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Conflicting Agenda?

Political antagonism and hostility is common in democracies when ideological battles are being fought over identity and culture

Photo Credit : Getty Images


Amidst the frenzy, mayhem and malevolence witnessed in the last two weeks over L’ affaire JNU, sober and discerning analysts have quietly noticed one thing: even the pink papers seem to have stopped speculating over the fate of the GST Bill. For most of 2015, each time a Parliament session approached, the media was full of “stories” on how the NDA regime led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi would somehow ensure that the GST Bill is passed. Throughout 2015, the Congress and other Opposition parties did two things: disrupted the Lok Sabha using a sundry list of “causes” and used their numbers in the Rajya Sabha to delay all major legislation, including the GST Bill. This time around, even diehard BJP supporters are not betting on any positive movement. It seems Indian commentariat has already accepted that this Budget session of Parliament will mirror the previous ones: loud, noisy, bitter and repeatedly disrupted. The discerning have also started wondering; what is the number one priority of the Modi regime: economic revival or culture wars? The fracas over JNU lends more urgency to this question.

What everyone also knows is that the year 2016 is crucial for Modi. If Indian citizens do not see visible signs of “Achhe Din” by February 2017 when Arun Jaitley (or maybe someone else!) presents the Budget, then they might well be tempted to conclude that Modi has started forfeiting the massive mandate he won in May 2014. On the face of it, the Indian economy is growing at a very healthy 7.6 per cent a year or thereabouts. But deep fault lines exist. Agriculture continues to be crisis ridden. Exports have been declining continuously for more than one year. Each week, we get to know more horror stories about the extent of stressed assets and non-performing assets ravaging public sector banks and their future ability to extend credit. There is no credible indicator that millions of new jobs are being created. Even good news is laced with irony. For example, coal, power and renewable energy minister Piyush Goyal seems to have done a fantastic managerial job: coal output is up, as is power generation as well as capacity. But thanks to the mess in state electricity boards, there are hardly any buyers for power.

If the Opposition does not allow Parliament to do its legislative work even this time around, all sorts of wrong signals would be sent to investors and entrepreneurs. Modi supporters now bitterly talk about how the Congress and the “Lutyens” ecosystem that it has nurtured over decades is so implacably hostile to Modi that they would rather sabotage the Indian economy than see Modi succeed. They angrily point out how the “narrative” is hijacked by negativity every time Modi and his ministers attempt something meaningful.

This is no place for political debates. But advisors of Modi and the Prime Minister would do well to ponder: are culture wars more important than economic revival? Soon after Modi took over as Prime Minister, two noteworthy policy initiatives were launched. First was the “pro-poor” Jan Dhan Yojana that allowed zero balance bank accounts along with insurance to poor citizens. The second, more ambitious initiative, Make in India, was launched in September 2014. But at the same time, acolytes and foot soldiers of the Sangh Parivaar had launched their own “Love Jihad” and “Ghar Wapsi” campaigns. The most “sensational” story came from Meerut in Uttar Pradesh where a young Muslim man was accused of forcibly converting a young Hindu girl. Today, they are happily married after the courts intervened. The frenzy over such culture wars surely diluted the Make in India theme.

From June till September 2015, the Modi regime unleashed a series of ambitious policy initiatives. There was the launch of Digital India, Skill India, Smart Cities and the release of Ease of Doing Business rankings for Indian states. But then, all these initiatives were buried in an avalanche of “cow protection”. Maharashtra and Haryana, both BJP-ruled, passed stringent “anti-beef” laws. The hysteria generated over this led to unspeakable tragedy: a Muslim man was lynched to death in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh over beef eating allegations. On 16 January 2016, Modi launched yet another pet theme: StartUp India, Stand Up India. Without a shadow of doubt, the success of this initiative would do wonders for the Indian economy. But culture wars once again overshadowed economics. A Dalit student of Hyderabad University, Rohit Vemulla, committed suicide a day after the launch of StartUp India. And now, patriotism and nationalism culture wars have so dominated the discourse that hardly anyone is talking about the critical importance of this Budget.

Political antagonism and hostility is common in democracies when ideological battles are being fought over identity and culture. But then, objective analysts who have not taken partisan positions in this brutal and mutually abusive war are bound to wonder where the real priorities of Modi lie.

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