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Why Is The BJP Talking About Stability?

April 15, 2024 17:58 IST

'What should surprise BJP supporters is Modi's call for 'stability' at the manifesto launch, a theme that he and his team members had not touched ahead of the Lok Sabha polls in 2014 and 2019.'

'The last time the party called for 'stability at the Centre' was in 1998 and 1999,' recalls N Sathiya Moorthy.

IMAGE: Bharatiya Janata Party leaders Narendra D Modi, Amit A Shah, Rajnath Singh, Nirmala Sitharaman and J P Nadda release the BJP election manifesto for the Lok Sabha elections, April 14, 2024.Photograph: Shrikant Singh/ANI Photo

If someone thought that the Bharatiya Janata Party poll manifesto would go one up on the Congress's on social welfare, the party has stuck to ideological issues like the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and centralisation aspects like the party's one-nation-one-poll.

It looks deliberate as the Congress manifesto, published a fortnight earlier, promises everything to everyone without a one-liner branding like Sonia Gandhi's 'Aam Aadmi' from the victorious 2004 poll.

In a way, thus, the BJP manifesto has moved away from Narendra Modi's 'Achche Din' call from the very successful elections in 2014.

From the BJP's perspective, what needs doing on social welfare has already been done, and more has to be only in the form of the now promised extension of free rations for 800 million Indians for another five years.

It is a reflection on the buffer stocks that the nation has accumulated since the Green Revolution but utilising it in a way that much of it does not rot or go waste as rat-feed, and not even animal-feed, over time.

The Modi government has already implemented, and fairly successfully so, free housing scheme (originally launched for the Dalits since the Jawarhalal Nehru era) and also free LPG scheme, extending across rural and urban India, to help the womenfolk tied down to the hearth-smoke for generations and centuries.

The Congress begs to differ and has identified sector-specific areas where more need to be done to help people come out of the rut.

The party manifesto has thus promised Rs 100,000 per annum for the nation's poor families, whose numbers the party has put at a higher 230 million than the Modi government is ready to concede, Rs 100,000 a year apprenticeship for unemployed youth (on the lines of Indira Gandhi's '20-Point Programme' during the Emergency, 1975-1977), half of new government jobs for women, freedom for state governments to opt out of NEET and removing the 50 per cent upper-limit for all reservations in education and employment, as imposed by the Supreme Court in the Mandal case (Indra Sawhney vs Union of India, 1992).

On the face of it and even otherwise, all that the Congress has promised now is a replication of what rival Dravidian parties have done while in power in Tamil Nadu.

What the BJP has now promised, in the form of free electricity for the poor, is also what was in force in the state for a long time.

In the past, however, laissez-faire economists from the commencement of the reforms era in the early nineties, used to run down such schemes.

A decade later, they began citing Modi's 'Gujarat model' as chief minister, where the state government laid separate powerlines all across to separate free electricity for farmers from household supply, which got metered.

Two decades down the line, the 'Modi model' has now promised free power for all poor people -- a welcome step under what then Congress prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh described as 'reforms with a human face'.

But no one wants to acknowledge the achievements of UPA I and II on the social welfare front, starting with MNREGA that guaranteed a minimum of 100 days of work for rural poor at Rs 100 per day -- since increased but not as systematically implemented as earlier.

IMAGE: Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge, Sonia Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and other Congress leaders at the launch of the Congress manifesto in Jaipur, April 6, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

When you talk of social welfare schemes, you cannot escape the opprobrium that was sought to be imposed by the use of terms such as revdi and freebies with particular reference to Tamil Nadu.

A stand-alone example of free television sets, offered by the fourth government of DMK chief minister M Karunanidhi (1996-2001), came under the lens.

Yes, the quality of television sets that were distributed free was questionable but there was enough justification, considering that the reforms era had imposed higher costs on families, requiring more hands to earn -- as used to be said about unorganised sectors like agriculture in the socialist past.

With dual and multiple incomes becoming the norm for families in a developed and fast urbanising state like Tamil Nadu, funding free-time activities of families acquired a new meaning and purpose, which was not wholly understood by the 'other class'.

It was thus that economists and public policy analysts ran down Tamil Nadu's freebies culture and moved the Election Commission and the Supreme Court for them to ban or regulate the practice.

Institutional discourses and debate concluded that restrictions should be placed on political parties to identify the source of funding for the freebies promised in their poll manifestos, to substantiate their legitimacy.

As the Election Commission and the Supreme Court should have found out, no restriction or even codification of good freebies and bad freebies was possible, not when in Tamil Nadu, competing Dravidian governments had moved far ahead of the original free school education and noon-meal of the mid-1950s Congress rule under K Kamaraj, revived as tje 'Nutritious Noon Meal Scheme' with annual budgetary support under M G Ramachandran in the early 1980s, to include under-graduate education, free bicycles and laptops for college students, and much more.

Today, under three years of DMK Chief Minister M K Stalin, the state's women have got the promised Rs 1,000 per month (though there are hiccups that needed sorting out, still), free bus-ride all across, apart from supplemental free breakfast for primary school children.

The last one in particular has proved to be as purposeful as it is innovative -- as it has helped curb post-Covid drop-out rates, as children had got used to lazing around or families had begun relying on them as one more useful farm hand, to make that extra money that their families needed in a high-cost economy.

All of it has been over and above the existing and at times expanded scheme of pre- and post-natal medical care for expectant mothers and also the new-born, and the systematic way it is being implemented since introduction by then chief minister J Jayalalithaa and continued to this day by her AIADMK and DMK successors.

Included in this long list is also the prompt distribution of Covid-related cash assistance, distributed systematically at ration shops.

Incidentally, Tamil Nadu, then Madras, was among the few states where a subsidised ration system came into vogue early on, and its inept handling led to the defeat of the Congress rulers in 1967 and the DMK under Karunanidhi in 1991.

Of course, the Rajiv Gandhi assassination pushed all other electoral issues to the background, but even without it, the DMK would have found it difficult to regain power owing to similar follies and foibles, when in power for a short span (1989-1991).

The Congress's DMK ally Stalin lost no time in hailing the national party's manifesto as the 'Hero of Elections-2024'.

It was a repeat of his late father Karunanidhi's description of their DMK manifesto in 2006 assembly polls that the party-led alliance won.

But he too seems to have given up on propagating the idea after Congress leaders at the national level kept harping near-exclusively on an ideological battle between 'democracy and dictatorship' and spoke less about their promises and commitments on social welfare.

Against the Congress's commitments that could be implemented from day one if and if at all the INDIA combine, of which the party is a part, came to power, the BJP's set of 'minimal promises' (!) on the welfare front is limited to poor housing, free electricity and healthcare for senior citizens.

Launching the manifesto, Modi focussed, as has become his norm, on targeting the Congress rival more than talking about his 'achievements'.

Of course, the BJP is not tired of talking about Modi's 'achievements' of the past decade as PM and his 'guarantees' now -- to make the nation a developed one by 2047 -- a long time from now -- will help.

Incidentally, 'guarantees' in English is only a take-off from Modi's call for 'Vishwas', or trust, which formed a part of his poll-time one-liner in 2019.

Along with it all is the BJP's manifesto's reiteration of the party's known position and commitment to what critics describe still is a 'Hindutva agenda', but BJP ideologues claim are 'nationalist goals and commitments'.

The 'One Nation, One Vote' promise is one of them. This may have pushed other political pointers in the party's poll-time promises.

IMAGE: Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and DMK President M K Stalin at an election meeting in Coimbatore, April 12, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

The BJP manifesto's reference to a 2047 deadline for achieving Viksit Bharat, or a 'developed India', is interesting and/or intriguing.

It is the next stage in Modi's call for vikas, or future development -- one more in his catchy one-liners that kept propping up one after another, and also keep drowning the earlier one the same way.

Does it imply that the party wants as much time, and expects to be elected to power until at least then, for taking the nation all the way forward to greatness that it has outlined, and not detailed?

In his first and only news conference after the BJP-National Democratic Alliance swept the 2014 election, Modi talked about children who would be crossing 18 years -- an indirect indication of his intention to be around for long....

What should surprise BJP supporters is Modi's call for 'stability' at the manifesto launch, a theme that he and his team members had not touched ahead of the Lok Sabha polls in 2014 and 2019.

The last time the party called for 'stability at the Centre' accompanied by an appeal to 'give us a chance' was in 1998 and 1999, after the post-poll, anti-BJP, non-Congress governments (1996-1998) under then prime ministers H D Deve Gowda and I K Gujral had failed the nation on the 'stability issue'.

Both in 1998 and 1999, the BJP-NDA won, despite changing regional alliances, for instance, between the AIADMK and the DMK, in Tamil Nadu -- all of it in just one year.

The effect of Vajpayee's emotion-charged yet well-argued case in the Lok Sabha before losing the trust-vote just after 13 days in power 1996 hung on in the air and in the voter's mind for two-plus years and made the reference.

It was also the shortest term a government has been in power in free India.

When it comes to ideology, the BJP has always scored. When it comes to the economy, the Congress has out-smarted the other.

In the early nineties, the BJP thought it had scored with L K Advani's Ayodhya Rath Yatra and the consequent Mandal-Mandir row.

The Rajiv Gandhi assassination meant that the BJP did not win the 1991 polls.

Subsequently, the Congress government of then prime minister P V Narasimha Rao took the wind out of the BJP's sails, by taking the nation away from politics and towards economics -- in the form of the inevitable reforms that were waiting to happen.

A year later, the BJP's Ayodhya demolition did not help the party.

Instead, it only caused the immediate defeat of the party in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections in November 1993.

The religious-divide that the BJP had hoped for had already transformed further into a caste divide.

The Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance swept the assembly polls, but then did not stay for long.

The rest is all history. So was the fate of the Ayodhya Rath Yatra and Ayodhya demolition.

It had to wait for the advent of Narendra Modi as prime minister, and the Ayodhya consecration earlier this year -- and its post facto electoral advantage is still being measured.

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

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