Why The BJP/RSS Was Compelled to Fast-Forward the 'Nationalist' Slogan
NEW DELHI: Two sessions of parliament last year, and the ongoing budget session of 2016, tell the same story, and in doing so reveal the reasons why our RSS-controlled government has thought it necessary to thrust the Hindutva narrative of nationalism- which has little to do with the living nationalism in our lives- so early in the Modi regime’s five-year term.
From December 2014, the government began determined efforts to jettison the law, passed only a year before, for the purchase of farmers’ land for industrial-corporate purposes. The entire business was directed at short-changing the villager to acquire land for industry. Knowing that the pernicious changes contemplated would never get past the Rajya Sabha, where the opposition is in a majority, the government tried to use its executive powers and brought an ordinance to fulfil its purpose.
But ordinances do not have an indefinite life, and eventually the move collapsed. This was the first instance of determined resistance to the saffron regime mounted by the farmers of India and BJP’s opponents in Parliament, spearheaded by Rahul Gandhi, who has been portrayed- especially by the BJP- as an absent-minded political tourist who doesn’t have his wits about him.
(Rahul Gandhi has indeed squandered a good deal of his ten years in the Lok Sabha by not making his presence felt in the House on a consistent basis, but there has never been any question about his passionate opposition to the ideology and politics of the Sangh parivar. Arguably this, more than anything else, explains the lampooning he has had to endure in the public sphere.)
The Modi government became a suspect in the eyes of big industry for being unable to give it its first big-ticket gift, which had been a major promise, and this became a point of major worry for it. Industry was its patron and big-time supporter in the Lok Sabha election. At the same time, it also succeeded in alienating rural India, and crores of impoverished people who leave the peasant landscape and rush to big cities to find work. The thumping the BJP got in the Assembly elections in Delhi- India’s richest state per capita- and in Bihar- the poorest - said it all.
In the budget for 2016-17, currently being debated in parliament, the government attempts to be clever. Five state election are to take place in April and May, and, for the sake of votes, BJP’s first priority is to get rid of the image of being a “suit-boot ki sarkar”. The connected priority is to regain the trust of big industry.
Although BJP doesn’t have major stakes in any of the poll-bound states, except possibly Assam, a below-par performance will add to the woes felt after the defeats in Delhi and Bihar, and diminish its government’s brand value at the Centre, and Modi himself may come to be perceived as something of a liability. It is therefore necessary to sell illusions to voters. Thus, a seemingly impressive sum has been allocated to agriculture and rural India, and- extraordinarily- it has been promised that farmers’ incomes will double in five years! (The joke among politicians these days is that people can be so gullible that the government will build a staircase to heaven, there may just be a rush to buy tickets if the indicated price is affordable.)
But a look at the data shows that earlier allocations from different ministries and departments have been clubbed to give the impression of a bigger-than-before sum being earmarked, and seen in that light the figures are possibly a shade smaller than before. This, of course, is an age-old trick. But there is brazenness as well- for the rural and the urban person. While expenditure on health and education have been whittled down, and primary health centres are a shadow of their earlier selves, the government is promoting health insurance, which will primarily benefit private companies that charge higher premiums than government entities. Needless to say, the disadvantaged sections will be further disadvantaged.
A significant aspect of the budget before us is the proposed cut in subsidies, especially in the area of food and fertiliser, so that the fiscal deficit can be lowered. Corporate India loves subsidy cuts. The signal goes out that it can claim more of the money in the banking system to borrow for its expansion and revival programmes, provided that interest rates are cut, if the government does not ‘squander’ money on subsidies. Thus, pressures are building up on RBI to cut rates so that industry’s thus far favourable response to the budget is converted into positive goodwill for the government- something that could not materialise last year, though not for want of trying.
Through larger allocations under the rural/agriculture head and promise to cut subsidies, the Modi regime is trying to catch some votes and placate industry. But it is obviously insecure about outcomes. Even a 10 per cent spike in world petroleum prices will throw the budget mathematics awry, and there are early signs that a climb cannot be ruled out.
Why is the government insecure? Primarily this is because jobs haven’t been created and prices for essential goods for the poor have not really climbed down. So, dummies are being sold to those in the farm sector. But the middle class- which is largely urban, of course- has been given a rough deal in the budget.
Lifelong provident funds savings were going to be taxed under the budget provisions. But a mammoth trade union solidarity across India, in which RSS’TU arm the BMS also participated, broke the government’s resolve, and the measure has been taken back for now. Even so, service tax on nearly every item of middle class consumption has been substantially stepped up. This class voted Modi in a big way.
There are thus too many pressure points for the government to cope with, and the solution it found to deal with political problems was to aggressively advance the notion of Hindu nationalism. The “nationalism” put forwarded by the RSS has no interest in promoting the concept of nationalism of all sections of Indian society, regardless of religion, language, region and ethnicity, forged in India’s anti-colonial struggle. Saffron nationalism underscores the idea of a “Hindu Rashtra”. This naturally collides with the dalit and the adivasi poor and raises question marks about the Muslim and Christian minorities.
It is no coincidence that a dalit research scholar in Hyderabad- one who rejected the RSS and paid allegiance to Ambedkar’s ideas- was made the focus of this government’s attack, leading to that young man’s suicide. RSS’ student body ABVP worked as the government’ secret police on the campus (a trend noticed at other universities too, including JNU and Allahabad) and a Union minister, Bandaru Dattatreya, described the Ambedkar forum as a bunch of casteists and “anti-national” elements in a letter to Union HRD minister Smriti Irani. All that has set off a hornet’s nest, and the wasps are stinging the government all over the place.
The resistance symbolised by JNU and its students union leader Kanhaiya Kumar- taking in the specific issues relating to Umer Khalid, Anirban and others who were also charged with “sedition”, a colonial era law- came in the wake of the Hyderabad episode. This confirmed that poor students and the minorities will be made victims of the RSS-BJP brand of “nationalism”.
JNU is a place where a significant proportion of students of disadvantaged background receive quality education, and upward of 60 per cent of them are women. The backward-thinking social sentiment prevalent among sections of the upper castes and the wealthier strata of society, which the present government predominantly reflects in line with its RSS philosophy, cannot stomach this, and appears to hound not just Kanhaiya- who has emerged as a centrepiece of resistance of the youth against the Modi sarkar- but also the very idea of a world class university such as JNU.
Some of the pet ideas emanating from the ABVP, BJP, and the government are as follows: national flags cut in large dimensions must fly at all central universities to “instil” the idea of “nationalism” (as though this is lacking), a tank should be placed inside the JNU campus to remind students of the valour of the Indian Army and their defence of nationalism- and absurdities such as this.
But Kanhaiya, an upper caste boy from Bihar whose family are poor farmers and survive on three thousand rupees a month, reminded the country in a widely televised fiery speech that our jawans are sons of kisans, who are suffering. The real worry of all this for the BJP and its government is the prospect of young Indians, in town and country, deserting it in droves. This was a section that had enthusiastically backed Modi for prime minister. “Nationalism” was brought into political discussion before key polls to make the poor forget that they had been short-changed by successive budgets of the Modi regime, and the trick looks like back-firing.
A recent personal experience which helps us understand some of this. In western UP recently, I gave a lift to a young man. We rode together for nearly a hundred kilometres. I learnt that he was a jawan returning to his unit in Meerut and had served in Kashmir many years. He was courteous and articulate. I tried to draw him out on the issue of nationalism, as was being framed by the government, but he deftly steered the conversation away. His concern, he said, was that the Union government was not being helpful to farmers, the community he came from.