21 - 08 - 2019

The shadow of Rafale deal on BJP

PRIME Minister Narendra Modi’s juxtaposition of the idea of ‘New India’ with the ‘India of the Emergency, Bofors and chopper (AgustaWestland VVIP helicopter) scam’ during his last speech in the 16th Lok Sabha on February 7 represented archetypal images of a party that was both on the offensive and the defensive while bracing itself for the Lok Sabha battle.

The concept of ‘New India’, visualised by Modi and the BJP, was centred on the burgeoning youth population. As the Gujarat Chief Minister, Modi had said that the youth was a ‘demographic dividend’ that India should embrace as a boon and not dismiss as a bane: young men and women wanting to snap out of a rusted system that favoured those born to wealth, privilege and lineage and refused to recognise innate talent, drive and entrepreneurial skills. The India of yore was typified by the Congress where only legatees were assured of upward mobility and corruption was a matter of course. 

Modi’s conceptualisation, credible and attractive as it was, fell apart when tested against ground realities and perceptions. Instead of unearthing corrupt practices and financial irregularities and effect systemic reforms, the BJP-helmed NDA government is giving the impression that the last-ditch push to ferret out the ‘corrupt’ was aimed at persecuting the Opposition after the latter showed signs of getting its act together and fighting the ruling coalition as a whole. Nothing sways voters more in an election than the idea of a leader, his relative or even an underling being chased and harassed by the State in the shape of the CBI, the Enforcement Directorate or even the Income Tax authorities. It’s as though a suspect deserves sympathy. As the Gujarat CM, Modi drew his strength and sustenance from a Congress-inspired and instigated campaign, themed largely around the 2002 violence, against him. Here was India’s great white hope who was being stopped in his tracks by a vindictive and ‘no-good’ Congress. 

Apart from coalescing the Opposition as government agencies went for the jugular, Modi’s zealous pursuit of ridding India of corruption was blunted by Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s campaign against the Rafale deal. Before a southern daily exposed how accepted defence procedures were bypassed by the Prime Minister’s Office when the deal was negotiated, allegedly to favour a private player in India, and a defence rookie at that, Rahul strongly insinuated that the PM had a ‘personal’ interest in seeing through the deal.  If in the run-up to the 2014 elections, Modi pilloried Rahul as the shehzada (crown prince) in his speeches, the prelude to 2019 saw the Congress president morph from a tentative campaigner to a full-on combatant. Rahul played on Modi’s self-projection as a chowkidar who would not allow anyone’s panja (paw, punning on the Congress’ election symbol) to be put inside the national exchequer and traduced him as the chowkidar who was a chor (thief).

For Modi and the BJP, who pegged their rise to power on the promise of uncovering ill-gotten wealth and funnelling the acquisitions into the bank accounts of the poor (the campaign against black money was inextricably tied with the launch of the Jan Dhan Yojana to universalise banking), the Rafale affair is a disaster. Corruption charges are something the party has never countenanced as a reality in politics since the time LK Advani was accused of doing a hawala transaction, a charge of which he was cleared. 

The BJP believes Modi will not be scorched by the Congress’ tirade because nobody would imagine that a leader, who remains aloof from his kith and kin, would help a corporate friend for a consideration. However, even if a smidgen of Rahul’s charge sticks, it means the only unique selling point he carried could get undermined.

Modi is also beset by other issues, some of which arose because of the commitment the BJP and its parent body, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), have to their ‘core’ ideology. One of them is the Citizenship Amendment Bill-2019 that has set the North-East afire because it legitimises the conferment of citizenship rights on illegal migrants from Bangladesh living in Assam and other states on religious grounds. The Bill — that similarly grants citizenship to the unlawful Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Christian and Buddhist migrants from Pakistan and Afghanistan but excludes the Muslims — has been opposed tooth and nail in the North-East, which has historically refused to brook the division of illegal migrants according to their religion.  The Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha, but was blocked in the Rajya Sabha for want of numbers. Initially, the Centre was disinclined to bring it in the Upper House in the ongoing session, but changed its mind, obviously more to signal the BJP’s intent than to see through its passage. 

The BJP had hoped to net a bulk of the 25 seats in the North-East in the Lok Sabha polls on the back of its regional friends. Not only has it lost the support of the Asom Gana Parishad, but it also looks as though others could follow suit, thereby scaling down its prospects.

Modi cannot be as buoyant as he was in 2013-14 as he steps into the battleground. The BJP has to firm up its alliances in the South, where the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh snapped ties and the YSR Congress Party, the other pole, stays non-committal. In the East, West Bengal apparently holds out hope for the BJP after it positioned itself as the only alternative to the Trinamool Congress. However, with Mamata Banerjee emerging as Modi’s big challenger, the scales remain unevenly balanced.

That leaves the North and the West which the BJP swept in 2019. Uttar Pradesh since saw the emergence of a socially powerful alliance between the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party and smaller caste and community-based players, while in Bihar, the Rashtriya Janata Dal mopped up the support of the non-NDA entities.  Added to these substantive coalitions is the perception that the ‘demographic dividend’ was not fully used to the BJP’s advantage by the Modi government because not enough jobs were created as the unorganised sector totters. The BJP’s best bet is fighting to stave off such perceptions through its formidable organisational machinery that works in top gear.

Radhika Ramaseshan
Senior journalist