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How BJP sets the terms in PM Narendra Modi's second year

16 May, 2016 8:38 PM
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How BJP sets the terms in PM Narendra Modi's second year

By any yardstick, it has been a tumultuous second year for India under the Narendra Modi government. Narendra Modi, the longserving Gujarat chief minister, created history when he stormed into the prime minister's office in 2014, the first non-Congress leader to occupy the office with a secure majority in the Lok Sabha , or the lower house of Parliament.

Modi's victory was not only an indicator of how disillusioned Indians had become of the Congress Party that had ruled the republic for most of its independent existence but also how eager voters were to give a chance to a new leader who promised to secure their future in an economically advanced India. As he completes two years of his five-year term, fulfilling that promise remains a work in progress.

Modi is one of the most popular leaders India has ever had. An ET-TNS survey across seven cities in April showed his popularity undiminished. Of 16,732 polled in an ABP-Nielsen January survey across 109 constituencies, just 11% considered his prime ministerial performance as poor.

No politician in the past 30 years has occupied the public's mind space as he has. Having come to power promising development for all, Modi certainly would have liked a galloping economy to grab headlines in his second year in the saddle. But it was not the year of the economy. It was the year of politics; of loss, of new tropes and fresh chasms that would change the country forever.

Opposition parties may be feeling upbeat about their consolidation against the rulers, but truth is the Bharatiya Janata Party under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah's leadership has successfully weathered electoral setbacks and public outrage to change the terms of national debates to its advantage.

The twin-track approach had the prime minister evangelizing his gospel of development all over the country and abroad while the BJP and the Sangh Parivar aggressively pushed an ultra-nationalism that pays tribute to symbols and gestures rather than evolving a refined sense of citizenship.

"The Ram Janmabhoomi movement ran on the four wheels of cow, culture, temple and honour of women. The RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and BJP were unable to revive that debate until now," says Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, political commentator and author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. In August last year, MM Kalburgi, the Kannada writer and rationalist, who was critical of idol worship and Hindu rituals, was gunned down by unknown assailants.

Soon after, 52-year-old Mohammad Akhlaq of Dadri village in Uttar Pradesh was lynched by a Hindu mob for allegedly slaughtering a calf and storing beef in his house. The killings raised a furore that transformed into a movement called award wapsi (return the award) by prize-winning writers, moviemakers and artistes.

The moviemakers and artists were also protesting the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as the director of Pune's Film and Television Institute of India making it a broadbrush resistance to what was described in general as rising intolerance. The BJP said the movement was ruining the country's reputation.

"Credibility of the country is being subjected to being damaged due to some people glorifying isolated local incidents and some people trying to convert it into a political weapon to defame the ruling party, thus defaming the country... Political intolerance is the genetic trait of Congress," the party said, cleverly proposing that the BJP and India were one and a political attack on the party should be considered an attack on the country.

The prime minister remained silent. The movement petered out. It was the first step in building a nationalistic narrative exclusively owned by the BJP. More proof came during the Bihar elections.

While Modi stuck to articulating his development agenda for everyone, as the polls advanced in phases, party rhetoric increasingly became jingoistic. "If by any chance the BJP loses this election, while winning and losing will happen in this country, crackers will be burst in celebration in Pakistan," party chief Amit Shah said at a rally in Raxaul, reiterating the BJP as the sole guardian of nationalism.

The party was routed in the elections with the formidable combination of Lalu Prasad Yadav's RJD, Nitish Kumar's JD(U) and the Congress Party scripting a famous victory. After the party lost, a BJP national executive member from the state analysed the loss for ET: "PM Modi lost the electorate and party chief Amit Shah alienated the party workers." Soon, the BJP would take the next step.

The enduring image of the year is of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student leader Kanhaiya Kumar, yelling 'freedom' with hand raised in defiance. He was arrested for sedition, the word and action stimulating memories of the distant seventies when under the then prime minister Indira Gandhi dissent was crushed along with the dissenters.

Kumar's arrest by Delhi Police and charging him of sedition triggered off a raging debate on nationalism, sedition and freedom of expression. "Sedition is being camouflaged as freedom of expression. In the name of expression of freedom, the debate on anti-national slogans is being turned in another direction," Shah said at the party national executive in March. In that one statement, the party chief conjoined freedom of expression and sedition in such a way that any dissent could be termed anti-national.

"The way they handled JNU after Hyderabad University, the BJP and RSS have been able to turn the ideological debate," says Mukhopadhyay. Gradually, the nationalism debate coalesced into a single line, Bharat Mata ki Jai, or Victory to Mother India, the willingness to say it becoming a sort of India's Tebbit test (a test of patriotism proposed by Tory leader Norman Tebbit who questioned the loyalty of immigrants who supported their native countries in cricket matches with England) of patriotism.

A political resolution at the BJP's national executive held in March says: "Our constitution describes India as Bharat also, refusal to chant victory to Bharat is tantamount to disrespect to our Constitution itself. Bharat Mata ki Jai is not merely a slogan... It is the reiteration of our constitutional obligations as citizens to uphold its primacy."

That the BJP got the upper hand in that debate was proven when Congress legislators in the Maharashtra assembly ganged up with the NCP and Shiv Sena to get AIMIM legislator Waris Pathan suspended for refusing to say the slogan. Further affirmation came from Himachal Pradesh .

As the budget session of the Himachal Pradesh assembly concluded on April 8, Congress chief minister Virbhadra Singh shouted Bharat Mata ki Jai thrice taking everyone, including the opposition by surprise. He later said: "(I said it) because I am a true patriot and a nationalist at heart. I always feel proud when I say 'Bharat Mata ki Jai'. It's not an issue of debate and it's not related to any religion. Every Indian — Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian — should take pride in the slogan."

That statement was not very different from BJP's ideological parent RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat's. ``Now the time has come when we have to tell the new generation to chant Bharat Mata Ki Jai. It should be real, spontaneous and part of all-round development of the youth," Bhagwat had said at a public function in March.

Modi refused to be drawn into any of the debates, keeping silent on most of the issues. At the national executive he advised partymen to not pay attention to irrelevant issues, remain focused on their "agenda of vikas, vikas, vikas" (development, development, development) and help spread awareness about government programmes such as Swachch Bharat.

The only time he spoke, that too after a few days' delay, was when 26-year-old Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula killed himself unable to escape the "fatal accident of his birth". "A mother has lost her 'laal' (son). Politics aside, the fact is that we lost a son. I can understand the pain," Modi said.

Vemula, who hanged himself in a hostel room of the Hyderabad Central University wrote these enduring words in his suicide note: "The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number."

That is precisely the Modi administration has to keep in mind if it were to come anywhere close to the prime minister's stated dream at the ET Global Business Summit: A transformed India where all citizens have the opportunity to reach their full potential.


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