Before dawn on Feb. 26, Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist prime minister of India, ordered an aerial attack on the country’s nuclear-armed neighbor, Pakistan. There were thick clouds that morning over the border. But Mr. Modi claimed earlier this month, during his successful campaign for re-election, that he had overruled advisers who worried about them. He is ignorant of science, he admitted, but nevertheless trusted his “raw wisdom,” which told him that the cloud cover would prevent Pakistani radar from detecting Indian fighter jets.
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That Narendra Modi’s party would win again was never really in dispute. The only question was whether the BJP (the Bharatiya Janata, or Indian Peoples’ Party), would emerge merely as the single largest party in the Lok Sabha, and thus be forced to seek coalition partners, or whether it would repeat its astonishing success of 2014 and govern alone. In the end it did better than that. The BJP-dominated alliance now has 351 seats, the Congress alternative 95. The size and scale of the victory is breathtaking. In West Bengal, a state run by the Communist Party for forty years (and subsequently by a maverick Congress split-off), the BJP won 18 seats out of 42. The left and other ‘secular forces’ were wiped out without trace. In Uttar Pradesh, the largest state, the BJP won again, and the Congress lost Amethi, a pocket borough of the Nehru family that had voted blindly for the dynasty for almost half a century. Were it not for India’s quaint electoral laws permitting the same candidate to contest seats in a number of constituencies, Rahul Gandhi, the Congress leader, would not even be in the new parliament. As the results started coming in, a veteran Congress leader in Bhopal, Ratan Singh, had a heart attack and dropped dead. A tragedy overlaid with symbolism. There was some resistance to the BJP, especially in the south: in Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the BJP didn’t win a single seat. But overall the results showed that, contrary to the predictions of the commentariat, there was no anti-incumbency vote. If anything, the opposite. This has never happened before in Indian politics.
The main opposition, the Congress, turned the campaign into a referendum on Modi. Could the tea-seller’s son, an untutored, uncouth, bigoted, small-town petit bourgeois (who can’t speak English) be trusted again? India’s electorate has now provided the answer. They love their Modi. Another landslide victory for the orchestrator of pogroms against Muslims. The post-independence consensus which some yearn for is dead and cremated. The BJP and its parent organisation, the Hindu nationalist RSS, are now pacemakers, embedded in the heart of a modernising Indian state and using all its facilities and resources to impose their ideological views and punish those who don’t conform. History is a crucial battleground and is being systematically rewritten to chime with the Hindutva ideology. We can only hope they don’t go so far as to burn the books of Romila Thapar (a bête noire of the BJP because of her knowledge of ancient Indian history) and Irfan Habib’, or treat Arundhati Roy as Joan of Arc. What’s not in doubt is that most mainstream publishers will be scared away from publishing critical, scholarly works on the origins and development of Hinduism, the RSS etc. This is already happening and will get much worse. Self-censorship, the result of fear, cowardice and declining profits, eats the soul.
The morning after both Donald Trump’s victory and the Brexit referendum, when a mood of paralysing shock and grief overcame progressives and liberals on both sides of the Atlantic, the two most common refrains I heard were: “I don’t recognise my country any more,” and “I feel like I’ve woken up in a different country.” This period of collective disorientation was promptly joined by oppositional activity, if not activism. People who had never marched before took to the streets; those who had not donated before gave; people who had not been paying attention became engaged. Many continue.
Almost three years later the Brexit party, led by Nigel Farage, is predicted to top the poll in European parliament elections in which the far right will make significant advances across the continent; Theresa May’s imminent downfall could hand the premiership to Boris Johnson; Trump’s re-election in 2020 is a distinct possibility, with Democratic strategists this week predicting only a narrow electoral college victory against him. “Democrats do not walk into the 2020 election with the same enthusiasm advantage they had in the 2018 election,” said Guy Cecil, the chairman of Priorities USA, the largest Democratic political action committee.
There are lions in India. At least 523 of them, according to the 2015 census, though unofficial counts put the number north of 600.
Unlike their more glamorous tiger cousins, who live across the country in natural reserves, the Asiatic lions are all concentrated in one location: Gir forest, a large savannah-like setting in the Junagadh district of Gujarat. They live there, protected by wildlife laws and hopefully multiplying, with hundreds of leopards—which are far more ferocious, and dangerous to humans—and a much rarer species: A lone specimen of Indian election voter.
On the face of things, Narendra Modi has failed variously and spectacularly as India’s prime minister. After pledging to create millions of jobs, he has, according to a leaked government report, presided over a dramatic rise in unemployment among young Indians. Vowing to vanquish terrorism, he took most currency notes out of circulation and cracked down hard in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Kashmir has since witnessed a sharp spike in militancy and its biggest terrorist attack in years.
Swearing ferocious vengeance against Pakistan, Modi has had to resort to dubious claims about destroyed terrorist camps and hundreds of dead Pakistanis in order to appear a man of his word. Indeed, in an effort to back up claims that India’s economy has grown faster under his leadership than his predecessors’, his government has even imperiled the credibility of India’s official data.
With his reckless “pre-emptive” airstrike on Balakot in Pakistan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has inadvertently undone what previous Indian governments almost miraculously, succeeded in doing for decades. Since 1947 the Indian Government has bristled at any suggestion that the conflict in Kashmir could be resolved by international arbitration, insisting that it is an “internal matter.” By goading Pakistan into a counter-strike, and so making India and Pakistan the only two nuclear powers in history to have bombed each other, Modi has internationalised the Kashmir dispute. He has demonstrated to the world that Kashmir is potentially the most dangerous place on earth, the flash-point for nuclear war. Every person, country, and organisation that worries about the prospect of nuclear war has the right to intervene and do everything in its power to prevent it.
On February 14 2019, a convoy of 2,500 paramilitary soldiers was attacked in Pulwama (Kashmir) by Adil Ahmad Dar, a 20-year-old Kashmiri suicide-bomber who, it has been declared, belonged to the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad. The attack that killed at least 40 men was yet another hideous chapter in the unfolding tragedy of Kashmir. Since 1990, more than seventy thousand people have been killed in the conflict, thousands have “disappeared”, tens of thousands have been tortured and hundreds of young people maimed and blinded by pellet guns. The death toll over the last twelve months has been the highest since 2009. Associated Press reports that almost 570 people have lost their lives, 260 of them militants, 160 civilians and 150 Indian armed personnel who died in the line of duty.
They call it the “red bike village.” In Sridhar Gundaiah’s hometown in the south of India, all 150 households own a red Hero Splendor motorbike.
This is not just a matter of keeping up with the neighbors.
For Gundaiah, the red bikes hold deeper lessons that he took to heart in 2012 when he set up StoreKing, an e-commerce platform aimed squarely at India’s 800 million rural residents. Unlike typical online retailers that deal directly with consumers, StoreKing sells through a vast network of local mom-and-pop shops — a business model that has attracted the likes of Amazon.com to forge tie-ups.
The Splendors helped Gundaiah recognize the power of villagers to influence one another. The residents of Hanchipura are “not buying to challenge others,” he said. The mindset is simply, “One has a bike, I will also buy another bike like you.”
More importantly, perhaps, he noticed how much local retailers guide residents’ purchasing decisions. Customers rely on local store owners’ opinions on everything from motorbikes to skin care products. “We know [the merchants] by name, we know what they’ve been doing,” Gundaiah said. “It became very clear that an end customer will piggyback on what the retailer is saying.”
So when Gundaiah established StoreKing in Bangalore, he decided to make rural shops the core of his business. This could prove prescient as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government tightens rules on major e-commerce players to protect smaller retailers, with new regulations to take effect on Feb. 1.
“We started out saying, ‘Can we give retailers enough power to start educating customers about accessing technology, digitalization, bank transfers?'” Gundaiah recalled. “So we became a distribution channel for companies, but largely driven by assistance” from local merchants.
India and Pakistan are headed towards a potential military escalation in the wake of the February 14 attack in Pulwama carried out by Pakistan-based armed group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), which killed over 40 Indian paramilitary soldiers.
On February 26, the Indian military launched what it said were retaliatory air raids which allegedly destroyed a “terrorist” training camp in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Pakistan for its part also responded with air raids across the line of control (LoC) which separates Indian- from Pakistan-administered Kashmir and claims to have downed two Indian fighter jets.
In the summer of 1998, I had a front-row seat to the border war between India and Pakistan. Following nuclear-weapons tests by both countries, the duelling Armies shelled each other for weeks along the disputed Himalayan frontier, called the Line of Control. I was staying in a shabby hotel named the Sangam, in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani Kashmir, not far from the border. The Sangam—its name means “place where rivers meet”—sits near the confluence of the Neelum and Jhelum Rivers. For days, I ate dinner on the terrace out back and watched the artillery fire. The raging waters of the Neelum were so cold that I had to wear a sweater. The exploding shells lit up the sky with long, yellow streaks.
The world watched with trepidation as the two nuclear-armed countries blasted away at each other. For a time, it seemed that a wider war was entirely possible—that things would escalate, either by accident or design.
When I heard the first news report, I assumed it was an Israeli air raid on Gaza. Or Syria. Air strikes on a “terrorist camp” were the first words. A “command and control centre” destroyed, many “terrorists” killed. The military was retaliating for a “terrorist attack” on its troops, we were told.
An Islamist “jihadi” base had been eliminated. Then I heard the name Balakot and realised that it was neither in Gaza, nor in Syria – not even in Lebanon – but in Pakistan. Strange thing, that. How could anyone mix up Israel and India?
Well, don’t let the idea fade away. Two thousand five hundred miles separate the Israeli ministry of defence in Tel Aviv from the Indian ministry of defence in New Delhi, but there’s a reason why the usual cliché-stricken agency dispatches sound so similar.