When it comes to scoring self goals, it seems no one comes close to India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)! Only eight months ago, as it stormed back into power winning 303 Lok Sabha seats silencing its critics and drubbing the entire spectrum of Indian opposition, the BJP seemingly just could not put its foot wrong.
Today, the party has boxed itself into a corner, under attack from all sides. A resurrected opposition is baying for its blood, making normal governance difficult in several States. Abroad, India’s ranking in the democratic index has fallen, as most countries recheck its secular credentials. Civil rights organisations are using harsher rhetoric in their reappraisal of India’s style of governance and HR record.
Nearer home, Bangladesh has turned markedly cooler towards India over the National Register of Citizens updating (NRC) and related matters.
As for the economy, the prolonged downturn is a major worry. Now, the already projected low GDP growth could dip further as foreign investors put potential schemes on hold, concerned over increasing violence and disruption of normal life in some areas during opposition protests. No wonder Delhi has started backpedalling on a few earlier decisions announced, relating to citizenship issues.
Why has such a general decline come about in an otherwise self-assured country within eight months?
The main reason most observers feel is the party’s tacit tolerance (amounting to near indulgence!) of Hindutva trends within itself. Former party chief Amit Shah certainly needs to answer some questions urgently, even as he bequeaths a highly disturbed political legacy to his successor Jagat Prasad Nadda. What may work for Nadda who hails from Himachal Pradesh is his relatively affable persona, an asset in a difficult situation.
But then, whether he has the personality or the stamina to hold such a large regimented party together, is not known. He faces a situation where the main vote winner Mr Narendra Modi’s image stands somewhat reduced although relatively unscathed, as the BJP yields ground to opposition for the first time since 2014.
Warning signs of its present decline appeared during the BJP’s enthusiastic support to the hysterically hyped Assam NRC campaign last during the past two years. Shah talked of throwing out ‘termites,’ referring to ‘illegally settled Bangladeshis’. Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal talked of herding people up in 10 new detention centres in addition to the six already existing, providing nothing but food and shelter! Ironically, the majority of the 1000-odd people corralled in the six centres, kept barely alive, are Hindus mostly from barely literate backward communities. Significantly, Assam officials did not find anything incongruous about letting their other relatives live normally as Indian citizens simply because they could furnish their documents while a few could not!
What is significant, yet always deliberately omitted from the hysterical anti-Bangladeshi narrative spewed over generations by hardline Assamiya community leaders, is that at no stage of official probes, the presence of ‘millions of infiltrators taking over Assam’ could be factually established! The recently concluded NRC ops, too have been no exception, as several thousands of people may be unable to prove their status out of a 32 million population,
The Assam NRC mountain produced a mouse. More Hindus than Muslims were not listed. The balloon of vicious propaganda burst. In contrast, reports of inhuman excesses against helpless poor Muslims and Hindus began circulating in Indian media and abroad. India’s secular democratic multi-ethnic image took a beating. Modi went silent on tracing out Bangladeshis, but Shah continued to pour venom, ignoring all warnings and critical reports on the Assam NRC. The BJP and its allies in Karnakata Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland all pressed for the NRC to ‘weed out illegal infiltrators.’
As Shah continued his shrill aggressive rant, the BJP did not adopt a policy of review or restraint. The Supreme Court too did not much help the oppressed. Intellectuals led by Sanjoy Hazarika and Harsh Mander petitioned all authorities to ensure fair play.
Now months later, the long-simmering discontent among millions of people, mostly Muslims, has turned into anger, in states beyond Assam. This is a direct outcome of the vicious BJP campaign on the Assam NRC.
Only Himanta Biswa Sarma, BJP Minister of Assam, has displayed his statesmanship by admitting that Assamiya hardliners have harmed their own state. Unfortunately, the BJP central leaders who would have done better to follow his lead have remained silent. In their collective hubris, BJP leaders underestimated the force of public reaction over the Assam NRC and its highly negative fallout in Bangladesh as well as on Indian Muslims elsewhere.
Now Shah is silent, leaving Nadda to sort out the mess he has created. It takes Union Minister of Environment Mr Prakash Jadvekar to concede that answering official inquiries about anyone’s parents’ birth records would be optional, not mandatory, for surveys like National Population Register(NPR). Another concession announced under pressure was that CAA applicants can get citizenship on the basis of affidavits immediately, no more waiting periods of 5/6 years for them.
Such concessions made under pressure, confirming a general sloppiness in policy implementation, generate fresh questions. Why such a major nation-building exercise was not better aforethought and discussed? Why were protests from common people ignored? Now, these hapless people have flocked in strength under opposition party banners in Bengal, Delhi, UP and elsewhere and the BJP is busy dousing political fires. Its dream of finding ‘millions of illegal Bangladeshis’ would never be fulfilled, not even in Assam.
For the moment, it is an open question whether the BJP is actually fascist, or whether as some observers assert (Nobel Laureate Abhijit Banerjee among them), there are some ‘signs of fascism’ in India. The strongest evidence of this is the BJP’s apparently insane insistence on pushing through NRC updating exercise nationally. Announcing concessions is politically sensitive, but it remains unclear how much space the ruling party will have to yield, with major elections coming up in Delhi and Bihar.
Given his successful track record, it may appear sacrilegious to suggest that former party president (now Home Minister) Shah be held largely accountable for the bad times the BJP finds itself in. Shah prides himself, as do his countless followers in the BJP and beyond, on his determination and hardline approach to the most difficult of issues and challenges.
This not to deny that as ex-party President he deserves major credit for making the BJP the strongest and overwhelmingly dominant political force in India. On several occasions, the BJP’s firmness, for instance, it's ending of the special status for Kashmir and the abolition of the Tin talaq system for Muslim women--- effectively forestalled any negative fallout in India, despite desperate efforts made by the frustrated opposition to milk political mileage, pandering to Orthodox Muslims.
Such assertiveness was carried further by India responding more than adequately by countering the massive Pulwama terrorist attack with a stronger punitive strike well inside Pakistan territory itself, after announcing Delhi’s decision to hit back to the world! Such boldness in the region had never been seen from India after 1970-71. No wonder the BJP’s stock rose higher by the day, at home and abroad.
So far so good. But as with Hitler and the Nazis, Shah went too far. The art of knowing where and when to stop is no less important than any proactive initiative. In sum, the BJP failed to assess the damage caused by the scandalously misconducted NRC updating exercise in Assam.
The party must regroup, reassess its options and take urgent steps to defuse the present crisis. Its concessions are a good sign that it is finally listening to public opinion. In addition to reconciliatory words, there must be a follow up in terms of official measures to restore the peoples’ faith. It is a major relief that until 2024, the party has ample time and options at its disposal to achieve a turnaround.