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The Road to 2019

PR Ramesh is Managing Editor of Open
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From the election of Ram Nath Kovind as the next President to the unravelling in Bihar to the impending Supreme Court verdict on triple talaq, Modi sets the terms for the big battle even as the Congress sinks deeper into irrelevance

SOMETHING FUNDAMENTAL HAS CHANGED in the political matrix of the country. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s latest throw of dice could mark a significant shift in Indian politics that will give the BJP a headstart in the race for power at the Centre in 2019. With his choices for the next President and Vice President, he has scored a double win, and if the judicial verdict of August 27th on triple talaq goes in the Government’s favour, the BJP-led ruling coalition will gain a big psychological advantage in the run-up to the General Election due less than two years from now. If all this were not enough, the likely coming apart of the anti-BJP Mahagathbandhan in Bihar will not only tilt a key battleground state towards India’s ruling party, the disarray it pushes the opposition into could cripple the all-India challenge it plans to pose.

The opposition sets immense store by Bihar’s political model of 2015 by which a ‘grand alliance’ of opposition parties led by the JD(U) trounced the BJP in the state’s Assembly polls. Anti-BJP parties have repeatedly referred to that formula as replicable for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. They viewed the just concluded presidential poll as a dry run for the forging of a platform that would project opposition unity countrywide as offering a viable and stable alternative to the BJP at the Centre. However, by having the JD(U) leader Nitish Kumar break away so early from that formation in favour of his party’s nominee Ram Nath Kovind, the Prime Minister dealt a severe blow to those grandiose plans, one that the opposition can hardly hope to recover from in time for 2019.

On July 17th, the former Bihar governor, BJP leader from the Dalit community and RSS man garnered over 65 per cent votes to win the Rashtrapati Bhavan. The outcome suggests plenty of cross-voting among opposition parties. The overwhelming favour found by Kovind among parliamentarians and legislators speaks of a successful NDA script for power that has roles for a wide range of political players. Modi’s move has marked the main opposition Congress as a party isolated beyond hope in its attempted assault on the BJP. It also exposed a lack of imagination within Sonia Gandhi’s inner circle. The across-the-aisle backing of Kovind apparent in the poll outcome was in spite of the Congress president appealing to MPs and MLAs to “listen to the voice of your conscience” and her shrill clarion call that despite the opposition being short of numbers, a “battle has to be fought” in order to “protect the Constitution of India and its basic tenets from coming under siege by those who do not believe in it”.

It was an emotional appeal that few heeded on voting day. The writing on the wall was clear: Modi’s choice of Kovind as India’s President had disrupted the Congress scheme of politics as usual. This has had the effect of tipping power equations rightwards—irrevocably so, many believe. For a Congress leadership known to defend its Vice President Rahul Gandhi’s ad hoc cause shopping-and-dropping on the contention that electoral issues can only be built upon six months before elections, such a setback couldn’t have come at a worse time. More than halfway through his first term, Modi’s popularity remains high. He is known to work for almost 18 hours daily with no sign of a let up. A recent OECD report cited an opinion poll that found his government has 72 per cent support and trust among Indians.

The likely coming apart of the Mahagathbandhan will not only tilt a key battle ground state towards the BJP, the disarray could cripple the opposition

Of Modi’s big political moves lately, the co- option of Nitish Kumar was the most decisive. His support of the NDA candidate set the cat among the opposition pigeons, opening up a vast—if underplayed—trust deficit between the JD(U) chief and the Congress-led UPA-plus. This gap is unlikely to be bridged in a hurry, notwithstanding the talk of Nitish Kumar’s sustained support to anti-BJP forces. The JD(U) has declared its support for Gopal Krishna Gandhi as the vice-presidential candidate of a united opposition. The defeat of the Congress’ choice, like that of Meira Kumar, is a foregone conclusion, but the JD(U) announcement is being cited as proof of Nitish Kumar’s renewed commitment to the opposition. Overt gestures, however, need not reveal the underlying reality of politics.

Among opposition parties, the Congress has been under pressure to dump its claim to leadership of a coalition against the NDA. The former ruling party was beginning to mull the need to consider itself one among equals and let an astute and mature politician take the lead instead of Rahul Gandhi. Unstated though it was, Nitish Kumar was the leader many were leaning towards. This was the context in which the JD(U) leader declared, “I myself told Rahul Gandhi at this function (for DMK patriarch Karunanidhi’s birthday held in Chennai) that as the leader of the biggest party in the opposition, he has taken the initiative in coining a credible alternative political narrative, and that he has to devote himself fulltime to political issues from here on.” Similar advice laced with impatience had been offered earlier by the NCP chief and Maratha leader Sharad Pawar. Soon after the NDA’s announcement of Ram Nath Kovind as its presidential candidate, Pawar was seen seated on the foremost bench of Parliament’s Central Hall for the midnight launch of GST, a function that the Congress boycotted.

With Sonia Gandhi counted out of the prime ministerial reckoning, the question of who would lead opposition forces into battle has been a big one ever since the UPA defeat of 2014. Rahul Gandhi’s routine absence from the political scene, his missing of key battles over issues like demonetisation, and his sudden holiday overseas right after the BJP’s victory in UP have done little to inspire confidence even among his own party leaders, some of whom are openly clamouring for Priyanka Gandhi to take charge of the party. Now with Nitish Kumar veering towards the NDA ranks, the opposition faces an existential crisis.

The question of who would lead opposition forces has been a big one. Rahul Gandhi has done little to inspire confidence even among his own party leaders

Political leadership in India is becoming increasingly personality- oriented, and Modi’s towering presence gives the BJP an electoral edge that the opposition is well aware of. The swaying of Nitish Kumar to the NDA side sharpens that edge, especially in consolidating the country’s vast Other Backward Class voter base. Vast numbers have for long wanted powerful OBC leaders, and having been let down on matters of integrity by some of them in UP and Bihar, they look up to both Modi and Nitish as exemplars of good leadership from among their ranks who have defied the old stereotype. Given this factor, it is hardly surprising that the two have kept their communication lines open for about a year despite sniping at each other in public and being ranged on opposite sides of the ideological divide. When Modi returned from Japan after the November 2016 demonetisation exercise, among the first bits of information he demanded from Principal Secretary Nripen Misra was of Nitish Kumar’s comments on his outlawing of high-value currency. Since then, there have also been other issues, aside from the presidential election, on which the JD(U) chief had leaned towards Modi in public (and vice-versa). The success of Gujarat in implementing prohibition has been praised by Nitish who is trying it out in Bihar.

Modi has also been careful not to break ties with Nitish. It has been obvious that the Congress, drawing lessons from electoral trends, would want to form a Bihar-style grand alliance in UP by getting archrivals SP and BSP to join hands with it. An alliance of only the SP and Congress fell flat against the BJP in this state’s recent polls; the BJP managed to beat that alliance with ease, aided in no mean measure by its successful wooing of non-Jatav Dalits, an appeal now reinforced by the election of Kovind as the President of the Republic. But both UP and Bihar had to be shored up. Modi sensed the cultural mismatch within the Lalu Prasad- Nitish Kumar alliance and was certain that getting the JD(U) back into a BJP-led grouping—the two parties have had a smooth working relationship for many years—was imperative . Above all, it would wreck the Bihar grand alliance, and by doing so show that this model was too inorganic to survive till polling in 2019. Note that Nitish Kumar was the first to remind Rahul Gandhi that the Congress leadership had insisted on backing Lalu Prasad and his RJD without consulting the JD(U). He also reminded the Congress vice president that it was he who had torn up the Manmohan Singh Cabinet’s ordinance aimed at letting convicted politicians contest elections.

Nitish Kumar has also been acknowledging to his party leaders of late that he had no problems in his earlier alliance with the BJP, unlike with his current allies. At a meeting convened by him some days ago in which over 250 leaders participated, only two of those present—Vijender Yadav and former Bihar Speaker Uday Narayan Chaudhury—supported the continuance of the party’s alliance with Lalu Prasad’s RJD. The reason was clear: Nitish Kumar and most of his party leaders are confident that the RJD’s powerful Muslim-Yadav (MY) votebank will not be able to defeat the JD(U) should the need arise for fresh polls after a divorce. Much of the rationale for this is rooted not just in Nitish Kumar’s public image of integrity and avowed zero-tolerance of graft, but as a doer Chief Minister. There are other reasons for the JD(U) to believe it will survive without the RJD and its bullying, corrupt ways. In 2010, a partnership of Lalu Prasad, Ram Vilas Paswan and the Congress, despite MY support and Paswan’s Dalit vote base, could not stop the NDA from getting two-thirds of all votes polled in Bihar. That apart, wider sentiment against the MY dominance of Lalu Prasad’s years in power is also expected to work to an NDA-allied JD(U)’s advantage. As many as 40 of Lalu Prasad’s 81 MLAs are Yadavs who have formed a powerful caucus in Patna, and large numbers of Biharis are tired of such politics at the cost of the state’s growth. They are aware of whose corruption and high-handedness has acted as a drag on the Nitish Kumar government’s performance. It is not out of the blue that the BJP’s Sushil Modi has indicated that his party will not be averse to extending support to a JD(U)-led government.

Political leadership in India is becoming increasingly personality-oriented, and Modi’s towering presence gives the BJP an electoral edge that the opposition is well aware of

Kovind was named presidential nominee by Modi at a time when the BJP’s Dalit outreach was perceived as having suffered a setback because of a string of events, including a spirited resistance movement by the community in Una, Gujarat, in August last year. This agitation was precipitated by a video of Dalits being dragged out by self-styled cow vigilantes and beaten with iron rods that went viral on social media. The stir revived an old campaign to paint the BJP as irredeemably ‘anti-Dalit’. The suicide of an aggrieved Hyderabad University student, Rohith Vemula, was used by opposition politicians to strengthen that impression. Vemula, born to a Dalit mother and an OBC father, had among other things written about his disenchantment with the SFI, the CPM’s student wing. But his death was appropriated by the Left and others worried by the BJP’s rise in popularity among Dalits.

Modi’s response at the time was to neutralise negative perceptions of his party among Dalits by playing up its embrace of Babasaheb Ambedkar. The RSS pitched itself as an admirer of the Dalit icon, even as the Prime Minister made a series of statements and moves in memory of him. In November 2015, Modi and the BJP’s Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis inaugurated the Ambedkar Museum at 10 King Henry Road, London, the house where Ambedkar had lived for two years in the early 1920s. “His message of equality and social justice resonate from here,” Modi asserted at the inaugural function. He would later launch the Bhim app, named after Ambedkar, for cashless transactions via mobile phones.

In terms of electoral benefits, the most crucial part for the BJP was Modi’s aggressive wooing of non-Jatav sections among Dalits that had been neglected by BSP chief Mayawati when she was in power in Lucknow. In UP, resentful non-Jatav Dalits were the first to respond to the BJP’s allurements. The elevation of Kovind, hailing from UP’s Koli community, fits into this scheme of canvassing votes even as it allays RSS anxieties over a split in Hindu ranks that would go against its ambition to unify the community as a socio-cultural and political entity. The RSS is also keen to stem religious conversions to other faiths, a phenomenon it sees as being encouraged by an alliance of Dalits and Muslims.

On July 17th, the day of the presidential poll, the BJP announced Venkaiah Naidu as its nominee for the post of Vice President. The former Urban Development Minister and senior party leader from South India is an able administrator with a farming background and an RSS connection, and this is also a closely calculated decision. In the region Naidu comes from, both the ruling parties of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana (the TDP and TRS), had already publicly thrown in their lot with the BJP in the presidential polls. With elections due soon in large southern states such as Karnataka, and the BJP’s need to gain traction in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, Naidu was perceived as an apt choice for the post, someone who could work in sync with Kovind to support the executive. Importantly, Naidu’s administrative experience and his good relationships with politicians across the spectrum are expected to come useful for the ruling party in the Rajya Sabha, of which the Vice President is chairman. The NDA’s strength in the Upper House of Parliament still lags that of the opposition and it needs better control of the proceedings here to have its executive decisions and ordinances passed.

A court ruling in favour of the Centre’s stance on triple talaq could boost its image as one that believes in being even-handed to all communities

The Supreme Court’s verdict on the contentious issue of triple talaq, expected before August 27th, is likely to tip the scales further in favour of the Modi Government. The Centre’s position on the matter is perceived as having sent out strong signals that the Government has weighed in on the side of gender justice and against the exploitation of Muslim women by men. A court ruling in favour of the Centre’s stance could boost its image as one that believes in being even-handed to all communities on important issues such as equality of the sexes.

The impending decision by Chief Justice JS Khehar, among his most significant before his term ends, is likely to be analysed in the context of the Rajiv Gandhi Government’s abject capitulation decades ago in the Shah Bano case to Islamic clerics. In 1985, following an apex court decision granting regular alimony—in excess of the meagre severance sum specified in her nikaahnaama —to Shah Bano, a divorced Muslim woman, the Government brought in legislation to overturn the ruling in a move widely criticised as appeasement of the minority community at the cost of Constitutional principles. Members of the Islamic clergy, who construed an affront to Muslim Personal Law, had hit the streets against the court’s directive on compensation for Shah Bano. In 1986, the Government used its majority in Parliament to pass the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Bill. This was a turning point in the country’s politics, with the Hindu majority increasingly put off by the Congress approach to matters of justice vis-à-vis the minority community, and a major factor in the rise of the BJP thereafter.

Now, the Ulema have once again taken the stand that the top court has no jurisdiction over the personal laws of minorities. Rejecting this, the apex court has heard a clutch of petitions challenging the practice of triple talaq—in which three utterances of this word are all it takes for a Muslim man to divorce his wife—on the grounds of constitutional provisions for equality under the law, a rejection that implies that this is an issue of gender justice. The outcome of the dispute will likely have extraordinary social and political ramifications, not least because of the obstinacy of hardline Muslim clerics who insist that triple talaq is a matter of faith and hence beyond the reach of judicial scrutiny. This argument is being contested by people from within the community, especially women, who assert that triple talaq has no Quranic sanction, but is a relatively recent invention of the patriarchal clergy. This position is borne out by the fact that as many as 22 Muslim countries, including Pakistan and Bangladesh, have abolished the practice either explicitly or implicitly.

The regressive practice of instant divorce survives in India within the Muslim community because it is zealously guarded by hardliners, leaving women who have nikaah marriages without the social rights guaranteed to women of other communities. While granting autonomy to various religious groups to practice their faith, Article 25 of the Constitution allows the state to intervene and impose restrictions if a religious practice violates ‘public order, morality and health’.

In earlier observations, Chief Justice JS Khehar had read out the Qur’an’s Surah At-Talaq verse, asserting that there is no mention of ‘Talaq-e-Biddat’ in the holy book, and only two other forms of divorce—Talaq-e-Ehsan and Talaq-e-Ahsan—are mentioned. Holding up a copy of it, the Chief Justice said, “This book says that in every Friday prayers, you say that biddat is bad and should not be practiced by any means. In every Friday prayer, you say it, and now you say it is part of your 1,400-year-old faith…”

Congressmen and senior advocates Kapil Sibal and Salman Khurshid, both former cabinet ministers now arguing the case for the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, were asked why they could not ensure that the standard nikaahnaama assured a fair deal to women of the minority community. Sibal argued that if the Centre forced it down the throats of the minority community, it could rebound and hold back a movement within the community to give up regressive practices embedded in its personal law of its own accord. Plus, he argued, the Government’s stand would be viewed by the community as coercive, paving the way for a common civil code.

Conveniently for the Congress, that seems like a position conceived to win the approval of the Muslim clergy. ‘The Government hates Muslims’ narrative, which has been routinely used by the opposition, has found its echo in Sibal’s argument that there is fear among members of the community. A verdict by the apex court that scotches the arguments of Sibal and other apologists for triple talaq would lay the Congress low and boost the credibility of the ruling party.

On one hand, we have a party that is ready to hit the ground running for the upcoming state elections and the General Election of 2019. Ranged against it, on the other, is India’s Grand Old Party heading a fragile coalition trapped in befuddlement marked by a tenuous link between ambition and reality.