India's future may depend upon BJP reconciling its absolutist approach

Most commentators have viewed the farmers’ unrest that centres on Punjab as purely in terms of a reaction to the changes to agricultural policy that the government has carried out since it passed three Ordinances on the subject over the summer. And this is certainly one way of looking at it. The fact that the protests are driven by farmers from Punjab, alongside participation from neighbouring areas, can be interpreted in terms of the experience that these are the parts of the country that benefit most from the current food subsidy and procurement mechanism.

Yet there is another way of looking at this problem: As another in a series of recent challenges to how India is managing its federal structure.

In recent years, two simultaneous and interlinked trends can be discerned, both of which are partly responsible for these protests. The first is the government’s clear intention to revise the broad mechanism of internal transfers in India; and the second is the death of the coalition era in New Delhi.

Let’s take these one at a time. By the revision of internal transfers, I mean more than the broad desire to set up the infrastructure for direct benefit transfers. I mean that the government is also, openly and covertly, seeking to alter the geographical targeting of transfers — or, from another point of view, it seeks to end the current geographical distortion of transfers. From the latter point of view, it seems clear that the procurement subsidy, for example, should not go so strongly to the Green Revolution states and to Punjab, in particular. But recent efforts have not been limited to that. From the NITI Aayog’s identification of 100 “aspirational districts” that must have targeted assistance to the Reserve Bank of India’s decision to cut down on priority lending in states like Tamil Nadu, there is a broad review underway of how India spends its subsidy and manages its transfers.

We can argue about the morality and the logic of these changes. I could certainly construct an argument that defends targeting poorer regions with income earned in richer ones. What cannot be argued about is the fact that this means a government with its political roots in and its political future determined by the Hindi heartland is setting up a system in which various productive, non-heartland states subsidise the others for the foreseeable future.

And this is where the second problem comes in. The fact is that demographic and political trends in recent decades are such that the coalition era looks over for now. In particular, it seems unlikely that major “third front” states like Tamil Nadu, Punjab, or Andhra Pradesh will be pivotal in the formation of governments in New Delhi for some time, if ever.

From the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) point of view, this is merely the corollary of its increasing ideological domination of the national discourse. In other words, it intends to become a major force, whether the primary opposition or in government, in every Hindu-majority state. Its process to create this transformation is straightforward: You create the notion that the regional party politicians are “appeasers”; you identify a minority, ideally Muslims, that can be targeted or scapegoated; and you engineer the defection of the easily “persuadable”, such as Himanta Sarma in Assam. Once that is done, you lavish funds and attention from the Union government on the state — not as a matter of right or entitlement, as might have been the case in the coalition era, but as a discretionary disbursement, with overtones of imperial Delhi.

Here is the problem with this action: It breeds an inevitable reaction. For regional leaders and parties, the best way to fight this will be to return to the sort of sub-nationalism that plagued India decades ago. It is easy perhaps in 2020 to forget the India born of the arrogance of Indira Gandhi or the irresponsibility of her son Rajiv Gandhi. This was an India with a thousand regional brush fires, all of which were enraged by the high-handedness of the Delhi court. It is the India that bred Bhindranwale and the United Liberation Front of Asom. The BJP today, in calling farmers Khalistanis, is merely replicating the dangerous actions of the Congress of that period in painting a legitimate opposition as threats to India’s integrity. Remember Rajiv Gandhi, in his shameful (and shamefully successful) 1984 campaign, hopped around the country, claiming that the opposition was supporting the Akalis and the Anandpur Sahib resolution and by extension were traitors seeking to break up India.

Today the BJP — and its useful idiots in the media asking everyone in a turban about Khalistan and Bhindrawale instead of about farm policy — are going down that same path. But the fact is that the pressures on Indian unity and integrity that Indira and Rajiv created died down, thanks mainly to the birth of the coalition era, with all the compromises that period entailed. The question is whether the 2020 BJP leadership can, at this late stage, manage to reconcile its absolutist, majoritarian, Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan approach with the coalition dharma of its Vajpayee-era predecessors. India’s future depends on the answer.

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