By Swapan Dasgupta
Every election—or, at any rate, most elections—have both winners and losers. By the time this column appears in the print edition, India will have a sense of which side, the Mahagathbandhan or the NDA, has prevailed in the bitterly contested Bihar Assembly election. The election has agitated the minds of the entire political class and has affected the process of governance, both positively and negatively. Many important decisions that ought to have been taken have been put on hold on the after-Bihar plea. This is unfortunate but an unavoidable price of democracy.
For Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, the end of the Bihar election saga must necessarily involve getting back into the serious business of governance, attending to outstanding issues and taking decisions that are overdue. Whether the BJP wins or loses, the arduous business of governance (and, by implication, normal politics) must be resumed.
The first item on the agenda is to redouble efforts to secure the passage of the Goods and Services Tax in the Rajya Sabha. No doubt this will become easier if the NDA wins in Bihar. But even if Nitish Kumar is resumes his post as Bihar’s Chief Minister, it is important to reach out to every non-NDA formation to ensure that India’s growth story is not held hostage to partisan politics. This is a message that must be particularly conveyed to the Congress leadership in no uncertain terms. It is understandable that the Congress—and Rahul Gandhi in particular—is anxious to get over the consequences of the horrible defeat it suffered in the 2014 general election. But a recovery strategy based on making the elected government dysfunctional is a recipe for adventurism. There are some rules governing politics and one of them is respect for a popular mandate. Modi was elected in 2014 to govern for five years and this has to be respected not least by ensuring that Parliament is allowed to function and either approve or reject outstanding legislation. Normal governance cannot be dependant on the proceedings of one National Herald case.
Secondly, the pace of decision-making has been markedly uneven. The phenomenal energy that the Prime Minister has displayed in foreign policy and in selling the India story to global audiences has not always been mirrored by the same sense of urgency in all the departments of the government. It is not that the government has been unreceptive to the requirements of making India more conducive to growth, investment, entrepreneurship and job creation. But has he succeeded in impressing upon all his colleagues and the bureaucracy that decisions delayed are a day wasted? The mood in India is one of impatience and it is important for all concerned to realise that the pace must be one that of a one-day match rather than a five-day Test, with mandatory lunch and tea breaks. If instilling the sense of utmost urgency necessitates a shuffling of the ministerial cards, the Prime Minister must not be shy of doing what is right.
Finally, there is an expectation that the destructive and vitriolic debate over intolerance and the so-called space for dissent will ease off after the voting in Bihar—only to reappear in time for the next round of elections. The issue of which side was right and who was being needlessly alarmist need not detain us for the moment. It is sufficient to note that there is a large body of individuals who will persist in tarring the government with the brush of ignominy. Nothing Modi does or doesn’t do will change their determination to battle on as long as the BJP is in power. However, it is not these professional protestors that should be of interest to the regime. Far more important is to reach out to the middle-of-the-road Indians who want to get on with their lives and build a future for themselves and their children. It is this section that has been also shaken by the relentless campaign mounted by the ‘intellectuals’ and a section of the media. Their fears have been aroused by the reckless statements and activities of individuals and fringe groups who imagine they have the monopoly of the truth.
The Prime Minister has hitherto maintained a strategic silence which has wrongly been interpreted as acquiescence. This impression has to be corrected without much delay, not least because even the remotest hint of social turbulence sends undermines the larger confidence in the government and, by implication, in the country. Isolating the well-entrenched disruptionists requires an imaginative political strategy that does not always lie in frontal, no-holds-barred confrontation. It is time the BJP and the government paid heed to the optics of the war against negativism. One of the important planks of this approach must be better communications and coming down hard on all those who believe in shooting off their mouths without any regard for the wider consequences.
It is often said that the bench strength of the BJP is weak. Part of this assessment stems from social condescension and the frustrations of disappointed office-seekers. However, it doesn’t negate the larger principle of entrusting the right people with the right responsibilities. After 18 months in office, the Prime Minister must have had the opportunity of getting the full measure of those around him. He must now operationalise his findings.
The time available between the Bihar results and the next round of Assembly elections is a window of opportunity that must be availed. (END)
Sunday Pioneer, November 8, 2015