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Caste and religion
take a back seat

Is the Aam Aadmi Party win in Delhi the beginning of the end for Modi’s iron-fist ‘anti-minority’ saffron juggernaut?

By PARANJOY GUHA THAKURTA
New Delhi, April 2015

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal pulled off a David vs Goliath in the capital's much-watched poll.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal pulled off a David vs Goliath in the capital's much-watched poll, routing the BJP and eliminating Congress.

Ten months into the five-year term of India's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, some of the sheen seems to have worn off the new regime in the world's largest democracy. A surprising electoral victory by a young, upstart political party born out of an anti-corruption movement in the country's capital New Delhi in February 2015 and the difficulties encountered by the Modi government to push through corporate-friendly changes in the land acquisition law, have sharply exposed the limitations of the BJP's right-wing, Hindu nationalist agenda. While the prime minister is trying to project an "inclusive" image, recent actions and utterances by extreme elements in his party and ideological fraternity have made India's minorities, Muslims and Christians in particular, apprehensive.

The challenges faced by Modi do not, however, suggest that there could be any imminent danger to the stability of the federal or Union government which came to power in May 2014. The Indian economy is reaping windfall gains thanks to the unexpected fall in the international prices of crude oil that has dampened inflationary pressures. At the same time, investments that would create jobs for the vast army of unemployed or under-employed young people are yet to revive. The country's creaking physical infrastructure (electricity, roads and drinking water) as well as its social amenities (education and health-care) remain grossly inadequate. Modi has embarked on ambitious programmes for financial inclusion and cleanliness but these will take time to be implemented. Meanwhile, he has been focusing considerable time and energy on foreign policy.

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta


While the prime minister is trying to project an "inclusive" image, recent actions and utterances by extreme elements in his party and ideological fraternity have made India's minorities, Muslims and Christians in particular, apprehensive

Modi, who was denied a visa to visit the United States after the 2002 Hindu-Muslim communal carnage in the western Indian province of Gujarat where he was chief minister, has spent a considerable amount of time travelling across the world and also to neighbouring countries over the last ten months. He remains the darling of non-resident Indians who wholeheartedly endorsed his candidature as prime minister in the run-up to the general elections. But the big problems he has to tackle are at home. In the absence of a majority of seats in the upper house of India's bicameral Parliament (called the Rajya Sabha or, literally, the council of the states or provinces), the Modi government is finding it very difficult to enact new laws or amend existing ones without building a political consensus with his political rivals. This fact, together with the overly "majoritarian" – some would say anti-minorities or even, anti-Muslim – views of sections within the BJP, makes the prime minister's tasks especially challenging.

In May 2014, for the first time in three decades, a political party in India, in this case, the BJP, was able to win more than a majority of seats in the Lok Sabha or the lower house of Parliament (literally, the house of the people). To be precise, 282 out of the 543 elected members of Parliament (MPs) of the Lok Sabha belong to the BJP. India is a multi-party democracy but the last elections were successfully sought to be projected by the BJP as if these were akin to American-style presidential elections in a bipolar polity, one in which two personalities are perceived to be bigger than the parties they represent. The contest was between Narendra Modi versus Rahul Gandhi, vice president of India's "grand old party", the Indian National Congress and son of party President Sonia Gandhi, the Italy-born widow of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who was assassinated in May 1991. In the unequal battle between 62-year-old Modi and 42-year-old Rahul Gandhi, the former won hands down.

The 16th general elections in India, the outcome of which was known on 16 May, were significant for other reasons as well. The voter turnout rose by more than 8 percent from 58.21 percent in 2009 to 66.4 percent in 2014. For the first time, the voter turnout crossed the two-thirds mark – higher than the previous high of 63.6 percent recorded in 1984. Young people, including many who live in small towns, voted for the BJP in large numbers. Of the 814 million Indians who were eligible to vote in the elections, over a hundred million were first-time voters who had turned 18 on or before 1 January 2014.

While the BJP's vote share had jumped from 18.8 per cent to 31 per cent between 2009 and 2014, in this period, the vote share of the Congress (which had led the ruling coalition in New Delhi for a decade till May 2014) came down considerably from 28.55 percent to 19.31 percent. The first-past-the-post, winner-takes-all Westminster system of parliamentary democracy followed in India tends to exaggerate victories and defeats alike when one compares vote shares with seats won or lost. Thus, while the number of elected MPs belonging to the BJP jumped from 116 to 282 between 2009 and 2014, the number of Congress MPs came crashing down from 206 to 44, the lowest ever in the history of the party that has ruled India for the longest period since the country became politically independent in 1947.

The performance of the BJP had steadily risen between 1984, when the party had secured just two seats in the Lok Sabha, and 1998, when it won 182 seats with a vote share of 25.6 percent. In 1999, the party secured the same number of seats it did in the previous year with a reduced vote share of 23.8 percent. Thereafter, its position declined in 2004 to 138 seats (with a vote share of 22 percent) and further to 116 seats (vote share: 18.8 percent) in 2009. Between the general elections held in 2004 and 2009, the BJP’s vote share dipped by almost 3.5 percent. In 2014, with its vote share going up by more than 12 percent from the level achieved five years earlier – an unprecedented achievement – the party won 10 seats more than the half-way mark of 272 seats in the Lok Sabha.

The swing in favour of the BJP was significant. This was the first time since 1984 when the winning political party obtained a majority of seats in the Lok Sabha. On that occasion, the assassination of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her own bodyguards contributed to an electoral wave in favour of the Congress. The last occasion a non-Congress party won a majority of seats in the Lok Sabha was in 1977 when the Janata Party – a short-lived political formation – swept to power after Indira Gandhi imposed a 19-month period of Emergency. This was a period that saw considerable abridgement of many fundamental rights of citizens that are enshrined in the Indian Constitution, including the right to free expression. Many of her political opponents were jailed. But the ideologically-disparate constituents of the Janata Party squabbled with one another and the government fell apart. Indira Gandhi returned to power in January 1980. After her assassination, her son Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister till 1989. Thereafter, for two and half decades till 2014, the Indian government was formed by a coalitions of political parties, barring the period between 1991 and 1996 when a minority government led by PV Narasimha Rao was in power.

With the government in the world's largest democracy changing for the eighth time in 2014 after the 16th general elections held in India since 1952, the country's political economy swung decisively to the right. What some predicted would be a surge of saffron – the colour favoured by the BJP led by Modi – turned out to be a veritable tsunami in favour of the Hindu nationalist political party. What worked in favour of Modi was that his principal opponent, Rahul Gandhi, was perceived to be a rather reluctant and diffident politician in what was projected as a two-party contest – although the BJP and the Congress have together obtained roughly half the votes cast in the last six elections held in 1996, 1998, 1999, 2004, 2009 and 2014. What clearly helped the BJP were the extremely strong anti-incumbency sentiments against the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance coalition government which was in power for two five-year terms from May 2004.

During the decade of the two UPA governments, India witnessed unprecedented food inflation that hurt the poor and widened inequalities in an already highly-unequal society. In this period, the economy grew by over 9 percent during four years, although the growth rate came down to below 5 percent in the last two years. Despite claims that economic growth was "inclusive", the government's own data indicated that new jobs had been created at an average annual rate of only around 2.2 percent between 2004 and 2013. High food prices, tardy creation of employment opportunities, accusations of big-ticket corruption and perceptions of policy paralysis -- all contributed to the unpopularity of the Congress-led coalition government and this was successfully exploited by Modi during his election campaign.

Thus, what happened in February 2015 in the national capital took many by surprise. The barely-two-year-old Aam Admi Party (AAP) led by former bureaucrat Arvind Kejriwal won an unprecedented victory in the elections to the Delhi legislative assembly winning 67 out of 70 seats with the BJP obtaining only three seats and the Congress getting completely wiped out. The electoral outcome represented not only the first significant setback for the Modi juggernaut but also exposed the limitations of excessive personalisation of Indian politics. If, during the 2014 general elections, the BJP's spin-doctors in general and party president Amit Shah in particular were eminently successful in converting the contest as a tussle between Modi and Rahul Gandhi and less a battle between the BJP and the Congress based on competing programmes and policies, the same strategy backfired on the BJP in Delhi.

The voters of India's capital sent a clear message to the prime minister and his right-hand man Shah: hubris, or extreme pride and self-confidence, is rarely, if ever, appreciated by ordinary voters in India... caste and religious identity as prime determinants of voting patterns, were also greatly diminished

The decision to foist Kiran Bedi as the party's chief ministerial candidate sent a series of signals to voters which were diametrically opposite to what the BJP leadership wanted. The party had dragged its feet for almost a year to face the electorate because it could not agree on a chief ministerial candidate. The second signal was the BJP top brass was more interested in weakening the AAP than in presenting an alternative – and better – agenda for governance. The decision to nominate Bedi, the first woman to hold a top post in the police service, ensured that the already-demoralised cadre of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – the social organisation which is considered to be the ideological parent of the BJP – and the faction-ridden BJP in Delhi did not go all out to campaign for her. (Incidentally, Modi himself had started his career as a pracharak or publicist of the RSS.)

A significant aspect of the Delhi elections was that the importance of caste and religious identities in determining voting patterns and electoral trends diminished. Even pro-BJP, right-wing ideologues and analysts conceded that class mattered when people voted. This apparent decline in the influence of "identity politics" was noteworthy because Delhi is a cosmopolitan urban agglomeration where people from different social and economic strata across the country live. There was yet another message that came through from the outcome of the elections to the national capital.

Much as the middle and upper classes do not spare any opportunity to deride what they believe are "populist" schemes – notably, providing subsidies for public utilities and services – these subsidies do matter to the poor who, unlike the rich, are less concerned about balancing budgets of the government and cutting deficits. This is not an argument supporting financial profligacy but to point towards a simple fact: it is one thing to point out that subsidies do not reach intended beneficiaries in India and that delivery systems need repair. It is, however, quite something else to argue that welfare schemes should be scrapped or drastically curtailed and to derogatorily describe these as sops, doles or handouts. That's insulting the underprivileged, which much of the corporate media in India often does. The short point: the AAP's pre-election promises that it would halve power tariffs and cut water charges did influence a substantial section of Delhi's electorate.

BJP spokespersons sounded defensive when they claimed that the Delhi polls were not a referendum on Modi's performance as prime minister. The saffron party was disingenuous in claiming that it was responsible for bringing down inflation. Prime Minister Modi was more candid when he said that he had proved "lucky" for the country and that's why people should vote for his party. The BJP's claim that the same party should rule at both the Centre as well as in the state did not impress too many voters. On the issue of granting full statehood to Delhi – the elected government in the capital does not control the police department which works under the federal government, unlike in other states in the country – the BJP's silence on the subject was deafening. The fact that all the big guns of the BJP, from Modi himself to Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, were taking the challenge posed by AAP and Kejriwal rather seriously, was evident to all.

Also rather disingenuous were the BJP's claims that AAP was the beneficiary of illegal funds that had been "round tripped" and come into the country through the infamous hawala route or parallel banking channels that are illegal. Why? The BJP itself had dragged its feet submitting its audited accounts to the Election Commission of India and when it did, the fact that was revealed was that the party had received some 80 percent of its income from "anonymous" donors. The loopholes in the law relating to funding of political parties are common knowledge – those making "donations" of Rs20,000 to political parties can be anonymous – and the BJP's attempts to discredit AAP was perceived as a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

The voters of India's capital sent a clear message to the prime minister and his right-hand man Shah: hubris, or extreme pride and self-confidence, is rarely, if ever, appreciated by ordinary voters in India. What was ironical was that within weeks of its resounding victory in Delhi, AAP seemed to be imploding with a few of its high-profile members, including lawyer Prashant Bhushan and academic Yogendra Yadav, falling out with party chief Kejriwal.

The month after the BJP lost the Delhi elections, the Union government encountered a setback when it was unable to amend the law relating to land acquisition, an ordinance which was promulgated on 30 December. Those opposed to the amendments argued that the government was seeking to dilute certain key provisions of law relating to prior consent of those whose land is being acquired and a mandatory social impact assessment before the acquisition. Land is in short supply in India (which has around 17 percent of the world's population but only 2.5 percent of its land area) and is the source of considerable contention and conflict.

Why did the amendment to the land acquisition law – or, to use its full name, the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (LARR) Act of 2013 – become so controversial? Modi and Jaitley have been repeatedly claiming that if new factories and infrastructural projects do not come up (on agricultural land, including on multi-cropped land), the country's economy will not revive and new employment opportunities will not be created. Jaitley said in Parliament that the government's political opponents should not make "industry" and "infrastructure" dirty words in the lexicon of the people.

The government's problems compounded because the amendments to the law were opposed not just by its political rivals, but also by the BJP partners in the NDA coalition, namely, the Shiromani Akali Dal from the agriculturally-prosperous Punjab in north India, the Shiv Sena from Maharashtra in the west and the Lok Janshakti Party from Bihar in the east. That's not all. Opposition to amending the LARR Act has come from organisations affiliated to the RSS, such as the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, an organisation of farmers and the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch which espouses the cause of economic nationalism. In addition, thousands of people have marched on the streets of the capital. The agitations have been led by, among others, anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare and PV Rajagopal of Ekta Parishad.

The BJP had approved the LARR Act in 2013 when it was the principal opposition party. It is also true that a Parliamentary committee led by Sumitra Mahajan (now the Speaker of the Lok Sabha) had suggested many of the provisions of the law that was enacted. Jaitley's "leaking" of written communication from the former Industry and Commerce Minister Anand Sharma opposing certain aspects of the LARR Act and the "revelation" by former Minister for Rural Development Jairam Ramesh that former Finance Minister P Chidambaram too had opposed particular provisions of the law, provided much titillation in the news media. Those opposed to the change in the law argued that that there had been a broad political consensus on the 2013 Act.

One out of seven Indians is Muslim and there are more Muslims in India than in all but two countries, Indonesia and Pakistan. Yet not a single one of the 282 MPs belonging to the BJP... is Muslim; only two MPs are non-Hindu, both Buddhist

The government claimed that the ordinance to amend LARR had to be promulgated before the end of the calendar year in order to bring 13 acts within the purview of the LAAR Act – laws relating to the establishment of national highways, metro railways, atomic energy plants, defence establishments and electricity projects, among others – and to ensure expeditious completion of projects that had been stalled for years. At the same time, however, the amendments made major changes not only to determine procedures for acquiring land but also how grievances of land-losers were to be redressed. A list was added of "types" of land that would be exempt from legal provisions of prior consent, including industrial corridors, "affordable" housing schemes and rural electrification projects. Many public-private partnership (PPP) projects have been sought to be made exempt from social impact assessment procedures.

Analysts like Ram Singh of the Delhi School of Economics have pointed out that the government's argument that farmers would be compensated to the extent of twice to four times the "value" of the land being acquired, is deeply flawed. Reason: land is bought and sold at highly deflated prices to avoid payment of stamp duty and also because a huge share of the transacted "value" is paid in the form of black money. Singh's research points out that "the average government compensation is just about one-fourth of the market value of land" and that many a time, under the guise of public purpose, large tracts have been acquired by real-estate developers and for special economic zones (SEZs) where companies are given tax breaks for export-oriented projects.

A recent report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India sharply criticised the manner in which land has been misused in SEZs. The report states: "Land appears to be the most crucial and attractive component of the scheme. Out of 45,635.63 (hectares) of land notified in the country for SEZ purposes, operations commenced in only 28,488.49 ha (or around 62.4 percent) of land... [while] 5,402.22 ha of land was de-notified and diverted for commercial purposes... Many tracts of these lands were acquired invoking the 'public purpose' clause."

The LARR Act mandated prior consent of 80 percent of the affected families for land acquisition by private firms and 70 percent for PPPs. A consultative and participatory acquisition process reduced the scope for arbitrary dispossession and made rehabilitation and resettlement the legal right of the displaced. The Modi government wants to do away with these features of the law to favour private companies, critics claim, adding that the legal amendments proposed would effectively take India back to the colonial era when the British government enacted the Land Acquisition Act in 1894.

The big problem that the Modi government faces is the perception that it is not merely acting against the interests of poor farmers and in favour of rich capitalists, but that it is ideologically biased against minorities in general and Muslims in particular. One out of seven Indians is Muslim and there are more Muslims in India than in all but two countries, Indonesia and Pakistan. Yet not a single one out of the 282 MPs belonging to the BJP who were elected to the Lok Sabha in 2014 is Muslim; only two MPs are non-Hindu, both Buddhist. After a series of incidents of vandalism in churches in different parts of the country, including in Delhi, Modi himself spoke at a public function organised by a Christian group to assuage the hurt sentiments of the community.

Among the important reasons why the Congress-led UPA government was voted out in 2014 after a decade in power, was the absence of "inclusive" economic development – the country's gross domestic product grew at an impressive pace but not creation of jobs. Arguably the biggest challenge that lies ahead of the Modi government is to demonstrate that its policies are not just inclusive in economic terms, but that these are socially inclusive as well in India's multi-religious, multi-cultural heterogeneous society.


Paranjoy Guha Thakurta is an independent journalist and an educator whose work over 37 years has cut across print, radio, television and documentary cinema. He is a writer, speaker, anchor, interviewer, teacher and commentator in three languages: English, Bengali and Hindi. Paranjoy is a regular contributor to newspapers, magazines and websites and is featured regularly on television and radio programmes as an anchor and commentator. He served as a member of the Press Council of India and, among his recent books, is Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis (April 2014) with Subir Ghosh and Jyotirmoy Chaudhuri.

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Ben Yong (1 May, 2015) – Singapore
Perhaps a country like India needs a strong person to lead with a tough hand. Sometime's there's too much talking and too little action in a democracy. Of course, you need democracy to get opinions but you also need effective action.
Jeff Marks (26 April, 2015) – Hong Kong
A very balanced and well-researched account of the state of Indian politics today. A worthwhile read for anyone headed there. It is a shocker that no MP from the BJP is Muslim. It says something about Indian tolerance. Or are things changing?
Ralph Barrow (26 April, 2015) – UK
Having spent extensive time in several parts of India, I think it would be a great shame if the rich secular fabric of this vast, historic and engaging country comes unraveled due to partisan politics.
R Parthasarthy (25 April, 2015) – India
How can the BJP bring its extreme elements in line when it needs the fear those elements create to unite the country behind a strongman. To succeed Modi needs to delegate. And he needs to be far more vocal in his criticism of minority bashing.
Anup Kuruvilla (30 March, 2015) – Hong Kong
Thank you..a very well balanced and thought provoking article. Land is always a sensitive issue in India and hopefully the govt will modify the prevailing legislation and re-introduce in the next session after taking into account the sensitivies raised. It is encouraging to note that the insurance bill was passed which indicates our parliamentarians can provide bipartisan support when needed.
CRS (30 March, 2015) – India
Mr Thakurta,just as much as I respect your views and the fact that I follow you closely,I have to disagree with you on this.

The AAP is a failed experiment.Arvind Kejriwal has been knocked off his high moral perch by secretly recorded conversations.The party has betrayed the people by appropriating words like "internal party democracy","swaraj","transparency" etc etc.The manner in which senior founders/Lokpal were unceremoniously removed from their posts shows you that dissent is not tolerated and more purges/"Nights of the long knives" can be expected.Kejriwal is just a Orwellian Napoleon-a diabolical,devious and duplicitous demagogue who led a host of idealistic and self-less volunteers down the garden path.There is an acute sense of betrayal now.The damage to the party is irr

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