Salute the despotic and trample the weak!

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By: Manas Chakraverty

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s slogan of “vocal for local” to make the country self-reliant was yet another ‘jumla’ (rhetoric) to divert the people’s attention from real issues. As Modi begins his eighth year in power, Shah’s poker-faced defence seems all the more telling. The jumla phenomenon offers a guide to understanding not just how India’s reigning populist campaigns but also how he governs—and why he keeps winning despite a series of major policy failures. The truth or falsity of his claims hardly seems to matter. What wins the day, and continues to win Modi elections, is his apparent intent, transmitted to a young, desperate population via carefully crafted jumlas. Modi said demonetization would “break the grip of corruption and black money” while ordinary citizens would only have to put up with “temporary hardships.” That didn’t turn out to be true. Official data shows that the policy didn’t achieve its goal of exposing criminals, as almost all the old currency was returned. Local reports later revealed that India’s central bankers had told Modi that the measure wouldn’t work. Much of the fallout landed on India’s poorest citizens. People lost their jobs as businesses went under or were forced to scale back their operations. For Modi’s opponents, demonetization looked like a classic jumla: a bold promise that proved economically ruinous for many Indians.

Yet, Modi’s popularity only increased. Not long after he upended the cash economy, his Bharatiya Janata Party won by a landslide in elections in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous and most electorally significant state. The strategy of engineering defections has been undoubtedly one of the most potent weapons in the BJP’s arsenal in recent times. But the Bengal experience is a rude reminder for the BJP that a ‘one-size fits all’ approach simply does not work in the diverse electoral landscape of India. The expansion of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) beyond the Hindi heartland after its victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha Elections, and its electoral victories in assembly polls in the unlikeliest of places, has been extensively discussed and analysed by political pundits in the last few years. While pundits may differ on a few points, few commentators or analysts will contest the argument that engineering defections has been a key component of the saffron party’s expansion plans. The BJP has been ruthlessly practical and not shied away from co-opting political heavyweights from rival camps. Many leaders who built their political capital by taking a strident anti-BJP stance are today mascots of the party in their respective states. With Himanta Biswa Sarma, Okram Ibobi Singh, and Pema Khandu the BJP has three CMs who cut their political teeth in the Congress. In the West Bengal election, BJP was viewed as a party of subaltern Hindu caste groups while West Bengal houses the elite who take great pride in the rich culture and heritage of Bengal. The Bengali asmita (pride) card worked here in favour of the Trinamool just like it worked in favour of the Modi-Shah duo in a tight contest in the last Lok Sabha election.

However, that is not the case so far as the states of the northeast are concerned. History stands testimony of the fact that in the north-eastern states it is a twin theory that works for the citizens. Either these states are ruled by their local parties who share a strong bond of proximity with the citizens or by the national party ruling at the Centre. The latter scenario depicts the mindset of the people that if the party who is in power at the Centre is also in power in the states, development, and funding will be smooth and impartial. But in reality, it is not always as expected as “there is a slip between the cup and the lip”. This very mindset also plays a decisive role in the minds of a section of its leaders of these states. These leaders or rather selfish achievers hardly have any principles or ethics of party ideology. They only hanker after power, status, and money and which is why when they foresee a dilemma in winning the next assembly elections so they change the party to which they are cock-sure of winning with a thumping majority to form the government. In a way they kick and trample the party in which they shaped their political platform and throwing aside all shame and criticism, they join the political party’s bandwagon, where the winds are in favour of the party’s win. They shamelessly start airing the ‘bad mouth’ of the party that paved their political citadel and glorify the party that guarantees them a secured future of their political career.

A classic example of this trend is, of course, Arunachal Pradesh. In the 2014 assembly polls, 42 of 60 legislative assembly members in the state were Congress leaders. Today, 47 of the MLAs are BJP leaders, most of whom were previously Congress politicians. In September 2016, Pema Khandu left Congress and joined the People’s Party of Arunachal Pradesh, which he left in December to ultimately join the BJP. Khandu is currently the chief minister of the state. His father, Dorjee Khandu, was formerly a Congress leader and also a much-respected chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh. The BJP is a cadre-based party and the Sangh Parivar prepares leaders for it. Though the BJP claims to be the second-largest party in terms of membership, the fact that it had to borrow leaders from the Congress to register a win, only exposes the inability of the RSS to produce a sufficient number of leaders to carry out the party’s plan towards making India ‘Congress-free’.

The worst affected by this trend are party workers, who feel cheated. They work hard for the party for long periods of time, but leaders from the opposition party come and take away the prize of chief ministerial or cabinet posts. The BJP may have formed the government in several states, but its organizational fabric in those states has weakened because the party has handed top posts to leaders who were not associated with the organization. Across the country, the BJP has fought elections by giving tickets to rebel Congress leaders rather than its own party cadre. This is rather termed as inorganic growth of the party which means the party lures leaders prepared by other parties. The elections are won on the back of those established leaders. These leaders are the celebrated leaders of the day who preferred to ‘Salute the despotic and trample the weak!’. (The author is the HR Manager, PEWS Group of Institutions, Guwahati. He can be reached at [email protected])

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