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Modi gets ready for the Battle of 2024

By Arun Bhatnagar
February 26, 2021 16:04 IST
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'The BJP's all-India plans can be expected to become clearer around 2022-2023, particularly if -- as some anticipate -- the senior Congress leadership cracks, broadly as between the Nehru-Gandhi loyalists and those who may be termed 'pro-changers',' observes Arun Bhatnagar, a retired IAS officer.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi being garlanded by Bharatiya Janata Party leaders at a rally ahead of the assembly election in Puducherry, February 25, 2021. Photograph: R Senthil Kumar/PTI Photo
 

Lal Bahadur Shastris slogan, 'Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan', electrified the nation in the mid-1960s and is as relevant today as it was then. It is key to unity and growth alike.

The next few months could be critical for the future of Indian politics.

Shortly after the Biden-Harris administration took office in Washington, DC, a disengagement of troops and armaments commenced in India's frontier with China in Ladakh. President Biden had criticised Beijing's aggressive stance towards its neighbours, including India and Taiwan.

Now, after making a political choice on the disengagement, the Indian authorities have to deal with the strategic consequences. American pressure is said to have triggered China's sudden move which came as a surprise to many who are generally in the know.

When two nations, a superior power and a less influential partner, happen to be in the process of converting from friends to allies -- as the United States and India currently are -- there is usually an underlying element of reciprocity.

Consequently, from India's side, Internet connectivity in Jammu and Mashmir was restored and Union Home Minister Amit Shah went so far as to say that J&K could revert to statehood; in other words, the Umnion Territory status is not permanent.

Much before winning her vice-presidential position, Kamala Harris had reminded Kashmiris that they are 'not alone in the world'.

Prior to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's participation in a EU-India Summit in May in Portugal, a delegation of New Delhi-based heads of mission, including some from the seldom friendly Organisation of Islamic Cooperation visited J&K, the arrangements having been made by the government.

While a former chief minister, Omar Abdullah, thinks that such 'guided tours' can serve no useful purpose, the delegation's views on the ground situation are expected to figure in the deliberations at the India-EU summit.

The disengagement in Ladakh -- if it endures -- is likely to redound to the Bharatiya Janata Party's credit.

Officials in New Delhi assert, on condition of anonymity, that the government is sticking to its guns on the high value deal with Russia for S-400 air defence systems, despite reports of possible US sanctions -- an issue with the potential of becoming an early irritant in ties with the Biden-Harris dispensation.

There are other worrying factors as well.

Districts that are home to magnificent ex-soldiers are in the throes of demonstrations against the new farm laws and kisan mahapanchayats have been organised at several places. What distinguishes the present movement from earlier ones is the inability to vilify the unrest in the name of religion or nationalism.

An incumbent chief minister has warned of events like Operation Bluestar (1984); a veteran politician (Sharad Pawar, Nationalist Congress Party) said he had not heard of nails being embedded in roads even under the British and pointed to the dangers of the agitation turning violent and becoming a global issue.

It may be recalled that the seeds of the terrible tragedy of Jallianwala Bagh (April 13, 1919) were sown by the Rowlatt Acts, named after Sir Sidney Rowlatt, English lawyer and judge, who chaired a sedition committee to evaluate the links between political terrorism in India.

The Acts, which extended the repressive measures of World War I, were met by sweeping anger and discontent among Indians, notably in the then undivided Punjab. That Baisakhi day, the firing at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar killed several hundred people and wounded many hundreds more. The Acts were never actually implemented and were repealed in 1922.

Lately, a Khalistan supporter in Vancouver (Canada) ranted: 'If the farm acts get repealed tomorrow, that is not a victory. This battle begins with the repeal of the farm laws. It does not end there. Anybody who tells you that this is going to end with the repeal of the farm laws is trying to drain energy from the movement.'

Modi has stated in the Rajya Sabha, while replying to the motion of thanks on the President's address, that his predecessor, Dr Manmohan Singh, had also pitched for a single market to sell agricultural produce. He said those who were now taking a U-turn on the farm laws may want to agree with Dr Singh, if not with him.

Dr Singh has maintained silence.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh top brass are best placed to assess the political implications and the impact on India's image abroad. They are believed to have expressed concerns about the loss of seats in the Jat belt in Haryana, Rajasthan and western Uttar Pradesh, if the farmers' agitation continues.

Predictably, the Congress has won the civic polls in Punjab.

The protests have been on the streets and could spread. The least that needs to be done is to ensure that the resentment does not escalate further and that Sikhs, Jats, Yadavs, indeed the entire rural population, do not feel cornered.

Some 120 million Indians lost jobs last year. Their lives and the futures of their children could have been destroyed. Most people who became unemployed found ways and means to survive without the government's intervention.

The results of the assembly elections to be held in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Assam in the coming months will have an important bearing on the state polls to follow (including in UP, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh) and, indeed, on the 2024 outcome.

Should Mamata Banerjee retain power in her province -- where she has been CM for a decade -- she will, with the backing of Arvind Kejriwal, sections of the southern leadership and others, be a frontrunner in the race for prime ministership in a non-BJP alliance, with or without the Grand Old Party.

Despite advancing age, Sharad Pawar remains a formidable opponent of the BJP. He first became the Maharashtra CM in July 1978 by forming a coalition government that brought down the Congress ministry headed by Vasantdada Patil. His government was dismissed in February 1980 after Indira Gandhis return to power at the Centre.

As for the BJP, buoyed by its electoral successes, organisational strength and the work of the RSS cadres, it is already being seen as the winner in the next Lok Sabha verdict. That the party is in full election mode was evident when the prime minister recently laid the foundation stone of a memorial to Maharaja Suheldev (the 11th century warrior king of Shravasti), Bahraich district.

The Rajbhar and Pasi communities, which have considerable clout in Purvanchal (a geographic sub-region of UP and Bihar that is within the larger Bhojpuri region) consider themselves as the maharaja's descendants.

The BJP's all-India plans can be expected to become clearer around 2022-2023, particularly if -- as some anticipate -- the senior Congress leadership cracks, broadly as between the Nehru-Gandhi loyalists and those who may be termed 'pro-changers'. It should not be surprising if certain masterstrokes come into play in terms of the BJP's choice of nominees for the top two offices of the Republic next year.

A Kashmiri Muslim face (killing several birds with one stone) would fit the bill admirably. Although unlikely, what could also occur is a repeat of the Rajendra Prasad-Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan formula of 1957, that is, second terms for both the President and the vice president.

Political parties in India have won elections through the manipulation of identities, the minorities, caste and region. For the first time since Independence, farmers are demolishing the sub-identities.

Sooner or later, the super-billionaires and the ultra-rich may find that the battle is coming to an end and that they count for less and less in the governance of India.

India's long nurtured democratic exceptionalism can be jeopardised and the impact could also be external if the signs of a creeping authoritanarism are not arrested quickly enough.

A democracy which begins to largely speak with one voice, which privileges obedience over freedom and in which the inherent checks on executive power are steadily weakened, is a contradiction in terms.

Elections alone do not define the core of democratic functioning.

Warning signals are visible in the country today.

Growing disenchantment with the conventional political class is providing a chance to an alternative leadership to emerge from the rural areas and from different sections of society, from villages and towns, from professionals, scientists, writers, engineers, doctors and journalists so as to partially fill the space vacated by the power centres.

The country needs younger men and women of calibre, integrity and dedication to guide its destiny.

The moment is theirs to seize.

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