Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan was in his element in the Rajya Sabha last Thursday. “I am presenting the facts, not telling mann ki baat,” he said, citing official figures and data concerning the government’s pro-farmer policies. He tore into the opposition parties, laying bare their track record in governance. So did many other ministers.
There was never an issue with facts. There is unanimity among experts that farm sector reforms are much-needed. Tell that to farmers gathered at Delhi borders! Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ministers are doing what they do best — praising him and blaming the opposition parties for misleading the farmers about the three farm laws. “Those born with silver spoons can’t digest the fact that a chaiwalla’s son has become…the pradhan sevak of the country,” said Pradhan. Other ministers were no less effusive in singing paeans.
It may not bring much comfort to PM Modi though. For once, he needs his party members to change the narrative on the ground. Because the Right-wing troll army — also a section in the ruling dispensation — has only compounded the problem by rallying against pop stars and activists and turning them and their ilk into international crusaders for Indian farmers’ interest. Worse, this troll army’s attack on new US Vice President Kamala Harris’ niece, Meena Harris, and her strong pushback — highlighting alleged sexual assault on a rights activist in Delhi police custody, and daring people using Hindu religion as a cover for fascism — must ring alarm bells in the South Block.
But S.Jaishankar-led Ministry of External Affairs seems to be more mindful of its domestic audience as it chooses to dignify a US pop star’s tweet with a full-fledged official statement, and sees similarities between violence at the Red Fort during the farmers’ stir in Modi-led India and Capitol Hill ‘insurrection’ in Donald Trump-led US.
The Modi government’s usual crisis managers look clueless about a solution to the farmers’ agitation that is drawing international attention. And that’s why the PM must be looking up to his party to douse the fire on the ground.
But what’s happened to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which surpassed the Communist Party of China in 2015 to become the world’s largest political outfit?
Last heard, party president J.P. Nadda was counting 18 crore BJP members, and saying that only seven countries had more people than them.
Missing in action
Everyone agrees that the BJP is a well-oiled electoral machine, a juggernaut. Opposition parties are at their wit’s end, reading about the ubiquitous BJP booth-level workers, panna pramukhs, and mandal heads. Where have they all gone, suddenly, in Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh? The BJP never announced a detailed result of its membership drives in these states. Therefore, only BJP leaders would know how many members the party has in Ambala, Jind, Muzaffarnagar, Shamli, or Ghaziabad. One doesn’t know how many people in Haryana are BJP members. But PM Modi, Amit Shah, and Nadda would know, of course, and must be looking out for them today.
It must upset PM Modi that a party of 18 crore members should look absent from the trouble spots when they’re needed the most—to reach out to farmers, convince them of the benefits of the central farm laws, and counter the opposition’s “propaganda”. If the members are still there, and yet the opposition is able to “mislead” farmers, the BJP must start worrying.
It’s not just the vanishing act of BJP members and workers at the grassroots. PM Modi may also be exasperated with the paper tigers in his council of ministers and in the party’s organisational set-up. Just hear their roars at the opposition in front of TV cameras and on Twitter. But none would venture out of their dens in Lutyens’ Delhi and go to villages in the bordering states — or even to Delhi’s borders like Singhu, Tikri and Ghazipur — to tell agitators why the PM is right and why they are wrong.
Remember Sanjeev Kumar Balyan? He had made national headlines during the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots. He went on to become a minister in the Modi government in 2014. Now Rakesh Tikait, the leader of Balyan Khap to which the minister belongs, has become a huge headache for Modi. If the PM expected his minister to redeem his pledge as the party’s Jat face in western UP, he must be hugely disappointed. Except for making some perfunctory statements asking farmers to return home because their agitation has been “hijacked by anti-social elements”, Balyan has been a mere spectator to Tikait’s rise to prominence and the build-up of his Jat support at Delhi-Ghazipur border. The BJP has four other Jat MPs from western UP and over a dozen other non-Jat parliamentarians from that region. They are nowhere to be seen on the ground today. A section of BJP leaders is also curious as to how Defence Minister Rajnath Singh has failed to rein in Rakesh Tikait, who is considered close to the former UP chief minister.
And where is Brijendra Singh, Hisar MP and son of Chaudhary Birender Singh, who was the Jat face in the Modi cabinet in his first term? Well, last heard in November, he said that the three farm laws are reformist and revolutionary, but all stakeholders should have been taken on board before passing them. His father has already taken a dig at the Manohar Lal Khattar government in Haryana and the BJP leadership in Punjab for not addressing the farmers’ apprehensions before the bills were passed in Parliament. But it would probably be unfair to blame the first-term MP, Brijendra, when the BJP had swept all the 10 seats in Haryana in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. The other nine are also watching the mobilisation of farmers from a safe distance.
The BJP has two MPs from Punjab—Union minister Som Prakash from Hoshiarpur and Sunny Deol from Gurdaspur. Som Prakash has been trying to play it safe, maintaining that the government of India is serious about resolving the farmers’ issues. Sunny Deol has also been guarded, saying that he stood with his party and the farmers even as some people were trying to take advantage of the situation.
Where the BJP’s priorities lie
It’s not just the ministers and MPs who are playing it safe, leaving it to the Modi government’s top brass to sort out the political mess. The world’s biggest party looks almost detached from the crisis, leaving it to the PM and his government to handle their own affairs.
Last month, the party planned an outreach programme to counter what it calls a ‘disinformation’ campaign against the farm laws. It was to organise press conferences, public contact programmes, and ‘chaupals’ in all districts of the country. As is evident, this had no impact in Punjab, Haryana and western UP, at least. The Haryana unit of the party is now planning to reach out to khap panchayats and Jat leaders, but it’s still in the planning stage.
Look at BJP president J.P. Nadda’s Twitter handle and you understand the priorities. He spent the last week campaigning for the party in West Bengal and Kerala. And what warm reception he was getting! The radiant face, garlands, the waving of hands at the crowds, said it all: He always belonged there, notwithstanding the critics who thought he would remain under Amit Shah’s shadow.
In such moments of glory, who would like to remember those gloomy faces at the Delhi borders? If the Prime Minister is looking lonely at the top today, surrounded by paper tigers, he should also take a part of the blame. Modi never told them they needed to do better than aping former Congress president D.K. Barooah, whose infamous slogan—Indira is India and India is Indira—continues to inspire many politicians even today. Aside, Barooah had abandoned her after she lost power.
Views are personal.