Enduring ethnic problem of Assam can have solutions
Even as Assam and parts of the Northeast remain embroiled in vigorous protests against the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016, one hopeful sign is that new ideas to arrive at a balanced solution have been put forward. The fact that there has been no major outbreak of ethnic violence among dominant groups in the region also fosters optimism during an obviously tense confrontation between the Centre and the non–BJP opposition parties.
Observers point to certain special features in the present situation that differ markedly from the violent 80s and 90s in matters relating to ethnic relations, especially in Assam. People of the three Bengali-speaking districts in the Barak Valley have welcomed the Centre’s decision to allot citizenship for non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and other countries. Once more, in terms of political choice, cultural preferences and language, the clear break that exists between upper Assam districts and the Barak Valley remains as unbridgeable as ever.
On the other hand, in Guwahati and some other parts of Assam, where Assamiyas are dominant, groups of Bengalis have joined angry opposition protests against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), apparently sacrificing their own long term political interests. Whether these gestures will successfully convince Assamiya organisations of their good faith and loyalty remains open to question.
Sections of both Hindu and Muslim Bengalis settled in Assam have been known to declare falsely Assamiya as their mother tongue during census operations. The motive is to ensure that they were not discriminated against or treated as second class citizens in the state. In the process, the natural domination of Assamiyas in their homeland politically and culturally can be sustained.
Kolkata-based observers feel that in the present situation, an earlier proposal to create a separate state conflating the three Barak Valley districts and adjacent areas could well be revived in the greater interest of preserving peace in the state and the region as a whole. The BJP is not averse by its tradition towards creating small autonomous states, provided certain basic requirements are fulfilled. The fact that some areas within the valley are already contiguous with Bengali-majority Tripura is, if anything, an added bonus.
However, most Assamiya organisations have refused to support or endorse such proposals in the past for emotional and other reasons. The present area of Assam, according to their spokesmen, is already much reduced for Assamiyas, as Meghalaya became a separate state. Arunachal Pradesh, too, is no longer ruled from Guwahati. In the process, the culture of Assamiyas has lost its earlier pre-1947 domination, its natural hinterland, in the region as a whole.
Not surprisingly, the idea of a new autonomous state found ready resonance in Cachar, Hailakandi and Karimganj districts, where most people accuse Guwahati-based authorities of neglecting their genuine demands and economic interests. The bitter legacy of the Bengali language movement of the early fifties, when 11 people were shot dead, has not been forgotten. Hardcore Assamiya organisations remain unforgiven in the region.
The other idea doing the rounds has been put forward in a letter jointly signed by 135 academics, activists and professionals from all over India to President R.N.Kovind. The signatories include Harsh Mander, Johanna Lokhande, Jayati Ghosh, Karen Gabriel, Biswaji Bora, Farah Naqvi, Dhananjay Tripathy, Anuradha Chenoy and Ayesha Kidwai, among others.
They have suggested that the recent upgrading of the citizens’ register in Assam (NRC exercise) has rendered the future of nearly 40 lakh people uncertain for their apparent failure to fulfill the required conditions that ensure Indian citizenship. This, out of a total population of 3.2 crore people. By December 31 2018, the last date for fresh applications for such people, it has been seen that only around 31 lakh people have been able to put up more documents and secure additional evidence of their citizenship.
However, even if the NRC authorities accept the claims of all these people, this would still leave around 900,000 people stateless. What is to be done with them? Bangladesh clearly cannot be expected to accept as its citizen such a large number of people. On the other hand, the Supreme Court, the apex authority supervising the upgrading exercise, insists that illegal Bangladeshis found in Assam should be deported to their land of origin.
Should they be kept in specially administered camps under armed guards in the interim prior to their eventual pushback following Indo-Bangla negotiations — an extremely unlikely possibility, Supreme Court or not! — as a tribe of unwanted people their fate not unlike that of the hapless Rohingyas of the Rakhine province of Myanmar? It could lead to an imbroglio similar to that involving Myanmar, Bangladesh and the international community, drawing India into the vortex of a massive regional ethnic crisis that would be largely of its own creation. Where would so many men, women and children be accommodated in India, who will pay for their upkeep and maintenance, the letter asks.
Unless these questions were actively considered and some concrete plans worked out to the last detail, it would be foolhardy for Indian authorities to proceed with what seems to be an obviously impractical, if not harebrained, scheme involving the fate of lakhs of people. Security and stability in a highly sensitive region would be once more jeopardised with unforeseen long term consequences.
The academics, whose letter has been published in full by a Guwahati-based website, suggest as a way out that everyone enlisted in the NRC exercise be accepted as Indians. That is the best and only way to maintain status quo without unnecessarily rocking the boat and engendering fresh ethnic tensions, distrust and mass hatred in a region where the writ of the Centre runs thin on the ground.
The signatories feel that this would be a simple yet permanent solution to what has come to be called ‘the enduring ethnic problem of Assam ‘over the years. If accepted, their proposal can bring about a decisive conclusion to what continues to be called ‘the unfinished business of an Assam settlement,’ once and for all. Political parties and common people can go about their business in peace thereafter.
Ashis Biswas is a freelance journalist. Views are personal. FPJ
The reality of 10 percent reservation for ‘economically backward’
Leave aside the rhetoric around reservation, the fact is, it is often the last resort in Indian politics. When the government proposes it around election time, it is often a sign of desperation. It’s a familiar script that has been written many times before: in 1996, for instance, when the government sought to extend Scheduled Caste (SC) status to the SC converts to Christianity, and in 2014 when the government notified Jats as Other Backward Class (OBC) in nine states. It is another matter that after the elections, such proposals of extending reservation to those who don’t have it are either put on the back burner or are struck down by courts.
The stunning speed with which the current government’s proposal to provide 10 per cent reservation for the ‘economically backward’ of the upper castes passed the test of both houses of parliament has not only surprised many, it has also led to several questions being asked about the government’s motive behind the move, the legal challenge it is likely to face and the logical inconsistencies it suffers.
Extending reservation benefits in education and government jobs to forward castes without affecting the rights of the deprived castes in a tearing hurry on the basis of a mere arithmetic test in the lower and upper houses of parliament smacks of political opportunism, which is open to question on several grounds — economic, social, moral and constitutional. Apart from its need and viability, the surprising aspect of the move is the redefinition of poverty itself.
In simple words, given the sheer size of the population, the reservation bill seeks to cover, its passage in parliament just after half a day’s debate is less about economic justice for the financial backward and more about electoral politics. The haste with which the quota bill was passed, while earlier reservation measures have taken several years to cross social, political, legislative and legal hurdles, raises the suspicion that electoral considerations come first for most political parties, while the implications of their contentious decisions are left to civil society to debate and fight over and the courts to intervene and restore constitutional order.
Each time reservation policy has been used as an electoral weapon, it has proved to be a treacherous terrain and had severe consequences. The prime example is the implementation of Mandal Commission report in 1989 which changed the face of Indian politics. The government’s decision to reserve 10 per cent quota for upper castes is widely seen as an attempt to win back the support of general category voters, a core base of the ruling party. Lately, these voters have shown signs of drifting away from the BJP because of its recent overtures to Dalits and OBCs.
The BJP’s backing for reservation for Dalits for promotions and its bringing a bill to overturn the Supreme Court’s order on Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, are believed to have created some resentment towards the BJP among its core voter base. This was evident in the results of the elections in three heartland states recently, which the BJP lost and where it won only 135 seats of the general category, against 249 it had won in 2013. This was a matter of huge concern for the BJP. With reservation for the general category, the party is now looking at wooing back the alienated upper classes in the Hindi heartland, which has around 30 per cent of upper castes votes.
The new law is also being seen as means to pacify the Marathas, Patidars, Kapus and the Jats who have been demanding reservation over the last few years. These castes lag behind the upper castes and are said to have similar status as the OBCs — economically, socially and educationally. With the general elections only a few months away, if things work out as intended, the BJP could end up getting the support of its core voter base without alienating the backwards castes, as the 10 per cent reservation for the general category will be over and above the existing quotas for the backward castes.
It is for this reason that the Opposition challenged the bill, questioning its timing as well as legal standing. There is a Supreme Court ruling that the basic structure of the Constitution does not permit more than 50 per cent reservation. There is no provision for reservation based on economic backwardness in the Constitution, but only on the basis of caste-based discrimination. Moreover, under the constitutional scheme of reservation, economic backwardness alone cannot be a criterion. Therefore, the government’s decision is likely to face insurmountable obstacles laid down by the Supreme Court in its landmark 1993 judgment in Indira Sawhney vs Union of India.
The 1993 judgment related to an attempt by the then Narasimha Rao government to provide 10 per cent reservation for general category citizens based solely on economic criteria. It is the same proposal that has now been moved by the Modi government. The only difference is that the Rao government’s proposal was moved through an executive order in 1991, while the Modi government has chosen the legally more secure way of constitutional amendment.
A day after the reservation bill was passed in the Rajya Sabha, it has been challenged in a public interest litigation before the Supreme Court by an NGO on the ground that it alters the ‘basic structure’ of the Constitution and annuls previous binding judgments of the apex court. Legal aspects apart, there is no clarity on how the eligibility criteria for ‘economic weakness’ has been drawn up: the cap on annual family income of Rs 8 lakh, the agriculture land ownership at 5 acres and the area of house not above 1,000 sq ft. These criteria are so liberal that they seem to cover almost 95 per cent of Indians not covered by existing reservations.
In absence of data on the number of poor Indians in the upper castes, the government seems to have no clue on how many economically weaker people are going to benefit from the 10 per cent quota. India is a developing country with a huge middle class. It is also the new emerging economic powerhouse. But the new definition of ‘economic backwardness’ makes almost the whole of India economically backward. However, people who earn more than Rs 2.5 lakh a year are liable to pay income tax. This means that the government considers Rs 2.5 lakh income as sufficiently high to make people eligible to pay tax on it, while on the one hand, the government regards Rs 8 lakh family income as economic backwardness.
This contradiction may lead to a new demand that the income criteria be reduced and brought on par with income tax exemption limit, so that the real poor and needy are benefited from the 10 per cent quota. Politically, reservation is a potent tool. But where are the government jobs to employ millions of jobless youth? The BJP has played the reservation card quite well. What remains to be seen is whether people will see it as an election stunt that may not benefit them eventually.
A L I Chougule is an independent senior journalist.
Don’t like an India where people are killed for what they say: Rahul Gandhi in UAE
Dubai: Congress President Rahul Gandhi said here Saturday that India has witnessed a great deal of intolerance and anger in the last four and a half years which stemmed from the “mentality of the people in power”. Gandhi, who is in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on the second day of his maiden visit to the country, said India did not force one idea on the people and can absorb multiple ideas.
“India has shaped ideas and ideas have shaped India. Listening to other people is also an idea of India,” he said while interacting with the students at the IMT Dubai University as part of his global outreach programme ahead of the general elections.
He said it was harder to make sports number one priority in India as the country faces bigger challenges like hunger. “Tolerance is embedded in our culture. But we have seen a lot of anger, division among communities for the last four and a half years. It stems from the mentality of the people in power,” he said.
“We don’t like an India where journalists are shot, where people are killed for what they say. That is something we want to change, that is the challenge in the upcoming elections,” he said. He said healthcare was a “huge opportunity” for India in global perspective.
“We are sitting on the biggest genetic resources on the planet and that is what cure and medical health is going to be about in next 10-15 years,” the Congress President said. “Brain Drain’ was a 20th century idea. In the 21st century people are more mobile and go where real opportunities are. One should make sure that your country provides opportunities,” he said.
Gandhi said India needed to reshape its banking system so that small and medium enterprises can get financial resources in order to scale up to become large companies. Gandhi Friday had an “excellent meeting” with Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum during which the Congress president assured him that he was committed to an even stronger bilateral ties.
Earlier, he addressed Indian workers and interacted with business leaders. Gandhi also interacted with representatives of the Indian Business and Professional Council (IBPC), Dubai and met the Punjabi community.
video went viral on social media featuring him making derogatory remarks against Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Kamal Nath
Jabalpur : The headmaster of a government school in Madhya Pradesh’s Jabalpur was suspended on Thursday after a video went viral on social media featuring him making derogatory remarks against Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Kamal Nath.
Jabalpur District Collector Chhavi Bharadwaj suspended Mukesh Tiwari, the headmaster of Kanishta Buniyadi Middle School after few Congress workers complained about the incident.
In the video, Tiwari can be seen calling Kamal Nath as ‘Daku’ (decoit).
The Congress workers had reportedly asked the Bharadwaj to take strict actions against Tiwari.
2019 will belong to farmers
Even as this column is being read, most of you have already started preparing for the New Year’s Eve celebrations. We all wish to welcome the ensuing year with a great hope and expectations. Like last year and the year before and many many years before, we celebrate the arrival of the new year with great enthusiasm. This is because as it is said, ‘the hope is eternal!’ We do have pain and distress every year in one form or the other. However, life moves on because all of us and all philosophies in the world do believe in ‘better tomorrow’. That’s the only ray of hope that keeps us alive and moving. We bear the pain, sorry and distress today only because there is a ray of hope for tomorrow. On the same lines, people in most parts of the world are readying themselves to sing and dance to fare good-bye to the setting 2018 and welcoming the emerging 2019.
In Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru and many other metropolis of India, special arrangements are being made to facilitate the citizens to gather together and welcome 2019. In Maharashtra particularly, the state government has promptly bowed to the demand of Shiv Sena Youth Leader Aditya Thackeray to allow restaurants, pubs and bar to remain open all night. It means the celebrations will continue unabated tonight without the fear of police interference. This is a welcome change in the mind-set of the government. So far, these facilities were withdrawn after stipulated time of 10 pm. However, this restriction never prevented the bars and pubs to run their business overnight. The main shutters were seen to be down but inside the business ran as usual. This had only paved way for illegal and unauthorised business that often invited troubles. Let’s hope, this year the entire civil society will be able to enjoy the onset of the new year without the meaningless fear of police intervention. The police force would also find this a welcome change as they would also be able to enjoy instead of keeping the vigil on the ‘law-breaker’ without a meaningful purpose.
The year 2019 is important and significant for the nation also as this year will witness the test for the new mandate for political bosses of the nation. In 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) snatched the power from the Congress that was reduced to less than the number required to be considered as the official ‘Opposition Party’. In other words, there was no opposition party in Lok Sabha after the 2014 elections. The mandate granted to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, however, expires in 2019 and thus the nation will face fresh elections at union and state levels this year.
A lot of water has flown under the bridge in the last five years and going by the observations of various political pundits and opinion polls, the war of 2019 would not be as easy for the BJP as the party spokespersons speak. The party has already lost three major states – Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in the recent assembly elections that preceded its defeat in a few important states like Punjab and Karnataka. This is only an indication that the charisma of Modi that the nation witnessed in 2014, hardly exists now. On the other hand, the new Congress President Rahul Gandhi has come out of his derogatory and insulting image of being ‘Pappu’ to an able ‘Young Leader’. He has been able to establish himself as a ‘Rallying Point’ for the opposition unity – Mahagathbandhan.
Now that the Lok Sabha elections are round the corner, both sides have begun to chalk out and execute their strategies to woo the electorates singularly and collectively. The new ‘pro-people’ policies of the government have started coming in, while the opposition parties have started looking for the obvious and strategic loopholes in that. Realising that the religious issues, like Ram Mandir at Ayodhya or Gow Raksha have failed to mobilise the mass opinion, the BJP and its right-wing allies are concentrating on addressing the farmers’ issues. The recent assembly election results proved that the agrarian problems matter and farmers have the capacity to turn the tables. As a result, within days after wresting power in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the new incumbents there promptly announced mass-scale agro-loan waivers putting intolerable fiscal burden on the state exchequers.
In the chain and obvious reaction, the BJP-led state governments are also forced to toe the line and address farmers’ issues actively. The government is reported to be studying a couple of options to address the distress. One proposal under consideration is an upfront income support which will be disbursed straight to a farmer’s bank account ahead of sowing. This model was pioneered by Telangana government as an investment support which comes with no conditions attached. The farmer is free to make the choice on what to grow based on price and other signals. This option has two distinct advantages. One, it does not introduce distortions in the agricultural market. Two, it’s easy to implement.
Niti Aayog’s proposal
A few other options are also under consideration such as Niti Aayog’s proposal to provide price support in the event of a glut. Experience suggests that it is best avoiding complicated schemes on account of limited state capacity in execution. A scheme which rests on the bureaucracy having to work out price differences is almost sure to run into implementation problems. One of the causes for the agrarian crisis is not the lack of effort but the choice of tools which overestimate state capacity and funnel support through India’s infamous bureaucracy. This has led to a complex web of cross-subsidies that trigger large-scale distortions and consequent distress. While there’s no denying that farmers deserve a more sophisticated level of government intervention which provides support without inducing distortions or anti-competitive mechanisms, the most durable solution is an economic environment which absorbs surplus agricultural labour into labour intensive manufacturing.
In all, it looks like ‘2019 will belong to farmers’ for obvious political reasons. Hopefully, the peasants and agro-workers would be benefitted for long term due to the various schemes those would be offered in a platter for the ‘sons of the soil’.
Bharatkumar Raut is a political analyst and former Member of Parliament (RS).
Triple Talaq prey to vote bank politics
With general elections in the country just months away, practically every move of principal political parties is motivated by vote bank politics. Whatever their pretensions, the Congress, the DMK, the AIADMK, Samajwadi Party, the Trinamool Congress, among others, are wary of risking the loss of Muslim votes and would rather reject a social welfare measure that would provide succour to oppressed Muslim women but would anger the men in their community. The BJP too, having realised that it could carve out a vote bank among Muslim women, is cultivating them assiduously, being conscious that the party is anathema to Muslim men.
The triple talaq bill which had even earlier been passed in the Lok Sabha has been passed again in an amended form amid heated protests from the opposition including a walkout. This is in anticipation of the ordinance promulgated by it on the issue lapsing. The opposition led by the Congress, on the other hand, is on the time-honoured path of appeasing the Muslim men who call the shots even if this alienates a section of Muslim women. The result is a dingdong battle in which the bill faces an uphill task in the Rajya Sabha in which the UPA and its fellow travellers are on the opposite side of BJP’s fence with the latter being short of numbers to pass it.The Congress and its allies are resisting any attempt to divide the votes polarising men and women on an adversarial plank.Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad who brought forth the amended bill meeting some of the objections to the earlier bill is adamant that violators would be imprisoned if found guilty. This is as it should be otherwise there would be no real deterrent against the pernicious practice of triple talaq.
For the detractors, seeking to refer the bill to a joint select committee of parliament and opposing any punishment for the violators are ways to delay and if possible scuttle the bill. The Congress and its allies also argue that with the Supreme Court having passed an order in favour of abolishing triple talaq, there is no need for a separate law. And so the jockeying continues, marking a new high in expediency and a new low in the level of politics being played in parliament. All said and done, the whole controversy has taken a political turn and gender justice which had earlier been cited as the cause for the new legislation has been relegated to the background even as political jockeying becomes paramount. Considering that as many as 22 Islamic countries have enacted laws to outlaw triple talaq it is time that the social reform be brought about in the interests of gender justice.
It would indeed be in the fitness of things if the Rajya Sabha too passes this reform without delay and the tendency to view everything through vote bank tinted glasses be eschewed. Is that too much to expect from our elected representatives? In August last, the government had brought amendments to the bill after conceding some of the opposition’s demands to prevent misuse of the proposed law. That these were considered inadequate by the opposition is hardly surprising because it was manifest that there was no sincere intent on the opposition’s part to allow the bill through. It had cleared provisions that complaints in cases of triple talaq could only be filed by the victim (wife) or her blood relatives and that a magistrate could grant bail with certain terms and conditions. It has also been provided in the amended bill that the case could be withdrawn if the man and his estranged wife reached a compromise. Evidently, the Modi government is keen to encash the benefit of Muslim women’s favourable response in the upcoming Lok Sabha polls. The Congress, on the other hand, along with other opposition parties wants to ward off any ill effect of the new proposed law until after the poll. The key would lie in the current parliament session. The government could also invoke the option of a joint session of parliament to get through with the legislation. This is indeed a time to watch.
written by FPJ Bureau
Recapitalise banks and unchain them
Not unlike the periodic debt relief to farmers, we have to come to terms with the provision of equally large sums as relief to distressed bankers, er…sorry, to banks. When bankers lend irresponsibly under pressure from the political masters without proper due diligence, the effect is the same: banks can go kaput, just as farmers face penury and worse due to a lost crop or a usurious money-lender. In neither case would the government undertake structural reforms to ensure that the problem of debt-stricken farmers and NPA-stricken banks does not recur at regular intervals. Band-aid solutions are no answer to the crisis but, unfortunately, ruling politicians of all stripes cannot bring themselves up to see beyond the next election.
Modi was one politician who did start out well as prime minister with all the right intentions to break the mould of cheap giveaways and a reckless management of the public purse. Endemic problems in the banking sector has dogged the country for decades, with the crisis acquiring a particularly sharp edge when Indira Gandhi nationalised 14 big banks in 1969 for political reasons. Space does not permit to list all the steps the Modi government has taken to reorder things in a more systematic manner with an effort to weed out wasteful subsidies and expenditures and to ensure that the targeted groups actually receive the benefits. But, alas, Modi too strayed from the path of economic prudence some weeks ago when, following the sharp rise in the global fuel prices, which mercifully are back to tolerable levels again, he cut the retail price of petrol and diesel and also obliged the oil marketing companies to bear an equal burden. It was the first big concession to populism. Since then, the floodgates seem to have opened, with the recent electoral losses in the states, and a general election looming large on the political horizon. It has instigated a wave of competitive debt write-offs for farmers. Now, any hope of the government undertaking structural reforms in the agri sector must await till after the next Lok Sabha poll, and that too only in case Modi wins another five-year term.
Meanwhile, in the banking sector the price of gross mismanagement and reckless lending, particularly between 2008- 13, is still being paid. Last week, the centre sought Parliament’s nod to infuse another Rs 42,000 crore into the public sector banks (PSB). This would take the total amount for recapitalisation of PSBs to Rs 83,000 crore. In the main, the eleven PSBs which were restrained by the central bank’s Prompt Corrective Action framework would now get the relief in order for them to be able to start lending yet again. The government is expected to ensure that the PCA–hit banks do not return to the old ways and that they follow prudent lending practices. Whether they will actually do so would depend on a number of factors, but it can be safely said that since the advent of the NDA government political pressure to direct lending by PSBs has more or less ended. It is also because the government discontinued the earlier practice of appointing political nominees on the board of PSBs who would invariably curry favour with the managements to lend to their own favourite parties.
Pressures, if any, to relax lending conditions on the eve of a parliamentary poll too ought to be resisted. Overall, the banking sector is once again ready to resume normal operations after the huge debt overhang from the 2008-13 period which had virtually emptied their treasuries. The gross non-performing assets of the banks at one time were over Rs 10 lakh crore but thanks to a recapitalisation plan these had been pared down to nearly Rs 4 lakh crore last year. Credit growth in the banking sector is now at a healthy 15 per cent, especially when extraneous factors no longer influence lending decisions. But the renewed wave of farm sector debt reliefs is bound to pressure the bottom-line of banks unless the government immediately compensates the affected banks. Recapitalisation of banks cannot be an unending exercise. For banks to be run on sound managerial lines, these need to be freed from day-to-day governmental control and assigned firm financial objectives the achievement of which must be incumbent on top professional managers. Autonomy is required to ensure that the banking sector is not forced into sickness yet again. And if farm sector write-offs cannot be avoided, at least banks should be protected against its downside.
BJP should urgently refocus its agenda
Even the most ardent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporter will have to admit that the just-concluded assembly elections have yielded a disastrous return for the party. Across the spectrum, the euphoric mood among the supporters of the Congress can be well understood too. The overwhelming sense among the Congress of prevailing in a “semi-final” contest appears to have taken hold. Yet with the general election still about five months away, there is time yet for a change in fortunes. Any signs of over-confidence from the Congress or utter despondency from the BJP party at this stage would be unduly premature.
To be sure, the collective verdict from the Hindi-speaking hinterland in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan has delivered a spectacular rebuff to the BJP. Almost five years ago, it emphatically won these states, setting the scene for a landmark general election victory to follow. Putting this into numerical context, in the last assembly elections for these sates, the BJP secured 376 seats. The party’s tally has plummeted to about 197 assembly seats which is a calamitous drop.
Crucially, the party swept the last Lok Sabha elections in these states winning 62 seats out of a potential 65. In Uttar Pradesh, the other major Hindi heartland, the party won 71 out of 80 Lok Sabha seats. Given the recent Lok Sabha (LS) by-election defeat in Kairana, Uttar Pradesh and chief minister Adityanath’s lacklustre performance, replicating the 2014 result there may be a tall order.
Away from the Hindi hinterland, the BJP failed to make inroads in Telangana. That too will hurt. An important part of its ‘southern strategy’ after the Karnataka elections earlier in the year was to expand its regional influence and canvas new allies. That hasn’t translated into electoral gains. Nor has the party expanded its reach in the Northeast as the result in Mizoram shows. As the Modi government ponders over the scale of the challenge that lies ahead in 2019 for a renewed mandate to govern at the centre, the trends from these assembly elections should certainly send alarm bells ringing. These elections took place at a regional level but their impact at the national level cannot be ignored.
What should the Modi government reflect on? After such a disappointing performance, the usual noises about the need to “listen and learn” were made. But the party needs to probe deeper. Granted, anti-incumbency was an important factor that contributed to the result. Yet putting this down solely to voter fatigue with an incumbent state, BJP government would be erroneous.
The larger truth is that voters have expressed dissatisfaction at the perceived gap between the rhetoric and reality of the Modi government’s agenda. Importantly, this disaffection cut across rural and urban constituencies. The results speak to a perceived failure of governance and lack of confidence in the party’s economic prospectus.
Agrarian voters were able to vent their frustration at the BJP’s inability to stimulate sectoral growth and provide greater access to credit. Moreover, the vast gap between the government’s minimum support price to farmers for certain produce and the actual rates offered due to ‘intermediary leakage’ has hurt them considerably. Urban voters also expressed disappointment at the levels of bureaucracy they continue to face and at the slow pace of reforms. In particular, an error strewn GST implementation prompted anger. Modi’s Diwali bonanza for small and medium sized enterprises failed to change the tide.
Looking ahead, the Modi government should relentlessly focus on demonstrating its economic competence and developmental credentials. The temptation to veer into polarising socio-religious issues should be firmly resisted. Against a background of higher oil prices and rupee depreciation, the government will need to be extremely determined about its priorities to stimulate the economy. Politically, it needs to encourage lending to farmers and small enterprises and promote capital infrastructure. Yet it needs to achieve this with some fiscal restraint too.
An unhinged frenzy of public spending risks spooking international markets, creating inflationary pressures and could be counter-productive. What is therefore needed is a policy of ‘responsible populism’ to square the circle. What might be said for the Congress party? Undoubtedly, these results will contribute to a sense of momentum with Rahul Gandhi as its leading voice. Yet it would be a mistake to attribute its success solely to his leadership.
The truth is that the Congress party’s regional gains were also due to a combination of anti-incumbency and its local leadership which had done the hard work of cultivating a grass-roots base. The challenge for the party will be to develop a coherent national manifesto for change with a credible economic vision. Merely opposing the BJP isn’t the same as framing a convincing alternative governance agenda.
Ultimately, with the general election still about five months away, much can change. The complex and unpredictable dynamic of electoral alliances need to be factored too. What is clear though is the latest assembly election results have opened the door to a dynamic general election campaign where nothing can be taken for granted.
—Rishabh Bhandari is a London-based lawyer and political commentator.
FPJ written by Rishabh Bhandari
Rafale clean chit: Noise persists
At the outset, the Supreme Court order in the Rafale case has left us a little confused. For, the reference by the apex court to the CAG report is puzzling because such a report has not been seen by anyone, not even by those who are supposed to get it as a matter of right. Again, we can straightaway dismiss the thought that the government wrongly pleaded before a bench of Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, Justice S K Kaul and Justice K M Joseph that such a report had been readied by the CAG when in reality it was not. Yet, only a clarificatory order from the apex court can end the confusion.
However, the clean chit given by the court on a PIL filed by a clutch of anti-government activists may not put a lid on the controversy. Having seized upon some half-baked information, Rahul Gandhi is unwilling to let go of the charge with the sole objective of denting Modi’s clean image. He may not succeed but his daily parroting is likely to sow doubts in the minds of the prime minister’s critics. Without for a moment questioning Modi’s intent and integrity, it needs to be said that the government has not been forthcoming in setting at rest the Rafale controversy.
The most controversial part is not that anyone in government or in the ruling party took commission like Quattorrocchi and his Indian partners did in the Bofors and several other deals for over two decades when the Italian thug was located in New Delhi. No. The thrust of the charge centres around the selection of Anil Ambani’s company for executing the offsets contract. It is his entry into the deal which has become most contentious.
Rahul Gandhi repeatedly using the junior Ambani’s name to paint Modi corrupt ought to persuade the not-so-successful brother of Mukesh Ambani to either come forward to explain his role, or, in the larger interest of the country which has been denied the latest fighter aircrafts for nearly two decades, he should voluntarily opt out of the contract. Given that he has been obliged to shut down several businesses, it should not be difficult for him to step aside for the French manufacturers to be able to partner another Indian party for offsets.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court judgement provides relief to the Government. It can now take the battle of perception into the Congress camp. It is ironic that Rahul Gandhi should be levying charges of corruption in defence deals given that the Congress party, especially after coming back to power in 1980, had virtually institutionalised bribe-taking in defence procurement. Bofors was but only one of the several multi-crore deals in which commissions were paid to people close to the ruling politicians.
It is a matter of fact that without having any known sources of income, several generations of the Nehru-Gandhis have lived in the lap of extreme luxury. Who pays the bills of foreign travel, foreign studies, extravagant lifestyles, all-paid holidays in exotic locales, premium schools and colleges, plush private houses and farms, etc., does not call for an inquiry by a joint parliamentary committee. People know how the extended Gandhi parivar has gained enormously from its lien on power.
On the other hand, the Chowkidar whom Rahul Gandhi has the temerity to call ‘chor’ has a proven record of financial honesty. His mother, brothers, sisters and the extended Modi family live in the same lower-middle class conditions as they have all along long before Modi first became the Chief Minister of Gujarat. Generally, a one-term member of a municipal corporation wipes out his and his family’s poverty, but not Modi.
Therefore, Rahul Gandhi’s audacious bid to tar the image of Modi is bound to fail. Yes, Modi can be unilateral, can cut through the red-tape to take decisions which seem arbitrary, but he is incorruptible. If he is corrupt, we need more than Rahul Gandhi’s word to be convinced. Yes, we too find that there is something that does not meet the eye in the way the Rafale deal was signed.
Given that the process to procure the fighter jets had begun in 2003, and A. K. Antony did not have the courage and good sense to sign the deal for a decade even for a single jet, though they talked of getting 126 of them, Modi did no wrong in getting 36 in a fighting-fit condition. The choice of the offset partner was ill-considered. And if Anil Ambani opts out he can effectively silence the noise over Rafale even after the apex court clean chit.
Rafale verdict a big vindication for Narendra Modi
The verdict of the Supreme Court dismissing all petitions seeking a detailed probe into the multi-billion dollar Rafale fighter jet deal and its complete endorsement of the decision-making process followed by the government is a major shot in the arm for the Narendra Modi government. The categorical manner with which the demand for a court-monitored probe has been turned down is doubtlessly a huge embarrassment for the Congress party in particular which had notched up impressive victories in the recent elections in three BJP-ruled states — Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhatisgarh — with Rafale as their main campaign plank. Considering that Congress president Rahul Gandhi, in particular, had repeatedly called the prime minister a ‘chor’ (thief) during the campaign, there is reason enough for the BJP to demand an apology from him personally and from the Congress as it has done. It goes without saying that Rahul’s grave charge against the country’s prime minister displayed how irresponsible and condemnable utterances had vitiated the atmosphere and lowered the level of discourse at the highest levels in the country.
There is such crass sycophancy and subservience in the grand old party that every act of indiscretion and regrettable behaviour is passed over and even applauded by partymen. Rahul is virtually unlettered in politics and such blatantly irresponsible talk would only get worse unless he is reined in, which in current conditions seems unthinkable. Parroting the leader’s line, Congressmen are already contending that the apex court judgement is no setback for Modi and the BJP. They will intensify their campaign for a joint parliamentary committee to be appointed to go into, among other things, the so-called corruption in the Rafale deal in support of which they have not been able to produce even a shred of evidence. For people who talk of Modi’s assault on institutions to cock a snook at the highest court in the country is the highest form of assault on an institution. Loose talk on the pretext of democracy cannot go to a point where the judiciary is mocked at and its sanctity trampled underfoot. That other Modi-baiters like West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee are joining the Congress chorus is doubly unfortunate.
The Supreme Court bench, led by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, said in the unanimous verdict in the context of Rafale that the need for acquiring aircraft and the quality of Rafale aircraft were indisputable. “We don’t find substantial matter to interfere with the issue of procurement, pricing and offset partner in the jet deal,” said the Supreme Court order. This is as clear an enunciation of and endorsement of the government’s dealings in the matter as can be. The petitions had alleged irregularities in the NDA government’s purchase of 36 Rafale fighter jets from French company Dassault Aviation which the court has clearly rejected. On the issue of offset partner, the bench, also comprising Justices S K Kaul and K M Joseph, said there was no substantial evidence of commercial favouritism to any private entity. That should put to rest speculation that there was favouritism shown to Anil Ambani by Modi. It is widely accepted that there was ‘policy paralysis’ during the erstwhile UPA regime and some vital defence deals were put on the back-burner by then defence minister A K Antony. Undeniably, the country’s defence preparedness suffered during that time. The apex court was evidently alluding to this when it said that the country could ill afford to be under-prepared. The reference was to the Indian Air Force being short on the number of aircraft it must have. Its assertion that perception of individuals cannot be the basis of a roving inquiry by the court was well-meaning and the apex court bench made it clear that it had “no objection to any part of the deal.”With the court having delivered a clear verdict absolving the Modi government of blame, the Opposition that swears by protecting vital institutions must gracefully accept the verdict and not go on the path of agitating for the appointment of a joint parliamentary committee to probe Rafale. The credibility of the Congress and other like-minded parties is at stake. They must wait for another issue to put the Modi government on the mat and move on.