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Why 'Bulldozer Politics' Won't Work

April 25, 2022 10:24 IST

The Modi leadership could lose Election 2024 if a communal flare-up becomes cause for all-round catastrophe, warns N Sathiya Moorthy.

IMAGE: The demolition underway at Jahangirpuri, New Delhi, April 20, 2022. Photograph: PTI Photo

The Supreme Court's stay of further demolition in Delhi's Jahangirpuri area, in the name of clearing unauthorised constructions, may have brought a reprieve to the residents for now, but the judiciary may not be the final arbiter to the larger, unasked questions behind what seems to be a motivated and calculated action aimed at silencing a section of the population more than already.

How the polity and the people alike move from here on such matters, and not stopping with Delhi, would decide the future design and texture of the national fabric, which has begun fraying at the ends since the Bharatiya Janata Party-National Democratic Alliance government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed office in 2014.

It is nobody's case that unauthorised structures should not be removed.

But the timing reads extremely suspicious in the aftermath of the preceding event as the locality had witnessed avoidable communal clashes only days earlier.

Also, as the Supreme Court quizzed the attorney general, whether bulldozers had to be used to remove such illegal constructions/encroachments.

The unasked question at this stage is if such unauthorised structures did not exist in other parts of the municipal corporation area, and why Jahangirpuri alone was chosen for the 'demolition treatment'.

It does not stop there. Granting that the municipal corporation's drive was above religion and other socio-political considerations, common sense dictated that you did not chose a communally sensitive locality especially after the recent clashes and arrests, for a treatment like this at this juncture.

If the idea was to make an example of one locality so that violators in other areas got the message and cleared the encroachments themselves, again it was a wrong locality to begin from.

Again, the corporation has not informed the court, at least thus far, that it was only such an exercise and the insensitive choice of the locality did not have any motives, or was based on instructions/inspiration from elsewhere.

Instructions, there is no knowing about it at present. Inspiration, yes.

It had begun in BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh, then spread to neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, also under the party's care.

If the message presages the Ayodhya temple inauguration, which is not unlikely before elections 2024, by months, definitely, it comes closer to the assembly polls in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat later this year.

The comparison with the hijab ban row in Karnataka ahead of the multi-day UP assembly polls earlier this year is unavoidable.

Given the nature of incidences of the kind reported from across the country over the past years, it is difficult to dismiss them all as accidental and not as 'political coincidence'.

The irony of the times is that very few in the media drew the inevitable comparison with the infamous Turkman gate demolitions during the Emergency era (1975-1977).

Jagmohan, among the long list of Sanjay Gandhi's bureaucratic-henchmen, who presided over the demolition as chairman of the Delhi Development Authority, had the dubious distinction of later becoming the governor of Jammu and Kashmir and a minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government.

The knowledge quotient or the lack of it in young media professionals is what the political class bets on, unless some political party makes a reference for them to take off.

In this case, the Opposition Congress is still too embarrassed to make that reference.

The Jahangirpuri demolitions came at a time when the nation was celebrating External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar standing up to 'US bullying' on human rights issues.

This is not to suggest that some arms of the Delhi municipal administration drew encouragement -- as different from inspiration -- from Jaishankar's stance.

The fact that the UP-MP demolitions came around the time, but the former at least ahead of the EAM's posturing, too, should not be misread.

Yet, there is no escaping the possibility of Western interests taking note of the goings-on on the communal front in India.

It is one thing for concerned sections of the US administration continuing the pass strictures on such issues, and another for the Biden administration continuing to do business with India as usual.

At the moment, the US administration is more concerned about India's dealings with Russia at the height of the Ukraine War than allegations of human rights violations nearer home.

But there are B-Teams and C-Teams of the US, whose sensitivities to human rights violations are even more -- and demonstrative in more ways than one.

Any of them or many of them can haul up India before the UNHRC coals or elsewhere, first owing to their sensitivities and two, to domestic political compulsions.

Suffice to point out that decades after the Air India Kanishka bombing (1985), successive governments in Canada and all sections of the nation's polity have been hobnobbing with identifiable Khalistani groups -- owing to both reasons.

This apart, there are human rights-sensitive nations in Europe, especially in the Scandinavian regions, who have funds to invest, but whose policies and politics can deter their investors from looking to India more than already.

The same applies to mainline European nations like Germany after a point.

At a time when Asian competition is high for the investments diverted from China, owing to Xi Jinping's 'expansionist' policies, New Delhi cannot afford to be casual in its approach to matters that matters to foreign investors, and more so their governments and societies.

Already, there are reports that investors are looking away from Karnataka, whose capital Bengaluru remains the 'IT capital' of India, after continual communal issues of the hijab ban kind.

Maybe, they will consider moving to more 'communally conducive' states like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, all in the immediate neighbourhood.

The Karnataka issue flows mainly from the immediate inconvenience and sense of discomfort, starting with those personal security while on road or at home, such controversies are bound to trigger.

Ideology would have to wait, but only so far.

Neither will be targeted at members of a particular community as believed.

Once a section of society feels insecure and threatened, there would be reasons -- real, imaginary and manufactured -- that could capture the unfathomable imagination of the rest in society.

That's when overnight migrations become a reality and unavoidable.

Remember, not very long ago, there was this wholesale migration of all employees from the North-East crowding railway stations across Karnataka to return home after a mischievous WhatsApp post created panic among them.

Intelligence agencies traced the origins of the WhatsApp message to Pakistan, clearly indicating that it was an ISI act.

That was in 2012, but a more sophisticated trending of the kind -- and its avoidable fallouts of every kind -- should not be ruled out, not just in Karnataka, or even UP, MP and Delhi, but all across the nation.

The irony is that the BJP does not require anything beyond PM Modi's unsullied image for winning elections as long as he wants.

If anything, it is episodes like cow vigilantism, lynching and the hijab ban and often unsubstantiated allegations of 'love jihad', that have the potential to lose votes for the party and even the leader, on a bad day.

His millennial bhakts may not know it, but Modi, as a up and coming RSS pracharak during the Indira Gandhi era, would have studied what cost her the fame and electoral fortune.

The Congress party's present crisis commenced with Indira Gandhi's downfall in the post-Emergency parliamentary polls of 1977.

She did return to power in the post-Janata 1980 polls, followed by Rajiv Gandhi's ascension for a single term (1984-1989) and Sonia Gandhi arresting the downslide in her time (2004-2014).

But the party never ever regained the confidence and comfort of the pre-Emergency Indira Gandhi days, be it the Bangladesh War (1971) or the 'railways strike' clamp-down (1974), whatever the reasons or justification for the latter.

The urban middle class, for instance, forms PM Modi's staunch followers, unpaid messengers and opinion-makers, a role that they had played for different political parties and leaders at different times.

It suits them all just now to be identified with Modi much more than with any leader in the past, be it Jawaharlal Nehru, or Indira Gandhi, or even Rajiv Gandhi and the Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh duo.

The BJP strategic team also has to remember that how the urban middle class hailed the Narasimha Rao-Manmohan Singh duo for the economic reforms when they were in power together (1991-1996) but did not vote in entirety for the ruling Congress party in elections '96.

They also had no hesitation in joining the BJP's well-coordinated social media, to lampoon the very same Manmohan Singh, now prime minister in his second term, in the long run-up to elections 2014 -- and since.

Whatever the time and period, the urban middle class does not want their comfort zone disturbed.

Their numbers have grown exponentially over the reform's era, so has their say in electoral politics. But their fickle-mindedness too has grown disproportionately high.

The BJP also has to remember that there is this post-millennial new generation of younger and first-time voters, whose priorities remains unclear and clouded -- and much different from the party's perceptions of the unaltered positions of Modi's millennial bhakts.

For instance, the post-millennial voters have arrived at the 'communal comfort' created for them in terms of 'religious supremacy' that their previous generation wanted to assert, and got to assert under the BJP rule at the Centre and in many states.

They will want more of something, and less of something else.

The BJP cannot assume it for them anymore, as they got used to do in elections 2019.

This apart, there is the traditional anti-BJP votes, whose numbers had not shrunk too much, but have only increased, in the all-important state of UP, in the recent assembly elections.

Maybe, it is still not the yardstick, but there is no corresponding benefit for the party in anti-BJP states like West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, respectively with 42 and 39 Lok Sabha seats.

The AAP victory in the Punjab assembly polls may have been packaged as anti-incumbency against the ruling Congress, but the stronger and more purposeful message is for the BJP at the Centre.

All of it only means that the BJP may have to revisit some of the past practices since 2014, and apply correctives if it has to continue to remain relevant to the young and old alike, as through the past years. Communal amity is one area in focus.

The party and the Modi leadership may not fail in elections 2024 if the Ayodhya temple was not consecrated in time as expected, but it can still lose if there is a communal flare-up that goes beyond polarising the society on socio-political lines and becomes a cause for all-round catastrophe.

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and author, is a Chennai-based policy analyst and commentator.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/