Monday, March 07, 2016

The last refuge

The government of Narendra Modi seeks to define Indian patriotism, and to own it

THE annual budget which India’s finance minister, Arun Jaitley, presented on February 29th would normally have been the big political event of the week. That is not how proceedings in Parliament in the ensuing days made it appear. 

Both chambers were disrupted by angry exchanges over issues close to the hearts of the more extreme Hindu-nationalist wing of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Yet again, an ugly strain of BJP politics is distracting attention from what was supposed to be the party’s central agenda in power: ensuring rapid economic growth.

The party’s own members provoked some of the most heated spats. This week two MPs from the BJP, including a junior minister, Ram Shankar Katheria, attended a rally in Agra, near Delhi, to commemorate a Hindu activist allegedly killed by Muslims. Inflammatory speeches at the rally called Muslims “demons” and warned them of a “final battle”. The two BJP men also spoke, leading to opposition calls for the minister’s resignation. But he was unapologetic, saying that, although he had called on Hindus to unite for their own safety, and for the culprits to be executed, he himself had not named any community.

The opposition has also been attacking the minister of human resources, Smriti Irani, over her response to two recent incidents at universities. One was the suicide of a scholar at the University of Hyderabad, Rohith Vemula, who left a note that prompted national soul-searching about the discrimination he had suffered because of the “fatal accident” of his birth as a Dalit or “untouchable”, a Hindu at the bottom of the caste hierarchy. The second is the arrest for sedition of students at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, including the head of the student union, Kanhaiya Kumar. Their alleged crime had been to shout “anti-national” slogans at a protest marking the anniversary of the execution of Afzal Guru, a terrorist from Indian-ruled Kashmir.

The BJP has blown the incident up into one of national pride and patriotism—especially after opposition politicians came out in defence of the students. Demonstrations for and against the students have taken place in several cities. On February 27th Srinagar, the biggest city in the Kashmir valley, was paralysed by a strike in support of the students and of a Kashmiri professor also charged with sedition over an Afzal Guru commemoration.

A BJP politician decried the scruffy looks and licentiousness of left-leaning students at JNU, claiming that 2,000 bottles of booze and 3,000 used condoms are found on the campus each day. Since it only has about 7,000 students, that represents quite a feat, and the claim was greeted with derision. But other features of the case prompted justifiable outrage. It emerged that two of the seven videos incriminating the students had been doctored. Mr Kumar was badly beaten up in court by “patriotic” lawyers, who have as yet faced no serious consequences.

The damage to India’s image is painful. Faith in the police and other institutions has been undermined. Vigilante violence has seemed to win official backing. Street protests have proliferated; on March 2nd the police in Delhi used water cannon against protesters outside Parliament. This is not the outward-looking, investor-friendly image India hopes to project. And it threatens its liberal traditions of free speech. It is not just India-hating traitors who think that the trial of Afzal Guru was unfair and that his execution was used for political ends by the previous administration, led by the Congress party. The BJP’s definition of “sedition” precludes almost any debate on the future of Kashmir—a source of tension within India and with Pakistan since independence.

All of this looks like bad news for India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi. Yet, beyond tweeting in support of a fiery speech by Ms Irani, his embattled human-resources minister, he has had little to say on the Rohith Vemula suicide and JNU furore. This follows a pattern: he rarely speaks out in ways that might alienate the BJP’s hardliners. He needs them, as his most loyal foot soldiers in looming state elections, including one in West Bengal in May; and Mr Modi is probably already thinking about the next general election, due by 2019. With that in mind, and following failure in an election in the big state of Bihar last November, he and his advisers may calculate that whipping up a chorus of angry Indian nationalism serves them better than talking about touchy issues such as caste—and better than promoting narrow “Hindu” causes such as protecting cows from beef-eating Muslims and Christians.

It also suits Mr Modi’s style, cultivated in his years as chief minister of the state of Gujarat, to portray himself as an outsider. He complains of plots by the press, NGOs, foreign meddlers and political pundits to destabilise his government. Despite leading India’s first single-party majority government in many years, he still governs as if he is waging an opposition campaign, with big rallies, catchy slogans and a sense of victimhood.

Hopes that Mr Modi would implement radical economic policies were clearly misplaced. He campaigned in 2014 less as a reformer than as a man who got things done. But ruling India has proved much harder than running Gujarat, and he is constrained by the lack of a majority in Parliament’s upper house. So the optimism of his election campaign, when he sought to represent the aspirational new urban middle classes, has been dented.

Mother tricolour

For all that India is the world’s fastest-growing big economy, to many Indians that is not how it feels. It is not creating enough jobs for its swelling workforce. The fresh spending in this week’s budget was aimed not at the middle classes but at the poor in the countryside, the voters whom Congress has long wooed. Last October Arun Shourie, a writer and minister in a former BJP administration, mocked Mr Modi’s government as “Congress plus a cow”. This week’s budget and political battles suggest things have moved on. It has become Congress plus a flag.


Source- Economist

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