If you want to understand the plight of opposition leaders in India, roll out a mat to play Twister. Now imagine you are Rahul Gandhi and the referee is Narendra Modi holding the spinner. Every time he spins it, you must twist and twirl your body to touch the coloured circles on the mat — left foot yellow, right hand red, right foot green — until you are tied up in knots.
Now you know how helpless Rahul Gandhi must feel when Modi or Amit Shah keeps spinning the wheel, leaving opposition leaders in a tangled mess. By the time the opposition gathers the ‘suit-boot ki sarkar’ ammunition, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has already told jingoistic tales about surgical strikes on terror camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Just when the opposition prepares to puncture the ruling party’s ‘achhe din’ bubble, Modi moves on to talk about Balakot airstrikes.
Then comes the criminalisation of triple talaq, invalidation of Article 370, Supreme Court verdict paving way for the construction of a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), and so on. The opposition leaders are under constant pressure to react and they end up fumbling for words, invariably.
Blame it on the intellectual bankruptcy or sheer cussedness of opposition leaders. Or credit Modi-Amit Shah’s earthy politics and grasp of the people’s pulse. They always have their political adversaries on a Twister mat. The opposition just can’t anticipate the duo’s next move, forget outwitting or outmanoeuvring them.
A political Twister
The political fracas over the CAA, the National Population Register (NPR) and the National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC) is the latest example. Don’t be mistaken by the sit-in protests at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh or at Lucknow’s Clock Tower. The citizens might be out on the roads protesting, but the opposition leaders are still in their drawing rooms, still assessing the pros and cons.
When TV visuals of the protesters pull on their heartstrings and they can’t hold themselves back anymore, they react — on Twitter. The result: It’s the BJP that’s on the offensive on the CAA-NRIC. You must give it to the diehard optimists in the opposition camp. They believe that the BJP has finally ‘exhausted’ its core issues — Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, removal of Article 370 and the uniform civil code (the third partially addressed through the criminalisation of triple talaq). “Ab baat karne ko unke paas kya raha (what do they have left to talk about now)? You can’t talk about the same issues four years later,” an elated Congress leader told me one January evening.
He and most of his colleagues in the opposition camp are mistaken though. The BJP has at least three new core issues to replace the old ones, which would keep the opposition leaders on the Twister mat for a long time to come.
Before we come to these new issues, let me also share a recent exchange with a BJP leader. “If the Congress were in power and the state of our economy were what it is now, we would have had thousands of bullock carts and tractors, filled with farmers and youth, outside Parliament building, outside the PM’s and ministers’ offices and residences. We would be going door-to-door to apprise the people of this mess. Magar opposition walon ko rajniti karni hi nahin aati (but the opposition doesn’t know how to do politics).”
The new core agenda
So, what are the new core agendas of the BJP? The first one is, of course, the CAA-NRIC. Just count the number of times Modi and Shah speak about the CAA in a day. As for the NRIC, neither of them has said that it won’t be implemented in future. Every time they issue a clarification, the caveat is “not now”. The NRIC is another Ayodhya for the BJP, which doesn’t have to be resolved immediately. It has long-term political use.
The second core issue is going to be the population control policy. I would call it the new uniform civil code in terms of its political potential for the BJP. Prime Minister Modi flagged his concerns about population explosion in last year’s Independence Day address. Remember how the government’s think tank NITI Aayog convened a meeting on population stabilisation last month, only to defer it.
There was no immediacy to it. The CAA/NPR/NRIC debate was generating enough heat. Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat has kept the issue alive though. The Sangh is not specifying a two-child norm and would like the BJP-led government to take a call on this, but it doesn’t require a genius to guess which way the debate would eventually turn.
BJP strategists may already be grinning ear to ear in anticipation of the rift in the opposition camp over the population policy.
Perceived privileges enjoyed by the minorities are the third issue the BJP is preparing to focus on. In response to a petition challenging the allocation of Rs 4,700 crore for minority welfare schemes on the plea that it’s discriminatory against Hindus, the Modi government has already said that the petition raises “substantial question of law” and it should be referred to a five-judge Constitution bench.
The petition was filed by Sanatan Hindu Dharam lawyer Vishnu Shankar Jain, who was also the VHP’s counsel in the Ayodhya case. The petitioner has challenged the utilisation of taxpayers’ money to “appease a section of society”.
While the Supreme Court is seized with this issue, BJP and RSS leaders are said to be looking closely at the rights and privileges enjoyed by minority educational institutions, from madrasas to universities. The issue of appointments in minority educational institutions is already in the Supreme Court
These three issues— NRC, population stabilisation policy and government welfare programmes for Muslims and minority education institutions — are set to form the BJP’s core agenda in future. One can count on the BJP to steamroll the opposition, which has been diffident on the CAA-NRIC issue and remained quiet on the other two.
Modi and Shah, however, have many other things up their sleeves in case of any urgency or exigency. I can list at least two — delimitation of Lok Sabha constituencies and sub-categorisation of the other backward classes (OBCs). Although the delimitation can be done only after 2026, as per the 2002 amendment of the Constitution, the ruling party could amend it again to advance it — if need be. Though there is no word about the delimitation from the ruling camp, the Modi government is already working on an ambitious project to revamp New Delhi’s Central Vista, which includes the construction of a new triangular Parliament building where the Lok Sabha will have the capacity to accommodate 900-1,000 MPs.
And last but not the least, the Modi-Shah government always has the option of experimenting with a potentially disruptive social engineering formula. The panel on the sub-categorisation of OBCs, constituted in October 2017, has been given repeated extensions. When it will submit its report and whether the recommendations will be accepted will depend on how the new three-point core agenda of the BJP shapes up.
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