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How the forward march has been halted

How the forward march has been halted
Barely 100 days after scoring a stunning Lok Sabha victory, the Bharatiya Janata Party has suffered its third successive- and heaviest- defeat in state Assembly byelections. Of the 33 Assembly seats where elections were held in nine states on 13 September, the BJP won just 12 seats, down from 25. It suffered a rout in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Rajasthan, and sustained losses in Gujarat- the very states that had voted it overwhelmingly to national power in May.

Barring West Bengal, where it won an Assembly seat on its own for the first time ever, the BJP made no gains whatever. Of the three Lok Sabha seats where byelections were held, it retained one (Vadodara), but with a margin reduced by a whopping 2.4 lakh votes. It lost the other two, Mainpuri in UP and Medak in Telangana, to its rivals. Mainpuri, vacated by Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav, was retained by the party through his grand-nephew.

Earlier, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance had lost byelections first in Uttarakhand, and then in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Punjab. But this is the worst blow so far. It brings the BJP’s score in the 54 Assembly byelections held since May from 36 down to 20 seats.

The BJP lost three of nine seats in Gujarat. Gujarat got a national-level political identity thanks to Narendra Modi’s election as Prime Minister, and was considered invincible by the recently installed BJP national president Amit Shah. The BJP also lost three of the four seats it held in Rajasthan. Evidently, voters in these states don't think very highly of their new BJP chief ministers.

These reverses were significant because Assembly byelections tend to favour incumbent parties especially the ones that also rule nationally. Even worse was the BJP and ally Apna Dal’s performance in UP, where they had won a staggering 73 of 80 Lok Sabha seats only four months ago. Last week, they lost eight out of the state’s 11 Assembly byelections.

The Samajwadi Party, which fought in adverse circumstances related to its poor governance record in UP, scored a remarkable victory. Not only did it trounce the Apna Dal in Rohaniya, which falls within Modi’s Varanasi parliamentary constituency, where he won a huge victory last May. It polled over 43 per cent of the vote in UP, or about double its normal vote-share, and an impressive 26 percentage-points higher than in May.

This could only have happened because a large number of MBCs (the most backward of OBCs, as the low and middle castes are officially termed) and a good proportion of Dalits, who had voted for the BJP, switched over to the SP. These strata have been traditionally hostile to the SP because it represents, besides Muslims, the Yadavs, a relatively advanced and dominant OBC group, which they see as a greater adversary than the upper castes.

The SP won handsomely partly because the Bahujan Samaj Party didn’t contest the byelections, as it often doesn’t. But there’s no evidence that the BSP helped the SP by transferring its Dalit votes to it.
This carries a clear message to the BJP. Its earlier appeal to subaltern Dalit and MBC groups, especially the more aspirational and upwardly mobile among their youth, may be already fading. A well-managed campaign, like the one Yadav ran by carefully selecting Dalit and MBC candidates, while largely maintaining order and propriety, can give the BJP a run for its money.

More important, the BJP’s blatant efforts to polarise opinion communally through the 'love jihad' campaign, and the deployment of firebrand Hindutva icon, Gorakhpur MP Yogi Adityanath, and BJP state president Laxmikant Bajpayi, as its election organisers, did not work. At the same time, Muslim votes in UP did not get divided or scattered as they did in April-May, and damaged the BJP.

The BJP didn’t lose by default, however. The Sangh Parivar campaigned hard for it. To strengthen the BJP’s appeal to Dalits and OBCs, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat even declared support for caste-based reservations, which the Sangh opposes nationally. The RSS also became active in the 'Clean Ganga' campaign. As Allahabad-based political scientist Badri Narayan said, the BJP put its image at stake in the elections; 'if it loses even one of these 11 Assembly seats its image will be badly tarnished.'

That’s what happened- eight times over. The blame lies not with the BJP’s local campaigners, but squarely with Shah, in-charge of strategy and tactics in all the byelections. 'Love jihad' probably put off many young people, who resent censorship by self-appointed Hindutva puritans. So did the BJP’s attempt to bludgeon Dalits into submission by installing loudspeakers in village temples in Moradabad district.

Whether the shift in public, especially subaltern, opinion in UP lasts or not, it is taking place and offers the opposition new opportunities to take on the BJP. That is itself important. As is the fact that a party which won a huge Lok Sabha majority is losing so many byelections within months. Such major reverses didn’t happen with the Janata Dal in 1989 or the Congress in 1980 or 1984, which continued to score major victories in the byelections that followed.

At any rate, Modi’s forward march has been halted. The BJP no longer has the domineering advantage it enjoyed for the past year and is suddenly looking vulnerable. Whether the opposition can seize the opportunity this offers, remains an open question. But it would be foolish not to adopt a more combative stance on issues of policy and governance, of which Modi is making a mess.

These include tabling a deeply flawed judicial accountability Bill, the senseless sacking of Governors, dismantling of the Planning Commission, arbitrary changes in the rules for senior bureaucratic appointments, Modi’s headmaster-like policing of his ministers, his teachers’ day address whose broadcast to schoolchildren was made compulsory, and the appointment of an undistinguished academic and obscurantist RSS supporter as the head of the Indian Council of Historical Research.

Even more deplorable are the moves under way to grant clearances to industrial, mining and irrigation projects in areas around tiger reserves, national parks and sanctuaries without awaiting approvals by the National Wildlife Board; doing away with the need for the consent of tribals for opening forests to miners seeking to prospect in their traditional lands; and clearances to divert forest lands for roads, buildings and other facilities, without seeking additional approvals.

In just three months, the environment ministry has cleared 240 of the 325 project proposals pending before it- without due diligence or stipulation of compliance conditions and their monitoring. It is ushering in a whole new regime of diluted environment appraisal and clearance, and dismantling essential regulations. Promoters of ‘linear’ projects like irrigation canals, power lines and highways can now cut down forests even before the final clearance is secured.

Such measures will further impoverish already vulnerable and dirt-poor tribals, systematically destroy what’s left of India’s forests, undermine biodiversity, and make disasters like the current floods in Jammu and Kashmir inevitable and more frequent, besides causing more water and air pollution. Nothing can more effectively ensure environmental destruction which, says the World Bank, costs India 5.7 per cent of its national income annually- the same as its GDP growth rate!  
The Modi government’s systematic attack on a whole range of institutions must be resisted by all Indian political parties and concerned citizens. They would do well to pay heed to what the eminent jurist Fali S Nariman recently said, 'Whilst I welcome [Modi’s] single-party majority government, I also fear it. I fear it because of past experience with a majoritarian government in the 1960s ad 1970s: when the then all-Congress government had unjustifiably imposed the internal emergency of June 1975. And rode roughshod over the liberties of citizens.'

He added, 'Traditionally Hinduism has been the most tolerant of all Indian faiths. But recurrent instances of religious tension fanned by fanaticism and hate-speech have shown that the Hindu tradition of tolerance is showing signs of strain. And let me say this frankly- my apprehension is that Hinduism is somehow changing its benign face because, and only because, it is believed and proudly proclaimed by a few (and not contradicted by those at the top): that it is because of their faith and belief that Hindus have been now put in the driving seat of governance.'

What Nariman is talking about is the threat posed by majoritarianism to India’s democratic Constitution. It grants equal civil-political rights to all citizens, and casts a special duty upon the state to protect the religious minorities against the excesses that a majority charged with religious-communal fervour might inflict upon them.

That’s the precise danger that the Sangh Parivar poses today. It must be brought to heel by legal means, through anti-BJP election campaigns, and popular mobilisations that defend and promote the secular ideals of tolerance of difference and diversity. IPA
Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai

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