Wednesday, 22 February 2023

The Modi Question

India is under attack by foreign powers. Specifically the United Kingdom and the United States. Or so our government would have us believe. Why? Because former colonialists and neo-imperialists cannot tolerate our prosperity and good fortune. The attack, we are told, is aimed at the political and economic foundations of our young nation.

The covert operatives are the BBC, which in January broadcast a two-part documentary called India: The Modi Question, and a small US firm called Hindenburg Research, owned by 38-year-old Nathan Anderson, which specialises in what is known as activist short-selling.

The BBC-Hindenburg moment has been portrayed by the Indian media as nothing short of an attack on India’s twin towers – Narendra Modi, the prime minister, and India’s biggest industrialist, Gautam Adani, who was, until recently, the world’s third richest man. The charges laid against them aren’t subtle. The BBC film implicates Modi in the abetment of mass murder. The Hindenburg report, published on 24 January, accuses Adani of pulling “the largest con in corporate history” (an allegation that the Adani Group strongly denies).

Modi and Adani have known each other for decades. Things began to look up for them after the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom, which raged through Gujarat after Muslims were held responsible for the burning of a railway coach in which 59 Hindu pilgrims were burned alive. Modi had been appointed chief minister of the state only a few months before the massacre.

At the time, much of India recoiled in horror at the open slaughter and mass rape of Muslims that was staged on the streets of Gujarat’s towns and villages by vigilante Hindu mobs seeking “revenge”. Some old-fashioned members of the Confederation of Indian Industry even made their displeasure with Modi public. Enter Gautam Adani. With a small group of Gujarati industrialists he set up a new platform of businessmen known as the Resurgent Group of Gujarat. They denounced Modi’s critics and supported him as he launched a new political career as Hindu Hriday Samrat, the Emperor of Hindu Hearts, or, more accurately, the consolidator of the Hindu vote-bank.

In 2003, they held an investors’ summit called Vibrant Gujarat. So was born what is known as the Gujarat model of “development”: violent Hindu nationalism underwritten by serious corporate money. In 2014, after three terms as chief minister of Gujarat, Modi was elected prime minister of India. He flew to his swearing-in ceremony in Delhi in a private jet with Adani’s name emblazoned across the body of the aircraft. In the nine years of Modi’s tenure, Adani’s wealth grew from $8bn to $137bn. In 2022 alone, he made $72bn, which is more than the combined earnings of the world’s next nine billionaires put together.

The Adani Group now controls a dozen shipping ports that account for the movement of 30% of India’s freight, seven airports that handle 23% of India’s airline passengers, and warehouses that collectively hold 30% of India’s grain. It owns and operates power plants that are the biggest generators of the country’s private electricity. The Gujarat model of development has been replicated at scale.

“First Modi flew in Adani’s plane,” the bitter joke goes. “Now Adani flies in Modi’s plane.” And now both planes have developed engine trouble. Can they get out of it by wrapping themselves in the Indian flag?

Episode one of the BBC film The Modi Question (I appear briefly in the documentary as an interviewee) is about the 2002 Gujarat pogrom – not just the murdering, but also the 20-year journey that some victims made through India’s labyrinthine legal system, keeping the faith, hoping for justice and political accountability. It includes eyewitness testimonies, most poignantly from Imtiyaz Pathan, who lost 10 members of his family in the “Gulbarg Society massacre”, which was one of several similarly gruesome massacres that took place over those few days in Gujarat.

Pathan describes how they were all sheltering in the house of Ehsan Jafri, a former Congress party member of parliament, while the mob gathered outside. He says that Jafri made a final, desperate phone call for help to Narendra Modi, and when he realised no help would come, stepped out of his home and gave himself up to the mob, hoping to persuade them to spare those who had come to him for protection. Jafri was dismembered and his body burned beyond recognition. And the carnage rolled on for hours.

When the case went to trial, the state of Gujarat contested the fact of the phone call, even though it had been mentioned not just by Pathan but several other witnesses in their testimonies. The contestation was upheld. The BBC film clearly mentions this. Vilified though it has been by the BJP government, the film actually goes out of its way to present the BJP’s point of view about the pogrom, as well as that of the Indian supreme court, which on 24 June 2022 dismissed the petition of Zakia Jafri, Ehsan Jafri’s widow, in which she alleged there was a larger conspiracy behind the murder of her husband. The order called her petition an “abuse of process”, and suggested that those involved in pursuing the case be prosecuted. Modi’s supporters celebrated the judgment as the final word on his innocence.

The film also showcases an interview with the home affairs minister, Amit Shah, another old pal of Modi’s from Gujarat, who compares Modi to Lord Shiva for having “swallowed poison and held it in his throat” for 19 years. After the supreme court’s “clean chit”, the minister said: “Truth has come out shining like gold.”

The section of the BBC film that the government of India has acted most outraged about was the revelation of an internal report commissioned by the British Foreign Office in April 2002, so far unseen by the public. The fact-finding report estimated that “at least 2,000” people had been murdered. It called the massacre a preplanned pogrom that bore “all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing”. It said reliable contacts had informed them that the police had been ordered to stand down. The report laid the blame squarely at Modi’s door. It was chilling to see the former, but obviously still cautious, British diplomat who was one of the investigators on the fact-finding mission choosing to remain anonymous, with his back to the camera.

Episode two of the BBC documentary, less seen but even more frightening, is about the dangerous divisiveness and deep fault lines Modi has cultivated during his tenure as prime minister. For most Indians it’s the texture of our daily lives: sword-wielding mobs, saffron-clad god-en routinely calling for the genocide of Muslims and the mass rape of Muslim women, the impunity with which Hindus can lynch Muslims on the street, and not only film themselves while doing it but be garlanded and congratulated for it by senior ministers in Modi’s cabinet.

Though The Modi Question was broadcast exclusively for a British audience, and limited to the UK, it was uploaded by viewers on YouTube and links were posted on Twitter. It lit up the internet. In India, students received warnings not to download and watch it. When they announced collective screenings in some university campuses, the electricity was switched off. In others, police arrived in riot gear to stop them watching. The government instructed YouTube and Twitter to delete all links and uploads. Those sterling defenders of free speech hurried to comply. Some of my Muslim friends were baffled. “Why does he want to ban it? The Gujarat massacre has always helped him. And we’re in an election year.”

Then came the attack on the second tower.

The 400-odd-page Hindenburg report was published on the same day the second episode of the BBC film was broadcast. It elaborated on questions that had been raised in the past by Indian journalists, and went much further. It alleges that the Adani Group has been engaged in a “brazen stock manipulation and accounting fraud scheme”, which – through the use of offshore shell entities – artificially overvalued its key listed companies and inflated the net worth of its chairman.

According to the Hindenburg report, seven of Adani’s listed companies are overvalued by more than 85%. Based on these valuations, the companies reportedly borrowed billions of dollars on the international markets and from Indian public sector banks such as the State Bank of India and the Life Insurance Corporation of India, where millions of ordinary Indians invest their life savings.

The Adani Group responded to the Hindenburg report with a 413-page rebuttal. It claimed the group had been cleared of wrongdoing by Indian courts and that the Hindenburg allegations were malicious, baseless and amounted to an attack on India itself.

This wasn’t enough to convince investors. In the market rout that followed the publication of the Hindenburg analysis, the Adani Group lost $110bn. Credit Suisse, Citigroup and Standard Chartered stopped accepting Adani bonds as collateral for margin loans. The French firm TotalEnergies has paused a $4bn green hydrogen venture with the Adani Group. The Bangladesh government is reportedly seeking a reworking of a power purchase agreement. Jo Johnson, a former minister in the British government, and former prime minister Boris Johnson’s brother, resigned as a director of London-based Elara Capital, one of the companies mentioned in the Hindenburg report as tied to the Adani Group.

The political firestorm caused by the Hindenburg report brought squabbling opposition parties together to demand an investigation by a joint parliamentary committee. The government stonewalled, alarmingly indifferent to the concerns that managers of international finance capital might have about India’s regulatory systems. In the continuing budget session of parliament, two opposition party MPs, Mahua Moitra of the All India Trinamool Congress, and Rahul Gandhi of the Indian National Congress, both of whom have raised questions about the Adani Group years before the Hindenburg report, stood up to speak.

Among the questions Moitra raised were: how did the home ministry give security clearance to the “A” Group for operating ports and airports while refusing to divulge the identity of one of its shareholders? How did the group amass about $5bn in foreign portfolio investments from six Mauritius-based funds, all which have the same address and company secretary? On what grounds did the public sector State Bank and the Life Insurance Corporation continue to anchor investments in the group?

For his part, Gandhi noted the prime minister’s travels to Israel, Australia and Bangladesh, and asked: “In how many of these countries that you visited did Adani-ji get a contract?” He listed some of them: a defence contract with Israel, a billion-dollar loan from the State Bank of India for a coalmine in Australia, a 1,500MW electricity project for Bangladesh. Last, and most pertinently, he asked how much money the BJP received from the Adani Group in secret electoral bonds.

This is the nub of it. In 2016, the BJP introduced the scheme of electoral bonds, which allow corporations to be able to fund political parties without their identities being made public. Yes, Gautam Adani is one of the world’s richest men; but if you look at its rollout during elections, the BJP is not just India’s, but perhaps even the world’s, richest political party. Will the old friends ever let us look at their account books? Are there separate account books?

Moitra’s questions were ignored. Most of Gandhi’s were expunged from parliament records. Modi’s reply lasted for a full 90 minutes.

He did what he does best – cast himself as a proud Indian, the victim of an international witch-hunt that would never succeed, because he wore the protective shield made up of the trust of 1.4 billion people that the opposition could never pierce. This figure (a politician’s equivalent of inflating the value of his shares) peppered every paragraph of his spongy rhetoric, ridden with derision, barbs and personal insults. Almost every sentence was greeted with desk-thumping from the BJP benches accompanied by the chant of “Modi! Modi! Modi!”

He said that however much filth was thrown at the lotus – the BJP’s election symbol – it would bloom. He never mentioned Adani once. Maybe he believes it’s not a debate that should concern his voters because tens of millions of them are unemployed, live in abject poverty on subsistence rations (delivered with his photograph on the packaging) and will not remotely comprehend what $100bn even means.

Most of the Indian media reported Modi’s speech in glowing terms. Was it a coincidence that in the days that followed a number of national and regional newspapers carried a front-page advertisement with a huge photograph of him announcing another investment summit, this one in the state of Uttar Pradesh?

Days later, on 14 February, the home minister said in an interview, on the Adani matter, that the BJP had “nothing to hide or be afraid of”. He once again stonewalled the possibility of a joint parliamentary committee and advised the opposition parties to go to court instead.

Even as he was speaking, office premises in Mumbai and Delhi were being surrounded by police and raided by tax officials. Not Adani’s offices: the BBC’s.

On 15 February, the news cycle changed. And so did the reporting about the neo-imperialist attack. After “warm and productive” meetings, Modi, President Joe Biden and President Emmanuel Macron announced that India would be buying 470 Boeing and Airbus aircraft. Biden said the deal would support more than a million American jobs. The Airbuses will be powered by Rolls-Royce engines. “For the UK’s thriving aerospace sector,” Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, said, “the sky is the limit.”

So the lotus blooms on, in a bog of blood and money. And the truth most definitely shines like gold.

And Kenan Malik writes:

In January, the BBC broadcast a two-part series, India: The Modi Question, which looked forensically at the role of Narendra Modi in fomenting the Gujarat anti-Muslim riots of 2002 in which at least 1,000 people were killed. Now the prime minister of India, Modi was then the chief minister of Gujarat.

The response in India was swift. Kanchan Gupta, an adviser to the ministry of information and broadcasting, called the documentary “propaganda and anti-India garbage” that “reflects BBC’s colonial mindset”. The BJP government invoked emergency laws to ban the documentary and any online links to clips. When students at the Jawaharlal Nehru University tried to screen the documentary, the university authorities cut off electricity to the whole campus.

Then, last week, the authorities raided BBC offices in India, supposedly to investigate “tax evasion” by the corporation’s Indian operation. On Friday, the government claimed to have discovered “evidence of tax irregularities”. Most local journalists are deeply cynical. The raid on the BBC, the Press Club of India observed, was “a clear cut case of vendetta”.

The cynicism about Delhi’s motives is well earned. Since Modi and his Hindu nationalist BJP party came to power in 2014, he has pursued a relentless campaign to curb the independence of India’s media. “Criticise us and we’ll come after you,” is the banner under which the government operates. As the Editors Guild of India put it, the BBC raids (which the government, in BJP Newspeak, calls not “raids” but “surveys”) are part of a well-established “trend of using government agencies to intimidate and harass press organisations that are critical of government policies or the ruling establishment”.

The government – and many BJP-controlled state administrations – have also sought to intimidate journalists through the use of sedition and national security laws. In 2020, Siddique Kappan, a journalist from Kerala, reporting a story of a 19-year-old Dalit woman who died after being allegedly gang-raped by four men, was charged by police in BJP-controlled Uttar Pradesh with sedition, promoting enmity between groups, outraging religious feelings, committing unlawful activities and money laundering. Still awaiting trial, he was finally released on bail this month after two years in jail.

The editor of a Gujarati news website was charged with sedition for writing an article critical of the government’s Covid policy That same year, Dhaval Patel, editor of a Gujarati news website, was charged with sedition for writing an article critical of the state government’s Covid policy. In 2021, the journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem was charged under the National Security Act by the BJP-led Manipur government for writing that cow dung does not cure Covid; he spent nearly two months in jail before being released by the courts.

India’s ministry of information and broadcasting blocked the television channel Media One for 48 hours because it had covered mob attacks on Muslims in Delhi in 2020 “in a way that seemed critical toward Delhi police and RSS”. The RSS is a paramilitary Hindu-nationalist movement with close ties to Modi and the BJP.

In 2021, as Delhi was rocked by huge farmers’ protests against new agricultural laws, prominent journalists, including Siddharth Varadarajan, editor of the digital website The Wire, and Vinod Jose, Anant Nath and Paresh Nath, editors and publishers of Caravan magazine, were charged with sedition for reporting on the death of one of the protesters. As Hartosh Singh Bal, Caravan’s political editor, observed, the targets were not surprising: the farmers’ protest was the biggest challenge to the BJP since it came to power, while The Wire and Caravan are “among the few media organisations willing to look at the ruling government critically”.

These are just a handful of the cases that Indian journalists have faced in recent years. Charging someone with sedition has become the weapon of choice, especially for BJP politicians and administrations when faced with criticism.

Journalists, especially female journalists, and those critical of Hindu nationalism, have not just been censored, they have been assaulted, even killed. Journalists like Gauri Lankesh, shot dead by three assailants in Bangalore in 2017. In 2021, Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) named India as one of the five most dangerous countries for a journalist.

Many media bosses have been only too happy to comply with government strictures. In 2020, during the Covid pandemic, hours before he announced the world’s largest coronavirus lockdown, Modi met senior news executives and urged them to publish only “inspiring and positive stories” about the government’s efforts. As Caravan noted, Modi’s intervention ensured little critical coverage of the government’s Covid failures. The supreme court, however, denied the government’s request for prior censorship of news stories, ordering the media to “publish the official version” of pandemic developments. Unsurprisingly, India has plummeted in the global press freedom rankings compiled by RSF. In 2002, India stood 80th in the world. Today it stands at 150th out of 180 countries, below nations such as Turkey, Libya and Zimbabwe.

Repressive censorship did not originate with the BJP. India has long had a vibrant media culture; it has also long had a culture of censorship and repression. The most despotic moment came with the imposition of the Emergency between 1975-77, when prime minister Indira Gandhi cancelled elections, suspended civil liberties, rounded up political opponents and muzzled the media. She expelled the BBC from India after it refused to sign a censorship agreement.

Nevertheless, the BJP under Modi has helped remake the relationship between the media and the state, and, outside of the Emergency, has imposed the tightest leash on the press.

While many media owners and big-name editors have toed the government line, smaller fiercely independent outlets and individual journalists have pushed back against the climate of censorship and borne the brunt of the repression. What many now fear is that the geopolitical importance of India, especially as a counterweight to China, is muting the western response, particularly after the assault on the BBC. While western governments lecturing other nations about freedom and liberty is often an unedifying sight, many fear the silence of London and Washington “could pave the way for more ‘brazen’ action… by the Modi government”.

As rightwing populists do in many other nations, the BJP presents its battering of the media as a challenge to the “elite”. It is, in reality, an attack on any criticism of the elite. The slow strangulation of a free and independent media is a catastrophe for India. But not just for India. It is a development that should trouble all of us.