Cover Story: Power 2017

The Show of Strength

PR Ramesh is Managing Editor of Open
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India still swayed to the tune of Narendra Modi

IF THERE IS A year when India proved that Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century philosopher, was right in his prophecy about strong governments, it is perhaps 2017. In his magnum opus, Leviathan, he had posited that only a powerful ruler could protect us from our base instincts and self-serving desires. The country may have faced such challenges before, but the Doklam standoff with China was reaffirmation of the faith that strength respects strength.

Coming, as it did, after the surgical strikes on Pakistan in response to an attack on an Indian military base in Uri last year, the three-month-long confrontation over China building a road in Doklam, which falls in Bhutan, an ally of India, New Delhi’s refusal to back down earned the Centre plaudits. That India was ready to militarily resist any such Chinese designs in the strategically important trijunction region was commendable, especially considering the country’s pact with Bhutan to defend its boundaries from foreign aggression. Despite a diplomatic face saver, it was Beijing that blinked and shed its bravado before both sides agreed to pull out troops.

On the foreign policy front, the Government of Narendra Modi has other firsts, too. This year he made history as the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel and he held wide-ranging discussions with his counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu in a calculated bid to collaborate with and acquire technologies from the Middle Eastern country to safeguard India from a variety of attacks, including low-intensity warfare from across the border. By visiting Israel without making a customary halt at the Palestinian Authority’s headquarters of Ramallah, as Indian leaders would usually do in a diplomatic balancing act, Modi might have attracted some flak from bleeding hearts and liberals back home and elsewhere, but the logic of his decision was in line with his resolve to put old leanings in the past and India on the fast-track of development through dispassionate deliberations and engagements overseas. His broad endeavour was also to end a contrived outreach towards religious minorities such as Muslims, refusing to let foreign policy be dictated by domestic vote-bank expediencies, as previous governments are seen to have often done.

Gone are the days of old postures. The ruling BJP-led Government of Modi, assisted by Amit Shah as party president, has successfully transformed conventional political equations within the country. The country’s leadership has done away with rules of engagement that have defined politics for several decades. While the foundation for this was laid in the two-and-a-half years prior, it was in 2017 that Modi brought to an abrupt end the veto exercised by minority representatives over sundry elements of the national agenda.

Indeed, it was a year of consolidation by 24x7 politicians such as Modi and Shah who have aggressively pursued what they believe are lofty political as well as administrative goals to detach governance from compulsions arising out of conventional political templates that were proving difficult to discard. The success of their plan had its clearest confirmation this March in the BJP victory in Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state. Until then, UP had for long been ruled by players such as Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) that came into prominence following the Mandalisation of Indian politics in the 1990s. While the decline of upper- caste-dominated politics (which was symptomatic of the earlier Congress reign in the state) was seen as a welcome trend, the casteism and dynastic politics of a subaltern class of leaders didn’t go down well with the majority of people, large numbers of whom had yet to benefit from the political ascent of Backward groups. While Yadavs of SP veteran Mulayam Singh Yadav’s own caste group felt empowered by that party’s rise to power, non-Yadav OBCs felt left out and aggrieved. As for Scheduled Castes, except for the Jatavs, the community of BSP supremo Mayawati, others found themselves as marginalised as before.

The BJP’s appointment of hardline Hindutva icon Yogi Adityanath as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh was a sign of the party’s determination to take a more muscular approach to majoritarian politics instead of settling for a please-all compromise

As an alternative to the caste-obsessed politics of such political parties that had claimed power in the name of the downtrodden, the BJP offered the electorate a broad pan-Hindu option, promising to bring all dispossessed caste groups as well as others, including Yadavs and Jatavs, under a single umbrella. The BJP, which professes Hindutva as its ideology, swept the UP Assembly elections of 2017 by appealing to a Hindu awakening and the majority’s desire to get rid of schisms within.

The strategy outlined by Shah and his trusted men ensured a pro-Hindu polarisation of votes that decimated the Muslim veto, reducing to nothing the significance of the minority vote which had played a pivotal role in UP’s electoral outcomes for decades. By neutralising a vote bank constituted by one-fifth of the state’s population, the BJP acquired a mandate to govern without pandering to minority interests. At the same time, politically, the party was glad that it was able to make deep inroads into the bastions of UP’s once-formidable regional forces such as the BSP and the SP, pulling in Yadav and Jatav votes as well. The elections saw the BJP alliance secure 325 seats in the state’s 403-member Assembly, winning over 26 per cent of the votes in a state where OBCs and SCs together form more than 60 per cent of the electorate. The BJP’s appointment of hardline Hindutva icon Yogi Adityanath as Chief Minister was a sign of the party’s determination to take a more muscular approach to majoritarian politics instead of settling for a please-all compromise.

For the country’s ruling party, it was also a year of forging ahead with some unfinished business, though it came under attack from the opposition for its allegedly arbitrary actions. In a series of adept moves, the BJP was able to offset its 2015 defeat at the Bihar hustings to the Grand Alliance of Lalu Prasad-led Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Nitish Kumar-headed Janata Dal (United). The sheer weight of numbers had dashed BJP hopes of using Modi’s charisma alone to achieve power in Patna; though the party managed to corner a decent 24.4 per cent of the votes, the RJD, JD-U and Congress got 18.4, 16.5 and 6.7 per cent respectively and joined hands to form a government. The Nitish-Lalu partnership, however, didn’t last long. The former, who had campaigned for decades against misrule by the latter, was inclined to snap ties with his allies over corruption, and the BJP, which had enjoyed warm ties with Nitish Kumar during the long period of an earlier BJP-JD-U alliance, took the first opportunity it got to seal a deal with Nitish Kumar to form a new JD-U-led government in the state with its backing. As part of the realignment mechanics, Nitish Kumar stepped down as Chief Minister after Deputy Chief Minister Tejashwi Yadav, son of Lalu Prasad, refused to quit over graft charges despite being asked to do so. This precipitated a political crisis in Patna that ended with Nitish Kumar returning to the NDA fold in July, after which he resumed charge as Chief Minister with the support of BJP legislators.

This was a gain for the BJP with ramifications far beyond Bihar. In a single stroke, the party could create a political pathway for the General Election of 2019. Not only was the Congress hope of rallying non-BJP forces behind it in utter disarray, the NDA had widened the scope of its appeal among non-Yadav OBCs and Most Backward castes that form the JD-U’s support base.

It is not surprising that the Congress resorted to an election campaign with distinctly Hindu overtones in Gujarat. Rahul Gandhi went on regular temple visits and sported a vermilion mark on his forehead at all public functions. This shift in optics evoked ridicule from BJP leaders

The Bihar manoeuvre was thus a BJP masterstroke that saw off a potential threat. Nitish Kumar had posed the party its biggest challenge since Modi’s ascent to power in 2014, and he was now an ally.

While the opposition has been trying to drum up protests against the new political culture ushered in by the new dispensation, accusing it of being ‘high handed’ among other things, what it seems to have overlooked is the paradigm shift in favour of right-wing Hindutva politics. The year 2017 was marked by the dissipation of mass mobilisation efforts against the ruling combine. In a departure from the past, the year saw conservative politicians assuming the posts of President and Vice-President of India for the first time ever. With Congress-style politics on the wane and liberal voices showing signs of thinning out, the choice of Ram Nath Kovind and M Venkaiah Naidu for those two constitutional positions is widely seen as proof of a changed political scenario in the country.

While some commentators have termed the shift ‘saffronisation’ , the BJP for its part has wondered aloud why ‘political Islamisation’ of the past was condoned by the left-liberal establishment, given that the office of Vice-President was held by Hamid Ansari before Naidu. In August, when Ansari said Muslims were feeling insecure, the Prime Minister responded saying that the outgoing Vice-President would be free to pursue his ‘core thinking’ after demitting office. At a farewell organised for Ansari, Modi made a pointed reference to the West Asian stints of his career as a diplomat. “Many years of your life were spent in that circle,” said the Prime Minister, “You stayed in that atmosphere, with that thinking and debating with those people. After retirement your engagement mostly remained the same... But in the last 10 years, you had a different responsibility. Every moment was spent in the ambit of the Constitution and running [the Rajya Sabha as Chairperson]. You tried your best to run it.” Added Modi, “Maybe there was some uneasiness within you. But from now onwards, you will not face that difficulty. You will also feel free, and work, think and speak according to your core thinking.”

Ansari, meanwhile, also attracted criticism for sharing a dais with leaders of the Muslim radicalist Popular Front of India (PFI), which the National Investigation Agency wants banned for reasons of security and its alleged links with ISIS.

In Indian politics, tit-for-tat appears to have replaced silence and hesitation on matters of religion and political correctness. Several pundits have traditionally disapproved of airing in public opinions on matters related to minority faiths or on the positions held by followers of these religions. However, thanks to a proliferation of new media platforms, new forms of vocalisation are now emerging in debates and it is becoming increasingly acceptable for members of the majority to call out the behavioural extremes of other communities. Here again, a strange veto that was par for the course in domestic politics is now fast disappearing.

The three-month confrontation over China in Doklam and New Delhi’s refusal to back down earned the Centre plaudits. Despite a diplomatic face saver, it was Beijing that blinked and shed its bravado

It is not surprising that the Congress party resorted to an election campaign with distinctly Hindu overtones in Gujarat, Modi’s home state, where the polarisation along religious lines is sharp. At no point did the Congress and its chief campaigner Rahul Gandhi either raise the issue of the 2002 post-Godhra riots or even address an overtly Muslim issue in a state where nearly 9 per cent of voters are adherents of Islam. Rahul Gandhi went on regular temple visits and sported a vermilion mark on his forehead at all his rallies and public functions. This pronounced shift in optics evoked many comments from BJP leaders. While Finance Minister Arun Jaitley asked why anyone would need a clone when there was already an original Hindutva party available in the BJP, Amit Shah wondered why Rahul never visited temples in Delhi, where he lives.

On the economic front, things are looking up after the much-needed reforms. The launch of the long-awaited Goods and Services Tax (GST) on July 1st, 2017, with Parliament convened at midnight for the occasion, marked the culmination of an arduous political journey for the creation of a ‘one country, one tax’ framework for indirect taxation.

While India’s Constitution had promised freedom of inter- state commerce, a slew of local taxes, levies and impositions meant that this was true only on paper. Litigation on these matters, which started as early as 1950, did not help bring taxation in line with what was envisaged by constitutional provisions. The need for comprehensive reforms to rid the taxation system of incentives and distortions was felt as early as 1986, but within a few years, India had to endure a quarter century of weak coalition governments that made it impossible to effect such a sweeping policy change.

Even after getting the popular mandate of a Lok Sabha majority in May 2014, the Modi Government’s legislative efforts to implement the GST were held back by its lack of numbers in the Rajya Sabha. While the Bill was passed in the Lower House in May 2015, the opposition’s delaying tactics meant it could only be enacted in August 2016. Then came the task of ratification by state legislatures. In the end, GST was implemented only in July this year after quite some heavy lifting.

In the months after its launch, there has been extensive criticism of the new tax, some deserved and some of it petulant. The legitimate criticism is of its design flaws that have led to an ‘inverted tax structure’ in some cases where taxes on inputs are higher than those on the output. The multiple-rate structure of the tax and other complexities of its administration have been attacked as well, though these are issue that are being sorted out by the GST Council.

Any miscalculation of GST’s launch date could have had political costs. Had it been delayed until 2018, as the opposition wanted, Arun Jaitley was aware it would have made life difficult for the BJP in the run-up to the next General Election

Why these glitches were not fixed at the stage at which the framework was designed is a question that many have rightfully raised, but a large number of the charges against the shift reek of political opportunism. The opposition, which calculated that if the GST were passed then the NDA Government would get all the credit for undertaking ‘difficult reforms’, had clearly wanted to delay its implementation for as long as possible. Global experience shows that growth rates tend to dip and inflation rates spike in countries soon after GST is imposed.

In a hyper-competitive political environment like India, any miscalculation of a launch date and carelessness over macroeconomic management can—and does—result in political costs to be borne. Had the launch of GST been delayed until 2018—as the opposition wanted—it would have made life difficult for the Modi Government in the run-up to the next General Election. In the event, matters did not pan out that way. As expected, the GST has led to an economic shock for the last two quarters of the calendar year, with economic growth taking a significant downturn. This may have given the opposition some ammunition for criticism, but as always in India, few have bothered to look at its delaying tactics and desire to create economic problems in the search for brownie points. The gambit failed.

There is much that needs fixing in the GST: from moving to a simplified rate structure to bringing items such as alcohol and hydrocarbons within its purview. This, one can assume, will be done in due course.

While the country gets used to the culture shock (and awe) of new sensibilities and arguments arising under a regime unlike any seen before, the Modi Government used the year to take up vexed social issues that had gone unaddressed. The most defining of these was the practice of instant Triple Talaq among Muslims. After a prolonged debate, the Centre drafted a bill proposing a ban on the practice, with provisions for assistance to women adversely affected by it. In its judgment of August 22nd, the Supreme Court had declared instant Triple Talaq unconstitutional and asked the Government to enact a law on it.

When the Supreme Court gave a historic ruling on the Shah Bano case 31 years ago, it was overturned by the Rajiv Gandhi Government of the time, much to the dismay of divorced and impoverished Muslim women. Arif Mohammad Khan, who was just 35 when he resigned from the Rajiv Gandhi Cabinet in 1986, lashing out at the Congress Government for yielding to the Muslim clergy and for failing to protect the right of Muslim women to maintenance after a divorce, told Open that the country needs a law providing for three years of rigorous imprisonment for a person who resorts to instant Triple Talaq.

Pending a court verdict, the Government is visibly firm on its plan to find a solution to the Ram Janmabhoomi dispute in Ayodhya, a town considered holy by Hindus for being the birthplace of Lord Rama. The ruling party has been willing to engage opponents of a temple on the spot in debate. The Hindu assertion implied in the party’s stance on the matter was underlined by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat’s statement on November 24th that only a Rama temple and no other structure would be built at the disputed site. The Supreme Court has begun final hearings in the case.

This year, the Government came in for criticism over a free rein allegedly given to self-professed custodians of the Hindu faith— or the loony fringe—to flout the law for their cause. Critics have protested the tragic killings of activists such as Gauri Lankesh and cattle traders at the hands of cow vigilantes in various parts of the country; yet, there is no evidence that such forms of violence have arisen only after the BJP came to power.

Notwithstanding such accusations, 2017 saw the ruling BJP extending its electoral prowess and reach to non-traditional turfs. It managed to form state governments in Goa, Manipur and Uttarakhand, losing only in Punjab, where it is in alliance with the Akali Dal. As of now, the Congress is in power only in a handful of states, Punjab, Karnataka, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Himachal Pradesh—where results of the recent polls held will be out on December 18th—among them. The BJP’s rapid growth in the Northeast has been noteworthy. The story of that growing clout is narrated in detail in The Last Battle of Saraighat, a recent book by Rajat Sethi and Shubhrastha, who were also political campaigners for the BJP in the Northeast.

The battle for power continues as we head into another year. So far, since 2014, India’s ruling party has only been getting stronger.