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The most crucial elections in India’s history

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By Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay

In April-May next year an estimated 900 million Indians will be heading to the polls to elect their next parliament. In the 70-odd years since India’s independence, this will likely be the first election that seriously challenges the country’s inclusive political culture.
If the current government led by the Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi secures another emphatic mandate, the country will move dangerously close to becoming a majoritarian state.
A decisive victory would give the BJP hegemonic control over all state institutions, as well as the media and public discourse. This would further undermine the integrity and autonomy of different arms of the state, including the judiciary, public watchdogs and, more importantly, state-run educational institutions. Moreover, another BJP victory would put the freedoms and security of approximately 175 million Indian Muslims in jeopardy.
Amid waning public support for the government caused by economic failures, the BJP recently took a series of steps to accentuate India’s growing religious polarisation. It appears the far-right party is trying to secure an electoral victory not by convincing Indians that it will implement a strong social, economic and political agenda, but by fomenting the Hindu majority’s prejudices against Muslims and convincing them to vote along religious lines.
In 2014, Modi was voted into office for two reasons. First, anti-incumbent sentiment against the Congress-led coalition government was rampant, mainly as a result of corruption accusations and a downward drift in governance. Second, Modi managed to raise Indians’ hopes about their country’s future by making several ambitious promises.
Despite his controversial past – he was accused of initiating and condoning the 2002 Gujarat riots that resulted in the death of almost 1,000 people, many of them Muslims – Modi succeeded in presenting himself as a messiah of development throughout the election campaign.
Once in power, however, he moved away from the reformist image he created for himself.
He did follow through some of his campaign promises, such as starting pro-poor economic schemes and innovative programmes but mostly used sectarian, Hindu-nationalist dog whistles to consolidate his power. As a result, Muslims became open targets for discrimination and abuse.
The Modi government’s tacit promotion of sectarian politics resulted in disquiet in what is identified as “Middle India” – a burgeoning demographic block of urban middle-classes who are socially liberal and economically conservative.
They backed Modi in the 2014 election, mostly because they believed he had left divisive politics behind and was committed to economic policies that would help everyone prosper. They expected him to act as a neo-Thatcherite reformer and save the struggling Indian economy. However, only a couple of months into his reign, Middle India realised that he is no unifying reformer.
Over the past four years, the BJP government has repeatedly turned a blind eye on attacks by fringe groups on religious minorities. According to data from IndiaSpend, which tracks news about violence in English-language media, reports of religious-based hate-crimes – mainly targeting Muslims – have spiked significantly since 2014.
Modi himself did little more than deliver periodical tepid words of caution in the face of growing religious polarisation. He likely believes that firing up Hindu-nationalist sentiments would give him an electoral advantage. In the end, he was right. Sectarian politics did partially cost the BJP the support of Middle India but simultaneously made it more popular among wider Hindu masses across the country (As seen in the party’s landslide victory in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, in March 2017).
However, such divisive politics stopped yielding sufficient political dividends for the BJP from the autumn of 2017 and Modi’s personal popularity started to decline.
Modi’s loss of popularity was mainly caused by two controversial economic decisions: the demonetisation of high-value currency notes in November 2016 and the rollout of a Goods and Service Tax in July 2017. These decisions hurt small and medium-sized businesses and held the Indian economy back. Both decisions were criticised harshly by prominent economists and were not popular among ordinary citizens.
These economic moves diminished the government and the PM’s political clout significantly, and are likely to negatively impact the BJP’s prospects in the 2019 general election.
The start of the BJP’s electoral slide became clear last December when the party limped to a majority in Modi’s home state, Gujarat. The party’s electoral decline continued into 2018: it won only three of the 13 parliamentary by-polls, and 5 of the 22 state legislature elections.
Beside demonetisation and the Goods and Service Tax, rising unemployment and spiralling distress in the farming industry are also expected to cause Modi some electoral headaches in 2019. Opinion polls consistently demonstrate that the BJP’s popularity across India is on the decline. The BJP, well aware that it is facing strong anti-incumbent sentiments, is looking to find ways to widen its support base before the general election.
In the past, the party has tried to achieve this by stirring up nationalist sentiments and it is likely that it will continue to do so in the near future. For example, in 2016, Modi used the Indian military’s so-called “surgical strikes” against “terrorist units” in troubled Jammu and Kashmir for ultra-nationalist propaganda.
Just months after the strikes, he rode the wave of jingoistic fervour he created through these propaganda efforts and swept the elections in Uttar Pradesh. Earlier this year, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced that the anniversary of the operation would be celebrated every year as “National Strike Day” – further demonstrating that the BJP plans to continue using past military operations to stoke nationalist sentiment and garner support for the government.
The BJP’s ideological siblings have been campaigning for a nation-wide Hindu resurrection since the 1920s – the era in which the party’s core Hindutva ideology was first born. But, for a very long time, these efforts had limited success due to India’s syncretism and the caste-based divisions within Hindu society.
Hindu nationalists emerged as a major political force only in the late 1980s, on the back of the demands for a 16th-century mosque in Ayodhya to be replaced with a Ram (an avatar of Vishnu, a major Hindu god) temple.
The demolition of the mosque in December 1992 led to several months of inter-communal rioting in which Hindus and Muslims attacked one another. A decade later, the issue led to the Gujarat riots, which helped Modi transition from a satrap to a popular political leader. Anti-Muslim riots in the Uttar Pradesh town of Muzaffarnagar in 2013, which were fanned by members and sympathisers of the BJP, also contributed to Modi’s 2014 electoral victory.
Such past efforts were indeed the main force behind the BJP and Modi’s rise to power, yet the governing party knows that it needs to do more to overcome the incumbent’s political handicap and is now actively working towards constructing a wider Hindu-nationalist voter block.
Thanks to the BJP’s efforts, the Ayodhya temple dispute is once again roaring and Hindu nationalists are agitating for the demolition of other historical mosques allegedly built over temples, including one in Modi’s political constituency, Varanasi. There are fears that these issues may be raked up further before the elections.
In recent weeks, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath renamed one major city and another district, alleging that previous names were “Islamic blemishes”. Coming on the back of other renaming controversies, this raised fears that a Hindu-nationalist “renaming spree” is about to begin.
Coupled with ongoing campaigns against eating beef and so-called “Love Jihad” and conspiracy theories about Muslims illegally entering India from Bangladesh and altering the demographic balance of the country, the government’s current attempts to fuel Hindu nationalist and anti-Muslim sentiments aim at shifting the voters’ focus away from daily grievances.
The BJP’s ultimate goal is to make the 80 percent of Indians who are Hindus vote according to their religious identity, driven by animosity towards minorities, mainly Muslims. If the BJP succeeds, this would turn India’s political character on its head.


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Opinion

Believe in Yourself!

The Kashmir Monitor

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By Dr.Shahid AminTrali

There are many resources that should not be easily wasted by humans. Money is important and life in this world without money is really a tough one. We should never waste our hard earned Money. There are people who are true and always tell us, money doesn’t buy happiness. But that single line alone challenging money doesn’t mean much. What will happen to us when we have no money? When right ways are followed in spending money, we will get back money in a multitude.

Someone has rightly said that money saved is money earned. I have a well-paid job does not mean that I have to be lavish in spending my money. Yes it is true that there are no limits on being contributive to charity works. We need to put ourselves consistently on a testing mode to try our guts and worth. I have a story to narrate how we can conquer the challenges if we are ready both mentally and physically to accept the challenges. Recently I was on a long travel from Kashmir to Gwalior. I was carrying a heavy luggage with as many as six big bags in my possession. I reached to one of the peak railway station at Jammu. With such a big luggage to manage, there was no other option left than to hire a labour. I was looking for a labour but looking into my dire need, the charges demanded by the labour there were unjustified. The challenge was accepted with open arms to manage my luggage on my own.

It was never an easy task for me to manage my heavy luggage and it tested my patience and spirit. First I got my luggage out of a cab hired and kept bags on a road side. Next I picked up three bags and dropped those three bags at the security checking point there at the station. I rushed back and brought three more bags and put it also into the security checking point. Now on getting all of my six heavy bags out of the security checking point there, I started looking for help. I requested few passers-by there but no one was interested to help. Finally the wishes came true and a humble boy passed by and filled me with a hope of being kind. He was going to travel by some coming train. Me said ‘baya help kar do, ye do bag upar platform takpagdo (translation- brother please help in carrying those few bags up to the platform). ‘No issues’, he replied and he was waiting for his more friends to come. He told let his friends come and they will also carry my bags upto the platform.

When his friends came they all carried my bags up to the platform 1. Next they started looking for their train. I also began to look for my train and the announcement was made that my train will depart from platform 2. Oh! Abi sangarshaurbhihain (Translation- Oh! Still I have to pass more tests). I was never defeated and again ready to put my brains into work. I had to make a quick strategy how to manage my six bags next. I began to look for help and requested one hawker at the platform 1 to take care of my three bags and had to drop three more bags at the platform 2. I was to come back to platform 1 and take three more bags to the platform 2. But everywhere be it platform 1 and 2, huge risk was involved as there was was no one confident to take care of my bags. I had to think smartly how to minimise my risk of losing my bags. I had to quickly access which bags were more costly for me which I can keep on the hawker shop at platform 1.There was uncertainty but still I had to be optimistic that someone will be there at platform 2 to take care of my bags. I picked up three bags and rushed to platform two and found one more hawker there. Smartly I asked the hawker about the rates of his items that he had offered for sale. Then I made a strong request to keep my three bags there for a while so that I can get my three more bags from platform one. ‘Aapjaldiaana and we are not responsible if you are late’, he replied (Translation- You can come quick and we are not responsible if you are late). I got my three bags from the platform 1 and reached back to the hawker at platform two. I purchased some small items from him and mentioned thanks to him for his help. Now looking into the large size of the train, I began to look for the exact location of my coach. Again I got to know that my train coach is much ahead of my current waiting point. I kept my three bags there with the hawker on request and went ahead with three more bags. At a fair distance found one military officer and requested to keep my bags there for some time. I had to rush and bring three more bags. Now I felt relaxed that now I am ready to board my train. But the challenges were not going to end soon. I came to know again that my coach will stop at a point ahead. I went there with three bags applying the same strategy and requested one water point owner there to take care of my luggage. Finally the train arrived and with the help of water point owner boarded my train to Gwalior.

I reached to my destination. The great part of the journey was that I managed my heavy luggage without any labour. I received help at many points and no cost was involved. Ah! It was a great feeling to think deep for the day that tested me well. It was a tough time but with energy and presence of mind, I could make it a big day of learning. I felt heavily satisfied and rewarded even if the rewards were too small. I could realise that at every step life teaches us so well. We need to apply ourselves seriously in every situation to make our life more lively and worth living.

It is rightly said that God helps those who help themselves. But we must not rely solely on a divine intervention every time there is some need. It is up to us to take matters in our own hands and try to solve our own challenges. We should never give up easily in life. The supreme force, God, has already gifted us with every means to be able to help ourselves. Once we have a strong faith and begin to apply ourselves to achieve the goals we desperately want, then God will help us further to achieve those goals. We must not forget that no one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.

(The author is Assistant Professor, ITM University Gwalior and a regular contributor to this newspaper. E-mail: [email protected])

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Opinion

Cong needs new ‘vision’ to take on BJP

The Kashmir Monitor

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By Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay

In these troubled times it is tempting to view the Assembly election results as indication of the revival of the secular republic, the rejection of doctrinaire politics and governance, and evidence of mandate correction. However, by dwelling excessively on the change of government in the three states where the ruling BJP has been unseated by the Congress, the resurgent Grand Old Party and its supporters would lose sight of the graver challenges ahead. While the first of these is undoubtedly the Lok Sabha election, the rollback of majoritarianism is the long-term task.

To understand the test ahead there is first a need for a deep dive into the verdict from the states where the Congress wrested power. While everyone heaved a sigh of relief after the Congress’ tally rested at 114, just one short of the halfway mark, the figure which should worry the party and its backers is 47,827 — the number of votes which the BJP polled more than the Congress in Madhya Pradesh. Although the Congress eventually edged out the BJP in a humdinger of a contest, the latter led the former by a whisker in terms of its voteshare — 41 per cent for the BJP to 40.9 per cent for the Congress. It is due to the vagaries of the first-past-the-post electoral system that often legislative strength does not represent popular support. After all, even the BJP’s Lok Sabha tally of 282 in 2014 was way beyond what its 31 per cent voteshare would have reflected. Or that the 37 per cent that the party got along with allies was way below their commanding presence in the Lok Sabha.

The Congress would seek solace in the fact that if the votes polled by four rebel Independents, who after becoming MLAs are back into the fold — although formal induction is still awaited — are added to its voteshare, the Congress would nose ahead of the BJP and actually become Party No. 1 in the state. Despite this, the two parties would remain at par, evidence that the Congress will face with a sterner test in the Lok Sabha elections and that this verdict has not automatically reopened the path of its electoral comeback at a national level.

In Rajasthan too, the Congress is dogged by its voteshare being discomfortingly close to the BJP’s — 39.3 per cent of the former to the latter’s 38.8 per cent. In terms of actual number of votes which separated the two, the figure was just 177,699. Party leaders, however, would argue that there is a need to factor in the votes polled by 13 Independent candidates, most of who are Congress rebels, and they would eventually either back the party from outside or make a homecoming. These Independents polled 9.5 per cent of the total votes cast, a whopping 33,72,206, and even if almost half of these were bagged by “inconsequential” candidates, it would still add up sufficiently to the Congress’ tally, providing it an element of comfort. But this “notional” lead over its rival has to be converted. This would, however, not be possible without taking steps that strike at the endemic problem within the party across states — rebels are encouraged and put up by faction leaders whenever they fail to secure nominations for their favourites. To counter this, the party high command has to deploy authority and cannot hide behind the argument of being more democratic because it should never become an excuse for indiscipline.

Paradoxically, of the three states, the Congress secured the most comfortable mandate in Chhattisgarh, a state expected to be the tightest for two reasons. First, almost its entire state leadership was wiped out in the terrorist attack in 2013, and second, the alliance between Ajit Jogi and the BahujanSamaj Party had the potential to cut significantly into the anti-BJP vote. Yet it is here that the Congress secured a comfortable 10 per cent voteshare margin, and this is due to its weakness becoming its strength — the absence of strong faction leaders and the possibility of a split in the anti-BJP vote instilled fear that any internal division would finish whatever chances the party had.

In addition, the Congress benefited by the strong sentiment against the BJP’s approach of centralising the entire issue of left-wing extremism, which the people in the state see as the result of the refusal of successive governments, especially under the watch of Raman Singh, to tackle the roots of the unrest. While the BJP at the national level progressively increased the use of the issue of “Urban Naxals” as another stick to beat liberal-radical India with, the epicentre of this discord became boggy for the party.

The lessons for the Congress and other Opposition parties are obvious. But even if one assumes that the Index of Opposition Unity will rise significantly in the states, and the most where it is most required, it cannot be ignored that the Narendra Modi factor was utilised only in Rajasthan. It was the Prime Minister’s thrust towards the end of the campaign which had significantly reduced the Congress’ victory margin. That Mr Modi retains the ability to turn this election in his party’s favour even when issues were chiefly local provides a hint of what confronts the Congress and other Opposition parties in 2019. There is no denying that the race has opened up, but the BJP cannot in any way be written off. It still remains the party most likely to emerge at the top of the tally next year.

To deny the BJP this position, the Congress has to stop being in reactive mode and set the agenda. Instead of awaiting the BJP to implode like in Chhattisgarh, the Congress must provide an alternate vision for India. It must stop being the B-Team of the BJP and return to its inclusive past. It will be tempting for the Congress to continue pursuing “soft” Hindutva, but the real cause for cheer will be when it sheds diffidence of articulating issues concerning the well-being of those on the margins of society, including the religious minorities.

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Opinion

The anatomy of a police station

The Kashmir Monitor

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ByRashmi Sharma

The death of inspector Subodh Kumar Singh, shot while trying to control a mob of cow vigilantes in Bulandshahr district of Uttar Pradesh, is a vivid expression of the contempt of our ruling classes, and those aligned to them, for the rule of law. The increasing number of human sacrifices for the alleged protection of cows signals a steep rise in this contempt. These incidents shock us because they are graphic and indicate a discernible change for the worse. The shock turns into dread as the ruling elite fails to condemn and punish the perpetrators. Mob violence is growing, and the government’s efforts to contain it are wanting.

Underlying these shocking incidents is an equally terrifying lawlessness, which is quiet, insidious and pervasive. The stunningly casual statements from the establishment after the incident are a new development in a systematised attack on the rule of law. This is illustrated in my case study of an unobtrusive, sleepy looking police station in the tribal belt of central India.

The police station was structured to perpetrate lawlessness in two ways. First, it was simply not enabled to enforce the rule of law. Manned by 16 people in all, with six of its 22 posts vacant, and headed by a sub-inspector, it was expected to serve 83 villages across 2,680 sq km. The police personnel were expected to investigate crime, maintain law and order, and were frequently deployed on VIP duty. The personnel rotated through it rapidly, as there was at least one transfer per month. The senior officers complained that postings were based on patronage, and it was not possible to deploy the best people for the most difficult tasks. The thana was always short of money, and personnel spent from their pocket on stationery and other needs.

The police personnel were extremely dissatisfied. They were entitled to 16 days of leave in a year, but this was never actually sanctioned. They reported being overworked, on duty 24 hours a day, with high stress. Their families were neglected. A head constable said that he had never attended a parents’ meeting in his child’s school. A majority of the constables lived in the nearby city because of lack of housing, schools and health facilities in that area. They travelled to the police station everyday, which is not how things should be as they need to be available in case of a crisis. This cost them around ?5,000 per month. They saw themselves as underpaid and not respected.

To this demotivating background were added idiosyncratic working styles. Though a police station is expected to respond to the needs and events of the area, it was assigned targets, such as for seizing a certain amount of liquor and issuing a number of challans. Every year, the targets were increased. Sometimes they simply did not correspond to the situation. For example, it had problems achieving its targets for issuing challans in the case of people riding without helmets, because there were few motorcycles in the area and people simply did not have money to pay the fine.

Discussions with the police personnel showed poor understanding about enforcing the law. When violence against women was discussed, many said that women usually made false complaints. During the study, a mentally disturbed person was beaten up as he stood hallucinating, decrying imagined enemies. The shortage of personnel, the sorry working conditions and their ignorance created a system not capable of upholding the rule of law.

The second way in which the police station became an agent of lawlessness was corruption. Interaction with the community showed that the village people feared and avoided the police. They said that the police listened to those who had money. The usual dismal tales of police greed and brutality emerged. Constables extracted money from vehicles plying the highway, snatched away mobile phones of ordinary people and returned them only when they were paid money. When an FIR was lodged, the police evinced sympathy for the victims as well as the accused, and took money off both to solve the case. An attempted rape was ignored after money exchanged hands.

One police personnel admitted that it was difficult not to be corrupt, because everyone was. She had started her career determined to never accept bribes. But over time, her perspective changed, as she faced pressure from senior officials as well as local leaders to ‘help’ in various ways. The pressure from inside, she said, was worse. This problem was clearly systemic and not individual, as the police personnel themselves were not happy with their corruption. They tried to atone for their sins by ensuring proper last rites when bodies were not claimed by anyone after accidents, by spending their own money.

This dull-looking police station was not newsworthy, and its activities did not shock anyone. But it symbolises the pervasive lawlessness to which we are now habituated. It is out of this system of lawlessness that the more dramatic incidents like the death of Singh emerge. We remain apathetic to systemic callousness, which also needs scrutiny and action.

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