BJP, Congress’ stories script a political thriller in 2018
The Congress, and the wider opposition, believes India is at a turning point and its nationalism project, instead of becoming stronger, is in jeopardy.Updated: Dec 31, 2018 07:47 IST
In 2018, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress told us two different stories about India. This is not surprising, for politics is often about storytelling. Indian politics is no exception. And that is why the BJP and Congress’ stories of 2018 will be central to how 2019 shapes up. There are three distinct elements of the story both sides are telling. They revolve around quality of life; corruption; and identity, democracy and institutions.
In the BJP story, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government fixed India’s welfare architecture. By using the socio-economic caste census, geospatial tagging, Aadhaar and direct benefits transfer, the government identified the needy beneficiaries. It ensured the end — or minimisation — of leakages. It eliminated intermediaries. And it delivered benefits.
In this narrative, the government has finally provided housing to rural Indians. It has provided toilets. It has provided electricity. And it has also ensured the distribution of gas cylinders —under the Ujjwala scheme — to over 50 million beneficiaries. Besides the individual benefits, the government also claims that rural roads have witnessed a wide expansion.
And so here is the centrepiece of the Modi story: a government committed to the ease of living; a government committed to the poorest and most invisible Indians; a government that has changed the way rural India lives, cooks and travels.
In the Congress’s story, the government has destroyed the dreams and aspirations of the two most important demographic groups — farmers and the youth.
It is, the Opposition narrative goes, the government’s dramatically poor economic management that has created a debilitating situation. It announced demonetisation, squeezed the economy, disrupted every sector, jolted growth and destroyed jobs. It pushed through a poorly designed Goods and Services Tax regime, which India’s small and medium scale industries were thoroughly unprepared for, especially because it came soon after demonetisation.
This story holds that manufacturing goals have all but collapsed, with Make in India simply not able to generate the scale of jobs needed to accommodate a million-plus people who enter the Indian workforce every year.
The story in agriculture, in this narrative, is particularly distressing. The government has failed to provide the minimum support prices according to the Swaminathan commission’s formula. Farmers are also suffering from enormous debt.
The Congress’s story hinges on acute economic distress across urban and rural India — with the country represented by the angry, aspirational, impatient young men and women seeking jobs.
The corruption story
The second axis of the debate revolves around corruption, a key plank of the BJP’s victory in 2014.
The BJP story goes back to “legacy issues” it has had to grapple with, particularly in the realm of non-performing assets. This itself, the BJP holds, was a function of crony capitalism that marked the Congress regimes where phone calls to bankers led to loans which were unviable in the boom years.
The government claims it recognised the problem. It has sought to address the underlying roots of this crisis by bringing in the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code so that there is an exit for bad capital. It has, through legislations like RERA, ensured that the real estate and construction sector has stronger regulation.
The BJP story also holds that central-level corruption has reduced drastically. No big scam has been institutionally proven in this period. And the PM in particular represents an image of integrity.
In the Opposition’s narrative, the government is the epitome of crony capitalism. Rahul Gandhi’s attack on Rafale is meant to portray Modi as embedded with corporate interests. It has picked on Vijay Mallya’s exit from India as the proof of government’s collusion. And the Congress cites Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi bank fraud as absolute proof of how this is a government complicit with corruption. It portrays demonetisation as a scam.
The identity story
The BJP believes, and would like Indian citizens to believe, that the nation has finally found its rightful place on the world stage. This is as much as function of Modi’s diplomacy as India’s renewed confidence, which comes from a strong sense of nationalism. This nationalism, in turn, has a strong cultural — read Hindu — ethos.
Minority appeasement, this story goes, has ended. Citizens are treated equally. The Hindus are no longer ashamed to be Hindus.
The Congress, and the wider Opposition, believes India is at a turning point and its nationalism project, instead of becoming stronger, is in jeopardy.
In this view, nationalism has come to be increasingly associated with Hindu majoritarianism. It has become synonymous with marginalisation and public disdain for minorities. There is impunity for mob violence, especially when directed at minorities.
No two stories could be more at odds with each other. Which of these a majority of Indian citizens believes will determine who gets to govern the country for the next five years.