Rahul’s Return To Cong Helm Will Harm Party Prospects

Last week when Rahul Gandhi took centre stage at a huge rally in Delhi, organised by the Congress to highlight the Narendra Modi government’s mismanagement of the country’s economy, it was seen as a clear message that he would soon be back as party chief.

In fact, grounds were being prepared for the Nehru-Gandhi scion’s return in the days ahead of this meeting. Several leaders went on record to say that Rahul Gandhi must helm the party again as he is the only leader who can mount a serious challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Making a vociferous pitch for his return, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel declared, “If there is any leader in the Congress, it is Rahul Gandhi. No one else but Rahul Gandhi…. He is honest and takes responsibility. He took responsibility for the party’s defeat in the Lok Sabha elections and resigned.”

Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and Congress general secretary KC Venugopal also spoke in the same vein shortly thereafter. Pointing out that there was a growing demand from party workers that Rahul Gandhi should once again take charge of the party, the two leaders maintained that the Congress needs his leadership now, especially when the country is going through such a critical phase.

Rahul Gandhi had stepped down as Congress president after the party’s disastrous performance in the May 2019 Lok Sabha election. After three months of uncertainty and internal debate, Sonia Gandhi was eventually persuaded to helm the party once again. It was, however, clarified then that she would be an interim president. Sonia Gandhi’s poor health, it was said, does not allow her to continue as party chief for too long.

Since it is an acknowledged fact that Sonia Gandhi’s tenure is only a holding operation, an orchestrated campaign is being mounted within the Congress to press for Rahul Gandhi’s return. This drive is said to have Sonia Gandhi’s blessings as she is keen that her son should take charge of the party before he is rendered politically irrelevant, which is bound to happen if Rahul Gandhi is not seen or heard for a prolonged period.

In such a situation, even sycophant Congress workers will move on and find themselves another Godfather. Sonia Gandhi obviously wants to forestall any such possibility. She must have been alerted to this after the results of the Haryana and Maharashtra assembly polls pointed to the dispensability of the Gandhis. Sonia Gandhi did not campaign in these elections while Rahul Gandhi addressed barely a couple of meetings. And yet, the poll outcome in Haryana proved to be well beyond everyone’s expectations, proving that the Congress has the potential to bounce back in the states if the party has a band of strong, credible and effective regional satraps. The story in Maharashtra may have been different if the Congress had effective leaders in the state.  

However, Sonia Gandhi’s “son-preference” could well prove costly for the Congress. Thanks to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s persistent campaign against the Gandhi “dynasty” has now become a dirty word. Similarly, the saffron party’s ongoing efforts to lampoon Rahul Gandhi have also succeeded as the fifth-generation dynast of the Nehru-Gandhi family is constantly ridiculed by the people who are not just not willing to accept him as a future leader. Rahul Gandhi’s return will, once again, activate the BJP’s campaign against him and dynastic politics. This also helps the BJP deflect attention from the Modi government’s weak points like the state of the economy.

Having found a soft target in Rahul Gandhi, the BJP finds it difficult to mount an offensive against the Congress if he is not leading the party. This was proved during the past few months when Rahul Gandhi stayed under the radar and was almost invisible. The BJP was a trifle lost as it struggled to mount an effective offensive against the Congress with Rahul Gandhi no longer heading it.

Rahul Gandhi’s return will also resurrect the controversy over dynastic politics. The public, at large, has developed an aversion to the Congress precisely for this reason. Though other political parties, including the BJP, have their fair share of dynasts, the Congress is singled out for attack because the grand old party has, over the years, been reduced to a “family firm”, like the country’s regional parties where the leadership positions are reserved only for family members. A younger India, which has shed the old “Raja-Praja” concept, wants leaders with whom they can connect. And more importantly, the people are now judging leaders on the basis of their performance – they are no longer enamored by powerful political dynasties. They want to see results and want leaders who can deliver and meet their aspirations.

While the people are ready to give the Congress a chance provided it sheds its dependence on the Gandhis, the party is unable and unwilling to do so. On the other hand, Congress workers justify their need to continue with the Nehru-Gandhi family at the helm on the ground that it wins them elections and keeps the party united.

However, Rahul Gandhi, and, to some extent even Sonia Gandhi, has failed on both counts. Rahul Gandhi has been unable to deliver an electoral victory for the Congress. Sonia Gandhi has the distinction of winning two consecutive Lok Sabha elections but it is also a fact that it was under her leadership that the Congress slumped from 206 to 44 seats.

It is also a fallacy that the Gandhi family ensures a degree of unity in the Congress. After all, the party has witnessed a steady erosion in its ranks and this includes Mamata Banerjee, Jagan Reddy and Sharad Pawar who have established themselves as leaders in their own right outside the Congress.

If the Congress still persists with its “Rahul Laao, Desh Bachaao” campaign, it will be doing so at its own peril. Forget the country, the Congress leaders will have to strive hard to first save the party.

Modi Govt Has Lowered The Stature Of Upper House

Addressing the start of the 250th session of the Rajya Sabha last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi described the Upper House as the “soul of India’s federal structure” and that it is about checks and balance but went on to add that there is a “difference between checking and clogging, balance and blocking.”

Modi’s statement, underlining the importance of the Rajya Sabha, had a touch of irony to it. That’s because ever since the Modi government came to power in 2014, it has made systematic attempts to undermine the Upper House where it was in a minority. His ministers and Bharatiya Janata Party leaders often referred to the Rajya Sabha as a stumbling block, stating angrily out that the Opposition should not stall the government’s legislative agenda as their party had got the people’s mandate to rule.

Modi’s remarks also revived an old debate about the relevance and importance of the Upper House and India’s decision to settle for a bicameral system of legislature. This was a subject of animated debate in the Constituent assembly which drew up the country’s Constitution.

As was to be expected, opinion on this was divided with those arguing against the need for a second chamber, saying it would  “act as a clog in the wheel of governance” and that it would be undemocratic since it would have the powers to veto the decisions of an elected House. On the other hand, those who were in its favour stressed that decisions taken hurriedly and due to political pressures can be deliberated upon in detail without any such compulsions in the second chamber. Not only can such an exercise improve the quality of legislation but also act as a check on any rushed move by a government.

The debate in the Constituent Assembly was based on a report of the Union Constitution Committee submitted by Jawaharlal Nehru. This document provided details about the composition, role and functioning of the second chamber. The debate eventually ended with the Constituent Assembly deciding in favour of a second chamber on the ground that it would reflect the country’s pluralistic character and provide a forum for the states to put across their views as the second chamber was proposed to be a council of states.

Over the past years, the Modi government has not just attempted to thwart the functioning of the Rajya Sabha but this attitude has also been extended to the Lok Sabha where it has the advantage of a stronger bench strength. It, therefore, tends to rush through it is business by stonewalling the opposition’s demands to refer important Bills to Parliamentary standing committees for detailed scrutiny.

The opposition-dominated Rajya Sabha has been an irritant for the Modi government since 2014 and it is only recently that the BJP and its allies have inched closer to the majority mark. While the BJP improved its tally after it won a bulk of state elections, it also engineered defections from other parties to ensure that numbers in the Upper House did not come in its way in pushing ahead with the government’s legislative agenda. For instance, it was only after it was certain that the opposition no longer enjoyed an edge in the Rajya Sabha that the Modi government brought the triple talaq bill and the bills stripping Jammu and Kashmir of its special status and bifurcating the state into two Union Territories.

In fact, Modi’s first brush with the Rajya Sabha came after he first rode to power five years ago. Euphoric over the BJP’s impressive win, Modi soon realized that despite the ruling alliance’s big majority in the Lok Sabha, his plans to enact legislation was not possible as it was in a minority in the Upper House. His government hit a wall in the Rajya Sabha which did not allow the passage of its initial two reform legislation, the Land Acquisition Bill and the Goods and Services Tax Bill. The opposition had then forced the government to refer them to a Parliamentary panel. While the GST Bill was eventually passed after several rounds of meetings with opposition parties, the land Bill was eventually abandoned.

This had led furious BJP ministers to rail against the functioning of the Rajya Sabha  with Arun Jaitley, then finance  minister, to declare that the Indian democracy faced a serious challenge as an “indirectly elected” Upper House was questioning the wisdom of the “directly elected” Lower House.

Instead of reaching out to the Opposition and opening channels of communication with members on the other side of the political divide, the Modi government started circumventing the Rajya Sabha by converting bills into money bills. The Upper House does not have the authority to vote out a money bill.

It was left to former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to refer to these moves by the  government when he spoke after Modi’s address on the first day of the Rajya Sabha’s 250th session. “In the recent past, we have seen instances of misuse of the Money Bill provision by the Executive leading to bypassing the Rajya Sabha on crucial legislation of national importance without any deliberation. Those in treasury benches must ensure that such instances are avoided,” Singh remarked.

Singh also made a valid point when he drew attention to the hurried manner in which the Modi government pushed through the Bills on Jammu and Kashmir by giving MPs no time to study the legislation, which was tantamount to belittling the Upper House.

“This House should be given greater respect by the Executive than is the case now,” Singh stressed, adding that far-reaching proposals like abolishing certain states and converting them into Union Territories must be discussed at greater length in the Rajya Sabha as it is a Council of States. In fact, he went a step further saying the Upper House must be given greater powers to deal with issues like these.

This debate on the role and functioning of the Rajya Sabha will continue as long as a ruling party does not enjoy a majority in both Houses. It is only then that political leaders find merit in opting for a bicameral system of legislature.

Grumblings In The NDA Camp

The below-par performance by the Bharatiya Janata Party in the recent Maharashtra and Haryana assembly elections has come as big a relief for its allies in the National Democratic Alliance government.

Having been at the receiving end from its dominant partner, the regional parties have now got an opportunity to assert themselves and underline the fact that the BJP continues to be dependent on them. The latest poll results have sent out a message to the BJP that it cannot take its electoral victories for granted and that it should treat its allies with respect.

Buoyed by its spectacular win in the Lok Sabha election less than six months ago, the BJP leadership had become increasingly disdainful of its regional allies. It was convinced it could dictate terms to its partners and that the latter would have no choice but to fall in line as the allies owed their positions in power to the saffron party. It had also begun to believe that the BJP could strike out on its own, having emerged as the main political force in the country.

Consequently, the assembly results came as a setback for the BJP. Though the party emerged as the single largest party in both Maharashtra and Haryana, it was in no position to form a government on its own in the two states. It was forced to enter into an alliance with Dushyant Chautala’s Jannayak Janata Party, a Jat-dominated regional force. Having shunned the Jat community and worked on the consolidation of the non-Jat vote, the BJP will now be forced to recalibrate its political strategy in the state which has the potential of eroding its support base. That the BJP has to deal with assertive allies is evident from the fact that it has been struggling to name its Cabinet ministers more than a fortnight after Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar was sworn in.

As for Maharashtra, the BJP was unable to form a government following sharp differences with the Shiv Sena, its pre-poll ally. The Uddhav Thackeray-led Sena insisted on a more equitable power-sharing formula which was not agreeable to the BJP. As a result, its 30-year-old partner walked out of the ruling alliance and is currently in talks with the BJP’s political rivals- the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress – for the formation of a government. Maharashtra has now been placed under Central rule while the BJP’s competitors are making concerted efforts to cobble together the requisite numbers to come to power.    

The BJP’s loss of face has predictably emboldened the other regional parties in the NDA. Even as it was coming to terms with the post-poll developments in Maharashtra and Haryana, the BJP got a fresh jolt when the All Jharkhand Students Union, its decades-old ally in Jharkhand upped the ante during their seat-sharing negotiations for the forthcoming assembly polls. Unhappy with the BJP’s offer, the AJSU went ahead and announced its list of candidates which included seats on which the BJP has already named its own candidates. At the same time, the BJP got another shock when its chief whip in Jharkhand, Radhakrishna Kishore, joined the AJSU on being denied a ticket.

The BJP’s troubles did not end there. Another NDA ally, the Lok Janshakti Party, also decided to enter the Jharkhand poll fray on its own. The party, now helmed by Ram Vilas Paswan’s son Chirag Paswan has announced that it will field candidates on 50 seats. The Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (U) is also contesting the Jharkhand polls alone. The BJP has refused to part with any seats for these two parties as it believes they have no presence in Jharkhand. The BJP is in partnership with the Janata Dal (U) and the LJP in Bihar and at the Centre. Though these two parties do not have a base in Jharkhand, the fact that they are going solo is essentially meant to warn the BJP that it should be more accommodative of its allies. 

Realising that the BJP is on the backfoot, its partners have also revived their demand for better coordination in the NDA. Naresh Gujral, Shiromani Akali Dal’s Rajya Sabha MP, and Janata Dal (U) general secretary KC Tyagi have reminded the BJP that it should treat its partners with greater respect and set up a coordination committee that would serve as a forum to the NDA partners to share their views.

It is a fact that the BJP’s allies have been feeling humiliated and marginalised by its senior partner for some time. The developments following the Maharashtra elections are basically a manifestation of their simmering anger. The Shiv Sena has been sniping at the BJP for the past five years as it was aggrieved that it had been reduced to a junior partner in Maharashtra and that the BJP was working on making the Sena redundant. Of all the regional parties, the Shiv Sena has a strong ideological affinity with the BJP as both parties believe in the concept of Hindutva. The fact that an ideologically-aligned party like the Sena has walked out of the NDA speaks volumes about the treatment meted out by the BJP to its partners.

Similarly, the Janata Dal (U) chief and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has also been feeling the heat from the BJP’s state unit. Several BJP leaders have publicly declared that Nitish Kumar should move to the national stage and hand over the chief minister’s post to their party. Relations between the two parties have come under strain in recent months as the BJP is convinced it has gained sufficient ground to come to power on its own in Bihar or, at least, dictate terms to the Janata Dal (U). Given the trust deficit between the two parties, negotiating a seat-sharing agreement for next year’s Bihar assembly polls could lead to further bitterness between them.

Another ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal has also been upset over that the BJP’s indifferent attitude towards an old ally. While the Akalis are unhappy at being ignored at the Centre, they are also wary of the attempts being made by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s ideological mentor, to expand its footprint in Punjab.

Though the situation has not reached crisis point yet, the warning signs are there for all to see. The recent assembly polls have shown that the BJP cannot afford to jettison its regional partners. The saffron party would do well to take heed of this and rework its relationship with its allies.

Capital Smog: Why Aren’t Delhi Citizens Rising Up?

“Before you talk about ease of doing business, please do something about ease of living”, this comment on twitter aptly sums up the plight of Delhi residents who have been exposed to a serious public health crisis in the Capital with the air quality touching dangerously high levels of toxicity in recent days.

The Indian Capital and its surrounding areas are enveloped in a blanket of thick smog every year. But the situation has been getting progressively worse. This year, pollution levels hit a three-year-high, converting the Capital into a veritable gas chamber.

The smog in Delhi starts thickening around Diwali time when the lingering smoke from the firecrackers burst during the festivities, local emissions, and stubble burning in the neighbouring states of Punjab and Haryana contributes to the worsening air quality. It is estimated that as many as 25,000 fires are lit by farmers in a short span of a fortnight in Delhi’s two neighbouring states who are in a rush to destroy the straw on their fields so that they can prepare for the next sowing season. This results in the emission of carbon monoxide and other such deadly and poisonous gases.

This season, the air quality indices hit a three-year high. Exposure to this polluted air left Delhi residents wheezing, choking and sneezing. After a days of battling highly toxic air, there was some respite on November 4 but the damage wrought over the past ten days could not be undone. Doctors estimated that there has been a 25 percent increase in the number of patients suffering from respiratory problems during this period. This forced the government to declare a public health emergency and shut schools so that young children were not exposed to the spiking pollution levels.

On November 4, the Arvind Kejriwal-led Delhi government introduced its odd-even scheme for vehicles, hoping that its decision will help improve the Capital’s air quality as vehicular emissions are also a major contributor to the rising pollution levels. However, there is all-round skepticism that this move will have any major impact as two-wheelers, a major source of vehicular pollution, have been exempted from this scheme. Kejriwal’s announcement is, at best, being viewed as a gimmick in the run-up to next February’s Delhi assembly elections.

The Indian media, which is normally fixated on Kashmir and Pakistan, has been forced to take note of this serious health crisis. There has been extensive coverage about the pollution menace but surprisingly, the people have not reacted as strongly as they would be expected to in view of the enormity of the problem. It is true more people are buying investing in air purifiers while many more are seen wearing protective masks but the city, by and large, appears to have accepted the high pollution high levels as an annual feature and a passing phase.

It is primarily because of this lack of urgency or anger displayed by the people that the political class has not dealt with this problem with the seriousness it deserves. The truth is that political parties will not be pushed into taking note of a public health issue like air pollution unless it can win or lose them an election.

Consequently, politicians have been making bizarre statements which only reflects their insensitivity to this pressing issue. While health minister Harshvardhan has suggested that people eat more carrots to fortify themselves against the debilitating effects of poor air quality, an Uttar Pradesh minister has advised Delhi residents to organize yagnas to clear the air.

Politicians have also been busy indulging in a blame game. Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal first charged that the Punjab and Haryana governments had not taken sufficient measures to put an end to stubble burning in their states but subsequently shifted the blame to the Modi government, saying it should step in at the earliest to deal with this the problem as it involves several states.

A defensive Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh started off by accusing Kejriwal of spreading lies about Punjab being responsible for the spike in pollution levels in Delhi but, later in a letter to the Centre, admitted that stubble burning in Punjab had led to the smoggy conditions in the Capital. However, he asked the Modi government to come up with a permanent solution to this problem in consultation with the concerned state governments, stating that the Centre had not accepted his government’s proposal to provision for a bonus to farmers for stubble management.

“Is it not your government’s task, Mr. Prime Minister, to search for that permanent solution, in consultation with all the other stakeholders, including Punjab, Delhi and Haryana?” Singh asked.

While Amarinder Singh may have shifted the blame to the Modi government, it is now an accepted fact that the changing sowing and harvesting patterns in Punjab are the root cause of growing pollution levels in Delhi. Farmers have gone in for large-scale cultivation of paddy which consumes huge amounts of water, resulting in the depletion of the state’s underground water levels.

In an attempt to arrest this the alarming decline in its water table, the Punjab government passed a law in 2009 banning the sowing and transplanting of paddy from May-June to later so that the irrigation needs of the farmers are met by the monsoon rains. This means that farmers now burn the paddy stubble in late October and early November when wind speeds in Delhi are slow and the noxious gases get trapped in the atmosphere.

This is not a new revelation and has been known to the Centre and the state governments but neither has initiated any steps to deal with this issue seriously as no political party wants to be on the wrong sides of the farming community. It was after a lot of prodding that the Cabinet secretary Rajeev Gauba conferred with officials from the Punjab and Haryana governments last week but these deliberations ended by merely asking the states to monitor the situation. Meanwhile, it was left to the Supreme Court to intervene in the matter. Describing the Delhi condition worse than an “emergency”, the apex court asked the concerned state governments to put an immediate end to stubble burning and warned that those who violate this direction will be hauled up.

Can Resurgent BJP Reunite Cong With Splinter Groups?

The results of the Maharashtra and Haryana assembly elections have revived the demand in the Congress for the merger of its various offshoots with the grand old party.

The proposal for the coming together of the Congress parivaar was made some years ago by former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijaya Singh when the various constituents of the erstwhile Janata Dal – the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Janata Dal (U) – decided to bury their differences and fight the Bharatiya Janata Party unitedly.

Though the members of the Janata Parivaar parted company after a brief honeymoon, a large number of Congress leaders believe that parties like the Nationalist Congress Party, the Trinamool Congress, and the YSR Congress, which emerged from the parent party, should come together if they are serious about battling their common political rival – the BJP.

This suggestion has been revived in the party after the latest round of assembly polls, especially in Maharashtra. There is a growing view that the Congress and the Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party need each other. The NCP won 54 seats in this election while the Congress tally stood at 44. Though the two parties had a pre-poll alliance, it is agreed that the result could have been far better if the Congress and the NCP contested as a single entity.

This issue of the merger was first mooted in the wake of the BJP’s phenomenal growth across the country which has threatened the survival of the various regional parties along with the Congress. Singh and many other others in the Congress have been of the consistent view that political parties that are on the same page ideologically should come together to fight communal forces. 

“Unlike the Congress and the BJP, there are no ideological differences between our party and those born out of the Congress. These parties emerged essentially because of personal differences. So it should not be difficult for us to work together,” remarked a senior Congress leader.

NCP chief Sharad Pawar had walked out of the Congress along with colleagues PA.Sangma and Tariq Anwar as they had strong reservations about Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origins. Mamata Banerjee parted company with the Congress because she was convinced that the party was not serious about fighting the Left parties in West Bengal. In Jaganmohan Reddy severed his ties with the Congress when he was denied the chief minister’s post in Andhra Pradesh after his father Y.S Rajasekhara Reddy was killed in an air crash.

The desperation in the Congress is understandable. The party is a pale shadow of its old self today, having been mauled in two consecutive Lok Sabha elections. In addition, it has lost a string of assembly elections over the past five years, reducing the party’s presence to a few states.

Furthermore, its continuing downward slide has plunged the Congress into a serious leadership crisis, especially after Rahul Gandhi refused to continue as party chief and Sonia Gandhi had to be persuaded to take over from him. However, her return has not put an end to the uncertainty in the party as her second stint is being viewed as a holding operation.

In addition, the Congress is sorely lacking effective and credible regional satraps as proved by the latest round of assembly polls. The Congress fared poorly in Maharashtra because it was not led by a strong state leader while it doubled its tally in Haryana  (from 15 to 31) after former chief minister and a leading Jat leader Bhupinder Singh Hooda  was given charge of the poll campaign, tantamount to an informal  projection as the party’s chief ministerial candidate.

In Maharashtra, the opposition charge was led by an aging and ailing Pawar who proved that he still has a lot of fight in him and has the capacity to challenge the BJP.  Over the years, the Congress has made several overtures to Pawar suggesting that the two parties go in for a formal merger since Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origins in no longer a point of difference between them as she is not a Prime Ministerial candidate. In fact, since then, the two parties have come together and run a coalition government in Maharashtra for three terms. Pawar was also a minister in the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government. Pawar has, on several occasions, agreed to a merger only to back out later.

Not just Pawar but Mamata Banerjee and Jaganmohan Reddy have not been receptive to the Congress proposal in the past. Having established their identity as leaders in their own right and carved out their own political space in their respective states, these leaders are obviously wary of going back to the parent party as they would get lost in the Congress ocean. Moreover, they also had serious reservations about working under Rahul Gandhi’s leadership.

But it is also true that the political landscape has undergone a vast change over the past years. It is not the Congress alone whose existence is being threatened by a rampaging BJP but Pawar’s NCP and Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress are equally vulnerable. Jaganmohan Reddy, on the other hand, has no such fears as the BJP is not a strong presence in Andhra Pradesh and the battle here is between the Telugu Desam Party and the Reddy-led YSR Congress. Reddy is currently well ensconced after he won a credible victory in the last assembly election enabling him to form a government.

On the other hand, the BJP has emerged as the main political force in Maharashtra and also made deep inroads in West Bengal where it is occupying the main opposition space today. This has obviously rattled Banerjee who faces a tough assembly election next year. She could do with a helping hand to keep the BJP at bay. The Congress is hoping that the two leaders will be more amenable to its proposal since Rahul Gandhi is no longer a factor and the BJP remains a looming threat.

Punjab, Tamil Nadu On RSS Radar Now

At a recent meeting called by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the organization identified Punjab and Tamil Nadu as its current weak spots. It was felt that the RSS should focus on these two states as far more work needs to be done here at the grassroots in comparison to the other states.

Undoubtedly, the RSS has been steadily expanding its activities in Punjab and Tamil Nadu, especially after the BJP emerged as the main political force in the country by winning two consecutive Lok Sabha elections and sweeping most assembly polls.

But the two geographically distant states have, so far, refused to be seduced by the RSS and BJP’s ideology. The wash-out faced by the saffron party in the last general election in Punjab and Tamil Nadu was evidence that the groundwork done by the RSS foot soldiers and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s charm offensive did not yield results.

However, this has not deterred the RSS and the BJP. Determined to make inroads in both Punjab and Tamil Nadu, the two affiliates are intensifying their efforts in these states. It’s a challenging task given the past record of the RSS here and the special character and political culture of the two states.

Both states do not trust of the RSS and the BJP for the same reasons. In Punjab, the RSS has always been suspect as the Sikhs fear the organization’s main objective is to destroy their distinct identity. Influenced by the ideologically-strong Dravidian movement, the Tamil people are equally wary of the saffron camp’s predatory moves which, they believe, are aimed at annihilating their language and culture.

Though the RSS has been working in Punjab for several decades now, its activities have increased exponentially since the BJP came to power in 2014. The number of RSS shakhas has gone up manifold while a large army of Sangh pracharaks has been deputed to the state to propagate its ideology.

The RSS, which operates through its Sikh arm, the Rashtriya Sikh Sangat, was once banished from the state. But it has been resurrected and reactivated once again. This has led to tension on the ground leading to the killing of several senior RSS functionaries during the last few years. Extremely proud of their distinct culture, religion, and identity, the Sikhs are constantly on guard vis-a-vis the RSS which has been wooing the Sikhs with the argument that Sikhism is a sect of Hinduism. The Sikhs see this as a clear attempt to erase their faith.

As a panthic party, the Shiromani Akali Dal, a BJP ally, has never been happy with the activities of the RSS. But this has become a further source of tension after the saffron camp demonstrated its determination to put down roots in Punjab. This has brought the focus back on their ideological differences which are kept under wraps as the two parties need each other to attain power as their social bases complement each other.

Though it has had a longstanding pact with the BJP, the SAD is suddenly not sure about the future of their alliance as the two failed to seal a deal for the forthcoming Haryana assembly polls. The SAD has, therefore, tied up with the Indian National Lok Dal instead.

The Akalis are particularly perturbed as the saffron camp is concentrating on the rural belt, which is the SAD’s traditional stronghold. Fuelled by its ambition to have a strong presence in all states, the BJP is willing to overlook its unwritten pact with the SAD that the two parties focus on areas where each is strong: the BJP on the urban areas for the Hindu vote and the Akalis on the rural belt for the Sikh peasantry. The BJP has no more than an eight percent vote share in Punjab but it is hoping to expand its footprint here by weaning away the growing young population which is more concerned with development and employment.

As in the case of Punjab, the RSS has also spread its wings far and wide in Tamil Nadu. The Sangh’s Hindutva agenda has found traction with the upper castes in the state as they genuinely believe in its philosophy. However, the RSS-BJP combine faces the tough task of wooing the backward classes and the Dalits who have been sufficiently empowered by the Dravidian parties.

On its part, the RSS is making a pitch for the unity of all Hindus and, at the same time, is trying to create a wedge between the backward classes and Dalits. It is focusing on the Dalits as they get overlooked for positions of power by the more powerful backward classes. In this connection, the Sangh has been organising Hindu festivals on a grand scale in Dalit colonies. While the RSS is feeling encouraged by the enthusiastic response to these programmes, DMK’s Lok Sabha MP A.Raja was unperturbed. He pointed to the recent general election in which the BJP and its ally, the AIADMK, were routed, saying,” The Dalits are willing to go along with the RSS and the BJP for religious festivities and temple visits but politically they are still wedded to Dravidian politics.”

Dravidian ideology, he added, is deeply rooted in Tamil pride and identity and the RSS is viewed as an organization which wants to impose a Brahamincal order and the Hindi language in the state. It was to assuage their fears that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on his recent visit to the US spoke of India’s linguistic diversity thrice and even quoted an ancient Tamil poet at the United Nations General Assembly. On a trip to Chennai on his return, he made it a point to mention that he took it upon himself to teach everyone that Tamil is one of India’s ancient languages.

Political leaders from Tamil Nadu admit that though their people had rebuffed the RSS and the BJP, they cannot afford to be complacent as their state is now firmly on the saffron camp’s radar.

Plan For A Rajpath Revamp Is Fraught With Risks

Modi Govt’s idea to restructure the stretch from India Gate to Rashtrapati Bhavan is an attempt to bulldoze over things that do not conform with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Partys world view

Earlier this month, the Modi government announced an ambitious plan to redevelop, reinvent and rebuild the area around the four-kilometre stretch from the India Gate to the Rashtrapati Bhavan in the Indian Capital. Also known as the Central vista, the wide lawns in the heart of Delhi, are flanked by a host of buildings which house various Central government offices.

Besides the imposing Rashtrapati Bhavan, which rests on the Raisina Hill, the North and South Block as well as the circular Parliament House are among the well-known buildings providing a befitting backdrop to the sprawling India Gate lawns which were constructed between 1911 and 1931 when the British shifted the Capital from Calcutta to Delhi. The other buildings like Shastri Bhavan, Udyog Bhavan and Nirman Bhavan were constructed in the sixties to provide accommodation for government officers attached to various ministries.  

Dating back to the colonial era, the entire area represents a slice of history as it provides a glimpse of Delhi’s growth and evolution from a colony to an independent nation. Often compared to The Mall in Washington D.C, India Gate lawns are a favourite haunt of Delhi citizens for a leisurely stroll or an evening out with the family for ice-creams.

However, there is fear and concern in Delhi that its residents may be denied access to the Capital’s largest public space  while the skyline along the majestic Rajpath would be drastically altered  as the Modi government gets set to “build a new Capital”  by the year 2022 when India celebrates its 75th Independence Day. These fears have been fuelled, following the government’s recent announcement inviting proposals to redevelop the Central Vista, to construct a new common secretariat for all ministries and to build a new Parliament building. Alternatively, the present Parliament House could be revamped and modernised. A final call on this is yet to be taken but bids for the new mammoth project have already been floated.

Describing the proposed plan for a new Capital as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dream project, Union housing and urban affairs minister Hardeep Puri justified the mega scheme, stating that several buildings in the Central Vista reflect the “colonial ethos that the country was subjected to” and that many buildings which were constructed in the sixties and seventies should have been torn down years ago.

Puri explained that the move had been necessitated as the present office buildings did not have sufficient space to accommodate the vast army of government officers. He proffered the same argument for the construction of a new Parliament building though he denied that the present one will be demolished. However, it could be converted into a museum along with the North and South Block buildings which currently house the prestigious Prime Minister’s Office and the ministries of defence, external affairs, home affairs, and finance.   

The government’s decision has led to serious concern among architects, urban planners and conservationists in the Capital in view of Modi’s known passion for constructing grand towering structures. More importantly, everyone is convinced that this mega project is an attempt to erase the past so that Modi can leave behind his own personal legacy. It fits in with the BJP’s moves to remove or downgrade buildings associated with the old regimes, especially the Nehruvian period. For instance, both the South Block building, as well as the Parliament House, serve as a constant reminder about the role played by the country’s first Prime Minister and other senior Congress leaders in the nationalist movement and building a modern India. Sadly, the BJP has no such icons to showcase and so the urgency to leave behind its own imprint.

Puri’s reference to the building reflecting “colonial ethos” has everyone particularly worried as it would appear that the Modi government wants to change the character of Central Vista and its surrounding areas which are dotted with heritage buildings. This is being viewed as a dangerous trend as it could set a precedent for designating Hindu and Mughal-style architecture and justifying the destruction of what does not conform with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s world view.

Though there is agreement that some of the latter-day government buildings do need to be revamped, there are strong reservations about the manner in which the government is rushing ahead with its plans. No proper guidelines have been laid down for the project though it has far-reaching implications for the Capital’s heritage zone.

No heritage assessment has been conducted about the state of the buildings to identify structures which need to be demolished or others which can be modernized without razing them. There has also been no consultation with various stakeholders and no public discussion on this massive project. The unilateral announcement came as surprise when the government, without giving any inkling about its intentions, invited bids for the redevelopment of the Central Vista.

While questioning the unseemly haste with which the government is proceeding with this project, architects and conservationists, including AGK Menon, Raj Rewal, and Gautam Bhatia have been at pains to point out that heritage buildings like the Parliament House and North and South Blocks should not be razed and instead these should be modernized while retaining the outer façade. They cite the examples of the Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. and the British Parliament (Westminster) in London in this regard as these have been upgraded over the years but the outward look has remained unchanged.      

As the debate on this project rages on, the Delhi chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage has drawn attention to specific issues in connection with this project. AGK Menon, chief consultant INTACH, pointed to the bid document laying down that guidelines must be followed for the redevelopment of the Central Vista. But there is no clarity on what these guidelines are as these have not been spelt out. “There are no objectively defined parameters in place to guide future development,” the INTACH statement added

Referring to the haste with which the government intends to carry out its plan, INTACH has pointed out, “The bid document states that the government wants to build a legacy for the next 150 years, but the timeline proposed to complete the project does not support this objective.”

Menon further pointed out that the financial terms set to identify potential bidders were designed in such a way to exclude the country’s best architects and planners. Seeking changes in the terms, Menon maintained that the financial terms for the bid “appear to be an open call to foreign players or large multinational Indian entities.”

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Muzzling Political Dissent Is The New Normal Now

Not just the Narendra Modi-led Centre, even state regimes are targeting their opponents through various means of intimidation, and this phenomenon is not limited to the BJP-ruled governments

Each time Bharatiya Janata Party leaders get on to a podium they never fail to mention the suffering endured by their senior colleagues who were thrown into jail by Indira Gandhi in 1975 when she declared a national Emergency.

These references are invariably peppered with strong critical comments about how dissenting voices were suppressed during those dark days, the media muzzled and democratic norms crushed by wielding the proverbial stick.

While recalling the BJP’s struggles, its leaders cite their experience during the Emergency to pledge their party’s commitment to the freedom of the press and citizen’s rights. They vow to uphold democratic values and Parliamentary norms and promise never to silence their critics by going down the road traversed by Indira Gandhi.

However, all these promises and declarations have a false ring to them today. Ever since the Modi government came to power five years ago, it has systematically targeted its opponents, whether they are political leaders, human rights activists or journalists, by arresting them, filing police cases against them and embroiling them in prolonged legal battles. With the Centre taking the lead, it is not surprising that the states have been quick to follow suit and this phenomenon is not confined to BJP-led governments alone.

And all this is happening without declaring a national emergency. Little wonder then that this government’s detractors these days often remark that the country is witnessing an undeclared emergency. There is, however, a difference between 1975 when Indira Gandhi declared an emergency and the present situation. Indira Gandhi’s move met with strong public disapproval and this anger was reflected in the 1977 Lok Sabha election when the Congress was routed. But today, the Modi government’s decisions enjoy wide popular support and are actually cheered on by the people.

Or alternatively, the people are plain indifferent to these daily occurrences. All those who would normally be expected to raise their voices against these developments are silent. The opposition parties are battling for survival, civil society has been crushed and the media has been successfully co-opted.

Take the case of the detention of mainstream political leaders, activists, lawyers, other professionals and students in Kashmir since August 5 when the Modi government moved quickly to abrogate Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and bifurcate the state into two Union Territories. Three former chief ministers – Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti – are under house arrest while their party colleagues have also been detained. On September 16, Farooq Abdullah, a sitting Lok Sabha member, was booked under the draconian Public Safety Act which allows the state to detain a person for up to two years without a trial.  

There have been some murmurs of protest against the government’s latest move to slap the stringent Public Safety Act against the three-time former chief minister by opposition parties but it is too early to say if it will be followed up with any concrete action. So far, there has been virtually no protest or any sign of a public outcry over the large-scale “arrests” undertaken in Jammu and Kashmir even as BJP national general secretary Ram Madhav shrugged these off, saying that “preventive arrests are a part of political activity.”

The August 5 developments have since been emulated by state leaders. Andhra Pradesh chief minister Jaganmohan Reddy of the YSR Congress, lost no time in placing his predecessor and political rival Telugu Desam Party chief N.Chandrababu Naidu and his son under house arrest. The chief minister resorted to this extreme measure when Naidu staged a protest against the YSR Congress for its mishandling of TDP workers.

At the same time, the Congress-led Chhattisgarh government arrested Amit Jogi, the son of former chief minister Ajit Jogi, on charges of cheating and forgery for giving false information in his election affidavit. He has been denied bail. Ajit Jogi himself is in the dock after a case was registered against him for falsely claiming in his election affidavit that he is a tribal.

In both these instances, the actions of the incumbent chief ministers are driven by a personal agenda to settle scores with a rival. While Reddy and Naidu have been locked in a prolonged political slugfest for the past several years, Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel’s rivalry with his former Congress colleague Ajit Jogi is also well known.

It is the same story in the case of former finance minister P.Chidambaram who has been arrested in the INX Media case. Home minister Amit Shah was similarly arrested in an alleged false encounter case when Chidambaram was heading the same ministry. A host of other opposition leaders have also been slapped with various charges of financial impropriety, cheating and money laundering. The list is long – it includes former Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Karnataka Congress leader D.K.Shivkumar, Nationalist Congress Party leader Praful Patel, former Congress treasurer Motilal Vora, even Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s party colleagues are also facing the heat from the Central Bureau of Investigation.

The Modi government’s ire is not confined to political leaders alone. Social activists, lawyers and renowned academics like Sudha Bharadwaj, Varavara Rao, Gautam Navlakha, who work for the rights of the rural poor and tribals, have been booked for inciting caste-violence and for being sympathetic to Maoists. None of them have got any respite from the judiciary though it is over a year since they were detained.

Among others, journalists have also been at the receiving end. Only recently, a spate of cases have been reported from Uttar Pradesh where local media persons were picked up by the police for showing the administration in poor light. Journalist Pawan Jaiswal was booked for circulating a video showing children being served roti and salt in their midday meals in a school in Uttar Pradesh’s Mirzapur.  Five reporters were arrested in Bijnore when they ran a story that a Dalit family had put their house on sale after they were denied access to the village water pump. Then there is the case of another journalist in Azamgarh who was booked by the Uttar Pradesh police for reporting how children were mopping floors in their school.

But all these incidents have left people unmoved. Because it is the new normal in India.

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Opposition Unity

Why Regional Satraps Are Muted On Kashmir Issue

Most regional parties, which were extremely vocal on issues that impact Indian federal structure, have chosen to remain nonchalant on the abrogation of Article 370 for political reasons

Participating in the debate on the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and the bifurcation of the state in Parliament last month, former finance minister P Chidambaram was perhaps the only speaker who focused extensively on the Modi government’s decision to unilaterally alter the status of a state and its far-reaching implications for the country’s federal structure.

Describing the move as “a misadventure, a catastrophic step”, Chidambaram maintained that the dismemberment of a state would lay down a dangerous precedent as the government would henceforth be able to carve out every other state in the country in a similar manner.

The former minister went on to underline: “All that they have to do is dismiss the elected government, impose President’s rule, dissolve the elected assembly, and ensure Parliament takes the power of the state assembly. The government then moves a resolution, Parliament approves it and the state is dismembered.”

That the Modi government’s decision on the division of Jammu and Kashmir has far-reaching implications for other states can hardly be denied. And yet most regional parties, which are otherwise extremely vocal on issues which have an adverse impact on federalism, have been nonchalant on this aspect. In fact, several regional parties including the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Telugu Desam Party, Aam Admi Party, YSR Congress, and Biju Janata Dal, which are not official members of the ruling alliance welcomed the government’s decision on Article 370 but were silent on the move to bifurcate the state.

And even parties like the DMK, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Samajwadi Party, the Trinamool Congress and the Janata Dal (U), which opposed the move referred to the bifurcation only cursorily. Instead, the arguments put forth by the representatives of these parties focused on the stealth with which the Modi government brought the Bills to Parliament without circulating them in advance which would allow MPs to scrutinise the provisions in detail.

For instance, Trinamool Congress spokesperson Derek O’Brien described the government handling as “procedural harakiri” while Tiruchi Siva of the DMK only went as far as to say that the Centre should have taken the consent of the Jammu and Kashmir assembly before going ahead with this move.

The DMK subsequently took the lead in organizing a protest rally of opposition parties in Delhi last month but here again, the leaders who participated did not attack the Modi government either on the abrogation of Article 370 or the bifurcation of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. They drew attention to the arrest of political leaders in the state and demanded their immediate release and also that normalcy be restored at the earliest and the clampdown on communication is removed. The day-long event was, at best, a token protest. Opposition leaders followed this up by attempting to visit the Kashmir Valley but were turned back from the Srinagar airport by the security agencies who said they were instructed not to allow them out.

Delhi chief minister and AAP convener Arvind Kejriwal, who has been campaigning for full statehood for Delhi which is presently a Union Territory with an assembly, surprised everyone when he came out in support of the Modi government’s decision to abrogate Article 370. But Kejriwal was unfazed when confronted with the contradiction in his stand, pointing out that a peaceful state cannot be compared with a disturbed border state.

Opposition leaders privately agreed that that the decision to divide Jammu and Kashmir could impact other states but said they were hemmed in from launching a severe attack against the Modi government on its J&K policy because it enjoyed widespread public support.

That’s the reason, they said, they had confined  their criticism to the faulty process adopted by the government in this case, the arrest of political leaders and the overall lockdown in the state. “We are constrained because we cannot go against public sentiment,” a DMK leader pointed out. Consequently, DMK chief M K Stalin did not go beyond describing the decision as a “murder of democracy” while charging the BJP of not respecting the sentiments of the people of Jammu and Kashmir.

Ironically, even the Trinamool Congress has been muted in its criticism. Though Derek O’Brien described August 5 as “Black Monday” and a dark day for the country’s constitution, his party chose to walk out during the debate in Parliament instead of voting against the Bills.

Like other opposition parties, Trinamool Congress is also hemmed in by its dipping graph in West Bengal and the BJP’s growing popularity in the state. “Did you notice the number of times Amit Shah mentioned Shyama Prasad Mukherjee in his speech,” a Trinamool Congress MP pointed out, adding, “Ultimately we have to fight elections in our state.”

Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, founder of the Jan Sangh which later became the BJP was a staunch opponent of Article 370 and had waged a consistent battle against this provision. The BJP has been projecting Mukherjee as an icon of West Bengal in its campaign against the Trinamool Congress.

Assembly elections are due in West Bengal next year and given the religious polarization fanned by the BJP in the state, a beleaguered Mamata Banerjee has little option but to do a fine balancing act.

Bharatiya Janata Party leaders pointed out that if the opposition genuinely had strong views on the latest developments in Kashmir, it should have organized mass protests on the streets. “But they cannot do so because the people are not with them,” remarked a BJP leader.

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Sonia Gandhi Rahul And Manmohan

Will Cong Come Out Of The Retirement Mode?

The Grand Old Party will do well to take a leaf from the BJP’s organisational reforms by assigning leadership roles to its Gen-Next leaders

When the Congress Working Committee, the party’s highest decision-making body, met here earlier this month to pick Rahul Gandhi’s successor, it eventually settled on Sonia Gandhi after day-long deliberations. The difference between the two national parties and their fortunes could not be more symbolic than this step. Congress has become a pensioners’ party while BJP is the dynamic youth orientated national force.

The decision by Congress to reinstate Sonia Gandhi as leader was a major victory for the party’s old guard which had been working behind the scenes for nearly two months to see that Rahul Gandhi loyalists were denied the party’s presidency. By proposing Sonia Gandhi’s name, the party seniors silenced those who were pushing for a younger leader and also ensured that their hold on the party organization remained intact as they are essentially her camp followers.

The entire exercise ended up exposing the divide between the party’s old guard and the Gen Next leaders with the former having the upper hand. Consequently, the much-needed generational shift in the grand old party was effectively thwarted.

In fact, this battle between the two groups is not new. Afraid of losing their preeminent position in the party organization, the old guard has been blocking Rahul Gandhi’s plans since he was the party vice-president. Even after he took over as party chief, the Nehru-Gandhi scion had to tread carefully to ensure that he did not alienate the old-timers, known for their proximity to Sonia Gandhi.

That Rahul Gandhi was unable to shake them off was evident when it came to the appointment of chief ministers in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan after the Congress won the assembly polls in the two states last year. He had to willy-nilly endorse senior leaders Kamal Nath and Ashok Gehlot as chief ministers, overlooking the claims of younger leaders Jyotiraditya Scindia and Sachin Pilot.  

This ongoing turf war between Sonia Gandhi’s loyalists and Rahul Gandhi’s supporters in the Congress stands out in sharp contrast to the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has, over the past few years, placed young leaders in key positions of power without creating any major ripples in the party.

The first move in this direction was made after veteran BJP leader L.K.Advani fell foul of the party’s ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, with his complimentary remarks on Mohammad Jinnah. Advani’s protégés Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley were given the responsibility of leading the charge against the Manmohan Singh government in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, respectively. Both leaders were in their fifties then. Shortly thereafter, 52-year-old Nitin Gadkari was promoted as BJP president. Though dethroned, Advani retained a say in party matters through Swaraj and Jaitley, both mentored by him.

However, the BJP and the RSS woke up to the need for a further generational change after the party lost two consecutive elections in 2004 and 2009. It was clear that seniors like Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi were not inspiring younger and new voters and that it was time to take drastic decisions.

By then, three-time Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi had positioned himself for a larger national role. Undoubtedly, his projection as the BJP’s Prime Ministerial face came up for opposition from Advani and his supporters in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. But, after a few hiccups, their resistance was eventually worn down. And once Modi proved his credentials in the electoral arena by leading the party to an emphatic victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, there was no looking back.

Modi and his confidant Amit Shah have since moved fast to bring in younger leaders. Party seniors were been gradually sidelined and even second-generation leaders made way for a younger set. But unlike the Congress, the change-over has been a smooth affair.

Senior leaders were first denied ministerial berths in 2014 by laying down an upper age limit of 75 years. In the recent general election, these leaders, including Advani, Joshi, Shanta Kumar, Sumitra Mahajan, B.C.Khanduri and Kalraj Mishra were not even given tickets.

At the same time, Modi, assisted by BJP president Amit Shah, has picked new chief ministerial candidates which went against all conventional logic. For instance, Devendra Fadnavis, a Brahmin, was appointed a chief minister in Maharashtra where power has always been with the all-powerful Maratha community. Similarly, Manohar Lal Khattar, a non-Jat, was chosen as chief minister of Haryana where it is the Jat community which dominates. It’s the same story in Jharkhand and Assam.

Though there were initial murmurs in the party, there were no protests or counter moves to all these decisions, thus ensuring the emergence of a new-look BJP.  

The Congress can certainly take a few lessons from the BJP which successfully managed to reverse the trend of electoral losses by taking some tough measures. It was a gamble but it paid off. The result is that the BJP is the central pole of Indian polity today while the Congress is struggling for survival.

The Congress too needs to disturb the status quo and go in for major changes without being afraid of rocking the boat. But to do so, it needs a powerful and charismatic leader who also has capabilities of winning elections for the party. The BJP has that advantage.

Congress increasingly gives the impression of a party seeking ‘retirement’ as Sonia Gandhi with Manmohan Singh in tow, both shuffling when walking, are the face of Congress. But where is the new dynamic youthful strides going to come from?

Unfortunately, Rahul Gandhi has not measured up to the task, which has allowed the old guard to retain its vice-like grip on the party while Gen-Next leaders continue to wait in the wings.

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