If Sinha's criticism gives credence to the view within the party that its members are afraid to speak up, it can do long-term damage, says A K Bhattacharya.
The decision of senior leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party Yashwant Sinha to attack the Narendra Modi government has understandably rattled its top leadership.
However, Sinha’s criticism of the way the economy has been allowed to decline is perhaps the least of the problems facing the BJP leadership.
It should be more worried for two other reasons.
One, Sinha has argued that he must speak up now because 'a large number of people in the BJP and elsewhere are not speaking up' because they are afraid. Make no mistake about this. This is a serious charge and it is levelled against the top leadership of the party and the government.
Democracy within the party is a feature that the BJP has always taken pride in and has even cited as a key differentiator with the Congress, where dynastic rule has snuffed out all traces of democracy.
Now that a senior leader like Sinha says that several party leaders are not speaking up out of fear, the pressure will be on BJP president Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi to respond to this specific criticism.
The question that comes up is whether the two will agree on engaging with members of the party and the government to ascertain if Sinha's charges have merit.
Two, it appears that Sinha's attack does not even spare the prime minister. He cites the example of how in the first round of his cabinet formation, Atal Bihari Vajpayee had decided not to induct either Jaswant Singh or Pramod Mahajan as they were not members of the Lok Sabha, even though the two were very close to the then prime minister.
The purpose of quoting what Vajpayee did in 1998 is to show how Modi chose a different governance model by opting for Arun Jaitley as finance minister in spite of the latter having lost the Lok Sabha election.
Yes, Jaitley comes in for attack for allowing the economy to decline. But Sinha blames Modi first for having given up the old principle of choosing his cabinet members from only those who won their Lok Sabha elections.
Modi may well be able to defend his choice of Jaitley, but no senior BJP leader had so far raised questions about the prime minister's decisions. Sinha is the first to do so and this may start a trend that the BJP leadership may find a bit troubling as it prepares for the general elections in 2019.
In contrast, Sinha's attack on economic issues will be less challenging for the BJP as far as its impact on politics and the ruling party's electoral fortunes are concerned.
This is because slowing growth is yet to become an effective election-winning slogan in India. The glitches in the roll-out of the goods and services tax have certainly caused distress, but these are transitional problems and will get ironed out over the next six months to one year.
It is debatable if lower growth numbers and GST-led disruption can become a potent election issue.
What the BJP leadership should be more worried about are inflation and charges of corruption against the government.
So far, inflation has not yet become a cause for concern. But if crude oil prices remain firm or rise further, the dangers of inflation will loom large, causing an adverse impact on the BJP's electoral prospects.
Rising food prices can be another source of popular distress and can result in an adverse political verdict against the ruling party. The government should, therefore, keep a close watch on inflation.
Corruption, too, has not made any impact on the Modi government's performance in the last three and a half years.
No corruption scandal has so far implicated any top political leader in the government, although it could be argued that it may be a bit too early in the life of this government.
Usually, corruption cases surface after the fourth or fifth year of a government's tenure. Nevertheless, the government has to be on its guard on corruption, which, as far as electoral prospects are concerned, can be as damaging as rising inflation.
The lessons the BJP must draw from Sinha’s attack are, therefore, both in the realm of politics and the way the government manages inflation and fights corruption.
If Sinha's criticism gives credence to the view within the party that its members are afraid to speak up, it can do long-term damage.
Similarly, as far as improving its electoral prospects in 2019 is concerned, the BJP leadership should worry less about GDP growth or GST, but more about inflation or corruption charges. Voters worry more about prices and corruption, than growth rates or a new tax system.
Photograph: PTI Photo.