BJP is getting its messaging wrong, writes Rajdeep Sardesai
In budget week, a minister of state for finance would be expected to prepare himself for D-day behind the forbidding walls of North Block. But junior finance minister Anurag Thakur finds himself in the news for the wrong reasons. A rabble-rousing speech delivered by him on the Delhi election campaign trail, where he is seen inciting the crowd to deal with “desh ke gaddar (enemies of the State)” has gone viral. That a Union minister should so cavalierly resort to inflammatory speech reveals a brazen disregard for the rule of law and exposes the limitations of the code of conduct.
While the Election Commission did ban Thakur from campaigning for 72 hours on Thursday, the episode raises a fundamental question: Is winning an election at all costs far more important than ensuring communal peace? And what should be ministerial priority — focusing on the budget and the economy or stirring up a potential Hindu-Muslim divide on the street?
In normal times, such questions may be ignored, since the rules for winning elections and preparing a good budget are different. Yet, these are scarcely normal times, with images of street protests over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and mounting concerns over the economy competing for headline space. The Union Budget and the Delhi elections are only a week apart. The budget is being delivered at a time when the economy is in serious disrepair, while the Delhi elections come at a time when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has just lost power in Jharkhand and been outsmarted in Maharashtra.
Nirmala Sitharaman, Thakur’s senior in the ministry, has already been under the scanner over the last eight months. As the country’s first full-time woman finance minister, Sitharaman was always going to be looked at with an extra sharp lens — breaking the glass ceiling within a patriarchal set-up is never easy. Every move and word uttered by the minister has been subject to microscopic examination, which is slightly unfair since much of what ails the economy predates Sitharaman’s ascent. An ill-conceived demonetisation exercise and a badly-structured Goods and Services Tax (GST) regime have been principally responsible for the decline in growth. The photo-op of the prime minister with economists and industrialists in pre-budget meetings with the finance minister conspicuously absent is terrible optics, only seeming to confirm the worst fears about a minister with limited authority.
Optics do matter as the Narendra Modi government is finding out in the harsh winter of discontent that has enveloped several parts of the country. Ever since it returned to power with a thumping majority in May 2019, the impression has been of an autocratic government that is determined to use its parliamentary majority to push a majoritarian ideological agenda. The headline news has been dominated by polarising issues, be it Article 370 or the CAA-National Register of Citizens (NRC) standoff. Even the government’s best efforts to get the economy back on track with a series of announcements aimed at boosting investor sentiment have had limited impact on the ground. That is, in part, because the messaging has been all wrong: A conflict-ridden political agenda runs at cross purposes with a growth-driven economic agenda. The notion of inclusive vikas (development) coexists uneasily with the politics of exclusive, discriminatory legislation.
In particular, the concept of sabka vishwas (the trust of everyone) is now missing from the Modi government’s clarion call to build a new India. This new India ideal is premised on constructing the building blocks of an aspirational India, where jobs, education, and health are prioritised over identity politics. Modi 1.0 with its focus on large-scale, well-targeted welfare schemes attempted to create a sense of hope in the people that “mera desh badal raha hai” (my country is changing). In contrast, Modi 2.0 appears to be trapped between focusing on the core issue of economic revival and being distracted, deliberately or otherwise, in keeping the communal pot boiling by raking up issues that will only deepen mistrust even among certain key demographic groupings that voted overwhelmingly for a Modi-led government last year.
For example, in India Today Group’s Mood of the Nation poll as many as 43% Indians said that the CAA-NRC was a distraction from the real issues of jobs and economic growth; unemployment was the number one concern for 32%, followed by agrarian distress and rising prices. The feeling of being disconnected from the government’s policies was highest among the young people, a core vote-base for Modi. It is this disconnect that should worry the government when its ministers speak contemptuously of protestors as a tukde-tukde gang (anti-nationals) who deserve to be shot. Or when the home minister goes to the extent of asking voters to show such anger while pressing the EVM button that the residents of Shaheen Bagh feel the current. A core BJP voter may well be enthused by the incendiary rhetoric but for those less ideologically aligned, a combination of mounting economic anxiety, social disharmony and acrimonious political confrontation can create a dangerous alienation. It makes one wonder: Who really is the tukde-tukde gang that wants to divide and rule?
Post-script: Long before he became a minister, Anurag Thakur was the Indian cricket board president when he was forced to apologise to the Supreme Court for perjury and contempt. Will the minister apologise this time for incitement to violence? Or is this the “new” India where ministers can shoot and scoot with no fear of any punishment?