I left Shimla in sub-zero temperatures the day after Christmas. Kufri was snowbound and tourists from warmer climes were thronging to the lower Himalayas thanks partly to the improved national highway. And the craze for really cold weather. Every hotel was full. An imperial hill station meant for a maximum of 45,000, now housed upwards of half-a-million souls. Not counting the armies of enthusiastic tourists wanting to “enjoy” the cold despite frequent power outages caused by a surge in demand.
Reputedly the largest hill station in the world, Shimla was also preparing for the visit of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president and Home Minister, Amit Shah. He was accompanied by J.P. Nadda, working president of the party. Nadda, though a Himachali, was born and raised in Patna, where his father, N. L. Nadda, was a Vice-Chancellor. Preparations for the high-powered visit were very much in evidence. Ostensibly, the occasion was BJP leader Jairam Thakur completing two years as Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister.
But, quite expectedly, Amit Shah used the occasion to slam and ridicule the Congress. “I challenge Rahul ‘baba’ to show even one clause in the (Citizenship Amendment) Act that has provision to take away citizenship of anyone,” Shah taunted. In Delhi, however, protests against the CAA and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) continued. Well-known writer-activist Arundhati Roy asked citizens to rise against the state’s National Population Register (NPR) in open rebellion: “When officials visit your home for NPR and ask you your name, give them names like Ranga-Billa, Kungfu-Katta.”
Amit Shah reiterated, “Under Citizenship Amendment Act, there is no provision to take away the citizenship of anyone, not even of those belonging to the minority community.” He accused the Congress of deliberately distorting the issue: “The Congress and company are spreading rumours that the citizenship of the minorities will be taken away with the CAA.” The Act was actually about extending, and not revoking, citizenship: “This Act has a provision to give citizenship to minorities in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
Regionalism far from dead
When I reached Delhi, the talk of the town was BJP leader Subramanian Swamy’s cruel quip that a “BJP-mukt Bharat could become a reality.” Swamy was talking not just of the loss in Jharkhand assembly election on 23 December. The alliance partners Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), Congress, and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) had won an impressive 47 seats, going comfortably past the halfway mark in the 81-member House. The BJP, on the other hand, suffering its fifth defeat in assembly elections since December 2018, only managed 25 seats. Ironically, it was the BJP that had given the call for a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ earlier. Now, down south in Bengaluru, it is foggy and cool. Also much calmer. No unrest against the CAA. People seem to have other priorities.
The fact is that we are not likely to see either a Congress-mukt Bharat or a BJP-mukt Bharat for quite some time to come. In fact, despite its electoral reverses, BJP remains a very strong presence. Usually it has emerged as the second largest or the chief opposition party, even in the states it has lost. What makes this significant is that the BJP’s credibility has grown. It is the only nation-wide alternative even where regional parties have shown an impressive come-back.
In Haryana, Maharashtra, and now in Jharkhand, what is crystal clear is that regionalism is far from dead. On the contrary, it is showing a revival wherever the BJP fails to deliver when entrusted with the reigns of power. The fallback option in such cases is usually the local party, no matter its dynastic or familial proclivities. Former Jharkhand CM and JMM party chief Shibu Soren’s son, Hemant, is now the CM. The BJP must have realised that it can’t win state elections only on the basis of the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the organisational skills of Amit Shah; what is needed are second- and third-rung leaders in all parts of India.
The rapid decline of the Congress, on the other hand, reminds one of a similar disbanding and dissolution of the Liberal Party in Britain. After being such a formidable force for over 200 years, they saw a swift decline, amounting almost to a decimation if not death-wish. Similarly, the Congress has been reduced to playing not even second, but third fiddle, as in Maharashtra. It would seem that they have made themselves “unelectable” in several parts of India. The leadership crisis in the Congress is even more acute than it is in the BJP. The latter, at least, has strong leaders at the centre, especially in the PM. Narendra Modi is a political phenomenon, the likes of which India has not witnessed in a very long time.
Modi still a factor
Modi led from the front throughout this year. He dramatically altered Article 370, ending the statehood of Jammu and Kashmir, stripping its special status, and bifurcating it into two Union Territories of J&K and Ladakh. He also moved to include the economically weaker sections from the general category in the government’s quota system through the 124th Constitution Amendment Bill of 2014. His government also abolished triple talaq as a means to secure divorce. His finest hour was his spectacular success in the Lok Sabha election in May 2019. The BJP under his leadership won 303 seats, its highest tally ever. Not only achieving a majority on its own after some three decades, the BJP also made unprecedented inroads in West Bengal. For the first time in its history, the party won 18 of the 42 seats.
Earlier, on 26 February, Modi authorised the Indian military’s strike on terrorist targets in Balakot, deep inside Pakistani soil, after 40 CRPF soldiers were killed in Pulwama on 14 February. The pre-dawn airstrikes destroyed a terror camp and eliminated several terror operatives. Indian Air Force (IAF)’s fighter pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, was captured by Pakistani forces but released in a dramatic, negotiated return that was fully televised.
Overall, it was a memorable year for the ruling BJP, marked by a spectacular return to power on the one hand, and several reverses on the other. Coming right at the end of the year, the widespread anger and protests against the CAA took the party by surprise, proving a challenge much harder than it had anticipated.
As to new year resolutions, Delhi and Bihar have become must-wins for the BJP in 2020 if it is to maintain its primacy in the country.
The author is a Professor and Director at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. His Twitter handle is @makrandparanspe. Views are personal.