An ill wind has blown across the Indian political-economic horizon. The Congress, having suffered an existential and humiliating defeat in the 2014 national selection, has decided to hit back with a vengeance typical of the almost-vanquished. For two years, the Congress has been on an obstructionist path, and it will not be unfair to state that a considerable portion of the Western elite English media is extraordinarily sympathetic to the Congress.
There are historical reasons for this sympathy — the “liberal” media and the pseudo-liberal Congress have been allies since Independence — and the alliance has been cemented via a common left-of-centre economic ideology. This can be easily deduced from the economic icons of the Congress and their intellectual comrades — Jawaharlal Nehru and Amartya Sen.
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One of the reasons why the Congress lost so big in 2014 was that India has changed from being a poor economy to a non-poor, emerging-middle-class and middle-class society. That India was non-poor at the time of the 2014 election is easily established by noting that according to NSS data for 2011-12, and the Tendulkar absolute poverty line (near identical to the PPP $1.9 per person per day World Bank poverty line), the poor in India accounted for only 12 per cent of the population. Add to this the fact that the NSS estimate of average consumption in India, relative to average per capita consumption as revealed by the national accounts (old GDP data!), was less than 50 per cent. If for the poor, under-reporting is even half that for the non-poor, then absolute poverty in India in 2011-12 was less than 100 million, or less than 8 per cent of the population. A tragically high number, but a considerably less potent political force. The numbers, and the force, have been taken over by the emerging middle class (EMC) and the middle class.
India has changed from a poor to a middle-income non-poor society, which is the biggest transformation it has seen in its history, and something that is crucial to understand for intellectuals, policymakers and politicians. So while the Sonia Gandhi-led Congress was debating about poverty being equal to 800 million in 2013 (two-thirds of the population a la the food security act), the BJP, under Narendra Modi, was championing the cause of the middle classes (jobs, growth, development), and winning.
As part of this transformation, it is inevitable that there will be elements within the EMC whose social and political ideology is not conducive to development, freedom or true liberal values. Hence, the emphasis on illiberal views like “ghar wapsi”, “love jihad”, anti-Muslim propaganda and condemnation of illiberal students. But lest we pine for the old liberal order, just a few reminders: The old naam-ke-waste liberals did not support economic freedom in any form and pandered to religious unfreedom by not supporting a common civil code. What makes the old liberal attitudes particularly nauseating is that they supported the suppression of freedom for women, particularly Muslim women. Further, the old liberal Congress order was never for economic freedom and, in this, they were ably supported by the left, large elements of the UPA, and large elements of the regressive EMC housed in the BJP. Let us call the latter, without any exaggeration, the BJP’s very own home-grown Tea Party.
Thus, while the Congress has been obstructionist, the BJP Tea Party has been more than happy to accommodate the obstruction. Just note the unrelenting sequence of events in this battle between the new wannabe elite and the old established elite. This especially peaks around election time and then dies soon after. However, given that we have a series of state elections, the peaks and valleys are frequent. But since the same nonsense will not have the same appeal, the peaks are punctuated by different issues — “ghar wapsi”, student suicide and now student demonstrations. Each issue is trumpeted by the media as scaling new heights of intolerance.
Part of the Congress’s policy has been (and on this one must credit them with devilish intelligence): Provoke the BJP and lumpen Tea Party elements will be honour-bound to react with negative absurdity. And the chain reaction will lead to the BJP being broadly perceived as intolerant, anti-secular, anti-Muslim and anti-everything-but-upper-caste-Hindu!
A perusal of the newspapers, TV discussions, learned accounts from domestic and foreign “intellectuals” strongly indicates that this Sonia Gandhi-led Congress and liberal-left strategy has succeeded beyond all expectations. Except, now, it seems that the BJP has finally become wiser or, more accurately, less stupid.
Over the last six weeks or so, the top leadership of the BJP has enforced much-needed restraint on lumpen Tea Party elements. When, via utter and extreme stupidity, the BJP top brass came in with a sledgehammer to dislodge Kanhaiya, the old-style Tea Party demanded through its agent, Kuldeep Varshney, a member of the BJP’s youth wing: “I will award Rs 5 lakh to the person who [will] cut off Kanhaiya’s tongue.” Hours after he said this, he was expelled for six years.
In earlier times, this hatred would have been ignored by the BJP leadership, if not rewarded.
Further, two recent incidents reinforce the belief that the BJP may have finally learnt its lessons. First, in beefy Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis’s own assembly, a BJP MLA, Bhimrao Dhonde, questioned the anti-poor credentials of the BJP’s beef ban by protesting, “Why should you snatch away the poor’s meal?” Possibly shocked by these liberal developments, the Congress severely upped the scale of its provocation. A senior member of the party, the leader of the Congress in the Rajya Sabha, Ghulam Nabi Azad, taunted the BJP by likening its political associate (and some say its godfather), the RSS, to the dreaded Islamic State. “So, we oppose organisations like ISIS, the way we oppose RSS. If those among us, in Islam, too do wrong things, they are no way less than RSS,” Azad thundered.
Just weigh the import of this statement by weighing in with the counterfactual — what would the Congress have done, either today or when they were in control, in 2004-14, if their leader, Indira Gandhi, had been likened to the IS? Clearly, there would have been a furore, as there should be; but why is there no fury in the English media about this most irresponsible and “fascist” statement uttered by a Congress leader?
And now possibly the last straw, and the one that will proverbially break the back of the Congress’s obstruction movement. In a pointed reference to the Congress’s disruptive tactics, Modi said the following: “We should not engage in irrelevant issues. We should work on our agenda. Our rivals will try that we remain engaged in irrelevant issues and the government’s work is not discussed among the people. We should move ahead with one mantra: Vikas, vikas, vikas. This is the answer to our country’s all problems and we are working in this direction.”
If the BJP stresses both social harmony and vikas, what can the political opposition do to regain relevance?