Pavan K. Varma | Post Ayodhya euphoria, will govt be called to account?

The Asian Age.  | Pavan K Varma

Opinion, Columnists

The over-reliance on Prime Minister Modi in the campaign raises questions about the party's leadership dynamics.

BJP supporters wear masks of Prime Minister Narendra Modi during Union Home Minister Amit Shah's public meeting ahead of Lok Sabha polls, in Noida, Saturday, April 13, 2024. (PTI Photo/Arun Sharma)

In the perception of most people, the 2024 national elections seem to be a foregone conclusion: victory for the BJP. There can be differences about the estimate of its win, but few doubt the eventual result. 

The reasons for this are well-known: the continued popularity of Narendra Modi, the organisation and financial muscle of the BJP, the existence of a narrative and, above all, the absence of a credible Opposition at the pan-India level. In this scenario, the Congress must take the maximum blame, for it is the only Opposition party which still has a semblance of a pan-Indian footprint. If it had reinvented itself in time, it could have become the fulcrum of Opposition unity. But the party remains in drift, with a near defunct organisation, and an inept leadership, surrounded by a largely rootless coterie.  

However, in recent weeks, some of the BJP’s actions have also left me a little perplexed. Hindutva is its central card. In its political avatar, Hindutva is the blatant use of gaining political dividends by arousing emotional fervour in support of the Hindu faith. All practising Hindus rejoiced at the prana pratishtha of the newly built, grand Ayodhya temple. This was the consequence of a Supreme Court (SC) judgement, but it was only to be expected that the BJP would take the credit, especially since the fractured Opposition had no strategy to counter it.

But there appears a nascent feeling that the BJP’s Hindutva narrative — supported by the Prime Minister’s unending temple darshans — is reaching saturation point. At some time, after the initial euphoria of the Ayodhya temple abates, voters will ask what the government is doing about issues like unemployment, prices, education, healthcare and rising inequality. There is a certain point up to which aastha can be used to deflect attention from legitimate issues of governance. Has that point been reached?

Similarly, the consistent strategy of polarising voters on grounds of religion is fast acquiring a fatiguing predictability. It had resonance initially, but the constant drum beat of Hindu-Muslim vitriol, amplified by large sections of the media, is gradually becoming distasteful and losing its appeal. Most Indians do not like endemic social instability, or unending communal strife. They want to get on with their lives, and move away from the perennial fear of violence, especially on Hindu or Muslim festivals. There is also the realisation that, given the size and geographical spread of the minorities, coexistence is ultimately in the self-interest of Indians themselves. Besides, many Indians worry about the nation’s national image, and fear that social disharmony may affect economic growth and prosperity, and marginalise other major problems that urgently need to be tackled.   

Thirdly, the BJP’s shrill war cry against corruption, is also fast losing conviction. The goal is laudable, but by now, so many of the allegedly corrupt, against whom the party had launched extensive campaigns of protest, have joined the BJP. The proverbial “washing machine” is working overtime in full public view, and people have begun to wonder whether the BJP is fighting against corruption or motivated by political expediency, providing a haven to those it had itself vociferously accused of corruption.

The total amorality involved in this process is causing revulsion. The number of those who were attacked for corruption, find the ruling party, whose rousing roar was na khaaonga na khane doonga, with its arms wide open to welcome them. It may appear that these double-standards escape the people’s attention, but the junta is not so blind or undiscerning, and the indignation, even if in whispers, is building.

There is a growing perception too that the relentless attack by agencies like the ED, CBI and income tax (I-T) targeting the Opposition, has become excessive. It cannot be a coincidence that the overwhelming number of those investigated or punished by these agencies are opposed to the ruling party. Since 2014 there has been a four-fold increase in the number of cases filed by investigative agencies against politicians. Of these, 95 per cent are against Opposition leaders. Of the 125 prominent leaders booked, raided, questioned or arrested, 115 are from the Opposition. 

I am not commenting on the merits of the case. Perhaps, they are guilty. But to argue that courts not giving them bail is proof of their culpability, is specious because Section 45 of the Prevention of Money Laudering Act (PMLA), reverses the presumption of innocence. To grant bail the judge has to believe that the accused is prima facie not guilty, before the case has been argued on merits, or sometimes even a chargesheet filed. The result is that the judicial process itself becomes the punishment, with those opposed to the regime spending months if not years languishing behind bars.

Two sitting chief ministers — Arvind Kejriwal and Hemant Soren — have been arrested; the funds of the Congress Party are under lien and huge I-T penalties imposed; and almost every Opposition leader is being summoned by the ED, even after the elections have been announced. Meanwhile, according to the Association of Democratic Reforms, 24 ministers in the Modi Cabinet have charges of serious criminal cases against them, including robbery, attempt to murder and murder, but no investigation seems to have been initiated. In fact, I wonder why the BJP needs this politics of “vendetta” — as the Opposition dubs it — considering that it is already likely to win the forthcoming elections.

Lastly, there are concerns when a political party focusses its entire campaign entirely on one individual. Prime Minister Modi’s popularity is undoubted.  But for the first time his party is almost entirely marginalised. Mr Modi is ubiquitous. The BJP has become invisible. The only slogan is “Modi ki Guarantee”. This over-reliance on only one individual, however electorally efficacious it may be considering the PM’s appeal, is dangerous, and contrary to the previous culture of the BJP where there was always a collegial leadership, with leaders like L.K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi — among others — participating in decision making under the leadership of Atal Behari Vajpayee.

None of the above will, so late in the day, materially change the fact that Mr Modi is likely to get a third term. However, change is afoot. The BJP must take heed, because the intelligence of the voter should never be taken for granted.