India File

Something’s churning

Poornima Joshi | Updated on December 31, 2018

The New Year heralds an election season marked by yearning, anger, uncertainty — and above all, hope. Poornima Joshi reports

Neelabh Dubey is a young tax lawyer whose Twitter account recommends the latest works by new-age left-wing economist and former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis. It celebrates Justice S Muralidhar’s landmark judgement convicting Congress leader Sajjan Kumar for the 1984 anti-Sikh riots by posting a video of the dogged champion of the victims’ cases, human rights lawyer H S Phoolka, after the pronouncement.

It would have been difficult to imagine this left-leaning lawyer in the dirt and scum of electoral politics if it wasn’t for the testimony — the manifesto Dubey and a team of spirited party workers produced for the Congress in Chhattisgarh in the just-concluded Assembly elections.

Dubey worked with the Congress veteran TS Singh Deo for over six months, travelling in each district of the tribal State, to listen to one lakh people to produce this document that envisages universal health care, a spurt in State expenditure on health and, of course, steps to boost agricultural income in the years to come.

Driving his personal car to remote areas in Bastar, Dubey’s sole focus was to push the Congress’s stuttering organisation and cadre base to recognise what he feels should be focus areas for a more pro-poor policy planning.

“It would have been strange even for me to think of working with the Congress. But if we are thinking of change, we cannot just talk about it. We have to work with the existing realities and one of these realities is that we don’t have a viable political alternative beyond the Congress and the BJP. I can’t imagine working with a regressive force like the BJP so that leaves me with the Congress. And here I am, for what it’s worth,” says Dubey.

A tangible result of this work is the Christmas Eve announcement by the Chhattisgarh government that 1,764.61 hectares of private land, owned by 1,707 tribal farmers in Bastar region that was acquired for a Tata steel project that never took off is now going to be returned to their owners.

“We’re not doing them a favour. This is the law of the land. This is what we promised to the people,” says Dubey, whose singular focus in the coming months is to push the Health Ministry, now under TS Singh Deo’s charge, to implement the Universal Health Care model that people so urgently need.

In the throes of change

At the dawn of the New Year, which will witness general elections in the summer, the hope and promise that candidate Narendra Modi ignited in his election as Prime Minister in 2014 has seemingly dissipated in his party’s loss in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan that sent as many as 62 MPs to the Lok Sabha of the total 65 parliamentary seats in these Hindi heartland States.

But a microscopic look at who and what contributed to this change in the national mood indicates India may still surprise the prophets of doom with its intent to reinvent even a structure so decrepit and symbolic of the rotten state of affairs as the Congress.

Short of churning, there’s now a sense of fluidity in the political system, brought upon by a polity that never loses hope.

From the inspired bunch of activists who have thrown their lot for building public education system in Delhi with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)’s formidable duo — Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia and the young firebrand Aatishi Marlena who is set to contest the East Delhi Lok Sabha seat — to former President of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU)’s student union Sandeep, who is quietly working with the Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s team, and Akshay Labroo who was prompted by Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman — with whom he worked as a trainee fresh out of his graduate year from Ramjas college — into breaking through to the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) this year, politics in India is decidedly being changed by the young and the hopefuls.

They frame the social media discourse and pose certain questions to structured corporate or big business channels who tend to guide mass media and television discourse in a certain direction.

Without an exception, they all believe that Indian elections, including the recent Assembly polls, reflect the common voter’s aspiration for a change in status quo and a hope for the future.

2014 was, as BJP leader Sudhanshu Mittal, himself a committed Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) activist in his time, told BusinessLine during the last general elections, a “Year of Hope” for India.

“Narendra Modi has the hope factor riding with him. You cannot compete against that in India,” Mittal said.

The country decidedly voted against the Congress but it also voted positively for Modi’s promise of Achche Din, earning the BJP a majority in the Lok Sabha, the first time for a government in three decades. The PM carried this momentum into successive elections in Haryana, Maharashtra and Jharkhand where the BJP swept to power soon after the Lok Sabha elections in 2014.

And then came Arvind Kejriwal whose promise of change swept out the Congress and reduced the BJP to just three seats while the AAP won a staggering 67 out of 70 seats in the Delhi Assembly elections in February 2015, just months after the Lok Sabha polls.

Nitish Kumar’s track record in governance, coupled with Lalu Prasad Yadav’s caste arithmetic, again broke the Modi spell to bring the Mahagathbandhan to power in Bihar Assembly elections later in 2015. In all these elections, the ebb and flow of hope floated with the leader who showed a promise for the future.

‘People have spoken’

If the young participants in the dynamic process that is direct elections are to be believed, what transpired in the December 2018 Assembly polls is a reflection of the popular disenchantment with the promise of Achche Din and guiding of the discourse towards issues of livelihood and economy.

People have spoken, says the suave Raghuvendra Mirdha, a graduate of the London School of Economics (LSE) who quit an international commodity trading company to join his famous grandfather Ramniwas Mirdha’s party, the Congress, in Rajasthan. He says that issues such as rural distress, prices of farm produce, erratic MGNREGA payments and glitches in Aadhaar-linked benefit transfers have propelled voter behaviour against identity politics, cow slaughter and Ram temple in Ayodhya, being pushed by the BJP.

In the face of discontent with the Centre’s policies and the vast difference between what Modi promised in 2014 and what has actually been delivered on the ground, the BJP is “fishing in the past — 1984 riots, Ram temple, cow slaughter — and the Congress is struggling to find a new narrative”.

Soul-searching, for Congress

Mirdha is uncharacteristically candid for a Congressman and scathing in his review of his party’s performance in the desert State. “If we are to show a mirror to the BJP in the general elections, we have to analyse our performance in Rajasthan minutely and do more than farm loan waivers,” says Mirdha.

The Congress, says this no-nonsense former international commodity trader, will have to work much harder than they are presently doing to trounce the formidable resource and muscle machinery of the BJP.

“The BJP may be irresponsible and misleading people with all this talk of cow slaughter and identity issues but are we better? That is the question that the Congress will have to answer to the people. The downslide of the BJP will tell you that Indian voter is wise and cannot be misled. The Congress has to rise to that challenge,” says Mirdha.

As the BJP and its ideological affiliates, especially the VHP and the RSS, start plumbing the Ram Mandir politics along with cow slaughter, triple talaq and anti-Pakistan nationalist rhetoric in the hope of whipping up communal polarisation in the general elections, worry is writ large on the faces of the ruling party’s key strategists.

Bhagwan bharose hai (It is all up to God),” says a senior BJP leader and Union Minister who believes the party’s credibility on issues of governance and delivery is at an all-time low.

“Sugarcane arrears are mounting up to over ₹6,000 crore in Uttar Pradesh alone. I still believe we are better placed than the Congress… Let us see what happens. Farm distress is worrisome,” says the BJP leader.

Observes former Karnataka chief minister and the chairman of Finance Standing Committee of Parliament, Veerappa Moily: “The theme for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections will be agriculture and farmers. For rural India, it’s not digital economy. It is a cash economy. Farmers sell their crops, take cash and use it for their children’s education, marriage, healthcare, etc. Now they feel totally suffocated. They don’t get money in their hands when they sell their crops. Payments are delayed. Demonetisation created a new vicious cycle. Even today, money is not available. Even the cooperative banks’ money, which is farmers’ money, was seized. They destroyed economy. Migrant labourers had to go back to their villages. Unemployment increased. MSMEs are in bad shape. The only beneficiaries were middlemen and black money hoarders.”

The Prime Minister, a feisty campaigner to the last, has already started attacking the Congress on its imminent failure to deliver on the farm-loan waiver promises.

The Congress has its unflattering legacy, which can always be flogged by the Opposition.

The year will once again test the voter’s native wisdom on the face of campaign by the BJP on emotive issues and the Congress’s tenuous appeal to its traditional constituency of rural poor, tribes, Muslims and jobless youth with more welfarism and opening up of the State purse. The fireworks have only just begun.

With inputs from AM Jigeesh

Published on December 31, 2018

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