Prem Shankar Jha

Despite the setbacks the BJP suffered in the bye-elections of August and September, there was never any serious doubt that it would emerge as the winner in the Maharashtra and Haryana elections. What has come as a surprise is the magnitude of the victory. Not only has it gained an absolute majority in the Haryana assembly, but it has come close to doing so in Maharashtra inspite of breaking its alliance with the Shiv Sena.   The doubling of its share of the vote in Maharashtra, and its tripling in Haryana, confirms its pre-eminence today. The message of these elections is therefore unambiguous: five months after the May elections the ‘Modi wave’ has not begun to retreat.

The reason is not hard to seek. In May the country had been suffering from a recession that had stalled industrial growth and completely stopped the growth of employment for the previous three years. Modi promised to revive the economy  and offered the ‘Gujarat model’ as proof that he could do so. Desperate to see a ray of sunshine in their lives huge numbers of people believed him and voted for the BJP. As a result the BJP’s share of the national vote increased  from below 19 to 31 percent.

Today people continue to believe Prime minister Modi’s promises despite the fact that there has been absolutely no improvement in their condition in the past five months.  They do so because with his common touch, now amplified a million-fold by the media, he has struck a chord in their hearts. The message he has managed to convey is that his government will not make decisions for the poor, he will allow the poor to set their own priorities. So they are prepared to give him more time.

But the ‘Modi wave’ is only a relative one. The BJP’s share of the vote is still only 27.8 percent in Maharashtra, and 33.2 percent in Haryana. Thus it still owes its win to the utter disunity among the secular parties. This is most clearly visible in Maharashtra. The vote of the Congress and the NCP, together,   fell by only 2.1 percent. As had happened in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh in December, 11 out of the  BJP’s 14 percent gain in vote took place at the cost of independents and unrecognized parties.  The message this conveys is the same as the one that  the four major state elections in December conveyed: that voters are no longer prepared to waste their vote by giving it to people who have no hope of winning.

The Haryana election has delivered a different, but equally important message. Here two thirds of the increase in the BJP’s vote has come from the Congress. As in adjoining Delhi last December, this is a vote born out of pure  disillusionment. In Delhi  the beneficiary was the Aam Admi Party. In Haryana, since  AAP did not fight the Haryana elections,  it has been the BJP.

For the BJP, the message is clear: the entire country wants a revival of the economy. If the BJP cannot deliver this,  its honeymoon will not last much longer. What is more, were  faith in Mr Modi’s promises tocollapse, the rejection of the BJP will be severe.

For the Congress these elections have shown that unless it makes a herculean effort to pull itself together and present, or at least lead, a credible alternative to the BJP, its vote will keep slipping away.   Its introspection must start with why it has lost every election  since last despite  having poured four times as much money as the Vajpayee government into programmes of ‘inclusive development’.  This introspection is necessary because the collapse of growth is the only reason that the Congress’ pundits did not offer during its soul searching conference after its defeat in May.

Accepting that chasing the phantom of inflation at the cost of growth was the main cause of its election debacle will not set anything right, but it will at least carry the reassurance that such a thing will not happen again were it to come back to power.  However the Congress would do well not to bank upon the BJP’s non-performance to bring it back to power as the default option for the electorate. Mr. Modi’s government has not done anything tangible to revive the economy yet, but it would be foolish of the Congress to hope that it will not do so in the coming four years.

But there are other areas in which the Congress can build an alternative platform that will attract the voters to its banner in coming elections. Among these are the destruction of the nexus that has developed between crime, black money and politics in the last fifty years; empowering the common man against the State by amending article 311 of the constitution to allow people  to prosecute the state for the dereliction of its duties; providing security to the poor through social insurance, instead of throwing money at them in the hope that some of it will stick, and acquiring land for development in ways that will make the owners and users permanent stakeholders in development instead of its victims.

The Congress also urgently needs organizational changes: if there is anything it needs to learn not only from its defeat in May but the absolute disarray in the party since then, it is that the days of relying on the Gandhi-Nehru charisma to win elections, have ended. The current generation of the family neither has the acceptability nor the sheer grit (that Indira Gandhi had in abundance)  to pull the party out of the morass of defeat. The Congress needs a compete remake, and the remake has to start with its present leaders formally  handing over power to a younger generation of central and state leaders who have the long vision, and the perseverance,  to rebuild the party democratically from its roots.

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Two sets of bye elections show large fall in BJP support

In his Presidential address to the national council of the BJP, on August 9, Amit Shah had ascribed his party’s resounding victory in the Lok Sabha elections to the people’s belief that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was “the most credible national leader who alone is capable of translating into reality the nation’s mounting aspirations for development”. “It is a mandate”, he went on to say, “ for an all round transformation. People were desperate to bring about a genuine change and a new approach in every aspect of governance”. If there is any message for the party in the 32 bye-elections of September 13, it is that this mandate is in imminent danger of being withdrawn.

The BJP has lost three out of the four bye elections in Rajasthan, and 8 out of 11 in Uttar Pradesh. More significantly, it has also lost 3 out of 9 assembly seats in Gujarat to the Congress. These were seats it had no business to lose because they had been vacated by BJP MLAs who had contested and won in the parliamentary elections in April. These results confirm the trend revealed by the 10 bye-elections in Bihar last month, in which the BJP–LJP alliance’s vote share fell from 45.3% in the corresponding assembly segments of the Lok Sabha polls to 37.3%, a drop of eight percentage points. In marked contrast, the combined vote share of the RJD, JD(U) and Congress had increased in 8 out of the assembly constituencies. In all the vote share of the ‘Rainbow Alliance’ had risen from 40.3% in April-May to 44.9% in the bye-elections. From leading these parties by 5 points in May, BJP-LJP alliance is now trailing it by 7.6 percentage points.

Speaking on a TV talk show yesterday morning, the BJP campaign manager for UP, Lakshmikant Bajpai, said that four months was too soon to judge a government. A few hours later another BJP spokesman R.P. Rudy said that the poll results reflected local factors, and could not be considered a national mandate. Both would have been right had conditions in India been normal. But they aren’t normal: India’s economy has been in a tailspin for almost four years; its GDP is growing at half the rate it was five years ago; its industrial production has been stagnant for four years, and job growth has stooped altogether leaving around ten million young people who enter the labour market every year with no future. That was why, in an unprecedented burst of anger and disillusionment, the voters destroyed the Congress party.

Mr. Modi had made a promise to them that they believed, so they voted for him. But in four months his government has not done a single thing to redeem that promise. Instead it has put new clothes on the Congress’ anti-poverty programmes and continued with the macro-economic policies that brought the Congress to disaster. To hide its lack of initiatives the government has plucked at straws to show that the economy has ‘turned the corner’. Share prices, it claimed on Mr. Modi’s 100th day in office, had risen by 27 percent; industrial growth had touched 3.9 percent in April to June, and the Quarterly GDP data had shown a rise in growth from 4.7 to 5.7 percent.

But the bye election results show that ordinary people have not been impressed. There has been no pickup in investment, no pickup in sales, and no improvement in job prospects. And they also understand something else that the BJP would have much preferred to have kept hidden: that it has returned to Muslim-baiting and communal polarization because it does not know how to govern. Nothing highlights this better than the BJP’s ‘Love Jihad’ campaign. At its root is a sordid but far from unusual story of entrapment of an innocent girl who was a local celebrity in Ranchi, by an unscrupulous pimp who almost certainly wanted to supply her to powerful local politicians for vast sums of money. The pimp was born a hindu or sikh and may not even have formally converted to Islam. But even if he had, his purpose in forcing the girl to convert was almost certainly to isolate her from her own family and make it impossible for her to leave the profession he was bent upon forcing her into.
The girl’s accusation required a straightforward criminal investigation but the BJP in UP chose to make it the centerpiece of its campaign because it wished to know whether arousing this most atavistic of fears and hates would enable it to consolidate the normally fractured hindu vote behind it in the many state assembly elections that lie ahead. Hence the extraordinarily inflammatory speeches of the BJP’s star campaigner Yogi Adityanath who has spared no effort to depict Muslims as being the aggressors in communal riots, and has suggested that if one Hindu girl is converted to Islam, Hindus should try to convert a hundred muslim girls in return. Even Mr Bajpai has not been above making similar remarks and according to three videos in the UP police’s possession the BJP president Amit Shah has not hesitated to make such speeches either.

The sharp rap that the electorate has given to the BJP, not only in UP and Bihar, but in Rjasthan and Gujarat as well, shows that attempts to polarize communities on communal lines will not work. People voted for Mr Modi because they want a secure future and the crash of the economy had robbed them of this dream when it seemed within their grasp. But they know only too well that an atmosphere pregnant with violence will destroy the security and predictability of their lives even more effectively.

The UP, Gujarat, Bihar and Rajasthan bye elections are therefore a wake–up call to Mr. Modi. He needs to restrain the far right of the Sangh Parivar as Mr. Vajpayee did and concentrate on reviving the economy. The first, and indeed only requirement for this is to bring down interest rates sharply. His first task must be to remove all obstacles that stand in the way.

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AN INEPT GOVERNMENT

From the moment news broke that the Modi government had cancelled the foreign secretaries’ talks scheduled for August 25, the Indian media have been accusing Pakistan of sabotaging the talks by scheduling meetings between the Hurriyat and its high commissioner in Delhi and refusing to heed a plea from the Indian foreign secretary to postpone these till after the talks.

The truth is a little more complicated. Delhi has known that Basit telephoned the Hurriyat leaders to come to Delhi not at the last minute but on August 10. According to Greater Kashmir (August 13) Islamabad wanted was an update from them on developments in the valley for the meeting in Islamabad. Such consultations had become routine after India and Pakistan began to talk peace bilaterally, in earnest. The Pakistan High Commissioner himself spoke openly about it at a social gathering just two days earlier.

The volte face on Monday August 18 therefore came not from Pakistan but India. Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh made her request only hours before Basit’s first scheduled meeting, when the Hurriyat leaders were already in Delhi. This made it impossible for Islamabad to accede to it. Nawaz Sharif had already been roundly criticized at home for not meeting the Hurriyat when he came to Delhi for Modi’s inauguration. Acceding to such a peremptory last minute demand when he was besieged at home by Imran Khan and the Canada–based Barelvi preacher, Tahir-ul Qadri, would have been political suicide.

Mr. Modi now has two options: to reject everything that the Vajpayee and Singh governments achieved in the past eleven years and go back to square one, or gain a deeper understanding of the complexity of Indo-Pak relations, and make a fresh start with Kashmir and Pakistan in the near future. The first step on the latter road is to acknowledge that he is not the sole patriot, or indeed the sole custodian of India’s national interest. In January 2005, when Musharraf sent his prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, to New Delhi and Hurriyat flocked to the capital to meet him Dr. Manmohan Singh faced the same dilemma but adopted a very different course of action.
Through an intermediary, he tried to persuade them to observe diplomatic protocol by asking to meet him first, before they met Aziz. Since Dr. Singh had met the Hurriyat leaders through me three years earlier, he asked me to be the intermediary. I spent the entire day urging, cajoling and eventually warning the Mirwaiz, Butt and Bilal Lone that they would irretrievably turn the PMO against them if they insulted not only Dr. Singh but the Indian State. But they refused to budge. Only in the late afternoon did Hurriyat chairman Abdul Ghani Butt explain why: “If we do this”, he told me bluntly, “we will be killed”.

To anyone not familiar with Kashmir’s tragic history this would have sounded like self-expiating melodrama. But Butt’s confession took the wind out of my sails. For beginning with the assassination of Mirwaiz Umar Farouq’s father Maulvi Farouq on May 21, 1990 (three weeks after he gave an interview to BBC outlining requirements for a return to peace) and ending with the assassination of Abdul Ghani Lone exactly 12 years later, each and every Kashmiri nationalist leader who dared to discuss, or even consider, a solution within the Indian union, had been assassinated by agents of the ISI. The ISI had, in fact administered its most recent punishment for disobedience only eight months earlier when it arranged the assassination of Maulvi Mushtaq Ahmad, the Mirwaiz’s uncle, and torched his family’s 100 year old school in Srinagar, when he did not succumb to its threats and met deputy Prime Minister Advani on February 2, 2004, for a second round of talks on Kashmir.

Butt’s own brother had been killed by the same agencies in 1996, so his and Hurriyat’s fear was understandable. Despite that, by refusing to meet Dr. Manmohan Singh first, they burned their bridges with NSA Narayanan and, as subsequent events have shown, hastened their descent into irrelevance. But Dr. Singh did not prevent the meeting with Aziz. He allowed Hurriyat leaders to interact freely with Pakistani decision makers in Delhi and Islamabad, and kept his doors open for them. By doing that he kept the Kashmiris a part of the decision-making process and brought India and Pakistan within a whisker of resolving the Kashmir dispute in 2007 before the judges crisis fatally weakened Musharraf.

Monday’s action may make the BJP look tough, but it has severely hurt India’s long term interests. It has revoked the commitment previous governments, including Vajpayee’s, made to keep Kashmiris within the decision-making process. And it has sealed the doom of Hurriyat and all ‘separatists’ who had tacitly or accepted the Manmohan-Musharraf formula for peace. Modi has damaged even the so-called mainstream parties, for the anger he has provoked in the valley will make the boycott of the coming state election far more effective. The PDP, which brought Kashmir close to the end of militancy in 2008, will be the main sufferer.

In the longer run, the weakening of both the mainstream and the Hurriyat will leave the field open for the final fight – between the real separatists who are the Ahl-e Hadis and the radicalized youth of Srinagar, and the Indian State.

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