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Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Modi is going the Nixon way with JNU crackdown

Contemplating the ham-handed response of the Modi government to the student protest at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), I was reminded of the shootings at Ohio's Kent State University in the spring of 1970. For the record, the Ohio National Guard fired Jallianwala-Bagh-style, 67 rounds in 13 seconds, at a crowd of student protesters, killing four and injuring many more. A few days preceding the horrific events of May 4, president Richard M Nixon authorised the invasion by US troops of Cambodia. The students were protesting this in particular but also the entire war in Indochina (Indochinese Peninsula).

A divisive figure, Nixon became a hate object on university campuses. The realisation dawned on me when a few years later, I enrolled in graduate journalism school some 130 miles south of Kent State and attended my first-ever rock concert. It featured Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, who brought down the house with their tour de force, Ohio, whose lyrics ran: "Tin soldiers and Nixon coming…four dead in Ohio."

The campus killing followed revelations in 1969 of US military atrocities in My Lai, a South Vietnam village in which US soldiers massacred nearly 500 civilians including women and children. The horror story prompted a significant dip in public support for the war. Plus the reinstitution of the draft lottery that year disrupted suburban homes as youth were forcibly enlisted for a tour of military duty in Vietnam.

In retrospect, the May 1970 Kent State killings proved to be the turning point; they brought Middle America face to face with state-sanctioned violence. In the event, opposition to the war snowballed.

Nixon grew desperate and paranoid about the groundswell of hostility not just to the war but to him personally. He made a series of missteps including orchestrating a huge cover-up to obstruct investigations into the burglary at the Watergate complex headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in Washington DC. Initially, however, Kent State and the previous government decisions seemed not to make much of a difference to Nixon's popularity; he went on to win a second term by a landslide in 1972.

Chuffed by his electoral victory, Nixon failed to read the signs of public revulsion spreading to the "silent majority" that he and his supporters frequently invoked as proof of electoral invincibility. Days into his second stint, Nixon had to confront incessant revelations about the Watergate scandal and then in the fall of 1973, he had to deal with a major international economic challenge: the OPEC oil embargo brought on by his administration's support for Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur war with Syria and Egypt.

As his popularity plummeted, Nixon was threatened with impeachment by the US Congress. In August 1974, he resigned in disgrace.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems set on a similar course. It started in 2015 with revelations of the scandals surrounding Lalit Modi and the intervention with British authorities on his behalf by external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj; then came the controversy over the cricket impresario's links with Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje and the deadly Vyapam case involving Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan; the prime minister maintained a sphinx-like silence in the probable belief that once the headlines are past, people will forget about these scandals.

But the scandals seem continuously to unfold. The protests by students at Pune's Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) over the appointment of an RSS apparatchik as director continued from June through January. In the interim, there was the murder of a Muslim man in a UP village, Dadri, by a gang of right-wing thugs on the suspicion he possessed and ate beef. Then there was the brouhaha over the beef ban in Haryana. The campaign by Mr Modi and his lieutenant Amit Shah in Bihar also resulted in loss of public support and the subsequent reverse in the Assembly election.

In September last year, the Modi regime was rocked by reports that prominent literary personalities started to return awards to the Sahitya Akademi to protest the murder of a Karnataka scholar by Hindutva goons.

More recent is the controversy over the suicide by a Dalit doctoral student at Hyderabad University over the stoppage of his fellowship money and expulsion from the hostel along with five other Dalit students. It was widely seen as an affirmation of caste discrimination practiced by adherents of Hindutva, the rambunctious assertion of religious bigotry.

Almost immediately thereafter, the government became implicated inthe JNU imbroglio that resulted in the arrest of the president of the students union. It is spinning into a culture war, much like what happened in the US under Nixon. The BJP's goon squads running amok and the intemperate and confrontationist rhetoric of saffron politicians have created disquiet in middle-class and upwardly mobile India where education and careers are indispensable and essential cultural values.

By taking their stentorian pseudo-nationalist agenda to academic campuses, Modi's Hindu fundamentalists are scaring the parents and wards of students for whom good grades and concomitant good jobs are a holy grail. Such disruptions are hugely unwelcome in the lives of such people whose first and foremost goal in life is to see their children faring well in the groves of academe and later in the job market.

Finally in a striking denouement of the platform on which Modi swept to power in May 2014 comes the news that the Modi government has revived the $2 billion tax claim against Vodafone, the UK-based telecom firm. This is while the case is in international arbitration over the government's retrospective changes in tax laws.

With this impressive list of faux pas, Mr Modi's popularity may now have shrunk to the hard-core base of Hindutva true believers. In the past few days, his party has been rocked by high-profile resignations. The writing, as Nixon discovered 42 years before him, is on the wall.

(An edited version of this post will appear in Education World, February 2016.)