Competitive sport follows the system of leagues — upper, middle, lower, senior and junior, and so on. A contestant’s stature determines the league in which she plays. One who stoops down to play at a much lower level, or fight with the ‘bachchas’ (juniors), diminishes her own stature.
We are applying this test to our politics, specifically to the way the BJP government is handling student protests.
A simpler way of understanding this is how our great old wrestler-actor Dara Singh handled any new challenger. He asked him to fight his brother Randhawa first, beat him and earn the right to fight the champ. I asked him why, and he said, every “Lallu Panju” (Tom, Dick and Harry) wants to be able to boast he wrestled with Dara Singh. Why should I lower my own standing to please them?
Back to the game of hard politics. For a month now, that is precisely what this almighty BJP government is doing: Senior, powerful men and women fighting with children. They’ve seen fires lit in campuses across the country in response to their policies. Their response —especially where the BJP has been in power — has been consistent. Bring down the full force of state power, internet and telecom restrictions, and at least in one case, Uttar Pradesh, collective fines.
If a government elected with such an enormous popular vote finds it worth its while to fight its students rather than reason with or listen to them, three things follow:
First, a tyrant-versus-the-underdog story builds up.
Second, it generates pictures that gravely damage Brand India globally. And you can’t stop any of this from “getting out”.
Third, and the most significant, it inevitably creates a children-versus-uncle/aunty mood among the youth. Let me elaborate.
Every exit and opinion poll in 2014 and 2019 showed us that the young of India, all of the millennials but especially the first-time voters, backed Narendra Modi with passion. I have in my archives a string of short conversations with young people while travelling through the 2019 campaign across the country that name only one leader: Modi. You can see a couple here.
I wrote and spoke at a Centre for Policy Research debate in New Delhi on the factors I found propelled Modi to a big victory. Especially on how the young were walking out of the identity trenches — of caste, language, ethnicity, in many cases even religion — to embrace Modi.
The sentiment you saw in their eyes was optimism, joy, an anticipation of a better life, the storied ‘achche din’. They were not breaking their families’ old political loyalties because they hated someone, or were afraid of them. If 2014 was an election of hope of a better life, 2019 was the renewal of that promise in the expectation that it will take that long to redeem it fully.
Within six months, however, they find they are being delivered something entirely different. The economy is in a free fall. And it’s been declining for so long, so consistently, that the promise of growth and better days now looks a fantasy.
A mid-1970s kind of pessimism, even hopelessness, is growing among the young. New jobs aren’t available. And while all jobs are important and dignified, let’s face it: Not every young person studying in a college is looking forward to delivering for Swiggy or Zomato or driving an Ola or Uber.
That isn’t what Modi had promised them. Their aspirations and needs are clear and present, and not being fulfilled. And certainly they won’t be compensated for the let-down either by ‘firmness’ with which you control and ‘integrate’ Kashmir, or how you teach Pakistan a lesson a day. Nor will their needs be met by how much you can persuade them to fear the Muslim or hate the migrant Muslim “termite”.
None of these will get them a job, a living, a better life. Unless, of course, they are your ideological followers. The disillusionment of the college-going youth with Modi-2 has been rapid and deep.
Nobody should also remain under the misconception that it is just a virus specific to the few, liberal, Left, public universities infested by “Urban Naxals”. The anger has now spread to expensive private campuses as well, which allow no politics or unions, and cost many students’ parents a lot of their savings and inherited assets. I have been speaking at several in different parts of the country, and found anger similar to what you might see at JNU, Jamia or BHU.
The sentiment is a bemused — and increasingly angry — “but this isn’t what we had voted for”. I can also say with reasonable certainty that a very, very large percentage of these young people voted Modi, and mostly for the first time in their lives.
Once a month, ThePrint holds an innovative free-speech event called ‘Democracy Wall’ at a key campus. One of its features is a giant banner that looks like a wall where the students can freely write what’s on their mind and sign their names. These have changed character dramatically over the past six months. In the last three, the change is drastic.
All these are from private or elite universities. Among an outburst of anger and disappointment on the latest one, along with clever lines like “P…k The Folice” and “Mera Desh Jal Raha Hai….#SaveAustralia”, what catches the eye most strikingly is, “bure din waapas kar do (please return my bad days to me)”. Until about three months back, there was some criticism. Today, we see not a line, not even a word of praise. You ignore this kind of unanimity in anger among the educated young at your own peril.
At most times, a cocktail of nationalism, religion and an almighty personality cult can win you one election. But it can’t win you two in succession. Six months after he rode hope to his second conquest of India, he has senior police officers (who trusts the police on its word in this country, I am so sorry to ask) holding press conferences, calling students rioters and anti-nationals, cabinet ministers speaking on TV channels telling boys and girls on our campuses how to behave and be patriotic. But today’s young are smart.
They leave them speechless when they retaliate by waving the tiranga, mass-reading of the preamble of the Constitution, and singing the national anthem. Just over six months back, you had the cream of Bollywood fawningly pose for selfies with Modi. Today, many of the marquee stars, not just the usual ‘arty’ ones, have lent their support to protests. And the rest may be silent, but almost no star of any consequence has risen in the government’s support. You have doubts, check out the worthies who landed at the central ministers’ dinner in Mumbai to support CAA. You will need Google to identify some.
And, in the middle of all this, you field a second-term cabinet minister like Smriti Irani to mock and taunt Deepika Padukone. Remember, we said the league you choose to play in decides your stature. Show us a more effective way of losing India’s youth.