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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 16 January 2019

Former BJP leader warns India against second term for Modi

Yashwant Sinha focuses his criticism on economic policy but is also worried by attacks on democracy and social harmony

Former Indian finance and external affairs minister Yashwant Sinha after a meeting with Kashmir separatists in Srinagar in 2016. EPA
Former Indian finance and external affairs minister Yashwant Sinha after a meeting with Kashmir separatists in Srinagar in 2016. EPA

Veteran Indian politician Yashwant Sinha does not mince words in his assessment of Narendra Modi's first term as prime minister.

The former finance minister is scathing not only about Mr Modi's management of the economy, but also of policies that he says have undermined state institutions and turned Indians against each other.

“The whole country, the entire population, should feel scared if he comes back to power in next year’s general election,” Mr Sinha told The National in an interview last week.

Mr Modi, he said, is "a threat to democracy and to democratic institutions".

Mr Sinha released a book this month, India Unmade: How the Modi Government Broke the Economy, that examines the "mismanagement" of India's economy since Mr Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party won an outright majority in the 2014 general election, a "once in a lifetime" mandate that he says was squandered.

Mr Sinha left the BJP in April after 22 years, citing unhappiness with the party leadership. Before ripping into Mr Modi’s handling of the economy in his book, he makes clear that it was not written as an act of vendetta.

“The book is an attempt to place the truth before the people of India which has been denied to them by a pliant media and a barrage of false propaganda,” he wrote.

Mr Sinha’s credentials for assessing Mr Modi and the economy are solid. Now 81, he has been a foreign minister and finance minister in a career that began with 25 years in the civil service. The picture he paints of the Modi government is one of ineptitude and shambles, with plenty of bombast and not much delivery.

But India will see far worse than more economic failures if Mr Modi is re-elected next year, Mr Sinha told The National.

He said that owing to Mr Modi’s character traits, democracy itself and social harmony will be in peril if he wins the general election due by May.

Mr Sinha cited the example of demonetisation - the cancellation of high-denomination currency notes which was announced suddenly in November 2016 - which he said Mr Modi had implemented without consulting his cabinet.

“Since Modi wants to do everything himself and doesn’t listen to the advice of the cabinet, he has set a dangerous trend. The cabinet has ceased to matter. It is Modi all the way,” Mr Sinha said. The reason for this, he conjectured, was that Mr Modi is fundamentally insecure, trusts no one, and wants to do everything himself.

Mr Modi was also threatening India's democracy by curtailing the role of parliament and pressuring its institutions, he said.

Mr Sinha cited as examples the passing of this year's budget without a debate, Mr Modi's inability to work with the opposition, his challenge to the autonomy of the central bank, and attempts by BJP leaders to bully the Supreme Court into allowing the building of a Hindu temple on a controversial site.

“These and many other institutions that ensure the functioning of democracy stand threatened,” he said.

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Mr Sinha said Mr Modi had failed to act against the lynching of Muslims for trading in beef and other acts of violence against the minority community by his more extreme supporters.

“Public discourse – the whole polity – has taken a definite communal turn for the reason that these anti-Muslim mobs know that Mr Modi will not mind. His lack of condemnation of the violence is encouragement," Mr Sinha said. "The atmosphere has definitely worsened and that’s not what people want. They want to live in peace.”

He said he understood why even educated, affluent and privileged Muslims say they no longer felt safe. “You see, you don’t need to attack everyone. Attack a few and the rest will become afraid. That’s what is happening.”

The Hindu nationalist BJP has ruled India before, from 1998 to 2004, but that government did not encourage communal violence, he said. “Now that has changed and elements that want to promote violence have the assurance that the state is behind them.”

In his book, Mr Sinha goes through a list of complaints against Mr Modi's economic policies. The demonetisation move he describes as "whimsical", causing the "catastrophic" loss of 12 million jobs in the month following. He says the prime minister failed to achieve the 10 per cent GDP growth needed to pull millions out of poverty, or fulfil his promise to double farmers’ incomes. The Make in India scheme to promote foreign investment has been a flop; the Smart Cities programme exists only in name; and the government has failed to generate anywhere near enough jobs for the one million youths joining the work force every month, he says.

“He could have raised India from a poor country to a middle-income country, but he squandered the chance,” Mr Sinha writes.

“The Modi government is just about event management. He is the best in creating false impressions. In the process, Modi has given India its 'lost half-decade'. Elect him again and by 2024 it will be a lost decade.”

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Read more: Where have all the good statesmen and women gone?

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Updated: December 30, 2018 05:14 PM

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