BJP holds country's top constitutional posts, but must avoid becoming another Congress

In the period that 44 Congress lawmakers were hurried from one resort to another to "save secularism", the BJP became the single largest party in Rajya Sabha and tightened further its grip on India's power structure. Along with prime minister Narendra Modi, President Ram Nath Kovind and Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan, Venkaiah Naidu's election as India's 13th vice-president completes BJP's hold on the top four constitutional posts of the country. A more poignant contrast could be hard to find.

This is not a small landmark. It signals a symbolic, political and ideological change of guard and the phase could well turn out to be an inflection point in the history of this young republic. After a six-decade run, as the Congress dwindles as a political force and is forced to loosen its grip over the power structures of India's democratic institutions, the BJP is ready to step up and fill the vacuum.

File image of Narendra Modi addressing BJP members. PTI

File image of Narendra Modi addressing BJP members. PTI

But as it does so, the BJP must be careful. India cannot afford to have another Congress as the new hegemonic force. The country has suffered enough due to its fateful experiments with socialism. A state-led, protected economy sapped the competitive spirit and led to cronyism growing roots, making corruption endemic in India's body politic. Asian neighbours who were laggards in comparison during the 1950s have far outstripped India in terms of economic growth and human development.

If PV Narasimha Rao ushered in the first set of reforms and Atal Bihari Vajpayee followed it up with bold strokes, Modi must now pick up the baton. The prime minister is uniquely placed. He has at his disposal nearly unprecedented political power that was denied to Rao or Vajpayee. The Congress is in a shambles and has seemingly lost its ability to be the fulcrum of Opposition politics. The rivals are too busy protecting their turf from BJP's advances to stitch a coalition or offer a counter-strategy. Except pockets of regional resistance, BJP is now ready to paint the country saffron.

The extent of BJP's dominance can be gauged from the fact that for the first time in 24 years, 18 Indian states are being controlled by one ruling coalition. However, there is a world of difference in the Congress-led group of 1993 and BJP-led NDA of 2017. BJP's ascendancy has defied the rules of politics in coalition era. In the 1990s, India was still very much in the throes of single-party dominance.

The more interesting difference is pointed out by data crunching website in Livemint. "The BJP spread of 2017 appears more potent than the 1993 spread of the Congress. The 18 BJP/partner states — many of which are the large states in the heartland — of 2017 sent 66 percent of MPs to the Lok Sabha in 2014, against the 48 percent the Congress’ 18 states sent in the 1991 national elections. Further, 68 percent of India’s population (as per Census 2011) resides in the 18 states controlled by the BJP and its partners against 45 percent for the Congress’ 1993 spread (as per Census 1991)."

If we add the fact that BJP's rise is as ideological as political in nature — in the way inherited cultural notions are being challenged and even redrawn — it seems plausible to suggest that BJP's rise under Modi and Amit Shah is underwritten by a stronger social coalition and greater doctrinal support than Vajpayee could ever manage. This is also why Congress's secret hopes of fate inflicting another 2004 on BJP in 2019, might remain unfulfilled. Conversely, this puts vast responsibility on Modi.

As the prime minister of a strong, stable government and as the party's tallest leader, Modi has now no excuse not to deliver. A simple majority in Lower House, more firepower in Upper House, sympathetic ears in key Constitutional posts and control over 18 states provide the Union government with a fearsome concentration of power even within the limits of Indian democratic structure. The mandate is to deliver.

Modi seems to be aware of the enormity of the task in hand. He has spent a better part of his tenure in ushering in foundational reforms to give himself a better chance of launching the next stage. He has also been careful in building up social capital to hedge against political risks that are inevitable with reforms. But his cushion due to a shrinking Opposition space is nullified by the nature of the mandate which is inherently impatient.

Modi identified land reforms as his first and biggest area of reforms and flung himself headlong in that direction only to be stung by a 'suit-boot ki sarkar' jibe from Congress. That taught him a valuable lesson. The hope invested in him isn't monochromatic. India is at various stages of development at the same time and to pull up everyone at the same time is tricky. The effectiveness of the medicine lies in the way it is administered.

The prime minister perhaps understood that the answer lies not in forcing the poor into embracing empowerment over entitlement, but slowly making it apparent that there is more merit in the former by creating a conducive atmosphere. Modi's next few moves were strategic. He invested in overhauling the system by streamlining the entitlement delivery network. This is where the JAM (Jan Dhan, Aadhaar, mobile) came in. Demonetisation, despite being roundly slammed by economists, proved an astute political statement.

As Anil Padmanabhan writes in Livemint: "While many may not be buying into its economic logic, there is no doubt — especially after the sweep of the Assembly election in Uttar Pradesh — that politically everyone is convinced of the good intent of the regime to go after the corrupt… It is on the basis of this trust quotient that Modi is now gradually wading into politically sensitive territory. The embracing of the goods and services tax, despite deep reservations among a section of traders (a traditional vote bank of the BJP) and textile sector (apparent from the notes of defiance emerging from Surat), is a good example."

The GST is still being laid out in all its mindboggling complexity but early signs suggest that a widening of the tax base is happening at a rapid clip. As Union finance minister Arun Jaitley said recently, "More than 71 lakh central and state taxpayers have migrated to GST system and have completed registration. Another 15.67 lakh new applications for registration have been received."

The Modi government has also targeted the subsidies on petroleum products. Economists have long pointed out that direct benefit transfer is a better way of redistribution of wealth than through subsidies and cross subsidies which never reach intended targets. On the anvil are LPG and kerosene subsidies which will be gradually removed by March next year. These are sensible moves.

Swami Aiyar points out in Times of India that "studies show up to 40 percent of subsidised kerosene is diverted from poor beneficiaries to the adulteration of diesel, which is more than twice as costly. Adulterated diesel produces massive pollution, much more than ordinary diesel, and the additional truck fumes sicken and kill poor people living on roadsides."

The government is also making promising noises on Air India though it would be wise to reserve judgement till a firm commitment is reached. The Air India privatisation bogey has been evoked too many times in the past. What is already visible is that despite taking such a series of politically sensitive steps, Modi government is not facing even a fraction of the backlash as these reforms usually invite.

This points to Modi's close mass connect and huge political capital but the challenge lies in the way how it must be wielded in the social arena. India is equally a geographical, political and ideological space and all of it must be secured and addressed at once to make India's progress stable.

The strains of a polity cleaved between divergent impulses, however, are showing. The cultural right wants ideological ascendancy at a faster clip but this is putting pressure on India's religious and cultural fault lines. Modi would know that dogmatic support provides insurance from wild political swings but it also poses its own set of risks. Taking the economy forward while keeping the fault lines in check requires a rare sleight of hand. For BJP to offer high growth and stability while maintaining its dominance, that is an imperative. Will Modi be up to the task?

Updated Date: Aug 08, 2017 06:38 AM

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