MIXED TIMES FOR THE BJP: THE GOOD AND THE BAD

The on-going assembly elections to the 4 states and one union territory are crucial for the NDA government in the sense that the results will reflect on the sustainability of the Modi factor. While he may still retain the confidence of his core supporters, the BJP needs to enlarge its support base to be able to strengthen its image of a truly national party, and not just a party of a particular section of Hindus.

The second half of Modi’s tenure will thus be crucial and Modi, being a street smart person, will know this more than anyone else. Political analyst, Sitaraman Shankar writing in the Hindustan Times takes a worse-case scenario by stating that “by the time year-end comes along, bringing with it the mid-point, the BJP would probably have lost at least 6 out of 11 state elections; four of its wins were in 2014 in the afterglow of its Lok Sabha triumph”. If it loses Uttar Pradesh next year, “the Modi wave would have long faded”.

5 new BJP state chiefs

Therefore, taking a long term approach, the BJP is taking steps to strengthen its organizational base. In a major move, it has named five state party presidents in Arunachal Pradesh, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Telengana and Karnataka. Analysts are looking for a common political pattern for the sudden announcement. Polls are imminent in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh but that is not the case in Arunachal Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka. There is thus no common factor here. However, all the new chiefs have won elections and therefore have the confidence of the electorate.

The selection of presidents largely from socio-economically depressed sections also indicates that the BJP is keen to target the dalit (lowest caste) vote bank. In some states, particularly Karnataka the selection of the President (Maurya), helps since he is also a communally polarising figure.

The Tribune says “by naming Tapir Gao the party chief of Arunachal, the BJP is looking ahead in three North-Eastern states. Besides his home state, Gao has been active in the tribal areas of Manipur and brought the anti-Congress Naga People’s Front closer to the BJP which will help in Nagaland. But the BJP will need to do more than select die-hard Hindutva proponents from the depressed classes”.

Good news: above-normal monsoon and growth of 7.6% forecast

But there is also good news for the BJP. The India Meteorological Department’s first forecast, released last Tuesday, for the southwest monsoon season (June-September) has predicted that, after back-to-back “deficient” monsoons, India is likely to receive “above-normal” rainfall this year. According to the IMD, rainfall is likely to be 106 per cent of the long period average (LPA), which is 89 cm of rainfall, with an error range of 5 per cent. India’s agricultural growth has collapsed from 4.2 per cent in 2013-14 to minus 0.2 per cent in 2014-15 (with 88 per cent of LPA rainfall) and 1.1 per cent in 2015-16 (with 86 per cent of LPA rainfall). The forecast brings relief for Indian agriculture, and the overall economy.

It will also bring some cheer to the Modi government.
The other piece of good news is from the Reserve Bank of India’s (RBI) first bi-monthly monetary policy statement released last week that says the economy is expected to grow at 7.6 percent. Inflation has been in check due to sound fiscal and monetary policies. The outlook for growth remains upbeat but some factors can impinge on growth. These include lower investment demands due to corporate debts and tepid global output and trade growth leading to a fall in exports. On the positive side, the RBI mentions the government’s Start-up initiative as well as strong commitment to fiscal targets, and a thrust on boosting infrastructure which could brighten the growth prospects going ahead.

The skeptics view: economic advancement can be scuttled by social tension

The BJP also has many skeptics who do not give much credit to the government’s initiatives and achievements thus far. For them Prime Minister Narendra Modi is losing the plot. Economic reforms, they say, are moving at a snail’s pace and with the drought and agrarian crisis looming, the promised achhe din (good days) appear to be far away. The investment climate has not improved, but the investors might not have been too worried about the slow pace of development if they believed that the government was moving in the right direction in both the economic and social fields. But doubts are being caused by the fear that economic advancement can be scuttled by social tension.

It is not only the violence threatened and unleashed against beef-eaters and those who do not chant Bharat Mata ki Jai, the new litmus test for nationalism, which can have an adverse impact on the economy, but also the disturbing signs of authoritarianism displayed by the government.

One of them is the directive to Urdu authors to give an undertaking that they will not write anything against government policies. Even if it is meant for those who seek monetary support from the government, extracting such a pledge from writers is unheard of in a democracy, as Zafar Mohiuddin, convener of the Forum of Urdu Writers and Artists, has said.

If writers are being harassed, can journalists be far behind. An Editors’ Guild team found evidence of intimidation during a visit to BJP-ruled Chhattisgarh, where they came to know of arbitrary arrests of journalists, physical attacks and the resultant pervasive fear.

To make matters worse, or perhaps to cover up the failures on these counts, the government’s keenness to suppress dissent by using the colonial-era sedition law is worrisome. It is not without reason, therefore, that the Vice-President, Hamid Ansari, recently asked “whether a more complete separation of religion and politics might not better serve Indian democracy”. The hint that the present government was blurring the line between religion and politics made Subramanian Swamy, the Sangh Parivar’s (RSS family) in-house gadfly, accuse the Vice-President of making an “undignified comment” against the government.

But the uneasiness about the government’s intention will remain if only because it is known that it cannot ignore the pro-Hindu agenda of the RSS and its affiliates like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and associates like the Sri Ram Sene, the Hindu Sena, the Hindu Mahasabha and others.

No political party can simultaneously be a political and a religious party

To come back to Vice President Hamid Ansari, he has raised a fundamental issue concerning India’s democratic polity and secular State, both basic features of the Constitution. PP Rao, expert on constitutional law says the issue is important enough to be addressed by Parliament. “The country had suffered from mixing religion with politics before the Partition, and continues to suffer even now. This should end”.
The Constitution, Rao says “prohibits discrimination inter alia on the ground of religion, race or caste against any citizen. Every person has the right to freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of one’s religion, and every religious denomination has the freedom to manage its religious affairs. The right of minorities to conserve their language and their culture is assured. They have the right to establish and administer educational institutions. Keeping in view these basic rights, which are enforceable, the Supreme Court had declared that the Constitution was secular…..
“A nine-judge Bench of the Supreme Court in SR Bommai’s case declared that secularism was a part of the basic structure of the Constitution and explained its implications. Religion is a matter of personal belief. The State is neither pro, nor anti, any particular religion. It has to provide equal protection to all religions, subject to regulation. “Under our Constitution, no political party or organisation can simultaneously be a political and a religious party.” The Constitution does not permit mixing religion and State power…..”

Patriotism is not synonymous with nationalism

Mixing politics with religion is one issue with which the BJP is struggling with. The other major issue is that of freedom of expression and the manner it has been linked with nationalism.

The Union finance minister Arun Jaitley’s statement, “freedom of expression and nationalism do necessarily co-exist” and the Constitution gives “full freedom for expressing dissent and disagreement but not the country’s destruction” is a case in point and reflects his abysmally poor knowledge of history. This is the view of analyst Sankar Ray writing in the Statesman.

“Even if nationalism is to be emphasised, Jaitley, the BJP president Amit Shah and even the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh Sarsangchalak (chief) Mohan Bhagwat have little moral right to talk of nationalism nor ought to identify who is committed to nationalism. The RSS, to which all the three BJP leaders are deeply committed, never took part in the freedom struggle.

“The legendary freedom fighter Trailokyanath Chakraborty (known as Maharaj) was on record that when he approached the RSS Sarsanghchalak, Dr K. S. Hedgewar, on behalf of armed revolutionaries for assistance in importing arms and ammunitions, he was refused co-operation. Nationalism, nevertheless, is a burning question today as the RSS and its subordinate outfits like BJP and Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (BJP’s student wing) have been aggressively at work in branding the slightest dissent as seditious under Section 124 A of Indian Penal Code.

“This is why the issue – whether freedom of expression is to be subservient to imposed nationalism or even patriotism is now being discussed in India”.

It should be clear, says the analyst, “though that patriotism is not synonymous with nationalism. Hitler was an aggressive nationalist but never a patriot”.

He quotes Rabindranath Tagore, the composer of India’s national anthem: “I will never allow triumph over humanity as long as I live”. The poet emphatically stated in the same essay “Patriotism cannot be our final spiritual shelter; my refuge is humanity.

Deepak Sinha, a military veteran and consultant with the Observer Research Foundation says that till recently, ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ was mainly heard within the military and has great significance there, as it is used by many battalions and regiments as their battle cry. He therefore finds it “disturbing to see how politicians have conjured up a controversy out of nothing, regarding patriotic sloganeering, in an undisguised attempt to win votes”.