Travelling in Bihar during the state’s assembly election in 2015, I met a man who was a government official by day and an OBC rights activist by night. For him, Lalu Yadav and Nitish Kumar, fighting that election together, were not good enough. They had betrayed Mandal politics to win elections and power. Activists like him are the soil of Indian democracy. They keep alive the spirit of debate and dissent when their elected representatives sell themselves for power.
I asked him what he thought of Narendra Modi and the BJP, which had only been in power for a little over a year at the time. His reply was unforgettable, and it resonates every time the Modi government sparks a new protest, creates a new problem, represses another section of society.
The Mandal-ite activist said, “The Congress party has the habit of keeping social tensions below the surface, often pushing them under the carpet. The BJP likes to open up these tensions, make them play out.”
In December 1885, the Indian National Congress (INC) was founded on the initiative of a retired British civil servant, Allan Octavian Hume. Hume proposed the INC be a “safety valve” for the British Raj in becoming an outlet of Indian grievances. For people like the Mandal-ite activist I met in Patna in 2015, the Congress was still a mere ‘safety valve’, preventing the sort of caste revolution that a non-Congress government sparked with the Mandal Commission.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, however, is waging a revolution of sorts in upending India’s social contract to create a new one. Often to create something new, you have to destroy something existing. The secular State has to be demolished to establish a Hindu Rashtra. The Socialist consensus has to be broken to further crony capitalism. The fragile peace of India’s borderlands has to be disturbed to alter the nature of the Indian State. Modi isn’t here to carry on the Congress consensus but to replace it. No pain, no gain.
Hindu nationalism sees itself as thriving in the creation of fault lines. It is in rupture that the space for Hindutva is created.
The Jhatka way
This deliberate effort at ‘creative’ destruction is what we see in play in the government’s sudden, unilateral policymaking imposed on the nation without consultation, leave alone consensus. Raghuram Rajan, the former governor of the Reserve Bank of India, has described it as ‘jhatka’ policymaking. (The BJP’s supporters won’t object to the term since they are opposed to the halal way of butchering animals.)
It is, therefore, not absent-mindedness that the government most likely did not consult farmers before enacting laws with far-reaching consequences for Indian agriculture. They were introduced as ordinances before being pushed through Parliament. Debate and discussion, dissent and consensus are not required. Ordinance Raj is key to jhatka policymaking. The legislature a mere rubber stamp. Once the farmers of Punjab and Haryana are forced to accept them, the parliamentary rubber stamp can be put on them.
When these ordinances are sprung out of the blue, the government knows there will be protest and resistance from the farmers of Punjab and Haryana who have benefitted from the minimum support price (MSP) system. Bring it on, the government seems to suggest. They’re blocking train tracks? Never mind, stop the trains. Let’s see how they manage.
There is a standard operating procedure at work here. Let people cry foul. Discredit them as anti-national or terrorists. Blame the naysaying on the Congress and dirty politics. Scare the naysayers with police and paramilitary, the CBI and the ED. Sooner than later, people will accept it. What good is a brute parliamentary majority if it doesn’t let you ride roughshod on all kinds of minorities?
In Punjab and Assam, those Congress-closed conflicts did its safety valve thing. In both places, we have seen the BJP not being afraid to open up old wounds. It doesn’t mind the word ‘Khalistan’ being bandied about to discredit farmers who are merely fearing for their livelihoods. Conflict is good, it lets you create ‘the other’ out of those who won’t be willing participants in the Hindu Rashtra project. Let people protest, let there be violence, they will all be labelled terrorists.
No safety valve required
It is quite remarkable that the Modi government has agreed to talk to protesting farmers, even bringing forward their own date for doing so by a few days. What magnanimity! This is unprecedented because the Modi government has so far refused to pro-actively engage in dialogue with any social groups protesting on the streets. In 2018, farmers from Tamil Nadu protested in Delhi with skulls of their colleagues who had committed suicide, but the government did not reach out to them.
The Congress way would have been to hold talks, form a committee, buy a few weeks, make promises and keep the easy ones, and postpone the matter until time healed the wounds. Persuade, cajole, give some concessions but not enough, end the matter.
The Modi government gave a major concession to farmers — the PM-KISAN scheme just before the 2019 Lok Sabha election — but only when it lost the Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh assembly elections to the Congress because of farm distress in December 2018. The only exception the BJP makes against its own convictions is when it sees itself losing elections.
That leaves out a whole chunk of people who the BJP does not need to win elections. After all, its 303 seats came from a 37 per cent vote share. The rest are probably the Sikhs of Punjab, the Bengali Muslims of Assam, the Muslims of Hindi heartland, the Dalit students of Hyderabad, the Leftists students of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, the Kashmiris up north.
India’s citizenship laws, its penal code, its agricultural structure, its tax regime, its monetary policy, its constitutional relationship with Jammu & Kashmir — there is absolutely nothing that can’t be changed in a jhatka.
It is as if the BJP wants to test people’s ability to protest and resist the might of the State. In any normal circumstance, any normal government would see this as being very risky, not to say detrimental to peace, harmony and national interest. You’d think no government would want to take ‘panga‘ with its own people. But this is not the Congress. It doesn’t want that safety valve. It wants to remove the safety valve and see what happens, almost as if out of curiosity.
The author is a contributing editor. Views are personal.