What the BJP may have realized, therefore, from these sporadic eruptions of protests is that electoral success is not the be-all and end-all of politics, writes Amulya Ganguli for South Asia Monitor
If India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) presumed that the opposition’s weakness has provided it with a golden opportunity to push ahead with its Hindutva agenda, some of the recent developments must have induced second thoughts. Behind such introspection will be the awareness that society is larger than politics. To everyone’s surprise, therefore, the opposition’s decline has been accompanied by the ascent of sections of hoi polloi with specific grievances of their own.
Moreover, the nature of their grouses are so intense that they have congregated without any organization having to play a part in bringing them together. It’s been a spontaneous development born of a sense of togetherness fostered by a widely shared anxiety and apprehension.
The first of these gatherings which appeared out of the blue was of Muslims, mainly women, who feared that their citizenship was under threat because of the new legal measures on the official anvil. Not long after this group disappeared in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, another group, comprising farmers, has come together.
No to political parties
Interestingly, the political parties, which are normally the driving forces behind such gatherings have not only played no part in assembling these disgruntled elements, but have actually been actively advised by the latter to stay away. Evidently, the self-serving reputation of the political class has made the protesters wary of their presence. But there may also be a realization among the protesters that their case is so strong that they do not need any outside support.
This phenomenon of various groups taking on a supposedly powerful government on their own is a new one in Indian politics. But it isn’t only the opposition’s frailty that has led to this emerging trend. It is also apparently due to the Modi government’s failure, whether born of hubris or over-confidence, to assess the consequences of its legal initiatives.
In the case of the Muslims, who gathered in Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi and also in various locations all over the country, the tipping points were the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the National Population Register (NPR), whose insidious purpose, according to their critics, were to isolate, ferret out, harass and evict the Muslims.
Government’s response to dissent
As for the farmers, it is the fear that the three new laws are the thin end of the wedge that will facilitate the entry of the private sector in agriculture, especially where the cultivation of cereals are concerned, and compel the farmers to abide by the diktats of the new players who would be guided solely by the market to control production and trade.
Irrespective of the correctness or otherwise of these anxieties, what is noteworthy is the BJP’s and the government’s response which has underlined its basic attitude towards dissenters. With respect to the Shaheen Bagh protests, the ruling party focused almost exclusively on the fact that Muslims were behind them with the result that they were castigated as pro-Pakistanis or jihadis who were engaged in setting up a new 'Caliphate'.
Similarly, the farmers have been branded as Khalistanis, or separatists clamouring for a Sikh state, largely because most of the agitators are Sikhs from Punjab since the suspension of the train services has prevented farmers from elsewhere in the country from joining them in areas around Delhi. But the party’s and the government’s attitude towards both the Muslim and the farmers has been the same - give them a bad name to discredit them rather than lending them an ear.
True, the government has held several rounds of talks with the farmers which it didn’t do with the Muslims. But even as the talks were on, a union minister saw the hands of China and Pakistan behind the farmers’ agitation although he did not want to send a “shock” to the protesters as Home Minister Amit Shah wanted the electronic voting machines to transmit to Shaheen Bagh during the Delhi assembly elections.
Emphasis on elections
What the BJP may have realized, therefore, from these sporadic eruptions of protests is that electoral success is not the be-all and end-all of politics. Up until now, the party was seemingly under the impression that all that it had to do in order to fulfill its dream of ruling from panchayats to parliament for 50 years was to establish its electoral writ from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and from Gujarat to the Garo hills.
Hence its inordinate emphasis on elections at all levels - national, state, and local. The recent municipal polls in Hyderabad showed how keen the BJP was on spreading its wings to the south. But the BJP’s preoccupation with winning elections appears to have made it overlook the need for assuaging the concerns of various segments of the population.
Instead, its obsession was on making India Congress- or, if possible, opposition-mukt (free) so that it would face no contenders in the electoral arena, enabling the party to implement its agenda with the help of opportunistic outfits like the Biju Janata Dal (Odisha), the YSR Congress (Andhra Pradesh), and the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (Telanganaa).
But sidelining the people as a result of the BJP’s fixation with politics was clearly a mistake.
(The writer is a current affairs analyst. The views expressed are personal)