By Swapan Dasgupta
The past fortnight has witnessed a series of conflicting trends in the political arena that has seemingly jeopardised the clarity that was expected after the categorical verdict in last May’s general election.
First, on the economic front—and despite the apprehensions of some of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s more over-zealous backers—the government appears to have moved quite decisively. Apart from the popular achievement of having achieved near-zero inflation that was also a consequence of spectacular good fortune—the sharp fall in global oil prices—there has been positive movement on one of the government’s stated objectives: improving the ease of doing business in India. From managing a broad agreement on the contours of the much-delayed Goods and Services Tax to introducing a note of pragmatism in the Ministry of Environment, the Modi government appears to have largely satisfied the lofty expectations of the markets that had suffered from a prolonged bout of depression.
Naturally, much more needs to be done if the improvement in the ease of doing business in India translates seamlessly into success for Modi’s Make in India policy. Domestic capital is particularly anxious that Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan modifies his inflation fundamentalism and effects a significant lowering of interest rates to prop up a sluggish manufacturing sector. There has been a difference of opinion between Rajan and the Ministry of Finance but this divergence has so far been marked by gentlemanly behaviour on both sides and hasn’t contributed to an ugly spat. Industry is also keen that Finance Minister Arun Jaitley act on his professed commitment to modify some of the more non-monetary dimensions of the neo-Luddite Land Acquisition Bill that was enacted by the Manmohan Singh government in its last year.
Regardless of the formidable challenges in the path of India realising its true economic potential, it is heartening that the Prime Minister has not lost sight of the government’s principal task. In this context, Modi’s speech to the BJP Parliamentary Party on December 16 was significant. Angry with colleagues who had been speaking out of turn and raising extraneous issues in public, the Prime Minister had to remind MPs that they had been elected to raise people’s living standards, create opportunities and transform India into a global power of consequence. He was clear that he could not deviate from this agenda, not even if he wanted to.
Modi’s outburst was occasioned by an emerging trend that, apart from disrupting Parliament repeatedly this Winter Session, has attracted speculation over the ‘real’ agenda of the BJP government.
To a modest extent, the furore in Parliament over Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti’s utterances at a public meeting, the ghar vyapasi programme planned by Hindu groups in Aligarh and the non-holiday for Kendriya Vidyalayas over Christmas was a result of media activism. The BJP cannot be entirely faulted for nurturing a conspiracy theory that the traditionally hostile and loosely Left-liberal leaning English language media will do its utmost to show the government in a poor light. Yet, while over-playing the utterances of loose cannons does distort the big picture, the government has to be mindful that there are tensions within the wider ‘parivar’ over what constitutes the primary agenda of the Modi government.
The larger consensus is that the electorate reposed its faith in the leadership on two counts. The Indian voter believed that Modi’s personal attributes—his fanatical dedication to a work culture and his decisiveness—were an answer to a decade of weak and unfocussed leadership. There was, at the same time, a shared confidence over Modi’s unwavering development agenda. As a rule, and unlike western democracies, Indian voters don’t like being cluttered with policy details and prefer generalities, leaving the leadership to attend to the nuts and bolts. The generalities that found favour, however, had very little to do with either questions of identity and assertive nationalism.
In a large country, however, there are significant departures from aggregation. The BJP, like most mass parties, isn’t really cadre based when it comes to electoral politics. However, it is undeniable that the greatest chunk of its activists—the karyakartas that figure so prominently in the party’s political imagery—have a broad commitment to Hindu nationalism. The BJP’s victory in May and the good showing in the Maharashtra and Haryana Assembly polls has convinced some of the more marginalised sections of the parivar that the moment has arrived to press ahead with an ideological reorientation of the country. Viewing Modi as an instrument of convenience, this section is anxious to take advantage of a friendly Centre to press ahead with its pet schemes. Hitherto, Modi has placated this fringe with token, inconsequential sops such as appointments in bodies linked to education, but they now want more.
It would seem that the experience of the Winter Session of Parliament is likely to trigger an internal rejig in the BJP. With the Opposition having a numerical upper hand in the Rajya Sabha—and this disadvantage will persist until late-2016—it is now clear that important economic legislation will have to be negotiated every inch of the way. The Opposition has realised that it possesses the ability to blackmail the government and it will be reluctant to relinquish that advantage. This in turn implies that Modi’s political managers will have to use a combination of persuasion and threat to keep the hotheads in check. In the longer term, Modi will have to shift the political centre of gravity in the BJP towards development and governance. The moves to making BJP membership more open—membership through a missed call—constitutes a small step. In the short term Modi will have to find imaginative solutions to the possible problem of matching the priorities of activists with that of the average voter.
Economic growth presupposed a large measure of social stability; radical ruptures necessitate social turbulence. It is difficult to reconcile both, except through a process of regimentation that is so very un-Indian and even un-Hindu.
The final trend that has the potential of creating a political byway is the re-emergence of Islamist terrorism in a virulent form. It may be unduly alarmist to suggest that either the lone wolf attacks in Ottawa and Sydney or the ghastly massacre of schoolchildren in Peshawar could be replicated in India. At the same time, it is impossible to underestimate the grotesque impact of the brazen cruelty that is the hallmark of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on dysfunctional minds. The Bengali Muslim man arrested in Bengaluru for operating a pro-ISIS twitter handle may well be a loner, disinclined to pick up a gun. But there are nearly 100 or more Indian citizens who have signed up with the ISIS in the war zone, and not all of them are engaged in cleaning lavatories—as the lone defector was. The possible impact of their bravado on impressionable fed on a diet of victimhood is a source of worry.
Security in India is uneven and the government is likely to step up efforts to plug as many loopholes as possible. This exercise is certain to give priority to pre-emptive policing, a phenomenon that creates localised tensions and a sense of victimhood—the aftermath of the Burdwan blasts being a case in point.
For the Modi government the next few months are certain to be challenging. The government seems clear on its priorities but there are significant roadblocks that have to be negotiated calmly. It is important to ensure that subterranean currents remain firmly underground and don’t create diversions from the path the electorate voted to travel down.
The Telegraph, December 19, 2014