raghuram Rajan, Governor of the Reserve Bank at the time, strongly advised the Prime Minister against doing this. He explained to Mr Modi that with India being one of the largest cash-driven economies in the world, the short-term economic costs would be catastrophic, even if there were minor long-term gains.

People standing in lines outside banks after demonitisation was announced in India.

The Prime Minister did not heed the advice of his top banker, a former Chief Economist of the IMF and the man who predicted the 2008 global financial crisis. Mr Modi’s demonetization decision was an unmitigated disaster with the Indian economy slumping to its lowest growth since 2014 with the move shaving 1.5% – 2% of GDP. We also know now, with more than 90% of the total cash in circulation returning to the banking system, that the primary goal of flushing out black money also failed.

For me, the first turning point came when Mr Rajan resigned in June 2016. His decision came after months of public criticism by senior BJP stalwarts and Hindu nationalists, and the government’s silence made it clear that he did not have the support of the Finance Minister or the Prime Minister. Less than a year, later another eminent economist, former Chief Economist of the Asian Development Bank, Arvind Panagariya, also quit. Mr Panagariya, a professor at Columbia University, had been appointed by Mr Modi to lead NITI Ayog, which was a revamp of the Nehru-created soviet-style government economic planning commission.

It was starting to become clear to me that despite Mr Modi’s 56-inch chest, he clearly lacked the courage to surround himself with depth and diversity of thinking to help him guide India’s governing and economic policies. Nor it seems was he willing to listen to the advice of some of the most accomplished economists. Perhaps Mr Modi did not understand that, unlike his political cronies and sycophants like Amit Shah, men of integrity and intellect will never acquiesce to being a rubber stamp for the whims of a politician.

The other thing that became abundantly clear is that Mr Modi had a great penchant for self-advertisement and savvy for garnering PR to launch grand schemes like Make-in-IndiaDigital India and Smart Cities. However, after the initial fanfare, there was little to no follow-through with policy support or investment needed to deliver on these promises. Undeterred by these failures and the lack of results, his government has spenta whopping Rs. 4,343.26 crore of taxpayer money on advertisements and publicity” touting Mr Modi’s so-called achievements.

After five years in office even the economy, the reason many people reluctantly voted for him, has not shown signs of growing at the pace required to keep track with India’s development needs. It is true that under Mr Modi the Indian economy has averaged a faster GDP growth rate than under Manmohan Singh’s government, 7.3% versus 6.7%, respectively. However, these figures were published after Mr. Modi’s government controversially changed the way that GDP was being calculated.

This led to a restating of growth under the prior government’s tenure and a downward revision to 8.5 percent of the 10 percent growth rate achieved under Manmohan Singh in 2006-07. The irony is that even with the new calculation and revised GDP numbers, growth under Mr. Modi has never reached 8.5 percent. The latest GDP forecast for 2019-20 has been revised further downward to a dismal 5.6%.

While the GDP calculations might be a source of debate, what is not being disputed is that for 2018-2019 Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) declined for the first time in six years. Additionally, India’s FPI outflow in July 2019 was the highest among emerging markets, this on the heels of the highest outflow in ten years in October the previous year. This sharp exodus of foreign funds signals a loss of confidence in India. The domestic economy has hit “a soft patch as private consumption, the key driver of GDP, turns weak, along with subdued new investment pipeline and a widening current account deficit,” according to the RBI’s Systemic Risk report.

Under Mr Modi’s tenure, we have also witnessed unemployment reaching a forty-five year high to hit 6.1% in 2017-18. It seems his government tried to delay the release of the jobs report because it was close to the 2019 election. This led to the acting chairman and another member of the National Statistical Commission resigning in protest.

The man who promised in 2013, that if elected, he would create 10 million new jobs found himself in January 2019 struggling to explain why the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy found that in 2018 the country lost as many as 11 million jobs under his stewardship.

I Wold Be Remiss To Suggest Modi Has Been A Total Failure

I would be remiss to suggest that Modi has been a total failure. He has had successes with his Swachh Bharat program. This initiative has built over 92 million toilets and provided sanitation access to 500 million households. The Ujjwala Yojana scheme delivered cooking gas, with 60+ million free LPG connections, to the poorest households in India. The Ayushman Bharat health insurance scheme has provided free healthcare access to more than 10 lakh people, since its inception in late 2018. Additionally, infrastructure investments have led to a marked increase in road building, more than doubling the previous government’s pace with 27km of the road being built each day in 2017-18. His government has also invested in new airports and metro networks.

All of this is good and necessary, but the bottom line is that Mr Modi was elected for one sole purpose: to create jobs. He promised us that he alone could help India surpass China by delivering double-digit GDP growth, modernising our economy and creating the most pro-business and investment-friendly environment in Asia. One that encourages entrepreneurship, small business and foreign investment to foster conditions that help create the 1 million jobs India needs, to match the number of young people joining the workforce, every month!

Why Has He Taken A Cowardly Route?

Nobody can argue that India is the most complex democracy in the world to lead. Our intricate mosaic of religious and cultural diversity has been built over 73,000 years. We speak 22 official languages and have over 100 dialects in use today. An Indian Prime Minister needs to contend with 8 national political parties, 53 state parties and 2485 unrecognised parties to get things done, not to mention satisfying the needs of 1.4 billion people. Leading India requires not only courage and tenacity to face often insurmountable challenges, but also compassion and humility to guide the birthplace of four of the world’s major religions.

Instead of rising up to this great challenge, Mr Modi has decided to take the cowardly route. He has chosen to inflame communal tensions, undermine civil liberties and stir up religious fervour in a bid to divide and distract us from his failures. Any charlatan can inflame passions and stir up tensions, but a courageous leader acknowledges his or her mistakes and finds ways to course correct. Confident leaders encourage and revel in public debate on the most contentious issues and do not quash freedom of speech by shutting down the internet 134 times in 2018 alone, more than any other democratic nation in the world.

Omar Abdullah, Mehbooba Mufti and several other Kashmiri leaders have been detained since 5th August 2019.

For me, this issue was not that Mr Modi recently abrogated Article 370 and Article 35A, revoking Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, but the fact that he did it without sufficient public debate or any political dialogue. Mr Modi’s government detained and arrested opposition leaders and shut down all communications in Jammu & Kashmir, acting in the way a Russia, China or Iran conducts internal affairs using cloak and dagger tactics, not in the light of day, the way the world’s largest democracy should.

There are people who will argue that Mr Modi’s landslide re-election in 2019 should quiet all critics like me. To me, it is clear that Mr Modi’s current infallibility and election results stem entirely from the lack of opposition and a viable political opponent and not from any deference to him or blind loyalty to his party’s agenda. Mr Modi would be wise to recall Bob Marley’s words; “you can fool some people sometimes but you can’t fool all the people, all the time.”

We have survived foreign invaders and the brutality of the British. We came together after a bloody partition. Rebuilt after terrorist attacks and communal riots. I believe our secular ideals are deeply enmeshed in the fabric of our country. In the short-term Mr Modi’s government may succeed in sowing divisions, but in the long run, they will fail to divide Indians.

For us, there will come a day when a charismatic new opposition leader will unseat Mr Modi, or his tenure as Prime Minister will end, but Mr Modi will forever have to live with his cowardice.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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