Recent headlines have offered clues about the way the wind is blowing before the general elections in India. A make-or-break element in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s re-election bid in May lies in Uttar Pradesh. It was here that he swept the 2014 polls on the back of anti-Muslim blood and gore set off in Muzaffarnagar, what some in the prime minister’s choral media have praised as ‘Modi Magic’. Spurring his win in the country’s most populous state was a palpably disharmonious opposition. That may have changed this year — or has it?
Let’s quickly scour the headlines. My first story refers to the Congress party’s bizarre plan to contest all 80 parliamentary seats in UP on its own. What then becomes of the promised coalition?
The second story seemed facetious at first but it describes a crippling fallout on the BJP of its ban on slaughter of cattle in UP. The alarmed party must now contain unwanted cattle in their post-productive state when they become a load on the farmers. Will the revered holy cow be artificially inseminated to produce more cows than bulls, as the animal husbandry minister says? How serious is the looming crisis in a political season?
A fourth story is The Hindu’s damning report by a former Indian supreme court judge, which gathered dust in the vaults of the apex court for over a year, on fake encounter deaths in Gujarat. Will it haunt the BJP together with an equally strong concern expressed by UN rights officials about allegations of widespread killings in Yogi Adityanath-ruled Uttar Pradesh?
And finally, the party’s national convention addressed by Modi where he offered himself as the only choice to lead India, which needs a ‘mazbootsarkar’, a strong government. The opposition alliance can only produce a ‘majboorsarkar’, says he, a government weakened by its own political compromises.
Two of the stories should suffice to indicate the headwinds ahead. The Congress party’s announcement of fighting all seats in UP, came not surprisingly a day after the backward caste Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Dalit BahujanSamaj Party (BSP), once bitter rivals,
declared a joint campaign in 76 constituencies, leaving four for Congress, presumably. In the last vote count, BSP (22.23 per cent) and the SP (28.07pc) totalled more than BJP (41.35pc) and Congress put together. Congress is an insignificant player in UP, and its irresponsible claim to contest all seats makes it a laughing stock given the high stakes in May.
What lies behind the absurdity? The fact is that Congress, perennially described a family enterprise of the Gandhis, is actually a coalition of powerful satraps, usually but not always shored up by Mumbai businessmen.
The business clubs have a chronic allergy to the Gandhis, though they are not averse to backing a Narasimha Rao or a Manmohan Singh in Congress. The allergens are old and damning. Nehru had jailed their leading businessman for corruption, Indira Gandhi had shut their banks, and Rajiv Gandhi ordered them to get off the backs of Congress workers. The tycoons came back hard at him with the Bofors smear though.
In the recent elections in Madhya Pradesh, a local Congress chieftain deemed close to a particular business family, opposed and subverted an alliance with Mayawati’s Dalit party. Congress won but not cleanly and it needs the BSP to sustain a majority. In Uttar Pradesh, the SP has strong ties with key business families, including the one that Rahul Gandhi has named in the Rafael warplanes scandal.
Given the state of play, the young Gandhi should ideally decide whether he wants to be a compromised representative of disparate, even contrary interests as prime minister, something his satraps would like him to be. Or should he be nudging the opposition parties, bereft of common ambition, with a Nehruvian vision to forge a truly durable secular polity?
The left had done this successfully with Indira Gandhi. The model can only strengthen Congress and its essentially left-leaning mass base. See it as a Tony Blair-Jeremy Corbyn moment within the Indian equivalent of the Labour Party. Else, the system in India, a tycoon-run deep state, would continue to harness Congress satraps and the BJP in a bind that undermines the constitution’s fair promise.
Signs of disarray in the opposition should comfort the BJP, but evidently the party for the first time is looking mortally afraid of losing. From ‘Congress-free India’, Modi is now talking about ‘a weak opposition government’. There’s more evidence of panic in Omar Rashid’s story in The Hindu about a cattle market that has collapsed, about stray cows raiding UP farms as impoverished farmers abandon their hungry animals.
Explaining the dilemma, BJP’s minister for animal husbandry said: “UP is a state of small and minor farmers, with two crop seasons. For 15 days of ploughing, a farmer no longer wants to feed two bullocks all year round.” To solve the problem the government has started a sex-sorted scheme under which the chances of a cow producing a female calf would be as high as 90pc to 95pc. Simultaneously, the BJP government is imposing a 0.5pc gaukalyan (cow welfare) cess on liquor and road toll collections, besides doubling an existing 1pc levy on the incomes of wholesale produce markets. The proceeds will fund construction and maintenance of new cow pens.
While the kitten entangles itself in the ball of wool, the opposition should be taking control of the narrative. But Congress, far from offering a vision, which only it could, is saddled with its recent promise to make cow urine economically viable while discussing the grade of the Brahminical thread Rahul Gandhi wears, neither of which is part of the winning calculation for the SP and the BSP.