By Swapan Dasgupta
If a wave of intolerance was indeed sweeping through India, making a mockery of the cherished ‘idea of India’ and putting our democracy at risk, why has the threat evaporated so abruptly since Diwali?
This is a question that has intrigued me ever since ‘intolerance’ disappeared from the front pages of newspapers and was no longer the subject of shrill television debates. It can hardly be the case that such a grave threat is purely seasonal and that the fascists in khaki shorts have decided to take a winter break from intellectual bashing. If the threat was as fundamental as it was made out to be, would it have dissipated after the overdue meeting of the Sahitya Akademi and a lively (and undisturbed) debate in Parliament, not to mention angry editorial comments in the New York Times, Guardian and Economist? If Narendra Modi is indeed the Hitler he is made out to be, he must be a papier-mâché replica. A more authentic Fuhrer would certainly have bared his fangs menacingly.
Maybe the answer lies in the conclusive outcome of the Bihar Assembly election—which one extremely ridiculous commentary compared with the unequivocal anti-Emergency verdict in 1977. At the risk of sounding conspiratorial, let me suggest that the entire kerfuffle over beef and intolerance was aimed at elevating the political opposition to the regime and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party into a more fundamental question of civil liberties and minority vulnerability. If that indeed was the purpose—and the implication is that a large number of those who made up the award wyapsigang were what Lenin called “useful idiots”—it succeeded beyond all expectations. The BJP was forced on to the back foot confronting an agenda over which it had no control, and a spectacular degree of opposition unity was achieved—with even the doughty anti-corruption crusader Arvind Kejriwal embracing Lalu Yadav.
Both the BJP and the parties decimated in the 2014 poll attached a great deal of importance to the Bihar election. For the BJP, a victory or at least a creditable showing was absolutely essential for two reasons. First, it was necessary to establish that the momentum of 2014 centred on Modi—so much in evidence in Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Haryana and Jammu and Kashmir—hadn’t entirely dissipated. Secondly, like in 2014, the BJP set out to establish that political chemistry could prevail over electoral arithmetic. BJP strategists proceeded on the assumption that the votes of the Janata Dal (United), Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress wouldn’t transfer in its entirety to the Mahagathbandhan.
The two assumptions turned out to be flawed. Modi is still an extremely popular figure—as the huge crowds in his public meetings so vividly demonstrated—but an Assembly election isn’t a Lok Sabha election and the Prime Minister’s national standing couldn’t prevail over the respect Nitish Kumar commanded for providing Bihar with a half-decent administration over a decade. Strangely, the BJP, which too had a seminal role in the recovery of Bihar from Lalu’s ‘jungle raj’, chose not to demand a share of the credit. On the contrary, the incessant invocation of the possibility of Bihar being again overwhelmed by whimsical governance led to a spectacular consolidation of Lalu’s dedicated bank behind the three-party alliance. With the chemistry going wrong, the high index of anti-BJP unity was reflected in the results.
For the combined opposition, the biggest take-away from Bihar was the proof that the BJP was most vulnerable when it was confronted with a united challenge. The Bihar Chief Minister whose long-term national ambitions are no great secret appears to be the most active in fostering anti-BJP unity at all levels. He is understood to be particularly active in Assam, trying to forge some form of tactical understanding between a beleaguered Congress, an increasingly marginalised Asom Gana Parishad and Badruddin Ajmal’s UMFA that wants an overt Muslim role in the governance of the state. The project is challenging and may not ultimately fructify, given the conflicting impulses at play. But what is significant is that a serious attempt is being made to extend the logic of the Mahagathbandan to every state where the BJP has a meaningful presence.
What is significant about these backroom parleys to create a united challenge to the BJP in 2019 is that the driving force is the non-Congress. In a revealing interview during the campaign, Nitish Kumar was asked to explain his sudden fondness for the Congress that had been the historic enemy of the followers of Ram Manohar Lohia. His answer—“But where is the Congress?”—may have underestimated the potential of the principal opposition party but it does indicate his belief that the long-term decline of the Congress is an inescapable reality. Yet, there is the realisation that without the Congress no strong anti-BJP is possible.
If Nitish’s calculation is valid, has the Congress grasped its predicament? Can the Congress—which still has a presence all over India—be reconciled to a national coalition where it is not the senior partner and which does not project Rahul Gandhi as the leader? There are indications that the Congress does not want to address this question as yet, at least not before the results of the Assembly elections in Assam and Punjab. However, quite instinctively, the Congress will not be very happy with any arrangement that doesn’t acknowledge the primacy of the Gandhis, if not the party.
It is primarily to secure the lion’s share of the anti-BJP space that the Congress has opted for its total war strategy in Parliament. In making it abundantly clear that it will not allow any legislation to be cleared (or even debated) in the Rajya Sabha where it is still the largest party, the Gandhis are conducting a classic asymmetric war. All it needs is the mobilisation of some 40 or so MPs and indulgence of the chair to create a Constitutional crisis and, by implication, make the Modi government appear dysfunctional.
There is another unstated purpose. By ensuring uninterrupted disruption of the Upper House, the Congress is trying to ensure its own leadership of in the opposition. On the Goods and Services Tax issue, for example, the regional parties are broadly in favour of the measure—Nitish, Mamata, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Naveen Patnaik have said so clearly. Its disruption is aimed at preventing a vote at all costs and making the Modi government look ineffective—thereby puncturing the Prime Minister’s image as a no-nonsense, decisive leader.
Rahul Gandhi’s approach is out and out adventurist. However, he has been able to get away for two reasons. First, the other opposition parties are still unwilling to allow the internal cracks in the anti-BJP ranks to emerge. They are happy to see Modi brought down a notch or two. Secondly, despite all the post-Bihar attempts, the agenda is still not being set by the Prime Minister, and certainly not in a media that has turned spectacularly hostile. The lingering after-effects of the contrived debate on intolerance and majoritarianism still persist. The ominous implications of a non-functioning Parliament does not seem to concern the liberal classes, still nursing a deep resentment over exclusion from the power structure.
The Winter session of Parliament seems headed for a complete washout. How long will this paralysis of the legislature continue? By going for the kill even before the government has completed two years, Rahul Gandhi has left himself little room for manoeuvre. Has his recklessness, in the process, also facilitated a shift in the national agenda, on terms more to the liking of the Prime Minister?
The Telegraph, December 18, 2015