A visit to Jantar Mantar in central Delhi is akin to getting a crash course on the million mutinies that singe India every day. The area around the 18th century red-and-white concrete sun dial, a few kilometres from Parliament, is often packed with civil society members protesting against the government of the day. On a ‘happening’ day, you could come across a bunch of bandana-wearing Tibetan protesters breaking bread and exchanging notes with a group of anti-dam tribal activists from Madhya Pradesh.
It is at this very popular protest ground that I met the Che Guevara (what else!) T-shirt-wearing Arjun, who wants to join India’s steel frame, the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). The 24-year-old man from Jhunjhunu, a town famous for the frescos on its grand havelis in Rajasthan, was one of the many IAS aspirants protesting against the Civil Services Aptitude Test (CSAT) because they felt the test is biased against those like him: government-school educated students who don’t have a very good grip on English. After giving me a lowdown on what the protests were all about and his “subaltern” view, Arjun added: “My parents are poor and I spent a lot of money staying in Delhi and preparing for the exams .... I want a fair chance.”
I tried to explain what the opposing camp has been saying on the issue but Arjun and his friends would have none of it. They were certain the protests were the only way out. “The government will listen to us... It’s all about making maximum sound,” he said confidently.
I did not believe him, but Arjun was spot on. The NDA government, which came to power on the promise that it would be far more decisive on issues than its predecessor, the UPA, capitulated. On August 4, the government announced that the contentious 20-mark English section in the CSAT paper will not be included for grades or merit in the exam, going against the opinion of senior bureaucrats and even the Arvind Verma Committee (set up to look into the alleged bias), which argued that the paper was framed using a scientific approach and should not be tinkered with.
By giving in to such street protests and not listening to those who know the demands and pressures of the job more than politicians do, the Centre managed to open a Pandora’s Box: On Thursday, some parties in the Lok Sabha demanded that the civil services examination should be conducted in every regional language as against English and Hindi.
Cornered, the government promised to convene an all-party meeting. However, it did not forget to tell everyone willing to listen that the Congress and some other parties were creating confusion for political reasons. This explanation sounds so familiar that even the most ardent BJP supporters would find it difficult to believe that the government has come up with such a weak one. I am sure the NDA understands better than anyone else that these antics by Opposition parties are part of a game called politics.
The CSAT surrender, however, was not the first by the government in the first few months it has been in power.
If it was not street protests like the one against the CSAT that caught the government on the wrong foot, it was the BJP’s sister organisation Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM) that draw sustenance from the same parent, the RSS, and which has been tripping up the government on other issues, even those concerning important economic reforms.
While it is true that the introduction of GM crops has been a controversial issue, the government should have gone by the decision of the scientific community and not given the impression that it is succumbing to the wishes of people who probably belong to the Dina Nath Batra school of scientific thought. Though the government denied any RSS pressure, it gave the Opposition a handle to beat it with: the Congress on Friday tried to corner it on the issue during Question Hour in the Rajya Sabha, citing objections from the RSS and Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh.
Moreover, the government looked completely at sea as environment minister Prakash Javdekar said that India was not “living in Galileo’s times” and could not say no to science when it came to GM crops. Well, truly we are not living in those times, but then where is the clarity on the issue?
If the SJM managed to stall the GM field crop trials, the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS), farmers’ organisation that aims at “holistic development of farmers in India”, asked the government last month “not to dilute” the Land Acquisition Act of 2014 after media reports surfaced that the government was mulling over doing away with the consent clause for public-private partnership projects, which now need the consent of 70% of landowners, and reducing the consent requirement for private projects from 80% to 50%.
While they are very much entitled to voice their stance, it’s slightly puzzling that the BKS decided to take on its ‘own’ government, which prides itself on being pro-reform, pro-industry, pro-growth. The controversies only show that the NDA is as vulnerable to street protests, whether from within the party or those outside it, as its predecessor was. Instead of capitulating to the demands of such groups/protesters — many of which are retrograde — it must stand by its convictions and long-term vision.
But, as of now, it seems to be playing it by ear. But the clock is ticking.