Prem Shankar Jha
The 2024 elections are still a year away, but there can no longer be any doubt that the battle for power has begun in earnest. Narendra Modi and his coterie clearly intend for him to remain in power – as prime minister or, as the chatter goes, president – for the rest of his life. To make sure of this, he has unleashed a campaign of strong-arming civil society, the media and leaders of national and state parties, and tolerated sustained, murderous attacks by self-styled “gau rakshaks” upon Muslims and Dalits, to endear himself to the Hindu lumpen proletariat. And he has done all this with a disregard for the Constitution that has no parallel in any country that prides itself on being a democracy today.
But being a student of Entire Politics and not of Indian History, he does not seem to have understood what Ata Bihari Vajpayee did when he was prime minister – that the road he is determined to take the country down leads not to a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ but to India’s certain disintegration.
As the 2024 elections have drawn near, Modi has thrown caution to the winds and embarked upon a no-holds-barred bid to return to power again. Amit Shah has boasted that the BJP will return to power with more than 300 seats once again. But in using the Enforcement Directorate and a re-jigged Prevention of the Money Laundering Act to destroy the opposition in state after state, he has at last gone too far and created his own nemesis.
By the end of 2022 all major regional parties, with the exception of the Biju Janata Dal in Odisha, had decided to fight the BJP together without any precondition on who would lead the party. The only holdout was the Congress which too wanted a coalition, but one ‘based on the UPA model’, i.e. with the Congress as its pre-determined leader.
This remained the party’s stated position right till the Raipur meeting of the AICC in February this year. At its inaugural session, Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge stated unambiguously that the party would like opposition unity, but that it should be based on the UPA model. He also gently admonished the regional parties to not create a ‘Third Front’.
Rise of coalition consciousness
But when Prime Minister Modi launched his unbridled attack on Rahul Gandhi, took advantage of the frailties of Indian legal system to get a Gujarat court to convict him of criminal defamation and sentence him to 2 years’ imprisonment, and used this to get him expelled from parliament, the Congress finally came face to face with reality: Modi would stop at nothing to destroy Indian democracy and turn India into a one-party state.
Kharge’s next major statement reflected this change of perception. At the Indian Express’s ‘Ideas Exchange’ on April 7, he stated without a shred of ambiguity that he had been talking to all the leaders of the opposition parties to bring them together on a common agenda (to) fight the BJP together. ‘We (the opposition) will come together and have a common agenda to fight the BJP… because all parties are united on the issue that (we should) protect democracy and the institutions, particularly the Constitution”. He made no mention of a UPA model, or of the leadership issue.
Even more significant than his unqualified endorsement of a coalition without preconditions was his statement that the battle would have to be fought not through seat adjustments, but around a common agenda. This was a tacit, but much overdue admission that Modi had not won the last two elections solely through media theatre and by fomenting communal hate and displaying nationalistic bravado, but by giving the youth of India the hope of a better, more secure, future. To unseat him, the opposition would have to do one better.
The importance of this belated understanding cannot be overstressed. For the rapid growth that the Vajpayee government laid the foundations for, and the Manmohan Singh government nursed, had given India ten golden years before the global recession, and the Reserve Bank’s savage interest rate hikes in response to it, killed employment growth in 2012.
With his true predator’s instinct, Modi had seized on the resulting disillusionment among the youth, and rekindled hope among them by promising to create 20 million jobs a year. When he failed completely, and then compounded his failure with a bungled demonetisation that halved migrant workers’ annual earnings by forcing them to return prematurely to their villages, complacency settled into the secular parties once more. So when, instead of falling the BJP’s vote shot up by almost six percent in 2019, it was not only the Congress but all of the opposition, and civil society, that went into shock.
The challenge before the opposition goes further
Four years later, the secular parties and civil society members have still not found an explanation. To this writer’s knowledge, the first person to give one was the French political scientist, Christophe Jaffrelot. It was that while Modi’s grand promises of economic revival had failed to re-kindle hope in the youth, his social welfare programmes had created a sense of entitlement among the poor of all ages that they were unwilling to risk losing.
Smriti Irani, Modi’s minister for minority affairs, confirmed this at the India Today conclave in Delhi last month and hinted that it would be the BJP’s main electoral plank in 2024. In a session titled “Hindutva and the New India,” she said the BJP would portray its members once again as “sewaks” (servants) of the people of India, and Modi not as their pradhan mantri, but their pradhan sewak.
In crisp sentences, she set out what the pradhan sewak had done for the poor of India. In the past nine years, she said, he had given 480 million Indians bank accounts through the Jan Dhan Yojana; built 110 million toilets to provide security and privacy to women in the villages through his Swachha Bharat Abhiyan programme, and provided medical insurance of up to Rs 5 lakhs to a hundred-and-something million families against 1300 diseases, in 26,000 hospitals across the country through his Ayushman Bharat scheme.
She could have also added that the pradhan sewak’s aggressive digitisation of government services had not merely simplified and speeded up the peoples’ interaction with the state, but eliminated most of the delays, stress and corruption that had accompanied it. This was a boon not to be underestimated.
These claims have been made by the BJP’s spokespersons on several occasions and been accepted by the public because they have gone completely unchallenged by the Congress. That must not be allowed to continue. For all of the programmes for which Irani gave the entire credit to Modi were born out of earlier initiatives not only of the UPA and Vajpayee governments, but of the United Front government in the mid-1990s.
The Jan Dhan Yojana is old wine in a new bottle, for it is a reincarnation of the Basic Savings Bank Deposit Account (BSBDA) scheme that was begun by the Reserve Bank of India under the UF government in 1997. By May 2014, when Modi came to power, the RBI had already registered 250 million accounts under it. The Swacchha Bharat Abhiyan is also the continuation of an earlier programme, the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan, that was started by the Vajpayee government in 1999.
Finally, the Ayushman Bharat scheme is still in its infancy, for a recent study has shown that even awareness of its existence is limited to about half of the eligible population. The statistics Irani cited, therefore, describe its potential and not its achievement.
Another progamme, the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima (crop insurance)Yojana too had been preceded by scores of trade and occupation-centred insurance programmes that had been launched by state governments over the previous several decades. Finally Modi’s Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana for rural electrification is also a new name for the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana, which had almost completed the electrification of all villages (defined, as it is even now, as the provision of power lines to 10 percent of the households in a village) before Modi came to power.
Neither the Jan Dhan Yojana nor the Swacchha Bharat Abhiyan have been an unqualified success. 93 million of 462 million accounts allegedly opened under the former were still inoperative in August 2022. Subtract these and the accounts opened earlier under the BSBDA, and it means that the JDY had added 120 million operative bank accounts during Modi’s first eight-and-a-half years in power. This is good but not especially impressive. In fact, given the far greater access to computers, mobile telephony and Wi-Fi today than in the 1990s and it is almost certain that any other government would have given similar or better results.
What has been impressive is the presentation of these programmes as Modi’s, not even the BJP’s, and the appropriation of all the credit for them by the pradhan sewak. Equally impressive, but for the opposite reason, has been the Congress party’s tomb-like silence. For throughout the past nine years, its leaders did not reach out to the scores of civil society activists who have been defending Indian democracy in the media day and night at their peril, to give them the ammunition they needed.
Could this have been because in that entire organisation there was no one who remembered these facts, or thought of doing the two hours of research that it took me to unearth them?
The need for a new social contract
Setting the record straight is only the first task that the future coalition must undertake. Its second task will be to etch out the political and economic future that it will strive to create in order to restore communal peace – and the pride in India’s pluralism and diversity – that were the envy of the world before Modi set out to destroy it.
But after so many general elections, and so many promises forgotten immediately after the voting had ended, the coalition will have to convince the electorate that it will not repeat history yet again. To do this, it will need to push a new social contract with the voters that lists precisely how it will fulfil its political and economic promises to them.
This article has neither the purpose, nor indeed the space, to launch into a detailed discussion of what such a social contract needs to contain. But the broad issues it must address are listed below:
First and foremost, a future coalition government must end the root cause of the corruption and criminalisation of Indian politics that Modi is now exploiting. This is the absence of a legal, and fully audited, system of election finance.
Second, it must find and offer remedies for the deepening agricultural distress that has been making one farmer commit suicide every 40 to 45 minutes.
Third, it must reform the education system to end the stress that is making one student commit suicide every 35 to 40 minutes.
Fourth it must reform the judicial system to give the poor immediate and cost-free access to justice.
Of these, the first is by far the most urgently needed.
India copied its constitution from the Government of India Act of 1935, and the unwritten constitution of Great Britain. But while doing so, the constituent assembly somehow overlooked the fact that the average size of the British parliamentary constituency is 369 square kms, while that of the Lok Sabha constituency is 6,000 square kms.
The money will follow
Whereas the 1935 Act suffrage had been limited by a property qualification to only 6 percent of the adult population – even of a rich state like undivided Punjab – the CA opted for universal suffrage. Having rightly done this, however, they failed – in fact, explicitly rejected – proposals to create a state funding system to meet the cost of universal suffrage.
Till 1967, this need was met by a growing private sector. But in 1967, by when a sizable proportion of these donations were going to the Swatantra party and the Jana Sangh, Indira Gandhi decided to ban company donations to political parties altogether. That began the criminalisation of politics which Modi is using to destroy his opposition in state after state today.
With characteristic decisiveness, Modi has resolved the problem of electoral finance by creating anonymous, tax free electoral bonds and an opaque tax free and not-subject-to-RTI PM Cares fund. And he assumed when creating the bonds conduit, that most of the donations by Big Business would come to the BJP.
His assumption has proved correct so far, for according to the Association for Democratic Rights, more than 70 percent of the electoral bonds purchased have been for the BJP. But as happened after the Emergency, and in the late ‘80s, if a stable and credible opposition coalition emerges, it could turn into his Achilles’ heel in the coming months. It is therefore not only the credibility, but also the financial viability of the opposition’s coalition that will depend upon the economic, social and constitutional reforms that it espouses and the credibility of the details of these that it reveals to the electorate.