Until recently, the attacks on liberals and the opposition came with plausible deniability for the Narendra Modi government. They could be blamed on non-state Hindutva actors, such as "fringe" RSS-aligned activists or state governments, even BJP-led state governments.
So how could you blame the Modi government for a lynching in Dadri? Wasn't Dadri in Uttar Pradesh, and law and order a state subject? How could you blame Modi for the gau rakshaks? How was it Modi's fault if ABVP activists had enough clout with the HRD ministry to ruin the life of a Dalit student in Hyderabad, making him embrace death? How could you blame the Modi government if leftists in JNU were advocating azadi for Kashmir and Delhi Police arrested the wrong guys for it? How could you blame the Modi government if lawyers were beating up teachers and journalists inside a Delhi court and the Delhi Police looked away? As for the arrests of Aam Aadmi Party MLAs, the law was taking its own course.
That plausible deniability, that isolation Modi pretended from these actions, is now going away. The mask is coming off. In becoming openly authoritarian, suppressing the opposition and the liberal media, the Modi government is making a huge mistake.
Like UPA-2, it is letting the arrogance of power come in the way of sanguine politics. It is only going to hurt itself in the process, just like UPA-2 did. The anti-democratic nature of the Modi government's actions may not be comparable in scale to the Emergency, but certainly comes from the same instinct of protecting power with suppressing voices of opposition and dissent. Ultimately, this path leads only to self-destruction, as both Indira Gandhi and UPA-2 eventually found out.
After the "surgical strikes", the Modi government was on an all-time nationalism high. Nationalism has been the defining sentiment of this government. So powerful is nationalism that it can hide everything: from cultural Hindu majoritarianism to questionable GDP data to scuttling the rural employment guarantee law for the drought affected.
Which is why the Modi government panicked when a veteran soldier committed suicide over unhappiness with the government's failed promise of one rank-one pension (OROP). The Modi government appearing to be letting down veteran soldiers immediately changed the perception it had built for itself.
With just one news break, the Modi government's claim of standing one with our soldiers, for their dignity and honour, rang hollow. The BJP was using images of soldiers in its Uttar Pradesh election campaign to tom-tom its surgical achievement of having given Pakistan a 'reply'. Suddenly, it seemed like hypocrisy. The BJP had exploited the OROP issue even in the 2014 elections, earning the support of ex-servicemen.
The surgical strike narrative suddenly turned. The Modi-led BJP discovered deshbhakti can be a double-edged sword. Nationalism's tables had turned.
Just like the UPA-2 government erred in arresting Anna Hazare and helping the Lokpal movement become much bigger, the Modi government acted in haste to have Rahul Gandhi, Manish Sisodia and Arvind Kejriwal detained. In preventing them from meeting the family of the veteran who took his own life to protest against the government's inaction on OROP, the Modi government only helped give more life to the opposition. Weak, fragmented, disunited, even scared and co-opted, the opposition needs fresh energy that only the Modi government's mistakes can give it. The slow pace of implementing OROP, leading to the ex-servicemen's suicide, and police detention of opposition leaders, was exactly such a political mistake.
At this point the Modi government needed something to deflect attention, shift the debate. As we have consistently seen, the government and its apparatchiks blame liberals for everything. The opposition is too weak, the comatose Congress party dying a slow death--it is the handful of Delhi liberals who need to be silenced. Nothing personifies Delhi liberals like NDTV, an old punching bag of the Hindu right, whose credibility makes up for the TRPs the "nationalist" editors have taken away from it.
The issue of Hindi channel NDTV India's coverage of the Pathankot operation, allegedly compromising the operation as it was taking place, has been live since January 2016 itself. But the timing of the Information and Broadcasting ministry's order asking NDTV India to go off air for 24 hours is suspect. The need to deflect attention away from the OROP suicide row could have been a factor in the timing of the decision.
Instead of debating whether the government has been negligent in looking after veterans, we are now debating whether a day's ban on NDTV India is fair. Is it political censorship or did NDTV India compromise security? The answer doesn't matter, though if you care, NDTV has argued that it broadcast only what other channels were broadcasting, and the newspapers had also published the same stories with the same level of detail. The government, the ruling party and its online warriors have been able to deflect the issue from the OROP suicide.
Discrediting NDTV and showing it up to be anti-national is an additional gain for the government. Yet, the government is in net loss. With every passing day, the Modi government is helping create an opposition where there was none. Having already co-opted the media, it is provoking the media, almost daring it, to go against the government. NDTV was already willing to bend over backwards, as we saw in its dropping of a P. Chidambaram interview. But apparently that's not enough.
Playing with the fire of nationalism is risky, and the OROP suicide was only a small trailer of that. What if there's another big terrorist attack the Modi government finds itself unable to respond to with the same level of political astuteness as it did with the "surgical" strike?
High on power, the BJP government is willing to take such risks. It is willing to do anything to try and topple Congress governments in small states and stop the Aam Aadmi Party in its tracks. Such aggression by a single-party majority government could just as well be the beginning of its self-destruction.